Game of Thrones: “You Win or You Die”

Who’s Your Daddy?

“You Win or You Die”

Game of Thrones

HBO, Sundays, 9 PM

Written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Directed by Daniel Minahan

“When the Queen proclaims one King and the Hand proclaims another, whose peace do the Gold Cloaks protect?” — Petyr Baelish

Okay, if I can’t have dragons, can I at least have a hero? Someone to root for? So far, the best candidate for that position is not Ned Stark, but Tyrion Lannister. Alas, he doesn’t even make an appearance in this episode of Game of Thrones, and we are all the poorer for it. We are stuck with the hapless Ned, a man so mired in his own naiveté he cannot help but destroy himself. Having finally puzzled out what anyone else with eyes can see—that Queen Cersei’s children do not resemble her husband—he proceeds to tell her he is going to reveal this secret to the king. Seriously?

“What’s best for the kingdoms? What’s best for the people we rule?” – Renly Baratheon

Ned is definitely not as honest and upright as he’s made out to be. When the dying King dictates his will to Ned, Ned’s delicate conscience will not allow him to write “Joffrey” when describing Robert’s successor, so he falsifies the King’s will by writing “my rightful heir”. Ned’s oh-so-precious code of honor now sets the stage for a plunge into civil war that will wreck the Seven Kingdoms, and he does not even tell King Robert what he has done, or that Robert’s heir is not his son. When Robert dies, Ned moves to give the throne to Robert’s brother Stannis, a man even he agrees is not fit to rule (and who has yet to appear onscreen). There’s even a backup heir, Renly, who seems to be more concerned for the people than Ned. But bloodlines and succession means more to Ned than the lives of the people, so he stubbornly goes forward with a plan that will cost many lives. So much for conscience, truth and honor. There’s a phrase that describes this behavior: too stupid to live.

“The family name is all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honor, but family.” – Tywin Lannister

Well, if we have no true heroes in this saga, at least we have some delicious villains. We meet another one in this episode: Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance, Your Highness), the head of House Lannister. Like any good executive, he can multi-task, so he dresses out a stag (is it really symbolism when the symbol is so obvious?) as he dresses down his son. Tywin criticizes Jaime for failing to kill Ned, failing to rescue his brother Tyrion, and for caring too much about people calling him “Kingslayer”. He casually puts him in charge of 30,000 men, and sends him off to rescue Tyrion. Seems to me that with the crown in play, Tywin would be better off marching on King’s Landing to claim the throne himself, after which rescuing his despised dwarf son would be a slam dunk. I was surprised to find this powerful and feared noble so lacking in vision. But then, anyone who would reject a Tyrion just because he’s a dwarf has some pretty crippling blind spots somewhere. Perhaps he is blinded by the same peculiar mania that plagues everyone in the Seven Kingdoms: an obsession with his house and name. I found myself comparing Tywin Lannister unfavorably with his cross-network alter ego, Rodgrigo Borgia in The Borgias. Like Rodrigo, Tywin wants wealth and power and security for his children; unlike Rodrigo, he lacks the ambition to reach for the seat of power himself.

“I need you to become the man you were meant to be.” – Tywin Lannister

I’m still trying to figure out why it would be an insult to be hailed as the man who rid the world of a monarch universally referred to as the Mad King. Tywin sneers at Jaime for having served as a glorified bodyguard to two kings, but doesn’t say what he thinks Jaime was supposed to have been doing otherwise. I feel a little sorry for Jaime; his father doesn’t respect him, he can never acknowledge his own children, the love of his life is his twin sister, who considers him her second choice. Other than his attempt to kill Bran, his actions have come closer to the brave, arrogant and skilled warrior-hero I was expecting than anyone else. He loves (ahem) his family, endures the scorn of others with sly wit, is a capable fighter, and appears to do the right thing politically when it is politically feasible – which is, really, all one can expect of a politician. I have an idea Jaime Lannister might have made a much, much better king than Robert Baratheon. (Come to think of it, a wild boar would have made a better king than Robert Baratheon, but that’s beside the [spear] point.) So what does Tywin Lannister expect his son to become? A king? A general? A conspirator? He’s a better man, if not a better conspirator and politician, than his father. He refuses to kill Ned Stark when Ned is wounded by his own man, because such a victory would not be “clean”. What he calls honor, his father calls vanity. In a world populated by simplistic, black-and-white characters, Jaime Lannister and his brother stand out as the most complicated and attention-grabbing so far.

“We came into the world together. We belong together.” – Cersei

Cersei is so worried that her secret affair with her brother will come out that she goes along with Jaime’s attempts to kill Bran. Yet when Ned accuses her, with no proof at all, she readily acknowledges, even justifies, her illicit affair. Is she really that confident? Or that naïve? I’d like to think the former, since she has shown herself to be a Machiavellian mistress of intrigue, but I could be wrong. She tells Ned that Robert broke her heart on her wedding night by calling out the name of his dead love, Ned’s sister. She says plaintively, “Your sister was a corpse and I a living girl but he loved her more than me.” For a character who never even appears onscreen, Lyanna Stark casts a long shadow. I’m sure we’re supposed to feel a twinge of pathos for poor young Cersei, spurned by her handsome king for another girl, but I’m not feeling it. Whether it’s the line or its delivery, all I got out of that moment was a sense of futility, that not even Cersei has what it takes to move past self-pity and claim some self-respect. Instead, she turned to her brother, which for a twin is like turning inward. I can’t buy the idea that she did so in heartbreak, mainly because we have not yet seen that she has any heart to break. At least she has some of the Lannister brains. She faces down Ned in a throne-room showdown, when Ned attempts a coup. It’s not too hard a task, since Ned has not bothered to tell the world why he is opposed to Joffrey’s succession; I guess everyone is just supposed to take Ned’s word that setting aside the publicly acknowledged heir is a Good Thing. Since Ned doesn’t credit women with any brains at all (see Arya), it never occurs to him that Cersei may have wooed the city guard to her cause long ago. So when the trap springs, only Ned is surprised.

