Show: Game of Thrones
Episode: S01E07 – You Win or You Die
Original Air Date: 29 May 2011
Spoiler Warning: For both show and series — extra warning for character deaths, both which happen in the show and which they haven’t yet gotten to (some of which they won’t get to this season) — so read at your own risk
This episode, to me, feels like the break point. This is where the scales tip from manageable to chaos, with no hope of turning back.
Tywin Lannister tells us this from the very beginning, when he talks about the future of his family being decided in the moment. He has a sense of the times. He knows that everything can be won or lost on this pitch of the dice. I may not like Tywin Lannister much, but I cannot deny his badassery. And meeting him really does inform a lot about why all three of his kids turned out the way they did. We see it here as he needles Jaime about caring what people think, and we see it more in the next episode when he talks to Tyrion. This guy is the very definition of “no-nonsense”. He kills and guts his own (highly symbolic) meat. That’s the kind of father who terrifies you, but who damn well makes you want to prove yourself. I also appreciate that he arranges his military camp in the same fashion as the Roman army.
Of course, it’s not Tywin who pushes things over the edge. No, that responsibility falls solely to Ned Stark. Ned “My honour makes me stupid” Stark. The scene between him and Cersei is interesting – it’s not quite the same as in the book, and Lena’s acting quite convinces me that Cersei really would rather Ned go back up North and never come back. She doesn’t have malice for him. And her life would be so much easier if he just removed himself from the situation and went back to ignoring everything south of the Neck. But, no, he will insist on being in the way, and he’s about to do something that she cannot allow. He flipping tells her that he knows her deepest secret, a secret he knows perfectly well she’s already killed to keep quiet. Showing her father’s ruthelessness (and perhaps tapping into that same sense of the moment), Cersei utters both the series and episode titles: “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die.”
Robert manages to do both. He won the throne, and he dies, in my opinion, because of his inability to sit it properly. Would Cersei have been driven to such extremes if he’d been a better man, a better king? Who knows. But if he’d been those things, he might, at least, have been able to keep better control on her and her family. Varys tells us in Episode 8 that it’s Ned’s mercy that killed the king, but I think his own worthlessness is equally culpable. Well, so much for him. He dies (and Joffrey, perhaps to his credit, looks genuinely distressed about it, which came as a surprise to me). No one wastes time letting the body get cold. Ned intends to see the throne passed to the “rightful heir” — in his opinion, Robert’s next brother, Stannis. Renly (youngest of the three Baratheon brothers) urges Ned to join with him, to proclaim Joffrey’s bastardy and name Renly king, rather than Stannis — and he makes a great point here, really, about a king needing to have skills other than battlefield acumen. Ned refuses. Petyr urges Ned to take up for Joffrey, to seize him along with Myrcella and Tommen, with the idea that, if they become intractable or if Cersei cause trouble, they can always proclaim the bastardy later, get rid of yet-unseen Stannis Baratheon, and proclaim Renly king. Ned refuses. Cersei swiftly pronounces Joffrey king and starts making changes – starting with Ned. They face off publicly, and Ned, who wasn’t willing to do what it takes to win, falls. The episode ends on this moment, so we don’t see the repercussions, but this is the moment that tips a lot of scales – this is what brings the Starks and Lannisters to open war.
Meanwhile, up at the wall, the boys become men – at least in name. It’s the most explicit case of “no turning back now” that we see in this episode, because, for the men of the Night’s Watch, their vows are lifelong. For Jon, it’s quite a choice – he has to set aside his family – not knowing just how muddled things are becoming for them at the moment – and resign himself to a new life. And that new life isn’t looking quite like what he expected. Just as he’s getting over the disappointment of his new brothers not being all he imagined, he then gets dealt the blow of being named to the Stewards rather than to the Rangers. It takes Sam (who shows rather more courage and forthrightness here than in the books, at least when it comes to words) to point out to him that being named Commander Mormont’s steward means being tapped for leadership, which is far more noble than riding a horse north of the wall and chasing wildlings around.
Across the Narrow Sea, circumstances finally push Drogo into decisive action. While the Dothraki scenes open with him telling Dany (in, I believe, the longest scene they’ve shared thus far) that there’s no reason for him to cross the black water and win back the Iron Throne. He changes his mind when a poisoner, commissioned by King Robert, tries to kill Dany. Drogo declares “no going back” in a rather more spectacular fashion than the boys up North did, howling his indignation and his desire to rape and pillage for all to hear. The scales have tipped here, as well, though we’ll see the consequences of that in Episode 8.
Finally, and this is entirely off of the theme, but I can’t talk about this episode without discussing the rather infamous Littlefinger’s School of Whoring scene. This is probably the most blatantly gratuitous case of sexposition we’ve seen so far, and it goes on for so long. Honestly, it doesn’t really bother me that much, although I do agree with another comment I saw, that all the titillation thus far has been for masculine benefit. Both of the girl-on-girl scenes are about pleasing men, and certainly none of the men we’ve seen thus far seem overly concerned with pleasing their women. Of course, this isn’t a series with a lot of romance in it, but you’d think they could at least work in some mutual pleasure. (I’m also hoping that they won’t kill Doreah off like in the books, and that she’ll stick around and she and Dany will have some funtimes after Drogo’s gone).