Be warned that this post contains spoilers for the 3rd and 4th seasons of GAME OF THRONES and for that cute little series of books ol’ whatshisname wrote.
Thanks to the archaic rules of cable television (they probably seemed like a great idea back in 1992) it turns out I can’t actually sign up for HBO GO and get my weekly fix just yet. I have, however, indulged myself in a good long look at the pivotal Purple Wedding scene via Youtube, because I am a nerd. It’s the bit where King Joffrey “Baratheon” finally sashays off this mortal coil, and you can’t say he hasn’t worked day and night to deserve the trip.
Now, I had some qualms about the Red Wedding, the third-season climax in which Lord Walder Frey’s castle truly earned its one-star Yelp rating as a wedding reception hall. It pulled no punches, but the extreme brutality of it made even me cringe, and the extended duration of the suffering reached the edges of self-parody, especially with Robb’s soft little gasp as he finally finally FINALLY died and the sheer get-the-fuck-on-with-it quality of Catelyn Stark’s murder of Lady Frey before she took a number and stood in line to get her own throat slit.
I’m more fond of the way the Purple Wedding was handled.
The first striking thing about the Purple Wedding is the strained silence raised by the Joffrey/Tyrion conflict. This is a court that has been absolutely wrung out by the whims and viciousness of Joffrey, to the point that nobody knows when to even pretend to laugh anymore. Having everyone stonily not play along is a very canny directing decision, because it lets the court itself have an emotional arc. Jesus, these people are tired and nervous at this point in the story. After death, war, siege, more death, horrible rumors, and the reign of a brutal young poltroon, these people can’t even be bothered to keep their social masks in place. This atmosphere, more than any pile of blood-spurting corpses, serves notice that life for these folks has become a constant disaster.
The second thing is the immensely clever chain of suspicion the episode constructs around possible sources for the poison, using techniques of simple emphasis that any writer should gleefully pilfer for their own use. Note how each of the following things is shown, and given equal narrative weight, without any added music to hint at ominous preparations:
1. Joffrey knocks his cup around like a spoiled child so that it spends a few moments under a table;
2. Sansa is the one who picks the cup up before handing it to Tyrion;
3. Tyrion pours the wine from the decanter in front of Cersei;
4. Joffrey drinks, then passes the goblet to Margaery;
5. Margaery sets it down near Olenna, where it remains for several moments;
6. The king is the first to eat the pie, and is served by Margaery;
7. When Joffrey’s distress becomes apparent, Olenna is the first to loudly shout for help;
8. Ser Dontos immediately approaches Sansa and warns her to leave the wedding.
Even without the need to speculate on all the webs of conspiracy woven around this court, the episode visually establishes a complete array of direct suspects (Tyrion, Sansa, Margaery, Olenna, Dontos) and also drops a hint that the poison might have been aimed at someone else (Cersei).
Readers of the books will eventually discover where the poison came from, but I’m ignoring them for a moment to admire the artfulness of the TV version of this scene. There’s nothing wrong with the Purple Wedding in the original text; it’s still very effective, but it’s also written from Tyrion’s point of view, so barring the possibility of extreme POV dishonesty, the reader can rule him out as a deliberate poisoner right away. The TV show has the luxury of keeping him in the mix as a genuine suspect, and does so with style.