Game of Thrones S1E7 “You Win or You Die”
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground”. So says Cersei to Ned in a fascinating conversation between the two. Other than cleverly getting someone in the show to say the name of the show, something very important is revealed here. Politics in Westeros is a brutal affair and if you play by the rules, you’re doomed to lose and maybe even pay for it with you life. Someone will come along and change the rules to put themselves into a better position and bury the competitors. In “You Win or You Die”, Ned’s political incompetence is fully on display in King’s Landing while Jon makes a lifelong commitment, The Lannisters make their move, and Dany, Drogo, and the rest of the Dothraki become players in the Game of Thrones. Let’s get it rolling.
The show starts us off with the introduction of a very important man in Westeros, Tywin Lannister. He’s been mentioned before so you know he’s Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion’s father and the head of House Lannister but the brilliant acting of Charles Dance shows you what Tywin is all about in only one scene. While he skins a carcass of a stag, he converses with Jaime at the Lannister war camp. It becomes very apparent that Tywin cares about family above everything else. Jaime notes that Tyrion is by far his least favorite child so going to war over him seems a bit excessive. While Tyrion and Tywin’s relationship is in fact very rocky, Tywin defends the act of war because Tyrion is still a Lannister. Tywin has aspirations of making the Lannisters the greatest dynasty there ever was and not saving Tyrion would show that House Lannister commands no respect and if House Lannister has no respect, there is no dynasty and Tywin’s ambitions would be a failure. It’s a great conversation between Jaime and Tywin and while you learn about Tywin, you forget that this scene is probably here for some purpose of advancing the plot. That comes at the end. Tywin gives Jaime 30,000 men and commands him to go seize Riverrun, capital of the Riverlands and home of House Tully. Much like winter, war is coming.
Up at the wall, the plot starts to move faster than it has up to this point. Benjen’s horse returns to Castle Black, but with no Benjen. A clearly distraught Jon wants to investigate the matter immediately so you know when he isn’t assigned to be a ranger, it’s devastating. No ranger, no roaming beyond the wall. He is instead assigned to the stewards, stewarding for Lord Commander Jeor Mormont. Jon immediately thinks Thorne was involved and got him assigned to the stewards out of spite. After contemplating leaving, Jon stays on account of a convincing argument from Sam. Sam points out that personally stewarding for Mormont, he will be around him all the time, including battles and meetings. Jon has been the most impressive recruit up to this point so Mormont perhaps picked him to be his steward so Jon can gain experience and be groomed for command. Having been convinced, Jon and Sam go beyond the wall and take their vows by a weirwood tree and officially become men of the Nights Watch. While this is going on, Ghost ran off for some fresh air and exercise and brings Jon back an arm, an omen of things to come.
Across the Narrow Sea, things were looking to be at a standstill, until they weren’t. Drogo makes his intentions known to Dany, he has no desire to sail over to Westeros and take the Iron Throne (or iron chair as he likes to call it) and plans on roaming the Dothraki Sea with his wife and child instead. With Viserys out of the picture, there’s no need to cross the poison water on wooden horses and conquer Westeros (got to love the simplicity of these Dothraki words). Dany has grown more comfortable with power though and wants more of it. With Viserys gone, she is the rightful heir to the throne and she wants to seize it.
During a trip to the marketplace, Dany tells Jorah of her desire to return home and hopes Jorah can convince Drogo to go to Westeros. Shortly thereafter, Jorah gets a letter from one of Varys’ “little birds”. The letter is a royal pardon and Jorah quickly deduces that the hit on Dany is imminent. His assumption proves correct and the hit is thwarted by Jorah. A wine seller was trying to offer Dany poisoned wine by claiming it was wine made for a queen. Tough luck for the wine seller as the Dothraki legal system isn’t very fair. His sentence is death via being tied to a horse naked and keeping pace with the horse until he collapses and dies from being dragged, a long and painful way to go for sure.
When Drogo finds out about this attempt on his wife and son’s life, he is fuming mad. That whole thing about being happy staying put is over now. In a thrilling scene, Drogo swears to Dany and the rest of the herd that they will cross the narrow sea and take the throne for his wife and son, burning villages and raping women along the way. This episode does a great job humanizing and fleshing out Drogo who at times just felt like an emotionless warrior. To his credit, he is one hell of a warrior though so the folks at King’s Landing should keep their eyes out for Drogo now that he’s on his way.
