Did Game of Thrones Deliver Its Deadly Cup Too Soon?
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 04.15.2014
Did HBO's acclaimed show act too quickly in this week's episode by pulling the trigger on a highly-anticipated moment? 411's Jeremy Thomas examines!
[Before we begin, an important warning: this column deals with events that took place in Sunday night's Game of Thrones episode, "The Lion and the Rose." If you have not seen the episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, turn away now.]
The king is dead; long live the king. Proving once again that no one of import should get married in Westeros if they want to keep their pulse in the safe zone and their head on their shoulders, last night's episode of Game of Thrones saw the long-awaited death of one King Joffrey Baratheon during the reception to his wedding. It was a tour de force episode, to be sure, and the way that director Alex Graves and writer George R.R. Martin built the episode was brilliantly done, showing us in no uncertain terms exactly why, without equivocation, the boy king of the Seven Kingdoms had to go for the sake of his family, his subjects and the very kingdom itself.
But did he need to die at this moment? It's a question that troubles me. Let me be clear here; from a narrative standpoint, there are a thousand reasons why Joffrey needed to go. He was a worse ruler than we've seen at the head of a kingdom in entertainment for a long, long time. He has summarily angered every single person around him, to the point that there were only his direct parents who really cared about him as a person anymore. He was deluded into believing that the war was over by the lack of perspective that comes with being a seventeen year-old at the head of an entire coalition of nations. He had made more enemies within the walls of his capital city than he would have ever known what to do with. To make it worse all of the Yes People around him coddled him and fed into his delusion that he was loved by all, then going into the other room and talking about how many enemies he had. Joffrey's death had to happen, because it was frankly inconceivable that no one would take a shot at him and that he would have anyone who was all that willing to die for him aside from Cersei and Jamie.
Look at the expression on Margaery's face. It screams "I'm going to be
faking orgasms for the rest of my life."
So yes, the concern I'm finding here has nothing to do with the implausibility of Joffrey's death, but rather the storytelling timing of it. It is important to note here that I have not read the Song of Ice and Fire series, although I have had several plot moments spoiled by the internet. There is no doubt that Joffrey had to die, and this season specifically. The karmic debt left by the Red Wedding needed to be paid. And I know that Joffrey's death takes place more or less at this particular moment in the series. But there is a fundamental difference between how a story lays out in literature and how it plays out in the visual medium of film and television; there is an immediacy to the latter that allows for less patience in certain storytelling elements. In that capacity, there is one important (though probably temporary) hole in Game of Thrones right now: a true villain.
Clearly, we have lots of villainous characters on the HBO series. In fact, it would be fair to say that we have more characters with traditionally villainous motives than we have characters with heroic motives. The characters who are more or less laid out as our primary protagonists are Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and Arya Stark, none of whom can be said to be precisely "good" in a traditional sense. Tyrion and Dany are becoming nobler, but they are still flawed characters and Arya is moving in the other direction as she appears to be heading down a dangerous road of vengeance alongside the Hound. And the rest of the characters are shades of grey in such variety that we can find sympathy even in utter monsters like Cersei. (It's a credit to Lena Headey and the writing, by the way, that we can find that sympathy in such a terrible person.)
And therein lies the problem. So much of the cast of characters on this show fit within morally gray boundaries that you need a Joffrey--a complete and utter black-hearted monster--to provide a moral absolute. This is a world where a purely good person wouldn't last more than an episode or two, so we're especially reliant on the other side in order to give us perspective on the rest of Westeros' residents. There are several characters that are near-villains on this show that we need to feel sympathy for in order to make the show work. If we don't feel at least some level of sympathy to Cersei, for example, than we have a difficult time relating to her in any way and thus she loses her emotional impact as a character. Littlefinger is a monster, but at the very least he's not quite as twisted as Joffrey and that allows us to care about him to some degree. With the Boy King Baratheon out of the picture we lose that perspective and these characters get set adrift in terms of moral relativism, making it harder for us to care about them--and in turn, their storylines.
Exhibit A: We didn't care about Joffrey's personal struggles, other than
his sudden and welcome struggle to breathe.
On the plus side, it isn't like the show doesn't have a host of potential characters to take the position of "Worst Monster." You have a host of potential candidates to turn to, depending on where the story goes from here. There's Littlefinger himself, prowling his way through the moral slime that is King's Landing politics; Melisandre, burning more and more people at the stake in the name of her god; the head of the newly-introduced Thenns from beyond the wall that showed up last episode with a taste for human flesh. And that's just a small selection. But none of these people have the storyline immediacy to really be up to that challenge yet.
Another strong choice, Ramsay Snow, fits that bill as well. Ramsey seems as if he was being set up as the new Joffrey-style monster in the opening moments of this episode; the way he hunted that poor girl down with a bow and animals is incredibly close to how Joffrey tortured and murdered poor Ros last season. He has the arrogance and cruelty down pat and given time, he may easily become a character that you hate to the level of a Joffrey. But he's not there yet and as he takes Theon (or Reek, if you prefer) on a snipe hunt to go catch the remaining Starks, it stands to reason that he will be more marginalized in terms of potential impact. Part of Joffrey's threat wasn't just his psychopathy; it was his power and the ability to reach far beyond his own hand. It wasn't that he killed and tormented Littlefinger's women of the night; it was that he had armies of people who would kill for him anywhere on the continent, thanks to the political machinations of his grandfather. Roose Bolton doesn't seem to have that level of political acumen, and certainly not that level of power.
I feel like it would have been interesting for them to draw out the wedding preparations just a bit, in order to give these other characters such as Ramsay time to develop and for us to truly hate them. It probably wouldn't have been too hard to draw it out without interrupting the flow of the episodes, and we would have been treated to more scenes of Tyrion and Joffrey which were always television gold. Kill the brat, but let it get into that middle part of the season where things tend to drag a bit on any show, use it to really shake things up. Then the impact may have been even greater than doing it at the start of the season.
Good night, sweet prince. Say hello to the Mad King for us when you reach hell.
I also want to take a moment and give a huge amount of respect to Jack Gleeson, who has played the role of Joffrey to near-perfection. It is deceptively difficult to play such an evil, vile character in a way that doesn't seem like overacting or half-hearted. The role of an actor is to find the relatable in their character and give that character a portrayal that will connect with audiences, which is difficult with someone like our favorite freshly-dead Baratheon. Gleeson handled it with skill and grace, and as a result he gave us one of television's most striking and hatable villains in years. He will certainly be missed on my television.
Obviously, this situation is by no means a show-breaker. There's going to be tons of fun to have in terms of people trying to find out who killed Joffrey. I mean, we don't really think Tyrion did it, right? But kudos to the show for making me wonder if Peter Dinklage's character will make it through the season intact. That's the power of killing your main character in the first season: here, three years later no one feels safe. The political fallout and how Oberyn Martell will take advantage should be a lot of fun too, and there are always the slave-freeing antics of Dany and the War at the Wall to hold our attention. I can't lie though; I feel like without Joffrey, King's Landing just won't be quite as fun and it will be harder to care about the middle-ground characters that live there.