Peter Dinklage had been sidelined for a season and a half — but not anymore, as the fist-pumping climax of this week’s episode shows.
I request a trial by combat!
With those six words, the unwieldy fourth season of Game of Thrones comes into sharp focus at last: The Halfman, the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, his father’s least-loved child, plays his only remaining card and gleefully upends old Tywin’s plans one last time.
This episode continued with the new rhythm established in “The Lion and the Rose,” which has it take its usual popcorn approach around Westeros and the Lands Beyond for the first half hour, before settling in for the high drama in King’s Landing for the second. And boy, did this week deliver. Bryan Cogman’s script brings several long-absent characters back into the action, and gives Peter Dinklage a scenery-devouring monologue that will put him on Emmy shortlists everywhere. All of the simmering hatred inside Tyrion finally comes bubbling to the surface, with his beloved Shae serving as one betrayal too many, and for a rare moment inside that Great Hall, someone is being completely, baldly honest. I can’t overstate how great Dinklage is here, imbuing his “confession” with more emotions than other characters exhibit in a season, by turns tormented and defiant.
The long-awaited trial is a farce, and everyone knows it — including all those extras in the backgound, tut-tutting and hubbubing over “revelations” that are out of context at best, and malicious lies at worst — but Tyrion is acutely aware that he has been on trial his entire life. The judges call their witnesses: Meryn Trant, who watched Tyrion openly insult the sainted King Joffrey (though he leaves out the part where Joff was having him beat Sansa); Pycelle, who rattles off the long list of poisons Tyrion confiscated back in Season 2; Cersei, who can remember Tyrion’s words to the letter despite being half in her cups at the time; and even Varys (getting his first real scenes of the season), who privately lauded Tyrion as a hero after Blackwater but gives him up now. (Whyyyy, Varys? What’s your game here?) All of this Tyrion expected, because this was never about justice. His fleeting moments of triumph when he was Hand of the King have now provided Cersei with all the ammunition she needs, and it’s all being thrown back at him, hoisting him on his own petard.
One person clearly rattled by the kangaroo court is Jamie, who appeals to his father’s sense of family honor to spare Tyrion: in particular, with Jamie a member of the Kingsguard, who will continue the precious family line? Well, as it happens, Tywin has an answer for that — and, it seems, has had this answer ready for quite a while, just waiting for Jamie to ask. No, Tyrion doesn’t have to die. But Tywin cares far less what happens to his youngest son than what his eldest chooses to do now, so he quickly lays out the scenario: Tyrion confesses, asks for mercy, and he gets sent to The Wall, but Jamie must leave the Kingsguard. And though Tyrion mockingly notes the similarity between this offer and the one Joffrey made Ned Stark, he’s willing to play along when Jamie asks Tyrion to trust him.
Until Shae happens.
Whether Tywin simply overplayed his hand here — going one step too far in humiliating Tyrion — or the scorned whore-turned-handmaiden volunteered, her presence in the courtroom is all it takes to unravel the carefully-plotted, predetermined outcome of the trial. Because not only did she not leave King’s Landing when Tyrion White Fang‘d her (Tywin had already identified her by the day of the wedding, as you recall), she’s ready to publicly reveal their relationship…with a few embellishments. You see, there are certainly enough nuggets of truth in her story to make the whole thing work — once again, taking the dialogue that passed between the two lovers entirely out of context to make Tyrion come off as selfish, vindictive, and pathetic — but the kicker is her (surely coached and rehearsed) account of how Tyrion helped Sansa pull off the regicide. No one protests for a moment that Sansa had every reason in the world to murder Joffrey, but no one seems to care that she so obviously didn’t do it, either, and Shae’s fabricated testimony is the final nail in Tyrion’s tiny coffin.
It’s this final, excruciating betrayal, from the woman Tyrion truly loved and tried to save, that breaks him, and in a heartbeat The Wall is forgotten and all that remains is his own helpless rage. “I saved this city, and all your worthless lives,” he spits at the crowd. “I should have let Stannis kill you all.” But Tyrion’s not done yet. He’d like to confess, but not to the murder: “Of that I am innocent. But I am guilty of a far more monstrous crime. I am guilty of being a dwarf. I did not kill Joffrey, but I wish I had!” His armor finally shattering after a lifetime of insults and mistreatment, Tyrion has nothing left to lose, so if he is to be railroaded towards the King’s Justice he’s going to do it on his own terms.
“I wish I was the monster you think I am,” he cries, anguished, because that would be easier. Easier to actually be a vile, hate-filled creature than to waste decades hopelessly fighting the perception. But who is listening? Jamie is crushed. Cersei smirks. The Tyrells know this is wrong but see it as a necessary means to an end. Then Tyrion drops the bomb, like he did back in the Eyrie, requesting trial by combat and leaving his fate — in the eyes of the public, anyway — in the hands of the Seven. Surprisingly, it might be the one thing Tywin doesn’t have a contingency for (today, at least), but who will fight on Tyrion’s behalf this time? Or might the Halfman pick up the ax himself?
