Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Game of Thrones "You Win or You Die"

Non Spoiler Review:
You Win or You Die delivers on all the political intrigue you could want, as the situation goes completely south with an unexpected (or, perhaps, surprisingly early) twist. After a two episode absence, we return to the Wall as the recruits graduate as members of the Night's Watch. The Iron Throne overshadows everything, though, as Ned and Cersei lock horns, orders are given, schemes and conspiracies unfold, and Ned tries in vain to do the most honourable thing possible, despite the cost. Oh, and there's that small matter of an assassination attempt against Daenerys Targaryen...

This week brought insight into House Lannister with the introduction of their doozy of a dad, Tywin. We get a sense of the life Cersei and Jaime endured with two great scenes—between Jaime and his father, and Cersei and Ned—where a tiny bit of sympathy can be had for the Lannister twins.

The main thrust of this episode is just how badly Ned has handled his tenure in King's Landing. All of this was foreshadowed in the first episode with how he placed duty about all else, including strategy (something he should possess if he's anything of the solider he's supposed to be). What will happen next is anyone's guess, but with only three episodes of the season remaining, the only bad thing I can say about Game of Thrones is that it's ending in just a few weeks.

Spoilers Now!
At a large encampment of soldiers, Jaime and Tywin receive the raven demanding their return to King's Landing. Tywin is in the midst of skinning a stag (no irony there), and wonders why Ned is still alive. Jaime says killing him at King's Landing would have been too public. His father suggests Jaime worries too much about what people think of him, and it bothers him that people whisper king slayer behind his back. For Tywin, the family name is all that lives on. Jaime has been blessed with many talents, but has done nothing with them, serving as bodyguard to two kings. He tells his son to become the man he was meant to be.

So Tywin gives him 30,000 of their men to bring Tyrion home. Even though he's an imp, the longer he remains a prisoner, the less people will respect the Lannisters. If another house can seize one of their own, they are no longer a house to be feared. 

In King's Landing, Cersei goes to see Ned after he summons her, but she suggests it's time for him to go home. He asks her if Robert has hit her before (she's still sporting the bruise), but she tells him Jaime would have killed him if he did. Her brother is worth a thousand Roberts. That's a nice segue for Ned to reveal he knows why Jon Arryn died—her brother or her lover? Surprisingly, Cersei doesn't deny it, and counters that the Targaryens shared bloodlines for a thousand years, and she and Jaime are more than siblings.

Ned knows now that Bran saw them together and was pushed from the tower. All her children are Jaime's. Cersei admits to having once loved Robert when he was strong and lean and coveted by all the women in the kingdom, but when she was finally with him he was just a drunk who whispered Lyanna in her ear.

Ned plans to reveal the truth to Robert when he returns, and Cersei and her children must be gone, because Robert's wrath will follow them. And her own wrath? she muses. When King's Landing fell, Jaime sat on the throne, and it was Ned who made him give it up. All Ned had to do was walk up the steps and take it for himself, but he didn't. Now he can't think he can decide who will be king. "If you play the game of thrones, you win or you die," she says. There is no middle ground. She leaves him.

At Petyr's brothel, new girl Ros is getting instructed on how to make her man feel great. When invited to join in, Petyr says he's saving himself for another, someone who's loved him for years as his confidant. But this woman wanted to marry a northerner, so Petyr challenged this man to a duel and lost. But in the end she wouldn't even let him die with honour. He gave Petyr a scar instead, but the man was killed before their wedding, and she ended up with his brother, a more impressive man. No one can compare to him, Petyr says. And so he learned that he will never win playing the game by their rules. He's not going to fight them on their terms. Only by admitting what they are will they get what they want. And he wants everything.

At Winterfell, the Wilding girl, Osha, is lectured by Theon about how lucky she is for being alive. The Greyjoys wouldn't be so merciful, he muses, but she's never heard of the Iron Islands, and so it means nothing to her. He's just a southerner to her, given she's from north of the Wall. Theon decides to try his luck with her, but Luwin arrives to interrupt him, reminding him the girl is their guest. He leaves. 

Osha tells Luwin she's used to men worse than Theon. He asks why she came so far south. They meant to get as far south as possible before the long night comes, she explains. There are things that hunt in the night that were just sleeping all these thousands of years. But no longer.

Ned is suddenly visited by Renly, who's rushed in to tell him that Robert has been mortally wounded by a boar on the hunt. He's brought to his bedside where Cersei and Joffrey are waiting. Robert sends them all away but Ned. He's come to terms with the fact that he's dying, and from such an uninspired death. He just wants everyone to taste the boar that got him. 