Speaking of King’s Landing, things really heat up in the capital as Ned puts his political incompetence on display numerous times. He personally calls for Cersei and discloses the fact that he knows that Joffrey and his siblings actually are Jaime’s children. Cersei owns up to it and is even proud of it, mentioning that House Targaryen has been doing it for centuries. Ned probably shouldn’t have let Cersei know that he knows and he further mucks up the situation by not sentencing her immediately. Instead, he tells Cersei to take her children and leave King’s Landing immediately. Bastards they may be, but they are still innocent children and Ned wouldn’t be able to stand watching Robert execute them as he likely would.
Speaking of Robert, we lose our second starring cast member on the season as a boar mortally wounded Robert during his hunt. Varys points out in very direct fashion that Lancel Lannister gave the king a whole lot of wine, signaling that the Lannisters were behind this. As Renly comes to tell Ned the news of Robert dying, we get a nice scene with Robert owning up to the fact he was just a fat drunk man who failed the people around him. In a nice change of pace, Joffrey is actually easy to be sympathetic towards as he is as sad as any child would be seeing who he thinks is his father on his deathbed. Robert clears the room so he can talk to Ned. Robert makes Ned write out his will and commands Ned be King Regent until his son Joffrey comes of age. Ned deliberately changes the bit with Joffrey and replaces it with “my rightful heir”. A tense Ned hands it over to Robert to sign, hoping that he doesn’t read it over. Robert doesn’t and Ned’s little stunt works.
That word swap is probably the only thing that Ned got right in this episode as the rest of the episode he sticks with his honor over politics. Renly confronts Ned and tells him that Cersei will never peacefully hand over power to him so they should take her and her children and stage a coup d’etat and make Renly king. Ned refuses to shed blood in the Red Keep and also notes that Renly is Robert’s youngest brother so he isn’t the heir to the throne anyway. The heir is actually Stannis Baratheon, the middle brother of the Baratheons and a man who will become much more prominent in season two. It shouldn’t surprise you that honorable Ned is in favor of handing the Iron Throne to Stannis, it fits right in with his character. Ned writes a letter to Stannis and sends a courier to hand it to Stannis personally on his island, Dragonstone.
Ned takes another misstep when Littlefinger rolls around to his chambers. Littlefinger also points out that Cersei won’t peacefully hand the throne over but his suggestion involves no bloodshed. Petyr suggests that they let Joffrey take the throne and use him as a puppet king to achieve their own goals. If Joffrey ever acts out, they simply reveal the fact he is a bastard and then appoint Renly. Not the worst of plans but it is not an honorable one. For this reason, Ned rejects the plan and instead asks Littlefinger to secure the support of the city guards, knowing that Cersei likely will put up a fight for the throne.
Not too long after, Ned gets summoned by King Joffrey. You heard that right, king. Knowing that the transition of power to himself as King Regent (and Stannis when he gets here) will be difficult, he heads over to the throne room. Joffrey demands he bend the knee and recognize him as king, in return he can return to Winterfell. Ned refuses this, saying that Joffrey has no right to the throne. Joffrey being the hot headed guy that he is, commands Ned and all of his men die. Unfortunately for Ned, Littlefinger betrayed him as the city watch actually kills Ned’s guards and Littlefinger holds Ned with a knife at his throat. Hey, Littlefinger did warn Ned not to trust him.
You know by now that I think Ned is awful player of the political game but I still can’t believe he thought a piece of paper was going to be enough to stop Cersei. Ned is an honorable due but most people in this show aren’t. He shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that Cersei tore up Robert’s will.
Game of Thrones has never been shy about nudity but they really up the ante in this episode, revealing Littlefinger’s passion and desires in an exposition scene in which two prostitutes are going at it in the background. The scene may have seemed long and out of place but you needed to know about his desire for power and his willingness to play dirty in order for the final scene to make sense. Perhaps the sexual content wasn’t needed but the dialogue was very important.
Despite King’s Landing and Winterfell being shown, all of the Stark children sit on the bench for this episode. It makes thematic sense I suppose with politics being the theme of the episode, kids don’t usually take part in politics.
Also sitting out of the episode is Tyrion, for the first time this season. Currently, sixty episodes have aired and Tyrion is in all but six of them. I’ll point them out when they come around.
Theon gets another fairly long scene in this episode. While it seems like they’re beating a dead horse telling you that he’s not a Stark, it’s very important as the show progresses and he’ll actually get an interesting story line so it gets better.
Quote of the Day has already been mentioned. Cersei’s claim that “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” is the winner. I usually go with humor here but this was a more serious episode so it’s only fitting.
“You Win or You Die” sees the political game in King’s Landing change drastically as Ned realizes too late that if you don’t break the rules, you are going to lose.