This Week on Dear Television:
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dead Joffrey
By Sarah Mesle
April 14, 2014
1: In Close-Up
I DON'T KNOW which I preferred: the moment of Joffrey dying, or just after — the crowd of people I watched with cheered lustily at both. Maybe the “after” moment was a little more gratifying. Joffrey’s dead head filled the screen, and the snot and spit dripping down his chin were like his sniveling nature made manifest. He wasn’t decapitated, but the close shot of Joffrey’s head had (to use Phil’s word) a de-meloning effect. The camera, at least, knows that we have been waiting for this moment since we saw Ned’s head on a pike, and even longer. Ding, dong, the witch is dead! My gathered friends and I: we were all like Munchkins, singing. I think someone actually sang that — which has a certain irony about it, really, given that you can never watch the Wizard of Oz the same way again, after you’ve seen what Tyrion has gone through.
2: In Disappointment
Yet immediately, through the cheers, I heard a friend object: “But I want him to be killed some more!” For four seasons, viewers of Game of Thrones have watched Joffrey wreak havoc on the characters we love most: he has killed dogs and whores and King’s Hands and butcher’s boys; exacted his sadist will on the most socially vulnerable and spiritually noble; been, generally, a dick. We have sat through this world where terrible things happen, and we have longed, longed, for something terrible to happen to Joffrey. We wanted him, we thought, to die. But it turned out in the moment that we didn’t just want to watch him die: we wanted to watch him be killed.
What are the politics — or the pleasures — of that desire? Joffrey’s death was the culmination of an episode that lingered, even more than usual, on scenes of looking at violence; scrolling through them may help us understand the ethics of looking this episode establishes.
3: In Horror
So: the episode begins. Theon lumbers through the woods after his torturer, Ramsay Snow. Ramsay catches the prey he is hunting — a terrified young woman — and with a calm sadistic pleasure releases his hounds upon her. The camera doesn’t show us what the dogs do to the girl’s body; instead it shows us Theon’s reaction — a shameful horror that registers only in the twitching of his jaw. This moment of looking seems to make two things clear: first, that forcing Theon to watch is a part of Ramsey’s ongoing torture of Theon, and second, that Theon’s failure to defend her was a marker of his own broken, Reeking, nature.
4: In Fascination
Ramsay is getting a close shave. A chain of lookers: we watch Bolton. Bolton watches Ramsay. Ramsay looks up at Theon and delivers his news: Rob Stark is dead. What does brutalized barber Theon do? That is the point of the little performance: nothing. This is how successfully Ramsey has eviscerated Theon’s will. What we see is Theon’s suffering, and Bolton’s surprised pleasure.
5: In a Revery
Stannis burns heretics on the beach; they scream. Melisandre watches, then closes her eyes, but not in horror. In contentment, maybe? In a kind of bliss? For Melisandre, pain and suffering are not that when they are displays of her God’s power. Stannis watches too, with his wife, and Davos twitches on the fringes, presumably re-tallying yet again his ongoing calculation about what brutality he can prevent, and what he must endure in the hopes that Stannis’s potential kingship will, on the balance, make some kind of better world.
6: In a Trance
This is different: Bran touches a tree and disappears into a vision. We see it with him, but the vision brings us none of the clarity it offers to Bran. Even when we transcend, we have no seer’s acumen.
7: As Embroidery
Joffrey and Margaery walk up the aisle, and — okay, sorry, this isn’t really about visual ethics, but it’s got to be said: the directors totally messed up here. In a miserable betrayal of us, their viewers, the directors made a whole episode about looking and didn’t give us a single long shot of Margaery’s wedding dress — which is the only thing in this whole sad situation I would have liked to see more of. WHAT KIND OF CRUEL WITHHOLDING IS THIS, DEAR TELEVISION? MORE DRESS PORN, PLEASE.
8: As Joffrey Would Have Looked at a Dead Joffrey
Anyway. Into the performance of the wedding — the speeches, the by-now-routine public humiliations — Joffrey stages a special show within the show: a gang of dancing munchkins who reenact and recap the events of the last few seasons, for us a simultaneous tragedy and farce. It’s television without pity! Joffrey gleefully insults half the members of his own audience (the ones we like best, naturally: Tyrion, Sansa, Loras, even Margaery). Like Ramsay, Joffrey hurts his audience to show that he can: you can’t stop me, he gloats. But of course this is Joffrey, and he never really understands the effects of his performances. What he is doing for all of us watching is reminding us of how much we want him dead.
9: In Helplessness
The camera lingers on wedding guests’ shocked expressions. They are as powerless as we are, looking at the whole thing through a glass pane. We can’t intervene because we are real; we are not in this world of fantasy — yet we could obviously turn off the TV. They are stuck with him.
10: In Narrative Upheaval
We don’t turn off the TV. We watch Joffrey take his poisoned cup; choke; sputter. We watch him turn colors and die in his weeping mother’s arms. The wedding, he thought, had been a spectacular display of his power particularly over and against the Red Wedding’s murdered Starks’: no one would dare kill him. But someone has. Last week, Dear Television looked at the show’s ambivalent relationship to its protagonists; this episode makes us think about antagonists. Was Joffrey the antagonist? In the show’s grand arch, very little will change with Joffrey’s death. Perhaps in this moment we see the flip side to Phil’s claim from last week: if Game of Thrones strips the protagonist away from the epic plot, it does so to the antagonist as well. Joffrey’s cruelty is the inverse to Arya’s excellence: richly textured in its display, yet marginal in its narrative function. It is not about getting somewhere; it’s only about what we get from watching it. So what is that? Are we like Theon, quivering? Melisandre? Ramsey? Joffrey himself? What did we want, here?
11: In Comparison
Here are some characters who I would have wanted to watch kill Joffrey: Arya. John Snow. In declining order of satisfaction: Sansa; Bran; Rickon. Shae? Cersei? Perhaps most of all: Tyrion.
12: In Recognition
Here is why this show is a cruel mistress: rather than giving us the moment of Tyrion’s revenge against Joffrey, it staged a reversal whereby the killing of Joffrey (by someone else) becomes yet another tool used against Tyrion. When Cersei accuses Tyrion of killing her son, we are left defending him against the murder that we ourselves would have liked to see. So rather than letting us look at the revenge we wanted, the show has brought us to face a more disturbing vision: our own disappointment in the wake of our only partially satisfied blood lust.
13: In Regret
“I’m going to miss him,” a friend said, gathering his coat, getting ready to leave the party where we’d gathered to joyfully watch terrible things happen. Why do we watch Game of Thrones? Its beautiful grimness is one pleasure; its political wisdom another. But more basically, I think, we watch to feel the relief of how different we are from terribly cruel people like Joffrey and Ramsey, people who exploit the power of vision with the aim of producing pain. We are not like them, we see; we are not like the crowds cheering at Ned’s execution; not like those who slaughter Rob at a wedding and then, unsatisfied, kill him more by splicing Rob’s neck to his wolf’s head. But Joffrey is gone, and the pleasure of watching our own difference has now been taken from us. Left in its place is the discomfiting vision of our own, if partial, similarity.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King,