|Take your pick on who’s body posture is better here, Jack Gleeson or Natalie Dormer.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister,
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Ships of Dragonstone: Davos Seaworth
Burning Hearts of Dragonstone: Stannis Baratheon, Melisandre
Kraken of the Dreadfort: Theon Greyjoy
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Direwolves of the Wall: Bran Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Shields of King’s Landing: Brienne of Tarth
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Flayed Men of the Dreadfort: Ramsay Snow
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins. Meereen is empty.
The episode is in seven parts. The first is three minutes long and is set in the forests around the Dreadfort. The opening image is of Ramsay and Miranda running happily through the woods
The second is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from Theon watching the dogs devour Ramsay and Miranda’s prey to a plate of sausages.
The third is six minutes long and is set at the Dreadfort. The transition is by hard cut, from Jaime and Bronn sparring to Roose Bolton and his men arriving at the Dreadfort.
The fourth is six minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Ramsay smiling to an establishing shot of the gardens.
The fifth is five minutes long and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion smashing a cup to the fire.
The sixth runs four minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Melisandre to a POV shot from Summer.
The seventh runs twenty-three minutes minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from Bran’s vision of a dragon flying over King’s Landing to, shortly after, an establishing shot of the city. It features the death of Joffrey Baratheon by poisoning. The final image is of Joffrey having landed on a snake and died.
“The Lion and the Rose” demands to be read in comparison with “The Rains of Castamere,” a structural conceit straightforwardly inherited from A Storm of Swords and worn on the episode’s sleeve as Olenna laments the horror of killing a man at a wedding while palming the poison Littlefinger has smuggled her. In the book this marks the completion of Melisandre’s blood magic, the death of the last warring king save for Stannis. Here it is simply a bit of symmetry performed over the season break – the ostentatious death set piece previously associated with ninth episodes unexpectedly slotted into the traditionally sleepy second episode. This is tremendously clever – indeed, it’s by far the best trick the show has pulled since “Baelor” itself, very nearly justifying the tawdry spectacle of the Red Wedding.
The most basic comparison to make, then, is the fact that all told twenty-three minutes of “The Rains of Castamere” take place at the Twins, whereas that’s the length of the final part of “The Lion and the Rose” alone, with another nine minutes worth of King’s Landing earlier in the episode. On the one hand this speaks volumes about the two scenes; on the other, it more accurately speaks volumes about the comparative states of the board. All told there were five credited regulars at the Twins, and a sixth who would be credited in future seasons; three of them perished at the Red Wedding. There are, however, ten credited regulars in the wedding scene, and an eleventh who is in earlier King’s Landing scenes; one dies. The Red Wedding is structured as a narrative contraction – the abrupt end of a large number of plot lines, with no new possibilities immediately presented. The Purple Wedding, on the other hand, is an expansion. Three plot threads present themselves immediately: Tyrion’s arrest, Sansa’s escape, and the question of who did it. More than that, Joffrey’s death is unquestionably a good thing. Indeed, it’s played, at least in terms of the larger structure of the scene, as a release of tension, bringing to an end the unsettling escalation of his sadism towards Tyrion over the course of the episode. Even as his final moments are played for unexpected pathos, overall Joffrey’s death is more “oh thank god” than “oh my god.”
This, of course, only serves to reiterate that this is a second episode and not a ninth. But again, Joffrey’s death isn’t an early-book event designed to ignite a chain of plots. It’s in chapter sixty of eighty. There’s only nine chapters worth of material in which characters are directly responding to the event. Recognizing that this could not only be repurposed into an early-season event but that it would be far more powerful that way. The two-season structure for tackling A Storm of Swords was probably necessary, but nothing emphasizes how necessary quite like realizing that a ten-episode version would almost certainly require that the Red and Purple weddings take place in consecutive episodes, with the entirety of what makes up Season Four’s last eight episodes condensed into the last three. This is wildly better.
No small part of why it works so well, however, is what it does for the overall second episode. Starting with Season Three, the show began handling its profusion of characters and plots by bumping some debuts to the second episode. Generally speaking, this specifically involves bumping some of the less exciting plots back. Season Three, for instance, bumped Arya, yes, but also Jaime (who had been a minor character in Season Two), Bran, and Theon. This time it’s Theon, Bran, and Stannis who get held back – three of the most thoroughly underperforming plots in the series. For the most part, their scenes aren’t bad – only Stannis’s sequence, which fails to follow at all sensibly from where his story was left in “Mhysa” and is dull to boot – really disappoints.
Theon’s scene, meanwhile, is really Ramsay’s, and finally transforms him from a plot device to a character by giving him an actual scene with Roose Bolton. The sheer awfulness of Season Three’s Theon scenes and the relative lack of development that you an actually do with a character whose basic concept is “as bad as Joffrey, but mildly competent” leave him hobbled in the long run, but taken on its own, this sequence works. And the opening scene, which lets the horror of what’s going on sink in slowly and then forces the viewer to stay present in that horror for a long time after, is genuinely upsetting stuff. This is by some margin the closest Ramsay ever comes to actually working as a character.
As for Bran, well, yes, it’s a thin pleasure. There’s not much to the scene besides Bran’s vision, which in turn doesn’t have much to it other than a teasing shot of a dragon over King’s Landing. Still, that’s an exciting thing to see, and unlike Stannis it doesn’t feel like a misstep so much as another kind of dull Bran scene, which is just sort of par for the course. But the real point here is that the fact that the massive end-of-episode set piece goes a tremendously long way towards alleviating the inherent let-down of a second episode that’s focused on the characters not interesting enough to introduce in the first one. Yes, there’s a degree to which it’s an admission of the weaknesses of the structure, with Joffrey’s death feeling in some ways like a reward for sitting through an episode that’s otherwise mostly Bran and Stannis, but as a practical matter, it’s just about the best way anyone has ever come up with to have an episode that’s heavy on lesser tier characters to actually work. The result, especially when combined with the particularly strong “Two Swords,” is the most vigorously energetic opening to a round of play to date.