Spoiler alert: The following interview with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin discusses a major plot point in Sunday’s second episode of season 4.
Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin has killed a lot of characters across the 4,000-pages-and-counting Song of Ice and Fire saga. But perhaps his single most inspired death was the completely unexpected passing of King Joffrey Baratheon, who was poisoned at his royal wedding feast on Sunday night’s episode. In A Storm of Swords, the event occurs very soon after the infamous Red Wedding. Below, the author — who also wrote the script for tonight’s episode — talks about making the decision to end the young king’s reign, actor Jack Gleeson’s performance, the real-life inspiration for Joffrey’s poisoning, and hints the reaction to Joffrey’s death wasn’t what the murderers had likely intended.
It’s all part of EW’s Purple Wedding coverage, which also includes an in-depth Q&A with showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss discussing Joffrey’s death, an exclusive interview with Gleeson along with his goodbye video explaining why he’s retiring from acting and, of course, our deep-dive recap of the best wedding ever.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, let’s quickly talk about last season’s nuptial violence. How do you feel about the Red Wedding? Did the show pull it off?
George R.R. Martin: Yeah, they pulled it off correctly; it was an amazing moment in television. They turned it up to eleven, as Spinal Tap would say, by picking perhaps the most brutal scene I ever wrote by making it more brutal by adding in Robb’s wife and unborn child.
In some ways, Joffrey’s death is the toughest death for viewers because he’s such an entertaining character to lose. You really had such fun with that character and Jack Gleeson’s performance is so malevolent. Can you talk about the decision you made to end this character when you did and how you did?
Martin: Oh boy, it was so long ago! Lets see, the book came out in 2000, so I guess I wrote those scenes in like 1998. I knew all along when and how Joffrey was going to die, and on what occasion. I’d been building up to it for three years through the first books. Part of it was that there’s a lot of darkness in the books. I’ve been pretty outspoken in my desire to write a story where decisions have consequences and no one is safe. But I didn’t want it to be unrelentingly bleak—I don’t think everyone would read the books if everything was just darkness and despair and people being horribly tortured and mutilated and dying. Every once in a while you have to give the good guys a victory — where the guys who are perhaps a lighter shade of grey have a victory over the guys who are a darker shade of grey. The Red Wedding and this — fans call this the Purple Wedding — occur in the same book. In the TV show, it’s separate seasons. But Joffrey’s death was in some ways a counterweight for readers to the death of Robb and Catelyn. It shows that yes, nobody is safe—sometimes the good guys win, sometimes the bad guys win. Nobody is safe and that we are playing for keeps. I also tried to provide a certain moment of pathos with the death. I mean, Joffrey, as monstrous as he is — and certainly he’s just as monstrous in the books as he is in the TV show, and Jack has brought some incredible acting chops to the role that somehow makes him even more loathsome than he is on the page — but Joffrey in the books is still a 13-year-old kid. And there’s kind of a moment there where he knows that he’s dying and he can’t get a breath and he’s kind of looking at Tyrion and at his mother and at the other people in the hall with just terror and appeal in his eyes—you know, “Help me mommy, I’m dying.” And in that moment, I think even Tyrion sees a 13-year-old boy dying before him. So I didn’t want it to be entirely, “Hey-ho, the witch is dead.” I wanted the impact of the death to still strike home on to perhaps more complex feelings on the part of the audience, not necessarily just cheering.
At the same time, in the moments leading up to that, you seem to really enjoy giving him this grand sendoff by having all these moments during his wedding where he demonstrates the character traits that make us so dislike him. The wedding is self-aggrandizing — he throws his money around, he chops up Tyrion’s present, he orders that offensive dwarf joust. He gets to display all of the reasons why we want him to die just before he dies.
Martin: Yeah. I think Joffrey is a classic 13-year-old bully. Do you know many 13-year-old kids you’d like to give absolute power to? There’s a cruelty in children, especially children of a certain age, that you see in junior high and middle school. We don’t want 13-year-old bullies to be put to death. We probably do when we’re their 13-year-old victims, but they grow up and most of them grow out of it, and sometimes people do regret their actions. But Joffrey will never get that chance, so we don’t know what he would have become. Probably nothing good, but still…
You also deny us the expected way that we would think that Joffrey will die, which would be by one of the hands of the surviving Stark kids, or through some other obvious mechanism from people he has wronged. You give us his death, but deny use the typical pleasure that we would normally get from it.
Martin: I wanted to make it little bit unclear what exactly has happened here, make the readers work a little to try and figure out what has happened. And of course, for Tyrion, Joffrey’s death doesn’t make things better, it makes things worse. Tyrion’s in terrible trouble, and it proves that something I’ve tried to make a point of through the whole series: Decisions have consequences. When Robb breaks his word to House Frey and doesn’t marry one of Frey’s daughters, that has dire consequences for him. One of Tyrion’s problems has been that he has a big mouth. He’s been saying things since the beginning of the series, these veiled threats to Cersei—”someday I’m going to get you for this, someday your joy is going to turn to ashes in your mouth.” Now, all these declarations make him look really guilty.
For me, one of the most brilliant things you did is that you kill off these major characters at a wedding, and then you kill off another major character a few chapters later — at another wedding! I never would have predicted that, precisely because of how much you like to vary things.
Martin: I don’t know how it comes across in the show, because I haven’t actually seen it yet, but the poison that is used to kill Joffrey is one that I introduce earlier in the books and its symptoms are similar to choking. So a feast is the perfect time to use this thing. I think the intent of the murderer is not to have this become another Red Wedding—the Red Wedding was very clearly murder and butchery. I think the idea with Joffrey’s death was to make it look like an accident — someone’s out celebrating, they haven’t invented the Heimlich maneuver, so when someone gets food caught in his throat, it’s very serious. I based it a little on the death of Eustace, the son of King Stephen of England. Stephen had usurped the crown from his cousin, the empress Maude, and they fought a long civil war and the anarchy and the war would be passed down to second generation, because Maude had a son and Henry and Stephen had a son. But Eustace choked to death at a feast. People are still debating a thousand of years later: Did he choke to death or was he poisoned? Because by removing Eustace, it brought about a peace that ended the English civil war. Eustace’s death was accepted [as accidental], and I think that’s what the murderers here were hoping for — the whole realm will see Joffrey choke to death on a piece of pie or something. But what they didn’t count on, was Cersei’s immediate assumption that this was murder. Cersei wasn’t fooled by this for a second. She doesn’t believe that it was an accidental death. You saw the scene filmed, does it come across as he could possibly be just choking or is it very clear he’s been poisoned?
It comes across like it could be either, at least at first. By the time there’s the moment with Tyrion looking at Joffrey’s cup of wine, you’ve put it together. So finally, any thoughts about how Jack played Joffrey now that this is his swan song?
Martin: I think Jack was sensational. I met Jack during the filming of the pilot many years ago now, and he’s like the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. He’s really bright and a fiercely intelligent young man going to Trinity College in Dublin. I don’t know if you’ve seen his speech at the Oxford Union, it’s pretty amazing about celebrity culture. He’s very perceptive and he played this loathsome character and somehow made him more loathsome. He created someone that everybody hates, and loves to hate, and that’s a considerable feat of acting. I feel a little guilty that he’s quitting acting now. I hope that playing Joffrey didn’t help make him want to retire from the profession because he does have quite a gift for it and could have a major career as an actor.
EW’s full coverage of Game of Thrones royal wedding:
Jack Gleeson talks royal wedding shocker — EXCLUSIVE