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Life after Joffrey — now what?

The death of Game of Thrones' most reviled character creates a hatred vacuum for its devoted viewers

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Offering more proof that any "Save the Date" cards for Westeros nuptials should be immediately tossed in the bin, Game of Thrones featured another lethal wedding last week. This time, at least, the right person died.

Unlike the killings at the Red Wedding, which caused so much vexatious viewer sorrow, the death of Joffrey Baratheon was met with untrammelled Internet joy. The unlamented 15-year-old monarch was an unfortunate bundle of adolescent impulses and absolute power, sort of like a murderous medieval Justin Bieber. As his uncle Tyrion memorably said: "We've had vicious kings and we've had idiot kings, but I don't think we've ever been cursed with a vicious idiot boy-king."

Even before Joffrey became a cruel, capricious tyrant, he was a whining, sneering, sneaky little brat, possessing the most slappable face in the Seven Kingdoms. Pallid, coddled, indulged and inbred -- I mean, really inbred, being the product of the incestuous union of his uncle Jaime and his malevolent mother, Cersei -- Joffrey developed quite a line in bullying, humiliation and sadism. Once he got near the crown, he graduated to mass murder and treacherous beheadings.

No wonder audiences loathed Joffrey. But his death, as supremely satisfying as it was, raises certain issues.

Game of Thrones regularly demonstrates the brutal and arbitrary nature of its universe by slaughtering major characters. The show's enthusiastic embrace of realistic 13th-century life expectancies is admirable.

But Joffrey's public poisoning leaves a certain void. Now that the monstrous little twerp is gone, where can we put all that pure, focused, concentrated hatred?

Joffrey was a one-dimensionally horrible character, one of the few on the morally murky Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, the author of the books on which the series is based, rejects the good-versus-evil archetypes often seen in the fantasy genre. Instead, he explores a human range of vice and virtue, where actions are determined not by abstract qualities but more often by ignorance, weakness, circumstance and necessity.

Whether a character is trying to survive the Machiavellian machinations of King's Landing or the kill-or-be-killed existence of the North, clear moral reckonings tend to go awry. Acts of noble heroism sometimes lead to bloodshed, while chilly pragmatism often saves innocent lives. In this ugly muck of means and ends, audience expectations are upended.

Complexity is one thing. But lately GoT has felt overly complicated, with our attention being diluted by too many scattered storylines and skimped-on characters. The show is a puzzle, often being compulsively watchable from scene to scene even as it suffers from massive structural problems overall. Combining epic scope and an eye for grubby detail, it has problems with the middle-ground, rarely pulling off satisfying standalone episodes and struggling with developed ideas and sustained suspense.

In many episodes, it seems like there's the plotline you're actually following, and then a couple of irksome side-plots that feel like temporary placeholders (Daenerys and her dragons endlessly trudging through the desert; that band of misfits stumping through the cold and snow up north). Those handy story roundups that run before the opening credits often have to go back to far distant episodes just to remind viewers what the hell is going on.

So it was with the Purple Wedding episode. The main Joffrey-centric story was completely compelling, filled with reluctant alliances, bitter rivalries and the whole deranged spectacle of the wedding itself. I particularly liked the desperate vivacity of Lady Margaery, her "Look, the pie!" being one of my favourite bits of dialogue so far. Joffrey himself was determined to be on his worst behaviour, helpfully offering a catalogue of reasons why he ought to die, and soon.

That's the thing. All that Joffrey-hatred -- so visceral, so violent, so seductively satisfying -- offered a rare rallying position for the audience, a fixed point of nasty certainty around that the show's moral confusion could circle.

That's gone now, in a characteristic bit of GoT trickiness. In life, Joffrey was a through-and-through villain, the sick little sociopath we loved to hate. Somehow, at the moment of his death, a typically graphic Game of Thrones bleed-out, Joffrey finally looked like what he was -- a pathetic child. And the immediate aftermath of his murder made it clear that sometimes the only thing worse than the rule of a mad tyrant is the brutal, chaotic rush to fill the power vacuum left after he's gone.

The people of Westeros know that, and it looks as if viewers will be reminded in the undoubtedly gory weeks to come.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 D11

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