"The Laws of Gods and Men" is, structurally, a season of "Game of Thrones" in microcosm: it starts out making a big show of the dramatic voyage on which it's embarking—with two consecutive sequences featuring characters going somewhere on big, impressive ships—before throwing in some nudity and violence because it's "Game of Thrones" and that's how things are done, and concluding with the kind of political chicanery and high drama that lead the show's fans to defend it even at its most arbitrarily prurient (and yes, it can be arbitrarily prurient).
The above-mentioned sea voyages both, humorously, end in frustration: Stannis' audience with the Iron Bank of Braavos goes poorly, with bank functionary Mark Gatiss (who is magnificent at playing unhelpful, condescending authority figures) standing on formality and failing to recognize Stannis' right to the Iron Throne. Ser Davos proceeds to pleads his lord's case about as well as one could possibly do, with Liam Cunningham (quietly giving one of the best performances on the show since Season 2) playing the role to the hilt. And, as revealed in the following scene when Davos interrupts his old pirate friend Salladhor Saan's sauna hijinks with two gratuitously nude lady friends, it works, and the Iron Bank gives them the money they requested. What Salladhor is to do with the healthy allotment of coin with which Davos crosses his palm is unclear, though given his line of work, the mind fairly boggles.
Another character we haven't checked in with in some time, Yara Greyjoy, reappears next, leading a ship full of soldiers on a mission to recapture her wayward brother Theon and kill the men who cut his dick off. Yara's ruthless determination leads to a successful raid, right up until the moment when Theon, now Reek, has no idea who she is and doesn't want to be rescued. This leads to a bloody confrontation with Ramsay Snow -- the embodiment of everything people who hate "Game of Thrones" hate about the show -- wherein he allows her to leave empty-handed, presumably to stew in defeat, and then "rewards" Reek for his loyalty by allowing him to bathe in what must have been quite some time.
(The Ramsay/Reek storyline continues to be disturbing and unpleasant as ever, although now there does appear to be some purpose to it, finally: Ramsay is about to send Reek on a mission to somewhere "impersonating" Theon Greyjoy. Hopefully this is some respite to the seemingly endless physical and psychological torture to which Roose Bolton's bastard has been subjecting the former Theon.)
From here, the rest of the episode is "Game of Thrones" at its very best. First, an elegantly constructed check-in with Danaerys in Meereen, which begins with one of her dragons vaporizing some poor guy's goat, and his appeal to her mercy, which moves Danaerys to one of the periodic dramatic gestures of kindness (to wit, repaying the goatherd three times the value of the lost goat) that leads even the most cynical viewers of the show to behold her in awe and want her to lay waste to Westeros and assume the Iron Throne. But it doesn't end there: next, the son of the city's former -- now crucified -- master asks her if he can properly bury his father and the other masters of the city whom Danaerys had crucified as revenge for the children they'd done the same to. The young queen folds under the impossible choice (which reminded me quite vividly of the scene on "The Wire" where the elder statesman enlightens newly elected Mayor Carcetti about the true nature of the job: sitting around eating shit all day) and allows the young former aristocrat to take his father down, a decision that has "troublesome repercussions" written all over it. She then has over two hundred more supplicants to receive. You can see her sag physically from the stress; Emilia Clarke continues her flawless work embodying all the Khaleesi's different and often contradictory aspects.
Back in King's Landing, the Small Council convenes to discuss the threat Danaerys poses in the East. Most of the old men dismiss her but Varys, recently returned to the show after a long absence but in this particular episode back with an absolute vengeance, insists that they take her seriously. As does the Council's newest member, Oberyn Martell, who both seems interested in Westeros' premier eunuch and possessing mysterious information about him. They follow up the meeting with a chat in the throne room where the ostensibly saturnine exotic demi-foreigner Martell reveals himself to be every bit the political equal of Varys' previous verbal dance partners, Littlefinger and Tyrion.
Every bit as pleasurable as the continuing development of Oberyn as a character, though, is the opportunity to see Varys cut loose again. Conleth Hill is a joy to watch embodying the endlessly devious behind-the-scenes power player -- who despite not being a lord, is referred to by everyone as a lord just because it feels right, apparently -- whose lone desire, expressed in a marvelous bit of inimically elusive/allusive text this episode, is for power.
The climax is, as the show had been building since the death of King Joffrey, with the trial of Tyrion Lannister. It's a meticulously constructed charade with a predetermined outcome; each piece of testimony makes what's already clear all the more so: Tyrion is to be convicted, regardless of his actual guilt. In a break in the proceedings, Jaime goes to Tywin, pleading for his brother's life, promising Tywin that he'll quit his beloved King's Guard to save Tyrion.
Charles Dance, in that moment, manages to make it seem as though a physical trap has slammed shut merely through gesture, and it becomes clear that this, inducing Jaime quitting the King's Guard, has been his plan all along. He tells his shell-shocked son that he will allow Tyrion to plead for mercy and granting it by allowing him to join the Night's Watch, living out his days at Castle Black, essentially in exile. It's maybe the greatest Tywin moment yet, so much so that it seems there's no way to top it, not in the meager time remaining in the episode.
Ah, but this is the folly of overlooking Tyrion (and Peter Dinklage). Jaime informs Tyrion of Tywin's plan, but the subsequent treacherous, perjurious, and sadistic testimony of Shae pushes Tyrion to the breaking point. Seething with anger, he "confesses" to "the crime of being a dwarf," tells everyone present that he wished he'd let Stannis murder them all at the battle of Blackwater, that he was glad to see Joffrey die, that he wished he'd done it...and that he demands a trial by combat.
Not only did Peter Dinklage win another Emmy with that scene -- to award anyone else over him is beyond silliness, it would be stewing in a fetid, corrupt state for which the civilized have only contempt -- but it's a glorious, truly awesome (in the sense of inspiring awe) ending to the episode. As is structurally fitting for an episode whose previous high points came from cast members returning after a long absence, it's a reminder that no matter how off the rails you might think "Game of Thrones" has gotten, it always finds the track again. Onward!
Criticwire Grade: A-