Game of Thrones: “You Win or You Die”


[NOTE: As usual, the brief recap is probably spoilerish, while the analysis part definitely is!]

Ned Stark’s investigations have finally borne fruit… but probably not the ones he expected, as a chain reaction begins that ends with dire, but not utterly unexpected, results. His allies prove less trustworthy than he believed, while others make plays for influence and power that will have long-term ramifications. On the Wall, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly finally say their vows, but it’s not all that Jon expected; his calling was not the one he, and everyone else, expected. Moreover, an ominous discovery regarding Benjen Stark is compounded by an even more gruesome discvery beyond the Wall. And away in Vaes Dothrak? Little birds have flown, and assassins even now seek Daenerys Targaryen’s life. But the consequences of an attempt will have very different ramifications from what King Robert intended…


This episode is certainly momentous, isn’t it? One king dies, a new king is made, grabs for power successful and unsuccessful, loyalties tested… and at the end, a betrayal like nothing else I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel, up to that time. I can just about recall what it was like back in 1997 or so, and I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out. It’s one of the most shocking moments in the novel — in the whole series, in fact — but… it won’t be the last one. No, not even for this season.

All in all, this episode is an excellent translation of the novel. Notably, it covers the fewest chapters of all the previous books, and the new scenes are relatively few (but two of them, at least, are also relatively long). This means that the episode really keeps a nice, deliberate face, and really doesn’t feel rushed. Our only concern with that choice, though, is that it feels as if the last three episodes are going to be especially packed with activity, something on the order of ~8 chapters per episode to keep pace. Is the fact that they cut out Jon’s fifth chapter — concerning the sub-plot of Samwell not being called up to say his vows, and Jon having to convince Maester Aemon to put a word in — a sign that they may cut other chapters near the end to fit everything in? Hrm…

Of the new scenes, the long-awaited introduction of Lord Tywin brings him directly into the story earlier than in the novel, but it works very well, we thought. Charles Dance is a magnificent actor for this kind of role, as anyone who’s watched Bleak House can tell you. He has gravitas in spades, and he can bring cold, calculating intelligence to a role. His dramatic introduction — skinning a stag, no less (which may be a little too on the nose, we admit) — brings out a new side of Jaime: cowed, stumbling, unable to be clever enough or patient enough for this harsh, demanding father. And, you know, the tall Dance actually looks like he could be Coster-Waldau’s father, which is a bonus. Some will say that someone like Tywin skinning a stag himself is out of the pale for the character, and that even hunting is too much of a “dirty” activity for a nobleman like Tywin.

Taking the first one last, given that Tywin is described as very fit (like a man in his twenties, flat stomached, arms corded with muscle), and he doesn’t get that just from lifting books and signing documents. Hunting is exactly the sort of sport a Lannister lord might indulge in; certainly, his father Lord Tytos did, which is the occasion in which Sandor Clegane’s grandfather won his knighthood. As to the former, I’m reminded that in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it’s “high born” men who go about skinning the deer…

In any case, the scene certainly shows the dynamic… and gives us an idea of why Tywin Lannister is so dangerous. And as someone noted on our forum, there’s a wonderful repetition of a line that connects to the very first episode: Tywin says, “Lannisters do not act like fools,” a line that Jaime quotes from his father in his first appearance in “Winter is Coming”.

This was a great added scene, no doubt about it. The next added scene, however, proves more difficult. “Sexposition”, as Myles McNutt of Cultural Learnings has dubbed it, has been frequently used in the show, and though this one occasion may have been the most appropriate of them all, the ones before it may have worn out the welcome of it. Why was it appropriate? Because the sex here was literally a metaphor for what Littlefinger does in his approach to dealing with the powerful men of the realm: they know they’re better than him, they think they have nothing to fear, he gives them everything they want (women, boys, dead girls, amputees… and money, lots and lots of money, when the crown needs it), and so they spill their secrets, thinking he’s harmless. It’s a nice choice.