“O moon of my life.” – Khal Drogo

I complained last week about the lack of love in this series. This episode showed us, for the first time, some semblance of love – between Khal Drogo and his queen. Now that Daenerys Targaryen is pregnant, she has value to her husband, and he treats her with at least as much affection as he gives his horse. When an agent of King Robert tries to poison Daenerys with tainted wine, he is enraged at the threat to his property and his heir. In the finest traditions of professional wrestling, he struts and stomps his way around the tent, roaring his defiance and promising much badness to his enemies. This was one of the better scenes in the episode, if only to show off Jason Momoa’s impressive pecs and eyeliner. Daenerys watched all this posturing with her usual breathless mix of blank stare and parted lips, as if trying to figure out exactly what this horse lord was doing. She eventually figures out that he is finally going to get her what she wants – an invasion of Westros – and smiles for him. Lucky Drogo. The unfortunate wine seller (Simon Lowe, Eastenders), however, gets tied naked behind her horse, a surprisingly mild punishment from these barbarians.

“I’m not going to fight them. I’m going to f@#$ them.” – Petyr Baelish

There’s no doubt left in my mind who HBO thinks their audience for this show is. Our naked wine seller is only the second example of male frontal nudity in seven episodes; in fact, the only time we see naked men is when they are being humiliated (first example was Therion Greyjoy, being sneered at by a whore). By contrast, however, we are treated to four minutes of lesbian porn in this episode, including female frontal nudity, with Petyr Baelish providing both color commentary and autobiography. Making his self-revelatory speech the background for coaching a gratuitous sex does not work, as either revelation or sex. One of these people needs to shut the hell up, and if I get a vote, it’s the women. Their moaning and gasping adds nothing to the story except distraction, whereas Petyr’s back-story may actually shed some light on current events. Maybe. Frankly, the entire four minutes could have been cut, for all I care, and none the wiser. Of course, to certain demographics, it was the only memorable scene in the episode, but that only reinforces my belief that HBO is in the porn business, not the story business. Because what, after all, is the point of winding up their adolescent-male audience? It’s not like HBO cares about ratings, it’s a subscription service. Give me more Wall action, and less girl-on-girl action, please.

“They wasn’t gone, old man. They was sleeping. And they ain’t sleeping no more.” — Osha

And speaking of the Wall, we finally, after seven episodes, got a hint about the Walkers again. Therion Greyjoy tries to lord it over the Wildling woman Osha (Natalia Tena, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) who tried to kill Bran last week, but gets (ahem) no joy. She warns Maester Leuwin that the Walkers are alive and walking, despite his dismissal. If that wasn’t enough, Jon’s oath-taking at the were-tree north of the Wall is interrupted by his direwolf Ghost, who trots up carrying a severed human hand. Whoops. Bad enough that his uncle Benjen never returned from his patrol, but now Jon finds himself assigned as personal body servant to the Lord Commander of the Watch, Lord Mormont (James Cosmo,Sons of Anarchy). While he sees this as an insult, his good buddy Samwell points out that this places Jon at the fount of power, privy to all the secrets of the Rangers. I like Samwell. Besides being a nebbish, he’s smart, and mature enough to look past Jon’s juvenile fantasies of derring-do to the hard, cold reality of affairs of state. The Watch, in fact, may be the best blending of action and politics in this series. The men of the Watch are not all heroes, which would be unrealistic, but neither are they all drunkards and sadists. It’s an appealing mix, and I hope to see them pitted against foes like the White Walkers sometime before the next decade. The Walkers may have finally wakened, but the glacial pace of this story is putting me to sleep.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” – Queen Cersei

So. The King is dead, long live … whoever. It’s an open game now. Self-interest rules, there are no real heroes, love is a thin cloak for lust and aggrandizement, and the dragon eggs have not hatched. The villains are vastly more entertaining than the heroes – Tywin Lannister in particular looks to become a magnificent bastard who will – you should pardon the phrase – dwarf Ned Stark. But are we going to have to wait until the end of this season to see another supernatural creature? I’m still waiting to see something other than The Sopranos in medieval armor. HBO has a history of failure with expensive set-pieces like this: Deadwood and Rome were spectacles, feasts for the eyes and sometimes ears, which were cancelled because HBO got tired of the heavy bills. On another network, Showtime is doing the same thing with The Borgias. I don’t know what these networks think is going to be different this time around. The only thing I can think of is the introduction of dragons and Walkers, and it’s getting a little late in the day to drag those in. At least True Blood was savvy enough to get the vampires into every episode, and keeps piling on werewolves, witches, and shapeshifters to keep our interest up. Lesbian sex will entertain some of us for a few minutes, but if there’s nothing else to draw us in – such as magical critters – then Game of Thronesmay well be a game HBO loses.