Joffrey’s death last week on Game of Thrones stood out from the show’s many past fatalities in that it marked the first time a major character’s demise prompted celebration rather than simply shock. So rapturously received was Joffrey’s demise that some even took to finger-wagging over the glee, casting aspersions on those who would revel in the death of a minor, even a fictional one who made a number of Russian tsars look well-balanced in comparison. But as “Breaker of Chains” demonstrates within its first 10 minutes, even Joffrey’s own family cannot muster much bereavement for the departed king. Standing over the boy’s posed corpse in a private chamber, Tywin (Charles Dance) tells the next in line for the throne, Joffrey’s younger brother, Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), that Joffrey was not a wise or good king, and that his unfitness for rule contributed to his present state. For his part, Tommen appears far more nervous at being quizzed by his grandfather than he does standing over his brother’s prepared body.
But that’s nothing compared to how little regard Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) displays for his nephew-son. Clearing the room to be alone with Cersei (Lena Headey), he expresses his conflicted sorrow and anger by raping his sister against her son’s table as she pleads with him to stop. The camera keeps Joffrey in view, either at the left edge of the frame as it shoots perpendicular to Jaime groping Cersei, or with the body foregrounded as Cersei is shoved back into it. This may be the most disturbing scene in the series to date, and as Cersei succumbs to one brother while plotting to execute the other, it offers a cruel but sympathetic glimpse of how she became the ferocious person she is.
It’s significant that the first scene of the episode isn’t the one in the palace chamber, but of Sansa (Sophie Turner) being whisked away from the Purple Wedding by Ser Dontos (Tony Way), whose already perverted image of a chivalric knight is ripped to shreds by the revelation that he’s merely delivering Sansa to Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) for gold. Cersei’s erstwhile foil was Catelyn Stark, another mother willing to do anything for her children’s advancement and survival. But the juxtaposition of Sansa and Cersei witnessing the corrupt, self-serving nature of the last people they trusted recalls that both came to King’s Landing filled with tales of nobility and romance, and both have had every scrap of idealism viciously stripped from them.
The Sansa/Cersei contrast sets the tone of the episode, which focuses on women more than any other hour of the series to date. Specifically, “Breaker of Chains” examines the manner in which women attempt to carve out a sense of identity and autonomy from the men in their lives, and how the repressiveness of their society cages them. Margaery (Natalie Dormer) confers with her grandmother, Oleanna (Diana Rigg), about once again being widowed by a king, her ambition to be queen wholly reliant upon marriage. Arya (Maisie Williams) defuses a tense situation between the Hound (Rory McCann) and a destitute but generous farmer, only for Clegane to take advantage of the hospitality and rob the man and his daughter. Arya protests, but doesn’t stop him, resigned to the tag-along role that renders her class irrelevant to her size and gender. Even Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), Mother of Dragons and sacker of cities, arrives outside the gates of Mereen and sits back as her adoring new volunteer, Daario (Michiel Huisman), gets into a literal pissing contest to announce her arrival.
These are all major characters, present from the first episode, figuratively and often literally backgrounded behind men who, in some cases, have only just shown up to the series. The episode uses mainly medium-to-long shots, yet it feels claustrophobic for how isolated and trapped the women consistently appear in the frame. By devoting most of the episode to following these women, Game of Thrones takes no time to bask in the relief of Joffrey’s removal, instead showing how so many of the characters now face only more peril. The closest the episode has to a relaxed moment in is the touching scene between a jailed Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and his squire, Podrick (Daniel Portman), whose unwavering loyalty to his master marks him as one of the few truly trustworthy characters on the show.
What links these characters to the women is the sense of everyone being at an impasse. Even as Daenerys prepares to liberate another city at the episode’s conclusion, her continued military campaign represents a stagnation of its own, sure to exacerbate the issues raised by her swelling ranks and lack of supplies. Cersei once said that one only ever wins or dies when playing the game of thrones. By now it’s abundantly clear that the two outcomes are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps that explains why even those still determined to sit upon the Iron Throne do not rush to occupy it in Joffrey’s absence.
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