If every episode of this season of Game of Thrones so far has revolved around a focusing idea, the unifying element of “The Laws of God and Men” may be the profound silence of the show’s architecture. It begins with Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and Davos (Liam Cunningham) visiting the Iron Bank in Braavos, meeting a collection of bankers in a vast hall that adds a degree of severity to the talk before anyone speaks. A shot of the wannabe king’s ship sailing into Braavos establishes the city as a temperate lagoon, but the bank’s room feels as cold as the dilapidated chambers of Castle Black, too large to retain its warmth.
An abundance of long shots call attention to the scale of the place, as they do of the throne room Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) fashions for herself at the top of a pyramid in Meereen, and the Iron Throne where Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) orchestrates a show trial to condemn his son and accused king-slayer Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). All three settings share similar sound design, the vertiginously high interiors giving everything a faint echo that’s quenched as quickly as it is formed. Everything hangs in the air for just a half-second longer than it should before dying out with finality, perfect for the decrees and proclamations uttered in each place, so that whatever is said within their walls sounds like the final word on any subject.
Unsurprisingly, this makes for a bleak episode, yet another one about the consequences of previous displays of violence. That has been an ongoing theme of the entire season, but “The Laws of God and Men” tackles the physical costs of war and conquest: Daenerys, sitting atop her throne, hears grievances related to her takeover of Meereen and the increasingly dangerous antics of her dragons, her military campaign against slave cities put on hold as she holds court, considering her decision to crucify the city’s slaver elites, or how to appropriately compensate a farmer who lost livestock to her hungry dragons.
As for the Iron Bank, its true strength isn’t revealed, but its placement among two throne rooms speaks to its level of importance. The greatest hint of its authority here can be seen only in the lighting. Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss), the head representative for the bank, is filmed in left profile, with light illuminating the half of his face visible to the camera. Stannis too appears in profile, but only his shadowed right, the proud warrior rendered powerless before bean counters who can end his campaign simply with a refusal to pay.
These literal echo chambers can exert an influence on those who dwell in them, and the episode works best as a case study for how some well-known characters adapt to their new settings. Daenerys slowly grew from a skittish, obedient sister and wife to a fierce sacker of cities, but this episode introduces a side of her not previously seen in her incessant marching and fighting: boredom. Approached by the son of one of the crucified slavers, Daenerys receives his perfunctory hosannas of her beauty with a face that looks like it’s struggling to hold back a yawn, and when she learns that more than 200 people remain outside her doors waiting to bring requests to her, a long shot that places her in deep background leaves just enough space to let her despair fully crest as it rushes toward the camera.
Back in Westeros, the character who gets to experience the subtle powers of the throne isn’t Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), who recuses himself from his uncle’s trial, but Tywin, who sits in the Iron Throne in his grandson’s absence. Dance is one of the show’s innately perfect casting decisions, his deep voice, brusque delivery and iron-rod poise exactly matched to Tywin’s imperious presence and emotional frigidity. But as he arbitrates Tyrion’s case with extreme bias, something approaching glee plays across Tywin’s face as he calls in witness after witness, each of whom twists all of Tyrion’s erstwhile bon mots and rousing moments of no-bullshit charm (slapping Joffrey, threatening Cersei, caring about people outside his incestuous family) from demonstrations of his level-headedness into circumstantial evidence of an assassination plot.
High-angle shots taken from behind the Iron Throne clarify its scale for what seems like the first time, taking in just how huge a construct it is, how it not only stretches up, but back, like a reptilian frill. Dance doesn’t suddenly turn into a scenery-chewer, but he modulates Tywin’s bolt-upright posture to sink into the throne’s contours to fill the space of this immense chair. He leans forward and backward with interest, craning from side to side as if trying to explore the throne’s dimensions while sitting before a court of witnesses. By the time Tywin calls in Shae (Sibel Kekilli) to deliver a humiliating final blow, he can no longer contain his mirth as the woman tells half-truths and whole lies about her relationship with Tyrion. Leaned so far to the side that he resembles a teenager splayed casually over a recliner, Tywin still speaks with grave sonority, but looks like he might start giggling at his good fortune at any second.
Leave it to Dinklage to steal the show though. After spending the first and second seasons as Game of Thrones’s most reliable source of wit and one of its few moral compasses, Tyrion spent the third season mired in a fall from status, and not since he roused the men on the Blackwater has he gotten a lengthy speech. That changes when he witnesses Shae’s betrayal and snaps at the farce of a hearing and launches into a bitter denunciation of the trial, Joffrey, and even the people in attendance, all of whom he saved with his strategic defense of King’s Landing and who now come to mock the dwarf and call for his death. “I wish I was the monster you think I am,” Tyrion hisses through gritted teeth, and the camera zooms and curves to keep up with his fury. A common, and not inaccurate, joke about serialized television is that it forces people to stick with it by constantly admitting that the current week’s episode was padded, but that the next one will deliver the goods, a trick Game of Thrones regularly pulls. “The Laws of God and Men” ends with a similar promise of reckonings deferred, but as with the best of this season, it makes the journey equally captivating as the anticipated destination.
Post-script: An exception to this episode’s lack of bloodletting is also its weakest sequence, one depicting Theon’s (Alfie Allen) sister Yara (Gemma Whelan) leading a raiding party on Ramsay Snow’s (Iwan Rheon) castle to save her brother. Setting aside that this scene rewrites Yara’s contemptuous relationship with her brother, and even the hard, unfeeling nature of their people, the sequence finally takes Theon/Reek’s arc to a sensible, emotional conclusion. When Yara and her crew break into Theon’s cell, he’s too terrified by the possibility that this is another of Ramsay’s tricks that he attacks his sister to remain with his master. After more than a season of glibly cruel torture, the sight of Theon shrinking from a chance at freedom at last communicated the terror, and not just the revulsion, Ramsay is meant to convey.
Then, the full implication of this reaction is borne out, and what hopes that the series could at last justify this arc, then diverge from the books and close it out early, are dashed against the rocks in the most convoluted, nonsensical moment of Theon’s captivity since Ramsay staged his fake rescue for sport. Allen spent all his time last season moaning “Please,” so it’s refreshing to see him get to color Reek’s cowed weakness with an animalistic sense of self-preservation. Nonetheless, this entire subplot remains a self-parody of the show’s worst excesses, a pointless atrocity exhibition on behalf of a completely unimportant, and even uninteresting, sadist, and its inclusion here mars an otherwise unimpeachable episode.
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