Theon Greyjoy has gone to the dogs. Literally – that’s where cackling psychopath Ramsay Snow keeps his prime plaything, who now answers only to the name “Reek.” It’s a smart move: Offered the chance to escape, Reek bites the hand that “frees” him, running back to his kennel like an abused animal. He and his master Ramsay know, and his sister Yara quickly learns, that where you are can do a lot to shape who you are.
That’s the message of tonight’s episode “The Laws of Gods and Men,” written by Bryan Cogman and thoughtfully directed by Sopranos veteran Alik Sakharov. In each of its four separate segments, environment is everything.
We start with Stannis, as he and Ser Davos trek to the island nation of Braavos to raise much-needed cash. The sealords know their shit: You sail into a city dwarfed by a massive monument, and you can adjust your expectations accordingly. But if you speak softly, you don’t necessarily need a big statue. Amusingly, the all-important Iron Bank actually felt like a bank, with fancy marble floors and soul-crushing waiting rooms familiar to any victim of modern-day financial bureaucracy. The setting made Davos’s big speech convincing the bank to back his boss sound less like, say, Yara Greyjoy’s pep talk to her goons about the glory of the Ironborn, and more like successfully convincing your student loan officer to waive a late fee.
It’s a far cry from Daenerys‘ throne room. While both the Iron Bank’s city-state and Dany’s newly conquered queendom Meereen are both dominated by colossal statues – the Titan and the Harpy, respectively – only Khaleesi’s headquarters takes that intimidating exterior and translates it inward. Walk into her presence and you’re meant to be awed by her elevated platform, by the isolating walkways that lead up to it, by the array of guards on all sides. But a closer look reveals that she’s an outsider, no matter how much Mother of Dragons shade she throws. Her guards are a motley crew of exiled Westerosi knights, castrated and emancipated slave soldiers, and scimitar-wielding Dothraki horselords who are far from the great grass seas of home. The room itself was renovated by a man she recently crucified. The pair of supplicants we see – a goatherd whose flock is now dragonfood, a nobleman called whose dad was the aforementioned dead restoration specialist – are there to beg for assistance after deaths she herself caused.
Usually, you could say the same thing about the throne room in King’s Landing. There’s the Iron Throne — a chair made from melted-down swords for god’s sake — sitting in front of a stained-glass window like an altar to power itself. Certainly that’s how Lord Varys views it, a fact that a canny operator like Prince Oberyn Martell susses out immediately.
But for the trial of Tyrion Lannister, the throne room is transformed into something more like a circus, or the ringside seating area at a particularly lopsided boxing match. On the kind of bleachers Westeros normally reserves for the audience at jousting tournaments, the lords and ladies of King’s Landing gather round to watch the Imp’s chickens come home to roost: the Kingsguard he antagonized; the Grandmaester he imprisoned; the sister who despises him; even Varys, the friend who could never be anything but fair-weather. Watch how much work is done here by the camera alone, framing Tyrion all the way over in the lower left-hand corner, squashed into exhaustion and irrelevance by the kangaroo court that surrounds him.
It’s only when his father Tywin calls his son’s former girlfriend, Shae, to the witness stand that Tyrion, a passive participant in his own trial, becomes the star of the show. Her unexpected appearance (even the “Previously on” teaser, which dutifully reminded us of Tyrion’s previous beefs, kept her return quiet) was galvanizing and devastating, especially after the sudden relief of the previous scene. Jaime‘s deal with Tywin – Tyrion’s life is to be spared, and he gets sent to the Night’s Watch in exchange for Jaime becoming heir to House Lannister once more – might have seemed too good to be true, but hey, this show does bigger surprises than that all the time. Undoing it so quickly was almost cruel.
Crueler to no one than the two people involved, of course. As Shae, actor Sibel Kikelli does harrowing work here: She’s both the betrayer and the betrayed, and her every line communicates a mix of sorrow, regret, rage, and raw terror. Tyrion, meanwhile, reaches the low point in a life filled with public humiliations. Now it’s his sexuality – the most private and intimate aspect of the physicality that’s gotten him mocked and shunned for decades – that’s put on display for the world to see, complete with pet names and pillow talk.
Simply put, it breaks him. Once again, the camera tells the tale: It circles like a vulture as actor Peter Dinklage swivels this way and that, turning his head over his shoulders to track down and berate the gazing, gawking eyes of the audience he’s forced to endure. So Tyrion plays to type, wishing death and destruction on the people who’d use something as noble as love against him. (That he did the same thing to Shae, calling her a whore in order to get her to leave town, is an irony unlikely to be lost on him.) Now he’s Richard III – a titanic figure, willing to embrace his infamy. Fuck the deal his dad and Jaime made; he’ll take his chances on a trial by combat once again. He’s gambling that his brother or Bronn will enable him to walk out of King’s Landing a free man. But the fury Dinklage pours into him makes his real goal clear: He wants to give his father, his sister, and all the nobles in the realm reason to fear. Throne room or no, you’re in his house now.
Previously: We Three Queens