Consumed by delusions of grandeur to the very end, King Joffrey Baratheon departs Westeros in the only way that he knows how, by spreading chaos and uncertainty all around….
Editor’s note: This piece contains spoilers for “The Lion and the Rose,” the second episode of the fourth season of HBO’S “Game of Thrones.”
For years now we have waited in eager anticipation for the loathsome King Joffrey’s death. And in that time, we have fantasized over the thought of it. Who would be given the honor? How gruesome would it be? And, most importantly, how good would it feel? Admittedly, we here at Across the Margin are not up to speed on the Game of Thrones novels, but we were well aware of the fact that King Joffrey would meet his demise at his wedding1. And with the passing of each season the fantasizing around his demise bloated, becoming the sort of eager talk that bound fans of the show together. Every snark or sadistic comment from the entitled pre-pubescent king strengthening the case for his undoing. Each cruelty heaped upon his faithful followers becoming another reason why his death should be as viciously repugnant and nauseating as that which he doled out during his reign upon the Iron Throne. Well, this past week we finally got what many of us have been waiting for. And although his demise was gruesome, and exceedingly humiliating, it was curious how watching him take his final choking breath made us feel.
Surprisingly, Joffrey’s final gasps of air were not as satisfying as our musing on his demise would have hoped. Maybe it was because we didn’t witness one of his countless victims granted their ultimate vindication. Maybe it was because the horrid effects of his poisoning evolved far too quickly and his demise was met far too easily for such a vile being (yes, I am implying I would have liked to see him suffer…to the degree of Theon even). And maybe, quite possibly, it could be because simply, on some level, we are gonna miss the little punk.
Oftentimes, it is the villain in a story who happens to be the most compelling character, the one that keeps us coming back in keen anticipation of their eventual unraveling. In storytelling, a finely crafted villain invokes the strongest of emotions, coaxing one’s blood to a roiling boil and evoking thoughts of ill will that one hardly thought possible. These villains are enigmas, walking contradictions that somehow function to actually increase our viewing pleasure. And Joffrey was one of the best, easily up there with Colin Sullivan from The Departed, Hilly Holbrook from The Help or the ruthless Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. Jack Gleeson’s depiction of Joffrey made our skin crawl, his convincing portrayal of a sadistic, cowardly megalomaniac as compelling an evil as has ever been crafted. And although his death is satisfying in many ways, what a provocative character Joffrey was to lose.
King Joffrey felt familiar. He was the devil you knew. The demon next door. The gnat that effortlessly avoids the swatter. It requires merely a matter of jogging your memory back to the days of middle school to recall the brand of villainy we were dealing with here: conceit without reason, pompousness to no end, entitlement beyond belief, naivety far beneath ones years, and a penchant for meddling bordering on obsession. If not for perpetually demanding beheadings, tongue extractions, or littering prostitutes with arrows in Westeros, Joffrey could easily be imagined tormenting younger kids in a suburban neighborhood; stealing their bikes, demanding their lunch money, and in the vilest of instances, inflicting unimaginable horrors upon their beloved pets2. Joffrey’s evil made sense to us despite its extremes. It was recognizable, as old as the art of storytelling, and this is why his loss is somewhat unsettling.
Luckily, Westeros is rife with scum. There are vile, slithering, back-stabbing, treacherous evils in all shapes and sizes, manners and forms. But Joffrey, in many ways, broke the mold. No one found a better way to get up under our skin like Joffrey. No one has irked an entire community of fans in this fashion. And no one was more fun to hate than King Joffrey. And now, for better or for worse, we will no longer have that opportunity.
As gratifying as Joffrey’s death was, it in some way served to humanize the child-king. For in his dying moments, he finally grasped the severity of his situation and the hopelessness of his path. In that final instance, when Joffrey realized he was going to die, we glimpsed not only a cruel and maniacal tyrant, but also a scared and frightened thirteen-year-old boy. A panic-stricken child, surrounded by his parents, convulsing and suffering through the spasms of death while turning an unsettling shade of purple and fighting desperately to hang on to the spark of life. For that brief instance we leaned-in, discovering a sympathetic current of emotion present beneath all the hate and loathing. A thread of sadness and understanding extending to the tyrannical Baratheon, serving as a testament to the brilliance behind the writing of this character, and the well-crafted production of his final moments.