Game of Thrones is a show about many things. A gaggle of adolescent dragons intent on flame-broiling every goat in Meereen. A dwarf who looks an awful lot like Peter Dinklage but seems to speak with a (sort of) English accent. A guy named Ramsay who gets a kick out of mailing severed penises to his enemies.
But that’s the superficial stuff. Beneath its cinched corsets and gleaming armor, HBO’s luxuriant fantasy drama is really about one thing and one thing only: power. Getting it, keeping it, losing it, manipulating it—and manufacturing it out of thin air.
If ever there was an episode that made this obsession plain, it was the one that aired Sunday night.
Titled (fittingly enough) “The Laws of Gods and Men,” Episode 6 may have been the most explicitly political Thrones installment yet—a prismatic exploration of the various modes and methods by which the men and women of Westeros (and beyond) seek to control, cajole, and command one another. Laws can be written down in books; they can also assume more natural forms. Some of Sunday’s protagonists succeeded in bending the rules of George R.R. Martin’s universe to their own ends. Others failed. And for a few, at least, the jury is still out.
As Thrones episodes go, “The Laws of Gods and Men” landed on the less peripatetic side of the spectrum, with only four settings and storylines to keep track of. Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, wannabe king Stannis Baratheon and his loyal pirate—excuse me, smuggler—sidekick Ser Davos Seaworth attempt to convince a panel of bloodless Iron Bankers to finance their uprising against newly minted King Tommen Baratheon (the second incestuous bastard to occupy the Iron Throne in a row). In the Slaver City of Meereen, Queen Daenerys Targaryen sits regally atop a long staircase inside a big pyramid and regally hears the complaints of her supplicants. Amid the Iron Islands—perhaps non-ferric metals are scarce in the Seven Kingdoms?—Yara Greyjoy attempts to rescue her dehumanized brother Theon from the sadistic clutches of Ramsay Snow. And in King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister is tried for the poisoning of his pissant nephew, King Joffrey—a sequence that takes up most of the second half of the hour.
What’s remarkable about “The Laws of Gods and Men” is how clearly—how mercilessly, really—it encapsulates the political ethos of Thrones itself. In Martin’s world, some management techniques work, and others don’t. Take Daenerys, for example. In Episode 5, the Targaryen standard-bearer declared that instead of sailing prematurely for King’s Landing, she would stay in Slaver’s Bay and prove her mettle as a monarch. “I will do what queens do,” she said. “I will rule.”
Sunday’s episode suggests that she hasn’t quite found her stride yet. When a shepherd dumps the charred remains of one of his goats at her feet—Daenerys’s beloved but increasingly boisterous dragons have incinerated his livestock—her decision is easy: show generosity and get loyalty in return. She pays; the shepherd rejoices. But then the son of a crucified slaver asks if he can pull his father down and provide him with a proper burial—and Daenerys is flummoxed. Black and white decisions she’s good with. The gray areas are trickier. Should she continue to make a bloody example of the city’s former leaders? Or should she be generous once again? Ultimately, Daenerys chooses generosity. But kindness isn’t a governing strategy. She still has another 212 supplicants to see—and as a wise man once said, ’tis better to be feared than loved.
The rest of “The Laws of Gods and Men” demonstrates as much. During the last couple of seasons, critics spilled a lot of ink over Ramsay Snow’s endless torturing of Theon Greyjoy. But as gratuitous and redundant as this Abu Ghraib subplot seemed at the time, it was actually less horrific than the outcome it has now produced: a dehumanized Theon and an ascendent Ramsay. That’s the truly chilling thing. Ramsay’s torture worked so well that when Yara swoops into the kennel to rescue her brother, he cowers like a mortified Chihuahua and insists that his name is Reek; Ramsay’s torture has worked so well that the next morning, Theon lets Ramsay bathe him, and says he loves him, and “agrees” to pose as his old self so that Ramsay can trick—and presumably kill—Theon’s Ironborn kin (and win his father’s approval). In “The Laws of God and Men,” Martin and his televisual translators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, aren’t endorsing torture, per se. But they are indicating that it’s a viable way to get what you want in Westeros—power included.
Tywin Lannister—“the most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms,” as his daughter Cersei put it in Episode 5—doesn’t need to torture anyone to achieve his ends. Nonetheless, his power also derives from fear: fear of political payback, fear of his alleged wealth. The Dick Cheney of King’s Landing, Tywin is so powerful, in fact, that along with Cersei he is able to manipulate the law and orchestrate a trial that makes a man who had nothing to do with Joffrey’s death—namely his own son, Tyrion—sound guilty as sin. The knight who saw Tyrion slap the king; the old doctor who says Tyrion stole his poison; even Tyrion’s former lover, Shae, who reveals that her “lion” agreed to off Joffrey at Sansa Stark’s behest—they’re all there, playing their parts.
And yet the ultimate point that “The Laws of God and Men” is making is that everyone’s power—even Tywin’s—has its limits. The last Lannister mine ran dry three years ago; the clan’s influence rests on an illusion (and lots of loans from the Iron Bank). In fact, Tywin is so desperate to secure his family’s future that he immediately signs on when his other son, Jaime, agrees to abandon the chaste King’s Guard—to marry and multiply and rule at Casterly Rock in his father’s stead—if Tywin agrees to spare Tyrion’s life in return. Meanwhile, in Bravos, Ser Davos states the obvious as he pleads for the Iron Bank’s backing: when the 67-year-old Tywin dies, a naive child with no real claim to the throne will take over. What then? “There’s only one reliable leader left in Westeros,” Davos says, referring to his brittle boss, Stannis Boratheon. “And he doesn’t just talk about paying people back. He does it.”
Will Stannis eventually seize power? Perhaps. All we know right now is that it won’t be goodness or generosity that gets him there. Because what’s also clear from “The Laws of God and Men” is that as much as Game of Thrones is about power, it doesn’t value power at all. As the so-called “evidence” piles up, Tyrion struggles to keep his mouth shut. But when even his beloved Shae betrays him, he simply can’t stomach any more. He wants to confess.
“I’m guilty of a far more monstrous crime than [killing Joffrey],” he bellows. “I’m guilty of being a dwarf.”
“You’re not on trial for being a dwarf,” Tywin snaps.
“Oh yes I am,” Tyrion replies. “I’ve been on trial for that my whole life.”
In a just world, Tyrion would get some credit for saving King’s Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater. He might also gain some power as a result. But Westeros isn’t a just world. It’s a world where money and fear rule; it’s a world a lot like our own. And so here Tyrion is, about to be convicted by his own father of a crime he didn’t commit. He’s the most sympathetic character on the show. He’s also the most powerless.
He clears his throat. “I know I will get no justice here,” he says, demanding a trial by combat. “So I will let the gods decide my fate.”
Whether the gods of Westeros are any more just than its laws—that’s the whole question, isn’t it?