TIME Television

Game of Thrones Close-Up: Ain’t No Party Like a Westeros Party

HBO

The wedding scene in 'The Lion and the Rose' was stunning, subtle and horrific—and that was before The Great Big Thing happened at the end. TIME's James Poniewozik writes on last night's episode (beware of spoilers!)

In each Game of Thrones Close-Up, rather than trying to recap every event from each sprawling episode, I dig into one theme or scene from the hour. Spoilers from last night’s Game of Thrones, “The Lion and the Rose,” follow:

It’s a bit of a cheat writing this Close-Up about the wedding party in “The Lion and the Rose,” since (1) the scene takes up a good half of the episode and (2) it’s the one everyone who watches the show will be talking about the next day. (Though you could also have a good old time unpacking Bran’s vision at the weirwood tree.)

But let’s not spend too much time on The Great Big Thing at the very end, since I’m guessing all of the Internet is exploding right now over Joffrey’s death. It was a stunning moment and, even if you knew it was coming, felt pretty damn well-deserved after the Red Wedding and everything else the Boy King and his minions have perpetrated. (And yet it’s a credit to the direction and makeup that, nonetheless, it plays and looks like a horrible, hideous thing.)

Instead, let’s look at everything that led up to it–an extensive, uncomfortable party encounter that brought together more central characters in one place than Game of Thrones has usually had the opportunity to do since the Starks left Winterfell. Whatever Joffrey’s death portends–and whoever is responsible–it surely means blowing up many of the circumstances and relations we thought were cemented. Everything is going to change, and the wedding gives us a chance to look in on many of the players moments before everything does. The result is easily the best scene in perhaps the best episode Game of Thrones has ever made.

Top to bottom, this scene is a study in making each moment do several narrative jobs at once. Written by George R. R. Martin, the author of Thrones’ source novels, the script first uses the gathering to survey the state of alliances and tensions in the peace–so-called–that has followed the Lannisters’ victory. Oberyn reminds us that the rulers have an uneasy ally in Dorne–and that Dorne, essentially, has a hostage in Cersei’s daughter, Princess Myrcella. Jamie and Cersei’s encounters with Loras and Brienne, respectively, are really about the incestuous twins relationship with each other; if their love seemed strained last episode, they can still express it through icy threats against anyone who gets too close to the other.

The festivities themselves, meanwhile, are an unsparing exercise in discomfort, reminding us that, if this is a wedding for Joffrey and Margaery, for many of the guests it’s a funeral. And their loved ones–Robb Stark, Renly Baratheon–are not just killed again but their corpses desecrated in the dwarfs’ combat, a ghastly but amazing set piece. (It features, among other things, the “degenerate” Renly capering around with a prosthetic bare ass and “Joffrey” humping the severed head of a direwolf.) Several times we see pans and background reaction shots of the guests, their faces a study in suppressed pain and fear.

At first, Joffrey’s cruelty in the scene seems excessive for him. But this isn’t just setting up the audience to pump their fists at the comeuppance he gets at the end of the episode. It’s drawing the political picture of Westeros, demonstrating what the entire Seven Kingdoms are facing. This is their future, a point underscored by the first shot of Joffrey, from behind, slouching in his pointy crown. Its young king is a powerful child, petty, unwise, utterly victorious, and utterly ungenerous in that victory. Even by the standards of a hard world, he’s a sadist–cruel even when it’s unnecessary, cruel because it’s unnecessary. (Not even the doves in the pie are spared his overenthusiasm with a weapon.) He’s secured his power and his alliances. And he is going to live and rule for a very, very long time.

Or so it seems.

On a second watch, it’s interesting to see another thing this scene is doing, beyond drawing out character and the larger meaning of Joffrey’s celebration. It’s also setting up a murder mystery, a fantasy “Who Shot J.R.” packed into half an episode, quietly parading a number of characters who have motive to kill Joffrey–and who doesn’t?–and who may have just had the opportunity to slip poison into the wine or the goblet. (Because I’ve read the books, I don’t want to say too much more about this, but have fun Zaprudering this one.)

And before it was over, the scene gave us Game of Thrones’ greatest combat sequence since Brienne fought the bear–the one between Joffrey and Tyrion, a subtle duel involving no more than words and a cupful of wine. In retrospect, Joffrey is pitiable even in his humiliation of his uncle; he’s outmatched verbally (“It’s not meant to be an honor!”) and spared only by the presence of an audience afraid to laugh. There’s a flicker of disgust across Charles Dance’s face as Tywin takes in the spectacle; we know Tywin has no love for Tyrion, but he’s clearly not much happier with this blunt instrument of a grandson turning his triumph into an embarrassment.

Soon it’s over–and pour out a goblet for Jack Gleeson, who takes advantage of the send-off to sneer, pout, and preen the hell out of this character one last time. I don’t expect many of you to mourn Joffrey, but there is a sadness to those last moments when he collapses and is rushed at by first Cersei, then Jaime–whether he suspects it or not, his mother and father, watching their child die before them. The last we see of his face is veined and bloody and twisted, the face of a spiteful boy-king–but a boy, in the end, who grew up marinated in the spite around him. In his last act, Lannister to the end, he points an accusing finger at his uncle, and Cersei turns on him with the fury of a lioness.

Times like these, family is so important.

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