Who would have thought that the first Game of Thrones episode not to feature Tyrion would also be its best? Not that “You Win Or You Die” was perfect, but the parts that didn’t work were few and far between and those that did were absolutely thrilling. If the first six episodes were mostly build-up, this was the one where things started falling apart. I could run down almost every scene in this episode and just gush about the awesome but, in the interest of focus, I’ll just look at how cleverly this episode reminds us of all the various ethics at play before finally letting them clash.
To begin, Tywin! The Lord Lannister gets introduced in the episode’s first scene it’s a stellar example of the strengths of the television medium. Tywin doesn’t make an appearance until later in the latter books, but The Lion’s presence is felt far earlier as his children, lions in their own right, speak of him with awe and reverence. There isn’t space for such subtle character building in a ten episode season and instead we get the not-so-subtle image of him butchering a stag while extolling Jaime on the virtues of family. The Kingslayer, contemptuous of everyone else, is cowed before his father, his failings and insecurities callously laid out by a man up to his elbows in guts. It’s an incredible scene that tells us everything we need to know about the man and his relationship with his children. For the Lannisters, family is everything. EVERYTHING. No individual crime or accomplishment will matter over time but, if they act now, the House’s dynasty could last a millennia. The gruesome use of the stag is what elevates this sequence. Well acted as it is, it’s still just people talking, but having such casual butchery going on drives home what a ruthless man Tywin is and goes a long way explaining what drives his children; they’ve taken the devotion to family to incestuous levels. It’s also an arresting visual, plain and simple; something to keep the audience engaged while characters explain themselves. The entire scene is a perfect combination of visuals, dialogue, and acting that justifies watching this story as opposed to just reading it.
Speaking of things worth watching, anyone for hot lesbian action? The sex scene at Little Finger’s brothel serves as another bit of eye candy to keep us entertained during the exposition but, like the stag, it’s also more than that. Baelish turns the lesson on whoring into a lesson on power, “Only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.” He learned long ago that he couldn’t beat “big, strong men” at their own game. He’s a manipulator, not a warrior and the way to manipulate such men (for whom he has a clear contempt) is to play into their sense of superiority. The aim of such manipulation is self-interest in its purest form. Little Finger believes in nothing more than getting what he wants when he wants it. His monologue lumps him in with the two whores practicing their trade in the background; believing in nothing allows him to fake believing in anything and so, in turn, get people to believe in him.
Petyr’s skills at manipulation are more than a match for Ned as his devotion to honour leaves him hamstrung amidst the intrigues of King’s Landing. We’ve seen this happen throughout the series, but this episode features a string of honour-bound decisions that pretty much assure the outcome: he warns Cersei in order prevent innocent bloodshed; he doesn’t tell Robert to spare his friend’s dying moments; he rebuffs Renly because he isn’t the rightful heir; and he trusts Little Finger because, well, he has to. The scene with Petyr is particularly good as Ned’s given some Machiavellian maneuvers and rejects all of them. He can’t even voice his desire for the marginally dishonourable act of co-opting the city guard. I’m not sure whether or not Little Finger’s offer of sharing power was sincere, but Ned’s insistence that Stannis be king seals his fate. Lord Stark is devoted to noble ideals, ones he wants to see embodied in the nation’s nobility. This precludes him from making the allies he needs. The devotion makes for poor strategy in the game of thrones and he’s left at the mercy of those devoted to self and/or family.
I really appreciate that Jon is taking the oath to devote his life to his country just as his father’s devotion to his is backfiring spectacularly.
I didn’t even get to mention Daenerys in my writeup, though he story was also top drawer this week. I haven’t heard boo online about the fact that she’s fallen for the guy who raped her, maybe I’m reading the wrong sites. For my part, I totally buy the bond that’s formed between these two and that she’d be attracted to his pure savagery. The ending scene where Drogo swears to conquer the seven kingdoms was the highlight for both characters.
Theon was, once again, the biggest problem this week.
Tons of praise for Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister. Another perfect casting job for this series.
And tons of praise for Aiden Gillen. Tying your monologue into a sex scene like that takes some serious chops.
Cersei telling Ned to kneel to that little shit Joffery? Probably the height of villainy for the character. Her ripping his paper shield (that he’d been clutching for half the episode) was also pretty sweet.
Sean Bean also gets a nod for his reaction when Renly suggest that “rightful heir” became a meaningless concept after the Mad King was deposed. It’s one part horror at the casual justification for treason and one part guilt at having helped create this situation.
Robert’s deathbed scene was yet another highlight. I’ll miss you Mark Addy.