Robert orders him to write down what he says and recites his will. He commands Eddard Stark to serve as lord regent upon his death and to rule in his stead until Joffrey comes of age. Ned, however, takes some liberties and writes rightful heir comes of age instead. He's to give the document to the council when Robert passes. 

Robert muses that Ned will rule well but hate the throne worse than he did. As far as Daenerys, he admits Ned was right. And only Ned had the courage to tell him so. Robert gives the order to stop the assassination, then asks his old friend to help Joffrey be a better man than his father. 

Outside the king's chambers, Barristan is feeling guilty about failing to protect his master, but admits Robert was reeling from too much wine. Varys suggests that Lancel, the squire, shouldn't blame himself for giving the king the wine, which, of course, gets Ned thinking. He orders Varys to cancel the assassination of Daenerys immediately, but the Spider says those birds have flown and she's likely already dead.

Daenerys and Drogo are discussing their son's kingdom and she suggests that he should rule Westeros, but to Drogo the world ends at the sea and he sees no use for an iron chair. There are thousands of ships in the free cities to carry them across the water, she says. But he's unconvinced. A king needs a horse to sit on, not a throne.

While walking through the market, Daenerys asks Jorah to help her make Drogo understand, but he knows Drogo will do things in his own time. Having a few dragons made it easier for Aegon, her ancestor, to conquer Westeros, but that was three hundred years ago. He leaves her to enjoy the market, and a child comes up to him and tells him the Spider sends his greetings. He gives Jorah a message, which is a royal pardon that means he can return home.

Daenerys comes upon a winemaker who recognizes her from Westeros. Many in their homeland still pray for the return of the Targaryens, he tells her, and offers her one of his special wine casks. Jorah steps up and asks him to open the cask, as he wants to drink, but the man is reluctant to open such a vintage. Daenerys then orders him to do as he commands. Jorah suggests the wineseller taste it first. Again, Daenerys commands him to. The man makes a run for it, but is brought down quickly by the Dothraki guards. Jorah escorts Daenerys away to safety.

At the Wall, Jon and Sam are on watch when they spy a riderless horse approaching from the north. It's Benjen's. Jon wants to find his uncle, but Lord Mormont refuses. The recruits are graduating as members of the Night's Watch, and attend their ceremony where their new duties are doled out. Jon finds out he's been assigned to the stewards with Sam, rather than to the rangers. Thorne looks down with a smile, having had his revenge on him. Jon will be Lord Commander Mormont's personal steward, but he's outraged at being nothing more than a glorified maid.

Pip tells Jon it's hard to feel sorry for him when everyone else is here for their own reasons and have come from far worse lives than he had. Sam suggests that Jon will at least be part of all that goes on as the commander's steward. Surely Mormont intends for Jon to succeed him.

Because Jon worships the old gods, he takes his final vows before a godswood, one of which lies just north of the Wall. Sam wants to go as well, as he's renouncing his own house's gods given they've done nothing for him. They go north with Jon's wolf Ghost and an entourage of Watchmen to witness their vows at the tree. As the other men congratulate them, Ghost emerges from the woods with a frozen arm in his mouth.

Renly wants a moment alone with Ned. He tells him Cersei will ignore the will and suggests they get Joffrey away from her and into his custody. Cersei can't be allowed to prepare, and his older brother, Stannis, is no better option to succeed Robert. But Ned won't dispute the rightful heirs. Renly reminds him the line of succession didn't matter when they rebelled against the mad king, and it shouldn't matter now. It's what's best for the kingdoms. Stannis inspires no love, unlike Renly, who says he's a king. Ned tells him Stannis is a great commander (who destroyed the Greyjoy fleet). Do good soldiers make good kings? Renly counters. Ned won't dishonour Robert's last hours by shedding blood. 

Ned sends off a letter to Stannis Baratheon, for his eyes only. Then Petyr arrives and Ned reveals the truth about the king's children. When Robert dies, it's his intention that Stannis becomes king. Petyr reminds him Stannis can't take the throne without Ned's help. He has a different suggestion. All of the power is Ned's, he just need reach out and take it—release Tyrion, make peace with the Lannisters, and wed Sansa to Joffrey. When Joffrey takes the throne, they'll then reveal the secret, get rid of Stannis, and put Renly there instead. It's only treason if they lose, Petyr reminds him.

