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Game of Thrones' version of justice involves heaping punishment on those who deserve it

Cersei receives her comeuppance in this episode. But did you feel good about it?
Cersei receives her comeuppance in this episode. But did you feel good about it?
HBO

Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, and foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: After last week's whiff of an episode, "The Gift" makes up for lost time, layering in lots and lots of scenes viewers have been waiting for. Cersei is arrested! Tyrion and Daenerys meet for the first time! Sam and Gilly sleep together! Sansa grabs hold of a pointy object she might use to hurt Ramsay! Winter isn't just coming anymore; from the looks of that snow, it's here! Why, about the only thing here that doesn't feel like a payoff (or the start of one) is Brienne standing glumly outside of Winterfell, checking her watch to see if it's episode nine yet.

If the last episode felt a bit like the show getting trapped by its own storytelling devices, then "The Gift" aims to let viewers know that the show still has some tricks up its sleeve. It's more successful at this in some plot lines than others (the Sansa story is still a bit of a mess), but at least the series has regained the momentum it misplaced in some of the previous hours.

Part of this has to do with the episode's sense of justice. And by that I don't mean justice in the traditional "blind lady holding scales" sense. I mean it in the sense of what we, the viewers, think we are owed, in some ways, for continuing to watch. Game of Thrones is a weird show, because it can get away with heaping a lot of awful shit on its characters before viewers wish for the faintest glimmer of light. But the second it screws up that balance, it's easy for the show to completely crumble.

I've had friends tune out, unable to take it any more, after the Red Wedding, after that fight between the Mountain and Oberyn, and after Sansa's rape. And it's hard for me to blame them, in some ways. This show can be a hard slog if you're looking for something like a more traditional "victory" from the main characters. The closest we've gotten was that season when Tyrion was Hand of the King and was good at it. Beyond that, it's slim pickings.

The way that Game of Thrones compensates for this is by heaping terrible things on the characters we want to see terrible things heaped upon. Joffrey's death at his own wedding, for instance, is one of the show's great moments of catharsis, which is pretty screwed up, if you think about it. Here's a teenage boy, and we're actively encouraged to cheer on his death by poisoning, because at least it's happening to a borderline sociopath.

So it goes with the imprisonment of Cersei Lannister, which is treated as the episode's culmination. And that's saying something in an episode that ended with a slow-building series of big, big moments, including Tyrion and Dany's first meeting. But, no, what the episode wants to leave us with is the weird triumph with which it plays Cersei finally outsmarting herself by empowering the High Sparrow to ultimately toss her in jail.

What's more, Cersei is finally captured for the thing she's been guilty of since the series began — incest. And even more interesting than that is that Cersei's relationship with her brother is one of the few things about her that makes her more than a one-dimensional villain. She really does love Jaime, but that relationship turned sour long ago. She's left clutching at whatever shards of it are left.

Of course, she's been thrown in prison for sleeping with her cousin Lancel, not Jaime, so we don't know how all of this will pan out. But it stands to reason that now that the country will see her accused of the thing she's always been rumored to be guilty of, everybody can fill in the blanks themselves. It's not a coincidence that the episode featured two scenes where characters reminded us neither Tommen nor Myrcella has any real claim to the throne. They're just there because Cersei steamrolled over any objections, and now she's in no position to do any more steamrolling.

But even as Cersei's comeuppance was long deserved, I found myself feeling a pang of sympathy for her. Some of that is in Lena Headey's wondrous performance, one of the show's best. But just as much is in the way the show has always written her as a victim of her biology. Had Cersei been born a man, she would have swept onto that throne in the wake of Robert's Rebellion. She might have even led the charge. Instead, she became a prize to be won, and the bitterness inspired by that festered.

What makes Cersei one of the show's best characters is that she's a villain, yes, and a villain you want to see brought to justice. But she's also completely and totally understandable. You get where she's coming from, and her motivations make sense. Contrast that with, say, Ramsay, who's just a monster, or with Littlefinger, whose plans increasingly seem beamed in from another dimension. Cersei was just the smartest and the cleverest and the cruelest, until she ran out of room to run and she wasn't any more.

How did you guys feel about this episode? Wasn't the Wall starting to get interesting just a couple of weeks ago? How did it once again turn into a bunch of characters talking about what they might do in a couple of days?

Read the recap. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Previous episode's discussion

Correction: This article originally referred to Lancel as Cersei's nephew. He is her cousin. Still, gross.

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