After the sheer barbarity of season 3, it seems only natural that season 4 of Game of Thrones would be all about justice. Revenge. Retribution. Almost nothing else happens in this season except people trying to punish those who have wronged them. But while most of them would say that they’re seeking justice, we have to wonder what that really means. In the end, is justice just a lie we tell ourselves for permission to do what we want? And does justice always look like how we’d imagined? “If you want justice,” Tyrion says, summing up perhaps all of Game of Thrones, “you’ve come to the wrong place.”
Very early on in the season, we get Joffrey’s death as part of the Purple Wedding. And the angels sang out in immaculate chorus. Joffrey getting poisoned and dying horribly on his wedding day is indeed well-deserved, but it also sets the tone for the rest of the season. For all the evils he had committed in earlier seasons, this was surely divine retribution. But it was also engineered by actual humans with a vested interest in seeing both his misdeeds punished and the prevention of him being able to hurt people in the future.
But of course, one act of vengeance will surely spawn several others. The grief-stricken Queen Mother Cersei is desperate to see those responsible held accountable, and she’s convinced that the culprit is none other than her own brother, Tyrion Lannister. Or at least, that’s the party line. In reality, I don’t think Cersei cares whether or not he’s actually guilty — she’s been wanting him brought to justice since she was a small child when he committed the “crime” of killing their mother in childbirth. She’s unable to listen to reason, so incessant is her blood lust for vengeance.
And so the trial of Tyrion for the crime of regicide becomes a parody of justice, with purely circumstantial evidence or even abject lies being brought against the accused as supposed proof of his wrongdoing. Indeed, Shae’s entire testimony against him is in itself an act of vengeance, as she strikes back at him after being hurt when he discarded her (in an effort to protect her, but she doesn’t know that).
The only reason Prince Oberyn (who, by the way, is one of the show’s greatest characters and Pedro Pascal plays him like no other could — god, what a performance) volunteers to serve as Tyrion’s champion in the trial by combat is because he wants to fight the Mountain, who raped and murdered his sister, and bring attention to Tywin Lannister’s role in the whole sordid affair.
He more than any other character on the show is haunted by the past and obsessed with finding justice. And his gruesome death (even by Game of Thrones standards, which is saying a lot) is a perfect metaphor for what happens when a man is undeterred in his quest for vengeance: he destroys the object of his hate, and then is destroyed in turn. What was it that Confucius said about vengeance? “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
But clearly Tyrion didn’t get the memo, because while in the middle of being rescued by Jaime and Varys, he takes a quick detour and, you know, murders Shae and Tywin. Shae dies for the crime of betraying Tyrion in court, then sleeping with his father, even using the pet name, “my lion,” that had previously belonged to him. Tywin is killed for treating Tyrion as though he was a shameful monster his entire life, rather than a son. Neither die out of necessity: Tyrion was not backed into a corner, fighting for his life. He killed them because he wanted to kill them.
As we travel across the Narrow Sea, we encounter Daenarys’ own complicated experience with justice. Fresh off her victories in Astapor and Yunkai, she is on the road to Meereen when she is met by a gruesome sight: hundreds of crucified slave children with their arms manipulated into a position that would serve as horrifying guideposts to the city. Once she has successfully taken Meereen, she determines that justice demands that the former masters also be crucified, one for every child that was killed.
Here we see where justice in a larger sense and personal vengeance intersect. Daenarys decides on this punishment ultimately for selfish reasons, because her sensibilities were offended and she thinks that crucifixion is called for, not because it is in the best interests of the city and the people that she’s saved. Throughout the season, she makes a number of moral judgments that verge ever closer to cruelty, and although her heart seems to be in the right place, her methods of administering justice begin to turn the people of Meereen against her. At what cost does she pursue justice? And to what ends: to satisfy her own moral inclinations, or to effectively rule the city?
No matter where we turn in Game of Thrones, we meet people who are trying to grapple with the cruel world they live in by seeking revenge or justice for their grievances. But it’s never quite as simple as that, and things rarely turn out the way they had hoped. We’ll begin to see the consequences of these actions play out in the fifth season, when some of our heroes will be forced to face monsters of their own making.