Episode 1.7 “You Win or You Die”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Daniel Minahan
The central theme of this episode is power—who has it, who doesn’t, what is it for, and why. This theme is primarily exemplified in two quotes, one from Cersei (that makes the title of the episode): “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground,” and one from Jorah Mormont, who explains to Daenerys that Aegon the Conqueror took Westeros because he could, not because he had any right to it. All of the characters in this episode struggle with power, how much they have, whether they want more, and how to get it if they do.
The episode opens with our first look at Tywin Lannister (the incomparable Charles Dance), lecturing Jaime for being rash and attacking Ned—but since he did attack him, for not killing him while he had the chance. Tywin explains that the whole point of gathering power is to “establish a dynasty that will last a thousand years.” In Tywin’s case, he wants power so that his family will survive beyond him. The show doesn’t deal much with Tywin’s backstory, but book readers will understand why it’s so important to Twyin that the family name is built up and respected, far more than his own personal power and respect. Starting the episode off with this declaration creates contrast for the rest of the episode; nobody else seems to worry too much about dynasties and lasting power. Instead, they’re all out for their own personal status and immediate power.
This contrast is set up immediately when the scene changes to Ned and Cersei discussing her treason in the gardens. It’s implied that if Robert had respected Cersei from the get-go, things would have been much different. She says she worshipped him and thought herself the luckiest woman in the world to marry him—until he called her “Lyanna” in bed on their wedding night. Every single spiteful thing Cersei has done since then has stemmed from that one drunken mistake. She claims Ned made a mistake, too, in not claiming the throne for himself after the rebellion rather than handing it over to Robert. Ned doesn’t think it was a mistake. Cersei then warns him of his impending death; if Ned’s going to get involved in the power struggle, he needs to play to win and be willing to put knives in backs if that’s what it takes. If he’s not, he should never have gotten involved in the first place.
The knives-in-backs theme continues with the very next scene, our sexposition/gratuitous female nudity scene for the episode (hi again, Benioff and Weiss). Again, this scene is frustrating because it gives us a bit more of Petyr’s history with Cat, which isn’t tremendously important to the story Benioff and Weiss are telling, and savvy watchers would have figured out everything he’s telling the two whores up to this point, anyway. The only really interesting/necessary part is his assessment of power and how to get it: he’s not skilled in force of arms, so instead he’ll “fuck them” to get what he wants (power) in other ways. This scene could have been half as long and included 100% less fake pleasure noises and prostitutes practicing on each other and still gotten all of this information across. This might be the most gratuitous scene they’ve pulled on us yet.
Theon is also contemplating the meaning of power, with Osha twitting him about wanting to be called “my lord.” How can he be a lord, she asks, if his father’s a lord? Even if he’s going to be lord of the Iron Islands after Balon, he’s not a lord now, so why should she call him lord? Alfie Allen does a magnificent job of appearing to struggle with this question while still clinging to Theon’s ego. In true Theon form, he deflects the question by trying to seduce Osha until Luwin stops him, again reminding him (in a much more sideways manner than Robb did last episode) that he’s not quite a guest here but has been treated much better than a prisoner.
The intrigues in King’s Landing reach a fever pitch in this episode as Robert is brought in with a nasty gore to the belly from a boar: “King Robert Baratheon, murdered by a pig,” he says. The power plays begin in earnest immediately. Ned refuses to acknowledge Joffrey as Robert’s heir in his will, writing “my heir” instead of “my son Joffrey.” Renly tries to convince Ned to seize power immediately in order to keep Cersei from consolidating her own power, and to then consider setting Renly on the throne instead of Stannis (Ned refuses). Ned then sends a letter to Stannis explaining the situation, just before asking Petyr (of all people) for help making sure Joffrey and Cersei don’t take power. Petyr suggests a similar plan to Renly’s—putting power in Ned’s hands, seeing how Joffrey grows up, then replacing him with Renly if he’s too much of a liability—which Ned rejects in favor of his own plan. Between Ned not liking Petyr’s plan and Ned’s inability to come right out and ask for Petyr’s help bribing the City Guard to back him instead of the Lannisters (because it’s not honorable), it’s clear Petyr isn’t particularly inclined to help him. And he doesn’t, though he makes it look like he is right up until the last second, when the Guard slaughters Ned’s men and Petyr himself puts a knife to Ned’s throat. Overall, Ned has played the game extremely poorly, making bad call after bad call, trying to keep his honor intact in the midst of political intrigue, which is pretty much impossible.
Over in Vaes Dothrak, the Dothraki horde that Ned wasn’t too worried about invading Westeros is getting fired up. Drogo isn’t initially interested in invading now that Viserys is dead, but when the assassin Viserys sent after her tries to poison her in the marketplace, Drogo gets angry. Really angry. Again, kudos to the actor (Jason Momoa) for being able to go on a furious, full-throated, red-faced, spitting tirade in a language that doesn’t even exist and make it completely believable. Drogo will take his screamers and cross the water for Dany and for his son in order to teach “the men in their metal suits” what happens when they cross a khal. It’s a little hard to root for him, though, when part of his threats against Westeros include raping their wives and enslaving their children.
So when it comes to the power vacuum Robert left by being an idiot and hunting while drunk, I’m pretty solidly Team Nobody; nobody who’s up for the throne seems like a very good choice. Not that Robert was great, either. Westeros has a sad dearth of people who would be good leaders (but, then, doesn’t life have that same dearth, especially on the national level?).
Meanwhile, Jon is also starting to get initiated into the halls of power, though his are on a far smaller scale. He wants to be a ranger and go looking for his uncle, whose horse has come back without Benjen. Instead, he’s assigned to the stewards, who Jon angrily refers to as “glorified maids.” It takes Sam explaining to him that he’s been assigned to Lord Commander Mormont—at Mormont’s specific request—and besides all the fetching and carrying and cleaning will also be privy to all the inner workings of the administration of the Night’s Watch for Jon to realize that maybe this isn’t a bad thing.
The only real issue with this scene is that Benioff and Weiss skipped an instigating incident for it; in the books, Jon goes to bat for Sam swearing in with the rest of them rather than being held back, showing initiative, diplomatic skills, and care for those less fortunate and less able than him. He earns this position and Mormont’s choice to groom him for power; it’s not just handed to him, and it’s not part of Allister Thorne hating Jon personally. This is part of Jon’s overall character arc, moving from a sulky boy with a chip on his shoulder to a man who can command the Night’s Watch, and leaving it out does not bode well for Benioff and Weiss’ portrayal of that arc.
RIP: King Robert of House Baratheon, First of His Name, Lord of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm
A whole bunch of unnamed guardsman
That wineseller, probably
Next week: The realm shatters. Dead men walk. Dany asserts herself.