Ned refuses this, as well. He won't make peace with the Lannisters who tried to kill his son. We only make peace with our enemies, Petyr says. If he insists on Stannis, it will be war, and Ned seems to believe that the rightful succession is paramount, despite that. Ned brings up Petyr's promise to Catelyn that he would help them. Ned wants the city watch on his side to defend himself from Cersei. Petyr wonders what happens when both the queen and the lord protector give orders to the city watch. Who do they follow? The man who pays them.

Daenerys and Jorah visit the beaten  and tied up assassin. King Robert wants her dead, but Jorah says he won't be the last. Drogo arrives and is not at all happy, grateful his wife is fine, and also in Jorah's debt. To his unborn son, he pledges a gift—he will give him the iron chair that his mother's father sat upon—he'll give him seven kingdoms. He will take his Khalasar across the sea and rape, pillage and destroy. Later, the Dothraki ride out of Vaes Dothrak (with the assassin dragged behind them).

Ned gets word that Robert has died, and he's being summoned to the throne room by Cersei and King Joffrey. Petyr and Varys meet him on the way, letting him know the city watch is his, and bearing some additional news—Lord Renly has left the city with Loras, riding south.

Joffrey is sitting on the Iron Throne with Barristan and his men surrounding him. Joffrey commands the council crown him within the fortnight. Ned tells Barristan no man will question his honor, and shows him Robert's will with its unbroken seal. Barristan reads it and announces Ned as protector of the realm to rule as regent until Joffrey comes of age. Cersei demands to see it, then rips it up as a lie. Barristan appears shocked, and tells her those were the king's words.

Cersei offers Ned some advice—swear loyalty to her son and they will allow him to live. Ned tells her Joffrey has no claim to the throne, so she demands Ned be seized. Ned orders the city watch to take them into custody. He wants no bloodshed and tells Cersei to tell her men to lay down their swords. Someone yells "Now!" and Cersei's men begin attacking and Ned finds himself in the middle of a mel√©e. As he draws his own sword, Petyr puts a knife to his throat and says "I did warn you not to trust me."

The Verdict:
Civil war seems a certainty at this point. It''s really a question of what else can happen, aside from multiple armies facing off at King's Landing. The letter is off to Stannis naming him king, Renly is off on his own, the Lannisters will be sending forces to ensure Joffrey remains on the throne, while Robert's will names Ned as lord protector. The remaining houses will have to pick sides. And meanwhile, Drogo is preparing to launch his army  beyond the end of the world due to Robert's ill-advised assassination attempt.

A lot of loyalty was tested. Jorah appears to have had second thoughts at betraying Daenerys. That is, if he's truly been working solely for Varys against her. I only now realized he's Lord Commander Mormont's son. And where will Barristan's ultimate allegiance lie?

The Lannisters got their chance in the spotlight. Jaime and Cersei have clearly borne the burden of Tywin's vision for his family. In fact, the three of them do illicit some sympathy. Tywin clearly isn't just about his own advancement, but ultimately wants his dynasty to survive rather than fall into ruin like the Targaryens. He's a pragmatist about his own mortality and has bred his children for that sole purpose, both of whom live under his enormous shadow and responsibility. Though she's clearly a villain, Cersei is a product of Robert. Had he been the man she once loved, she may not have focused completely on ensuring the Lannister dynasty at his expense.

Petyr's betrayal was the most surprising. I was really liking him too, but his bitterness in recounting the story of how he lost Catelyn's love at the hand of Ned's brother, and then to Ned, really shows he's carting around a lot of baggage. It also speaks a bit to Ned and Catelyn's relationship, which must be a little weird if she was getting ready to marry his brother.

Ultimately, this whole mess is thanks to Eddard Stark, master of bad decisions masquerading as honour. The signs have been there since the beginning with his devout sense of doing his duty—killing the deserter—and on and on in accepting the Hand of the King in the first place, pretty much dissing Jon, and then carrying out a reckless investigation into Arryn's death that included having everyone know what he was doing.

I was pulling my hair out at how quickly Ned revealed and confronted Joffrey's parentage with Cersei. And only through the unfortunate timing of Robert's injury did it all fall apart (or perhaps even hastened Robert's death, given Lancel gave him the wine).

Cersei raised a valid point that he could have taken the throne himself after the mad king's death, but instead let Robert have it. So now he doesn't get to decide. Right now it looks like Renly would be the best choice, but Ned can't bring himself to think outside the box for a moment and look at the big picture. The Stark family will suffer for it, and it's likely going to cost him one or two of his children (bye, Sansa).

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