Game of Thrones: You Win or You Die

“Family.”

This episode couldn’t be as good as last week’s. Just not possible. But the joy of last week’s episode lay in the beautiful way it was made, the artistry of the scene-crafting and word-smithing. This week’s episode may not measure up to Espenson’s skill, but it more than made up for it in terms of the tragic arc of one of our favorite characters, and the delightful sense of incipient entropy across Westeros and in King’s Landing.

King’s Landing and Casterly Rock

The opening scene was pure Shakespeare:* two characters having a weighty discussion that both describes there states perfectly and sets the tone for the tragic tale of man burdened by the fatal flaw of a sense of justice and an imperfect sense of timing. (Again, with the mise-en-abyme.)

Tywin Lannister’s speech to Jaime clearly defined his character: he is motivated by a strong desire to protect his family, in the abstract. He doesn’t care if Tyrion dies, but he cares if the Lannisters lose power or face because of that possibility. His selfish-gene pragmatism and sanguine approach to emotionally fraught situations marks him as a man who, maybe, should have been king.

Last week, Ned pointed out that Tywin is not king, because soldiers win wars, not money. I think we’re getting a sense, though, that it’s just not that simple: soldiers can be bought, but so can loyalty. And money isn’t the only currency, and it’s not the only token the Lannisters will use to pay their debts.

In describing Ned Stark’s refusal to sit on the Iron Throne and claim Westeros as his own during Robert’s Rebellion, Cersei calls it “such a sad mistake.” Ned, our hero, is a good man and a tragic character. His sad mistakes continue to multiply, and his refusal to king-nap Joffrey, to bring violence into Robert’s castle, to hurry, to believe that he shouldn’t trust Littlefinger, all combined to lead towards his downfall.

Ned’s one wily moment wasn’t enough. He did plan to use Robert’s ad hoc will as a shield, and manipulated the information therein to reflect his recent discovery of Joffrey’s parentage. But as Cersei pointed out, it isn’t enough. Once you’re on the Iron Throne, you’re on the Iron Throne. She manipulated Ned’s sense of justice just as much as she manipulated everyone in “The Kingsroad.” Robert, by contrast, retained some of his former humor and good graces. He took back the death warrant on Dany, although it might be too late. And he finally showed some care and affection for his little bastard.

Meanwhile, Renly’s hatred of his family (oafish Robert, lobsterish Stannis, Joffrey Malfoy) has led him to create a new one with Ser Loras. All we know now is that they rode out of King’s Landing as soon as they realized they couldn’t ally with Ned.

*Yes, I know it is not traditional for a lord to appear in the prologue.

At the Wall

Jon Snow’s resentful sense of entitlement lessens with every moment—he has always wanted to belong, but he has begun to realize that he finally does belong, in a new family, surrounded by men who are loyal because they must be. Although he is now a Brother of the Night’s Watch, he is still a Stark, too, and the arrival of Uncle Benjen’s hand via direwolf express is both a blow to Jon’s sense of family and a frightening omen of the perils the Watch guards against.

Vaes Dothrak

We’ve gotten many mentions of the madness of King Aerys, just not in Vaes Dothrak. Dany may have some of those mad qualities: even as she comes into her own as a woman and a khaleesi, she is still becoming as monomaniacal as Viserys ever was. She wants the throne, but she is more aware of the prices she must pay to get it.

Just as Littlefinger helps us orient ourselves in King’s Landing, Ser Jorah helps us understand Dany and the Dothraki. Jorah had wanted nothing more than to return to his family (including Commander Mormont of the Night’s Watch) and resume his place on Bear Island. He’d hoped to earn his pardon (for slaving) by assisting in the slaying of Dany—until today. As Jorah begins to throw his weight behind Dany, even without knowing Robert has died, our sense of her inner strength is confirmed.

In calling Dany monomanical, I am certainly not insulting her. She is less still, but just as centered, as she was in the earlier episodes. She has become so strong, so focused on a sense of coming into power rather than grasping it, that I think a touch of Ahab isn’t a bad thing. It would take a monomania to conquer a gigantic entropic island like Westeros. She’s inherited that strength as well as that possible weakness from her family. She is "the last Targaryen."

Bitter Peaces:

• In the middle of Tywin’s monologue, we got a quick shot of Jaime. He had a wonderful “Oh, there goes Dad again,” look on his face.

• I understand that GoT must be contractually obligated to provide a certain quota of sex-minutes per episode. However, I do not think that Littlefinger’s monologue to whore-accompaniment really worked. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Although it did feature the same prostitute from the North—so now she’s in King’s Landing.

• In keeping with the theme of family, Theon has begun to realize, courtesy of Osha, that he will never be a real man as long as his is still a “guestage” and son of the Lord of the Iron Islands.