But then, he basically spells it out immediately afterward, pointing out the metaphor explicitly in a fashion that seems like the audience isn’t trusted. And, moreover… why is he saying all of this to two prostitutes, one of them recently arrived from Winterfell? Earlier today I was speaking with one of our friends at MTV Geek, who are co-hosting our audio commentaries for each episode, and he said that Littlefinger was falling into the James Bond villain role — revealing all of his plans, thinking himself beyond reach. It seems a strange choice for the writers to make, even though Aidan Gillen acts it very well, getting across the dangerous side of Littlefinger in a way that we’ve rarely seen.

But beyond that, this show is really all about Ned Stark … Ned and his parade of Fail, “Stupid Ned” as the new meme goes (beware: there are spoilers if you’ve not read the first book). Too honorable by half, Ned Stark lives in a world where intrigue and subterfuge is easily defeated and soon abandoned even by the sliest of enemies. He warns Cersei that he knows her secrets and tells her to take off with the children — he doesn’t want blood on his hands, and his honor compels him to mercy. But as Renly Baratheon later tells him in the novel (but not the show), the gods might be merciful, but the Lannisters never are. Despite his warning, Cersei goes nowhere.

Then, Robert is mortally wounded (a scene that could have used more pathos — why didn’t Ned hold his friend’s hand, as in the novel?), and Ned does what seems the clever thing, letting his honor slide just enough to adjust the wording of Robert’s last command. But… Renly comes to him, proposing that he must move against the Lannisters and take hold of Joffrey or his life, and that of everyone else who opposes the Lannisters, and Ned does… nothing.

True, in the novel, Renly explicitly says the ultimate goal of this action would be to place him on the throne — not Joffrey, not Stannis. That was a mistake on Renly’s part. But the obvious tactical sense of taking hold of Joffrey when the moment was ripe, when Cersei would be unprepared, was something that Ned dismissed too quickly because of his scruples. And then, when Littlefinger comes along, he gives Ned an opportunity to choose probationary support for Joffrey, to avoid the inevitable war that Stannis Baratheon on the throne would lead to… and again, though more understandably, Ned rejects it. And yet despite this, despite Littlefinger speaking so strongly in favor of allying with the Lannisters, of “getting rid” of Stannis, what does Ned do? Trust Littlefinger to procure the City Watch for him.

I am reminded of a detail that’s not yet shown up in the show, which may not be, but it’s from the books. After Tyrion departs the Eyrie with Bronn, Bronn wonders how Tyrion knew he’d fight for him. Tyrion made a calculated gamble, he reveals, because he knew that Catelyn Stark would never give a man like Bronn a great reward for his help. She might thank him stiffly and pay over some coin, but an unsavory sellsword like him was not the sort of person she would choose to induct into her household; she was too honorable for scum like him. Well, Ned is too honorable for men like Littlefinger. As soon as Baelish started talking about a price, Ned should have had warning bells going off, and perhaps he should have sought out Renly and told him he changed his mind.

Alas, he did not. Instead, he walks right into his doom, with his “paper shield” and the bought City Watch that wasn’t as bought as he believed. That final moment was certainly a shock to many, many people; kudos to the producers for correctly guessing that Littlefinger basically signaling his willingness to bring down Ned (after all, he’s “saving” himself for Catelyn) didn’t trigger all that many warning flags (now, whether it was because of all the moaning make it hard to understand some of his lines…)

Last but not least, in Vaes Dothrak, Dany’s problem — Drogo no longer sees a reason to go west, now that Viserys is dead — is handily resolved by a poorly timed assassination attempt. What luck, that that royal pardon tipped Jorah off that something was happening… or was it luck? See, in the novels, the message Jorah gets isn’t a pardon but a warning about assassins. And that message came from Varys. Who we know, as of episode 5, is in cahoots with Illyrio. Why would he arrange the assassination and then work to undermine it? Well… the result that we see in the show. But this version? Well, it’s hard to say. At a guess, this is a cold-blooded decision to kill Daenerys, to goad Drogo into seeking revenge, which sounds like something that fits Dothraki culture. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t realize Viserys was already dead… but luckily, it didn’t work because Jorah threw away the pardon, basically, to defend Daenerys.

Wheels within wheels: we see them in the introduction, with all those gears turning as castles and cities rise, and now we’re really seeing them in the show.