Why I’m a Little Sad About This Week’s Big Twist on Game of Thrones

Slate's Culture Blog
April 13 2014 9:54 PM

Why I’m a Little Sad About This Week’s Big Twist on Game of Thrones

Warning: Major spoiler ahead.

King Joffrey Baratheon, snub-nosed child of incest, torturer of women, and petulant, cruel, short-sighted, violent sadist, died at his own wedding from a gruesome, fast-acting poison in his wine. The guests did not cheer, but they were compelled to be polite. I cannot say that I, sitting on my couch, was as well-behaved. Yet while I find it impossible to lament the death of the Worst Person in Westeros (that’s an official title), I do find myself lamenting the loss of a perfect villain. Now that Joffrey is dead, we can’t hate the best villain on television anymore.

The universe of Game of Thrones is one of endless moral complexities, where a man like Jaime Lannister, who would push a small boy out a window, can become sympathetic, and where a young heroine like Arya, just trying to survive, must overdevelop her most bloodthirsty qualities. But Joffrey does not exist within this ethical and emotional morass. He is beneath it, existing in the realm of the entirely abhorrent. Since he showed no mercy or sense in ordering the execution of Ned Stark, our hate of Joffrey has been easy and powerful. And in being so loathsome, he drags viewers into the show’s bloodthirsty paradigm. Watching Joffrey, we become like nearly everyone in Westeros: We wish someone dead.

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The episode was constructed for viewers to be at the height of Joffrey-hate when he dies. He arranges for the prime entertainment at his wedding to be a buffoonish re-staging of the just-ended civil war, with all the kings played by dwarves in costume, forcing any number of guests, including Sansa, to watch re-creations of their loved one’s deaths, played for laughs. As if this were not awful enough, Joffrey then wants an already humiliated Tyrion to do battle with the actors. This is his perverse fantasy of how the afternoon revelry will play out: His uncle will be made a fool of by a hired fool. But Joffrey is stupid. He can never imagine what anyone else will do. Tyrion uses his wit to refrain from fighting and to gracefully impugn Joffrey’s sexual inexperience. Joffrey responds, as ever, with escalating sadism. In the minutes before he chokes, he metes out a string of indignities upon Tyrion—an audience favorite—so that by the time he begins to choke it seems no less than exactly what he deserves.

But Joffrey’s death scene is gruesome and ignoble. He dies painfully, awfully, convulsing, blood streaming from his nose, his eyes bugged, his skin translucent. His corpse is so pathetic, it suddenly seems untoward that it could have been the repository of so much hate. In death, for the first time in a long while, Joffrey looks like what he is: a kid. Even the well-earned death of a sadistic, sniveling little shit doesn’t feel particularly cathartic or satisfying.

And with his death in the “Purple Wedding,” Game of Thrones has yet again killed off one of its few centralizing characters. His death, like that of Ned and Robb Stark, further fragments an already extremely fragmented narrative. In coming episodes, I suspect we may even come to miss Joffrey and the clarity of feeling he inspired. Characters that rouse our passion—be they great villains or great heroes—are rare. Ramsay Snow and any other degenerate, unapologetic sadists in Game of Thrones have a long way to go before they can fill Joffrey’s shoes

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Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.