“Judicial proceedings” sounds like a bone-dry theme for an episode, doesn’t it? There are three of them in a single hour this week, which only makes sense; when you get right down to it, Game of Thrones is a show about governance, and for every hour of Jon Snow sword fighting and murder via Hodor possession, the show has to compensate with an hour of sausage-making. Except the trial that caps off “The Laws of Gods and Men” is among the most emotional scenes in this series’ thirty-six hours of airtime, and while the Stannis and Dany scenes may pale in comparison, they’re important riffs on that core theme of what it takes to run a country.
There are some fascinating parallels between Stannis and Daenerys, come to think of it. Sure, there’s the nifty detail (book nerd alert!) that the Targaryens used to be based out of Dragonstone, the island castle Stannis currently calls home. But Davos’ big speech to Mycroft Mark Gatiss the Iron Bank head honcho reminds us that Stannis is also a monarch in exile, and he’s faced with a similar window of opportunity in the form of a bankrupt, vulnerable child king. Since Stannis doesn’t have the backup option of building up his resumé halfway across the world, however, he decides to seize the moment and go after the rather important thing he’s missing: money, and the food/armies/ships it buys.
That brings him and Davos (but rather conspicuously, not Melisandre) to Braavos, the first new addition to the opening credits in some time. It’s an excuse for some nifty green-screen scenery porn, and a cameo from one of the three remaining British actors who hasn’t made an appearance in Westeros yet. Davos’ speech to the Iron Bank trustees, however, is reason enough to head to a new location. The Braavosi bankers don’t know much about Stannis, which gives Davos—who’s pretty much the only Stannis supporter who isn’t terrifying, a child, or totally whackadoo—a chance to explain just why a reasonable person should put their weight behind a man with less charisma than Margaery Tyrell’s left pinky toe. Stannis isn’t inspiring, and he’s not rich enough to make anyone forget it, Davos tells the Iron Bank/us. But he’s dependable, and he has a sense of obligation. Those are good qualities in a king. They’re even better qualities in someone who wants to borrow a massive amount of gold.
In Braavos, it’s the Iron Bank who’s holding the hearing and Stannis who’s pleading his case. In Meereen, Daenerys is the one taking supplicants, and learning exactly what she committed to when she insisted on sticking around. Ruling isn’t all conquering cities or even strategy meetings with her BFFs. (Such as the guy who, guess what!, used to be a spy for Varys and whoever was holding the Iron Throne at the time. That was Robert, right? Damn, he was, like, three kings ago.) It’s sitting ramrod straight on a bench while she works her way, one at a time, through a whopping 212 people, each of whom wants something from her.
A few of those somethings will be like her first supplicant’s complaint: easy to address and coming from an easy-to-please friend. Far, far more will be like her second supplicant’s request to bury his father. Daenerys loves nothing more than casting her Slaver’s Bay spree as a battle of innocent oppressed versus evil oppressor. And yet not all slaves will remain benign once they’re free; some are like Cleon the Butcher, the new dictator back in Astapor. And not all masters are the monsters Daenerys has made them out to be. The supplicant’s father was an accomplished public servant who spoke out against crucifying slave children. That doesn’t erase his complicity in the system that left him rich and thousands in chains. It also doesn’t mean he deserves to be left for vulture food long after Daenerys has made her point. She decides to allow the dead master a proper burial, a move that may signal a shift from the eye-for-an-eye mentality of wartime to the mercy Barristan advised last week. As her audience demonstrates, it could gain her some valuable allies.
Blah blah blah, Theon is still brainwashed, let’s get back to King’s Landing! The capital is a fitting place to wrap up an episode about how to govern, being the place where most of the governing goes down. Our first scene there is a fine example of Game of Thrones as a show where a bunch of people talk to each other and nothing much happens, as opposed to Game of Thrones as a show with no dialogue and a massive CGI dragon roasting a goat. The Small Council meeting is as tense as any room with Cersei, Tywin, and Oberyn in it is bound to be. As always, Tywin is the star of the show, and the most productive bits of character-building involve others’ relationship to him. Mace is his errand boy, fetching Tywin’s quill and confirming Tyrion’s suspicions about (literally) doing whatever the Hand of the King tells him to. Oberyn, on the other hand, doesn’t even stand up when his superior enters the room.
Oberyn also costars in this week’s other great talking scene, which begins with Varys in front of the Iron Throne. The last time the master of whisperers had a one-on-one in this room was “The Climb,” a face-off with Littlefinger that yielded an epic mission statement and a trailer voiceover. This talk isn’t quite as momentous, yet we do learn something rather interesting, representation-wise: Varys identifies as asexual, even before he became a eunuch. “When I see what desire has done to people, what it’s done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it,” he tells the man with the biggest libido in the Seven Kingdoms. “Besides, absence of desire leaves one free to pursue other things.” Makes sense to me. Varys’ asexuality manages to fit in perfectly with his character, but it’s also the only example of an asexual who identifies as such I can think of on TV, with the exception of a recurring character in High Maintenance. Good for Game of Thrones.
Finally, it’s time for Tyrion’s “trial,” a travesty of the Westerosi justice system we slowly realize has been in the works for several seasons. In his time as Hand of the King and lone voice of reason, Tyrion made a lot of enemies. His sister, of course, but also various people who don’t like to be told no, like Pycelle and Meryn Trant. And then there’s his father, who he made into an enemy by virtue of being born. Topping it all off is Shae, whose hatred of Tyrion, in a cruel stroke of irony, is secured by his greatest act of love and self-sacrifice. Her appearance isn’t entirely unexpected, given that we never saw her board the boat, but no less devastating for it.
One could argue Peter Dinklage overacts his devastation and subsequent stump speech. But is it even possible to overact the cocktail of resentment, betrayal, and boiling rage that finally pushes Tyrion over the edge? “Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores,” he spits at his sister. “I wish I was the monster you think I am,” he hisses at the audience. His final words, though, are directed at his father, revealing the trial for the parent-child showdown it really is. Tyrion demands a trial by combat, a strategy that’s worked out well for him in the past. Let’s hope his luck hasn’t run out quite yet.