SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, ask your butcher for a nice venison roast for dinner and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.
Like a battering ram in a siege, Game of Thrones took a while to roll into place. But now that it’s in motion, its momentum gets more undeniable week by week. And “You Win or You Die” was the series’ most thrilling and thematically rich hour to date.
We knew this would be a significant episode if for no other reason than that it contains the scene–alluded to in the episode’s title–that gives the series its name. But before Cersei presents this more poetic expression of the will to power to Ned Stark, we begin the episode by meeting a man much spoken about but yet unseen. Tywin Lannister (a steely Charles Dance) is not a subtle man, which–if not sufficiently indicated by his mocking of Jaime’s “cleverness” and his blunt talk about the language of force–is underscored by the fact that he is eviscerating and skinning an animal. Specifically a stag. Specifically the sigil of House Baratheon.
The sigil of House Lannister is the lion, not the boar, but there’s no point in overhammering the point. For in the end it is not a sword that kills King Robert of Westeros, but a stab in the portly belly from the tusk of one of the pigs he hunts. And, just perhaps, some assistance from the skin of wine eagerly poured out by his omnipresent, terrified page Lancel—Lancel Lannister. (At least, this is how it is insinuated by Varys, and no one insinuates like Varys can. When he insinuates something, it stays insinuated.)
So the bitter, Falstaffian king goes to his piggy, piggy death just before Ned can break the news of his children’s parentage to him, leaving a vacuum–and opportunity. At which point “You Win or You Die” becomes all about the major subject of Game of Thrones: power, and the different ways it is acquired and held.
If you are rich and well-armed like the Lannisters, your route to power is fairly direct: you buy your way close to it and then seize it when the chance presents itself. And when your family, like theirs, commands a powerful army, you can seek power by keeping fiercely loyal to blood and trusting no one outside the family.
If you are not so powerful, you need alliances—like Littlefinger, who relies on his wiles and deals of convenience to grab opportunity; like Renly, who comes to Ned with an offer to put a short, sharp end to the question of succession; like Daenerys, who sees that her best means of getting her throne back is by truly assimilating as a Dothraki queen–and finds that Robert, before he died, has done her the favor of persuading Drogo by trying to kill her.
Or if you’re Ned, you ally yourself to honor, the truth and the letter of the law and let that take you where it will. This has taken him far, but only so far. When Cersei gives him that definitive line–“You win or you die”–she’s not just being cynical. In her own strange way, she’s making a moral point: what good can you do through honorable failure?
“You Win or You Die” is Game of Thrones’ strongest investigation so far of its moral question: how much good is there in blind righteousness? Ned is a principled man, definitely. His principle, as Robert admits on his deathbed, allowed him to defy the King and make the right decision about Dany. (Or we must assume it was right: maybe the Dothraki might have invaded anyway, but it’s hard to imagine a worse outcome than the botched murder, which made Drogo into a blood enemy.) But Ned can use his principle the way some people use religion of self-help books: as an excuse to simplify hard decisions for himself. Deciding to support Robert’s still-unseen brother Stannis, Ned says that there is no choice.
And more than once, he’s reminded that that is a lie. There was no agonizing about the rules of succession when he and Robert overthrew the Targaryens. And as Jorah Mormont reminds the surviving Targaryen heir, Dany, there is no such thing as a right to a throne–only the ability to hold or to take it. Renly may not have seen battle, but he knows that there is a short window in which to choose a king before Cersei and sadistic Joffrey consolidate power. Maybe he’s right. Maybe Littlefinger–who sees the chance to wield power by installing Joffrey as a puppet/hostage king–is right. But there are indeed choices–the problem being that, if Ned recognizes that, then the choices, and the possibility of bad calls and poor alliances, become dizzying.
But righteousness and fifty cents will get you a cup of mead. And maybe even Ned knows this deep down: he can have the facts and the law on his side, but without muscle, it means nothing. So he passive-aggressively, without actually saying so, has Littlefinger deliver the City Guard for him. But in the process Ned sells himself out: Littlefinger turns on him, maybe out of enmity to the Starks, maybe because he knows he can’t be the power behind the throne with Stannis.
The twist–leaving us literally on the knife’s edge for the next episode–and Ned’s utter blindsiding recall a quite different game. This whole time, Ned’s been playing checkers, and he’s just been put in check.
Now the hail of arrows:
* And the Exposition in a Whorehouse Scene of the Week goes to… Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish! See, here’s the thing about this scene: in theory, it’s actually a good set piece. First, the story of Littlefinger’s dueling humiliation—though alluded to before—tells us how he developed his ideas about power. And his coaching the new whores—and in the process, revealing his talent for the long con—is even more illustrative of his character than his reminiscence. But (1) by the seventh episode, Benioff and Weiss should have known they were well past the cliché point with the use of this expository device and (2) prurience aside, the scene is just So. Damn. Long. I don’t know if the producers believed that we need the softcore porn to get us to pay attention to long, talky scenes, but it’s just the opposite. It’s distracting, and it’s the kind of scene I dread seeing after I’ve preached to someone about the sophistication and nuance of this show.
* By the way, credit where due to Myles McNutt for coining the definitive title for the device: “sexposition.”
* Fantastic casting of Natalia Tena–Tonks from the Harry Potter movies–as the wildling Osha, one of several characters whom the series has given greater depth and interest than the books did. Not only is she scary as hell talking about the reasons she was fleeing the white walkers, but she encounters Theon in a scene in which she’s scrubbing the floor, and yet comes across as the more powerful character in the room. (The scene also gives us, in nice broad strokes, an inkling of wildling culture–for instance, that they don’t recognize inherited titles of lordship like “civilized” culture does.)
* Jon’s story at the Wall is separated from the rest of the episode, where the struggle for power comes to a head, but he too ends up having to pick a side and commit. His choice is to take his oath despite the initial insult of being made a steward–albeit to the Night Watch commander–and thereby commit himself to a fight bigger than the one for political power. (Whose menace is underscored by the striking image of Benjen’s horse running home alone.) The image of the weirwood tree with its carved face, by the way, seemed much more convincing than the earlier, airbrushed-looking scene with Catelyn in the godswood. Where that scene glowed with uncanny light and the tree/shrine seemed manicured, here the tree, with its tears of red sap and jack-o’-lantern mouth, looks ancient, weathered and menacing. Which reinforces an important part of the Wall scenes: that there are powers and threats in this world much bigger and older than the Iron Throne.
* This was the first week for me that the Dothraki scenes were not just absorbing but felt like the characters were as well-imagined as those in Westeros. Partly it was the action really ratcheted up, and was connected to the intrigues in the West. But also: Khal Drogo finally spoke more than a couple of grunts in a row. It’s just hard to make someone into a person without having him communicate, and while Drogo didn’t become cuddly–how many viewers were cheering his outburst until he got to the part about raping women and enslaving children?–he did seem like a better-realized character. (I also liked the touch in his conversation with Dany, in which she confused the Dothraki word for “land” with “dirt.”)
* It was interesting to see that, before saving Dany’s life, Jorah was about to receive a pardon courtesy of Varys–presumably for spying and thus helping to assassinate her? Yet–and correct me if I’m losing the thread–Arya heard Varys conspiring to abet a Dothraki invasion. Whatever game Varys is playing, it’s something like three-dimensional chess.
* “The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories.” As distracting as the extended sex scene was, Aiden Gillen’s monologue was really quite good; likewise: “Only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.” A considerably more compelling line than “Play with her arse.”
Remember, for you who have read the books the usual spoiler rule applies: no reference to events or revelations that have not yet transpired in the series. Thanks.