• Varys introduced the possibility that Lancel the Lovely Squire may have made Robert drunker than usual. It fits with the glimpse of the hunt we saw last week.

• List of the dead: The wine-merchant assassin. King Robert of the House Baratheon, First of His…you know how it goes. And, maybe, Uncle Benjen Stark. Poor Ned lost his best friend, his brother, and his freedom this week.

Although this episode wasn’t as humorous, cheeky, or delightful as last week’s, it was still a powerful entry that managed to focus complex questions of loyalty and power on the theme of family. It gave us a beautiful sense of Ned’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the full extent of Littlefinger’s perfidy, Dany’s power over her vassals, and Tywin Lannister’s ominous pragmatism.

Here’s what we didn’t get: Tyrion. The Lannisters finding out that Tyrion has been set free. Jaime finding out that he is father to the king. Catelyn’s reaction to Ned’s arrest. The fate of Sansa and Arya. Ned’s arrest has tragic consequences for everyone. Maybe even the Lannisters.

Three and a half out of four cold, dead hands. Oh, pun!

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

20 comments:

Sooze said...

The casting in this show has been just great. Charles Dance was terrific as Tywin (I have not read the books, so I do not know if he matched the description).

Folks on the boards are upset about the skinning scene, but I thought it effectively showed Tywin as a no-nonsense, do it yourself, tough kind of guy.

I agree that the Littlefinger/whore scene was over the top and not all that necessary...but it did show how he can control people with his words.

Ah, Ned, I hope he gets out of this mess somehow because I really am enjoying Sean Bean in this role!

Jess Lynde said...

I agree this wasn't as strong as last week's, but it was still darn good. I'd probably rate it just as high if not for the scene at the brothel. (As I said last week, Ros appears to be their favorite exposition whore.) Littlefinger's seduction instructions did provide some fascinating insight into his modus operandi, but then the scene just kept going and going and getting more and more graphic. It was completely distracting and undermined the later exposition about his love for Cat and his failed duel. Ack.

Was that Benjen's hand? I thought it was just a random hand that Ghost found in the woods. I don't recall it being identified.

Quick correction: Theon was talking to Osha. Asha is a different character that we meet later.

Do you really think Jaime doesn't know that he's father to Cersei's kids? He must know. I honestly don't remember if this is something confirmed by the books or not, but I have trouble believing he doesn't already know Joffrey Malfoy (love it!) is his.

Sooze, I agree that Tywin came across just fine in the skinning scene. But I've only read the books once, so I'm not as hard core as many "on the boards." It certainly didn't strike me as out of character in any way.

Jess Lynde said...

Oh, wait. By "Jaime finding out that he is father to the king" did you mean, Jaime finding out that Robert's dead and Joffrey is king now? Because when I read it the first time, I thought you meant "finding out he's Joffrey's father" which is what spurred my earlier comment. But I was thinking on it more and suddenly realized maybe I misinterpreted.

Josie Kafka said...

Hi Jess,

Yes, the second option.

Jon seemed to really associate the hand with his uncle, so I just went with it.

Thank you so much for the Osha/Asha correction, too. I spent quite a while trying to remember her name at all. I guess 3 out of 4 vowels isn't too bad.

Austin said...

Great show, but as a fan of the books, they really messed up on 2 points. Fortunately for me, I can separate the show from the books. Still, I don't completely understand the choices they made. Tywin Lannister is almost the exact opposite of a man who you would find skinning a deer. He is a cool customer who doesn't get his hands dirty. And they made Littlefinger look more like a moustache-twirling buffon than the very, very sinister and clever man he is in the books. That brothel scene was very unnecessary.

Oh well, it can't be exactly like the books. Overall, a strong episode. This series is getting bettter and better.

Jay said...

Great review. I'd have to say pretty much all your opinions on this episode match my own. Bravo on the casting of Charles Dance, he will be a great Tywin,

I've finally managed to separate my tv show enjoyment from the book enjoyment, and I think it's for the best. Now instead of dreading Dany chapters and not caring much about Jorah, those two are now my favorites to see on screen each week. (Minus Tyrion, of course.)

Oh and since I read the first few books twice, (making me hardcore i suppose ha) I can confirm that Jamie does know Joff is his.

Josie Kafka said...

...or perhaps "2 out of 2 vowels." Unless s and h have been goin' craaazy.

Harry Earle said...

I don't recall (and wouldn't say if I did) whether there is any evidence of Benjen being alive in the books, but I didn't get a sense of the hand belonging to him. It's only natural that Jon should wonder, since Benjen's horse returned riderless.

