Spoilers for “Game of Thrones,” Season 4, Episode 2, “The Lion and the Rose,” follow. Seriously.
If you weren’t watching HBO at 9:45 or so Eastern Time — or if you were still waiting for HBO Go to load — that loud, triumphant cry you heard was the sound of every “Game of Thrones” viewer yelling “Finally!” The late, unlamented Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) has long been the show’s most loathsome character (challenged more recently by Iwan Rheon’s Ramsay Snow), and also one of its most aggravating.
It’s been interesting to watch him grow from the peevish boy who had Ned Stark beheaded out of callow whim to a true sadist. There’s a boy’s glee in the way he grabs the Valyrian steel sword Tywin (Charles Dance) gives him as a wedding gift, and a child’s recklessness in the way he turns it on the table where his father and his bride-to-be are sitting, a young man’s bloodlust in the unmistakably sexual satisfaction he takes from wielding it. But he’s a thin and uncomplicated character, and frankly, we’d all had about enough of the little shit.
Now Joffrey is dead, and though death by poison isn’t the prolonged torture he deserved, it at least looked good and painful. In his final moments, he was a boy again, reaching out with helpless confusion to his mother, Cersei (Lena Headey), perhaps a fleeting reminder that had he been born into a less corrupt and amoral world, he might have been something other than a monster. But he long ago passed the point of redemption, and though vicious and unjust monarchs have ruled for longer, they have not done it with his mixture of arbitrary brutality and open contempt for his subjects.
In an essay on last week’s season premiere, “Two Swords,” Philip Maciak wrote that “Game of Thrones” “isn’t brave because it kills its protagonists. It’s brave because it doesn’t have any.” Episodes like tonight are what it’s famous for, and may prove to be the show’s lasting legacy: The easiest way for any drama to prove its seriousness now is to kill off a major character. But what’s more interesting is the way they die, often not at the hands of their equals but of those lesser than them. Part of the reason the Red Wedding came as such a shock is that Walder Frey had, up to that point, been portrayed as a cretinous buffoon, one who ruled strategically valuable territory but nonetheless a figure of contempt. But minor characters don’t know they’re minor; they can kill a major character, or cut off his hand, or be apparently instrumental in a plot to cause his death. The scene between Dontos Hollard (Tony Way) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) in “Two Swords” seemed oddly out of place, especially in an otherwise densely packed episode: Who cares about this knight-turned-jester and his small gesture of kindness? But its precisely his negligible status that allows him to get next to Sansa and spirit her away as Joffrey is choking his last, and one imagines that if were not the one to poison Joffrey’s wedding pie, it was some other socially negligible figure, a fact that in no way makes Joffrey any less dead.
Joffrey’s last act was to restage the War of the Five Kings as a grotesque pageant, a mock-bloody burlesque in which the deaths of great men were replayed as farce. It was all a game to him, though not one he ever imagined losing. But with Westeros now thrown into true chaos, the stakes are higher and deadlier than ever, and there seem to be few if any rules remaining.