There are very few absolute rules in Game of Thrones, but one remains exceptionally clear: Don't do anything to make Daenerys Targaryen angry.
In Sunday night's "Oathkeeper," Daenerys outdoes herself by liberating a third city without lifting a finger (or calling a dragon). Instead, she sends in a few key agents, raises a banner, and inspires Mereen's residents to do most of the actual liberating for themselves.
This is just the latest iteration of Daenerys' distinctly old-school version of justice. Do you own slaves? Don't be shocked when she convinces them to rise up and kill you. Did you crucify 163 children to send her a message? Get ready to be one of the 163 people she crucifies in response. There's a comforting karmic simplicity to the message she gives Ser Barristan when he advises answering injustice with mercy: "I will answer injustice with justice."
Of course, justice is far more complicated than the eye-for-an-eye approach Daenerys uses on the slavers of Mereen. After all, Game of Thrones' defining moments have been built on miscarriages of justice, from the execution of Ned Stark to the horrors of the Red Wedding. And back in King's Landing, Tyrion's impending trial for the murder of Joffrey is just the latest in the chain.
Tyrion has been in this position before. In Game of Thrones' first season, Tyrion defended himself at a kangaroo court in the Eyrie, presided over by a deranged 8-year-old whose idea of justice was to "make the bad man fly" to his death. That time, Tyrion wriggled out of danger by employing a suitably ridiculous solution: a "trial by combat," in which Bronn agreed to fight for Tyrion's innocence. Never mind that Bronn's victory came specifically because he didn't fight with honor; according to the laws of Westeros, the Gods would not have allowed him to win if Tyrion hadn't been innocent all along. (Of course, Tyrion wasn't actually guilty, so justice was technically served. Maybe there's something to those New Gods after all.)
Now Tyrion has been imprisoned, once again, for a crime he didn't commit. On the pure principles of justice, no one could object to the trial he's being given: Three judges, a slew of witnesses, and an opportunity to plead his own case. He even gets an unmonitored visit with his brother Jaime, who carries the potential to turn the tide in Tyrion's favor.
But in practice, the "justice" of Tyrion's situation is a total sham. As Tyrion himself notes, all of Westeros already assumes that he's guilty. His judges will include his father, who is both ruthless and tired of Tyrion's antics, and Mace Tyrell, who will happily go along with whatever Tywin decrees. On top of that, Cersei is actively looking to ensure that Tyrion is killed even before he stands trial. Even Tyrion's feeble attempts to build a defense have been thwarted; onetime ally Varys has already been convinced to align himself with Cersei, and loyal squire Podrick Payne was pushed out of King's Landing in fear for his own life.
Meanwhile, the real culprits behind Joffrey's death — Littlefinger and Olenna Tyrell — are so far beyond anyone's suspicion that it's hard to imagine them being caught. In a conversation with Sansa, Littlefinger lays out the philosophy behind all his machinations, in a speech that could have come straight out of one of Hitchcock's thrillers: "A man with no motive is a man no one suspects. Always keep your foes confused. If they don't know who you are or what you want, they can't know what you're going to do next."
But there's a broader question looming over the death of Joffrey: In a warped way, was murdering Joffrey more just than letting him live? Joffrey's psychopathy posed a genuine existential threat to the kingdom — enough that his own grandfather dubbed him a bad king while standing next to his body. Tommen, 12, who became king after Joffrey's death, is easily manipulated, but it's hard to see the end of Joffrey's reign as anything but a step in the right direction for Westeros (and based on the gleeful GIFs that were passed around in the days after Joffrey's on-screen death, it’s clear that the audience felt the same way).
Things are quite a bit clearer up at the Wall, where this kind of moral analysis is a second-tier concern. As Jon Snow noted last week, the danger presented by the impending wildling attack is far more pressing than seeking justice against their former allies, who killed Jeor Mormont and took over Craster's keep. Our brief glimpse at the men occupying Craster's keep is a horrifying one. They're drinking out of skulls, raping Craster's daughters, and delivering baby sons to the White Walkers. But as much as they deserve to pay for their crimes, the north is in a dark place; Winterfell is a smoking ruin, and Ned Stark isn't around to dispense justice. As Jon Snow sees it, the decision to attack the mutineers is a purely pragmatic one: If they're allowed to live, they might provide intel to the wildlings.
With so many characters making so many complex moral decisions, how does Game of Thrones define justice? These are intriguing, layered questions, and Game of Thrones handles them with characteristic depth and intelligence. But thanks to last week's episode, there's another moral question hanging over the series: the broader implications of the much-discussed scene in which Jaime raped his sister Cersei.
"Oathkeeper" spends a lot of time with Jaime, and all of those scenes take great pains to establish him as one of the most charismatic and likable characters in the series. He has a humanizing sparring match with Bronn. He has a warm, brotherly conversation with Tyrion, who dubs them "The Kingslayer Brothers." And most significantly, he gives his new Valyrian steel sword to Brienne, encouraging her to leave King's Landing and recover the Stark girls in an attempt to honor an oath he made so long ago.
Those are powerful, beautifully rendered moments for Jaime. But they lose a lot of their power coming after he raped his sister. There's a reason for that tonal dissonance. Over the past week, the show's creative team has repeatedly indicated that their actual intentions for the scene were far more muddled. "I think that, for some people, it's just going to look like rape. The intention is that it's not just that," said Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime, in an interview with The Daily Beast. "It becomes consensual by the end," claimed Alex Graves, who directed the scene, in an interview with Hitfix last week.
Graves' description is fundamentally in conflict with what actually happens on screen — but based on "Oathkeeper," it seems like that's the interpretation Game of Thrones is going with. And that puts fans and critics in an uncomfortable position. Do we take the creators' intentions for the scene as the basis for Jaime's character, and ignore the (apparently unintentional) act of clear-cut sexual assault he committed? Or do we judge him by the actual text of the show, and attempt to reconcile what the rape means for our understanding of Jaime — who seems positioned, in every other way, to be one of Game of Thrones' biggest heroes?
I'm not sure what the answer will turn out to be — but in an episode that's so fixated on justice, it's hard not to be frustrated with how "Oathkeeper" fails to engage with (or even acknowledge) the full implications of that one terrible scene. Game of Thrones is set in a world where justice is hard-fought, if it comes at all — but when the show's own creative team can't decide if a crime has been committed, this might be the show's one great act of injustice that will never receive a proper resolution.
Read more Game of Thrones recaps:
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The Obama era is over. The presidency continues.
- America created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Meet the ISIS 'truthers'
- What is Molly? Everything you need to know about the party drug
- How American businessmen are ruining American business — and the U.S. economy
- Russia's giant spy ship was a high-tech disaster waiting to happen
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The constant struggle of running a family farm in 21st century America
- On ISIS, neocons and liberal hawks have a 'boy who cried wolf' problem
- How to stop misogynists from terrorizing the world of gamers
- How Harry Houdini escaped death
Subscribe to the Week