I can't decide whether Tywin's deer skinning was unrealistic - I think that there's some justification for him wanting to do it himself - to be seen as a commander who doesn't shy away from such stuff, to really get to grips with and take ownership over the animal (that he probably killed himself).

Austin said that Tywin doesn't get his hands dirty, and that's true politically, but maybe skinning a deer is one of the few ways he can get up to his elbows in gore without there being any ramifications.

On a side note - I can't wait until we do meet Asha, probably won't be for a year or so but still :D

CrazyCris said...

Great review Josie!

True, the episode wasn't as fun as the previous one, but with everything that happened to Ned it tugged on the heartstrings a lot more... Talk about the tragedy of being an honourable man in a dishonourable city!

They left something out from the book in this episode that I think will help viewers' feelings for Sansa remain more on the positive side (I hope)

And I don't think that hand was Benjen's... just because we saw his horse return earlier doesn't mean it was his. Plus, no rings or markings or anything on it, so how could Jon have recognised his uncle's hand? I think the look in his face was a normal reaction to the shock of Ghost coming and giving him a rather unusual gift.

Can't wait for tonight's episode!!! The pace has been picking up for a while now and things are about to get hectic! :D

Mark Greig said...

I actually thought this was on par with last week's episode. If not a tiny bit better.

Charles Dance certainly made a great first impression as Tywin, even if I did think that it was a little on the nose having him skin a stag (the sigil of House Baratheon). Terrific scene, nonetheless.

Gus Brunetti said...

A question to those who have read the book: how far have they covered of the first book yet? Is Season 1 the related to the contents os the firs book? If not, how many seasons will it take?

I hope it's not like two seasons per book, because I've read somewhere that the timeline of the books so far has been around 3 years. If they take longer than that, they'll have to pull a Walt on the actress who plays Arya.

And I still don't see the point in the brothel scene. I felt embarassed, actually. Too gratuitous. It's like the HBO PTB demand a nudity scene in every episode, so they have to scramble to get one.

CrazyCris said...

no worries Gus, season 1 looks like it's definitely going to cover all of book 1! :o)

as for the actress playing Arya, kids at that age grow pretty fast! I'm sure she'll keep pace with her character

Mark Greig said...

The producers and George RR Martin have frequently stated that the first two seasons will cover a book each, but the third book, A Storm of Swords, may have to be spread across two seasons due it its size (here in the UK its already published as two books).

Of course, this is all assuming that Game of Thrones manages to last that long, which I really hope it does.

Gus Brunetti said...

Thanks, CrazyCris

I wonder if they'll have the balls to change the name of the series to A clash of Kings for S02

WhyMe said...

Hey Josie,

I would have to disagree with you on the whole hookers thing. Littlefinger gave his whole plane and the outline of his reasons to betray Ned stark then and there to a seemingly unimportant audience. There was no way he would be even remotely honest with anyone else. There was no other way to state his motives.

As to the vagueness of the audience, I refer you to the clarifying words of our evil blond mama: "in the game of thrones, you either win or die." Something that Littlefinger has learnt on his own flesh.

Josie Kafka said...

WhyMe, that's a good point. His plan seemed obvious to me because I've read the books, but this isn't a show for people who've read the books.

Nice catch!

Gus Brunetti said...

As someone who hasn't read the books, I can say that scene was not so helpful to understand his motives or hes plan. It was very cryptic and generic. I only understood a little better his plans in that last scene when he openly betrayed Ned; but I would've understood it even without that brothel scene.

If I want to watch a very explicit scene between two hot women with no contextualization or purpose at all, the internet is ful of websites I can visit. I don't need otherwise good fiction to show me that.

WhyMe said...

Hey Gus,

I had the pleasure to watch it again and I found his words very revealing. As one who has read the books with piety, I found it to be even more revealing.

Also, another important thing from that scene was the notion that Littlefinger ignores those damn indecent women because he wants something else. A lady that belongs to someone else.

Thats my 1/1000 golden dragon.

Gus Brunetti said...

WhyMe,

Some of what you said makes sense, the rest I'll have to take your word as a reader of the books (that sounded Buffy-ish, didn't it?). I get now the purpose of the scene. I still think it could be better done, though.

Thanks for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Gus, that as a non-reader of the books, the brothel scene did not clarify Littlefinger's motives. It seemed like his speech was a way to squeeze in some sex rather than the other way around. Then again, now that I think about it, I am not sure I actually listened to what he was saying. Was there something about a woman? Hmm. Maybe I should watch that again. I was completely distracted by thinking "What is the point of this scene?" and "When is this scene going to end?" and "So, is she actually enjoying this, or is she still faking it? 'Cause that still seems kind of fake to me".