If a person’s name is their most valuable possession, as Tywin illustrates again this week, several characters learn just what theirs is worth. Dany’s is getting impossibly long, with Missandei continuing to add titles that would make even Smaug the Magnificent roll his gigantic eyes. But all of those flowery descriptors don’t mean jack if she can’t rule Meereen, which is getting off to a rocky start: her dragons are treating the local livestock herds like an all-you-can-roast buffet, and when one of those unhappy farmers comes to Dany hoisting some flambéed goat, she makes the quick decision to apologize and pay him back at triple the cost. Well…that’ll make this farmer happy, but that’s hardly a viable precedent in the long-term, Dany.
And that call isn’t nearly as difficult as viewing the corpses of the Masters (still hanging, crucified, along the city gates) as actual human beings, with families who wish for them to have a dignified burial. One of these loved ones is Hizdahr zo Loraq, who — to extrapolate from his introduction here — will soon be YET ANOTHER DUDE vying for Dany’s hand, though today all he wants is for his father to be cut down. He spoke out against the murder of the slave children, you see. And besides, he’s dead now, so what message is Dany still trying to send? “Is it justice to answer one crime with another?” So she acquiesces, and Thrones is showing that it’s unafraid to let her dig in to these slippery slopes, because it’s the only way she’ll learn how to do anything but order her armies from city to city. Over 200 more citizens are still in line to see her. It’s going to be a long day.
Who else has titles to throw around? Stannis Baratheon, the OTK (One True King) of Westeros, who at Davos’s behest takes the long journey across the Narrow Sea to Braavos (making its first-ever appearance in the credits!), sailing under a colossal…uh, Colossus, before entering the intimidating lobby of the Iron Bank. It’s a place perhaps not known for its outstanding customer service, because they have the luxury of choosing those customers. The loan officer’s chamber is cavernously large — clever framing from director Alik Sakharov, showing Stannis scrunched on the humiliatingly small stone bench like Forrest Grump, the expanse of the room stretching over and behind him — and when banker Tycho Nestoris oozes into the room, he cares not for Stannis’s alleged rank. (Nestoris is played with relish by Mycroft Holmes himself, Sherlock and Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss, though this is totally the kind of side job I could see Mycroft doing between cases.) If you’re coming to the Iron Bank helmet in hand, you shouldn’t expect to be treated like a king.
In fact, why invest in Stannis’s piddly army at all, when the odds are so stacked against him? “Here our books are filled with numbers; we prefer the stories they tell. More plain.” Davos, after absorbing a you brought us all the way here to be humiliated? glare from Stannis that would make the Red Woman blush, provides the answer: because Stannis is the “only reliable leader in Westeros,” and other houses may talk about paying their debts (subtweet at the Lannisters!), but he’ll actually do it. (LOOK AT HIS HAND, MYCROFT.) The Onion Knight’s passion aside, Nestoris is perhaps more impressed by Davos’s loyalty — and what that says about the kind of man Stannis is — so the Iron Purse opens up, allowing Davos to buy an entire army of Salladhor Saans. (Welcome back, Saan, you insatiable pirate!)
But judging from Team Dragonstone’s near-mortification, perhaps it’s better to not have a name to protect at all — like poor
Theon Greyjoy “Reek”, kenneled up with the dogs, such a jumpy, paranoid, barely-human shell he resists rescue from his own sister and her squad of Ironborn. Ramsey takes a break from a session of auto-erotic asphyxiation (of course he does) to come brawl shirtless, and sics his hounds on Yara when Reek refuses to leave with her. All of the torture inflicted on Ramsey’s favorite pet has him convinced that everything is a trick, and one wrong move will lose him another piece of his flesh. He nearly convulses with fear when Ramsey, rewarding him for his “loyalty,” gives him a bath, but for once there is no stick, only the carrot — now Reek has a role to play in Ramsey’s upcoming raid on Moat Cailin. He must impersonate a dead man: Theon Greyjoy. There is a brief flash of underlying humanity beneath Reek’s petrified eyes, but it could have just been a trick of the light…and it makes one wonder if maybe, just maybe, Theon’s tale is still worth telling.
(Hey, did you realize that the Starks didn’t appear at all this week? This show has a deeper bench than the San Antonio Spurs.)
But to conclude where we began: amidst all the chaos and consternation in the King’s Landing hall in the wake of Tyrion’s speech (again, masterfully delivered by Peter Dinklage, seizing an overdue moment at center stage), Tywin is enraged, Mace Tyrell is enraged because Tywin is enraged, but Oberyn Martell is impressed. As we see in the Small Council meeting that precedes the trial, Oberyn looks upon the machinations of King’s Landing like a child studying an art farm. He doesn’t stand when Tywin enters the room; he openly mocks the effort to continue punting “The Targaryen Girl” problem down the field (“The Unsullied are very impressive on the battlefield…less so in the bedroom”), and he might be the only person left in King’s Landing to discern Varys’s true motives. The two sort-of bond in the throne room over Oberyn’s favorite subject — sex — and the enuuch claims that even before he got the snip-snip, he never had any desire of that sort. “When I see what desire does to people, what it’s done to this country, I am very glad to have no part in it…the absence of desire gives one the chance to pursue other things,” he remarks, tilting his head a bit obviously toward the Iron Throne.
To pick up a thread begun last week — despite all the army-building and the power grabbing and so-called divine rights, the battle for Westeros’s soul has only ever been between two men: Varys and Littlefinger. But that’s an undoubtedly fascinating subject for another time; some men wield swords, others flash coin, but these two have a far more effective tool: information, and the skill to use it to their advantage. The more you know.™