I’m rewatching Game of Thrones Season 1 in anticipation of Season 2 beginning April 1 2012. This is the seventh post in this series and covers the episode "You Win or You Die". As before spoilers for the whole of season 1 and the book A Game of Thrones will follow so please don’t continue if you haven’t watched the whole first season. I will avoid spoilers from later in the book series though so if you are only watching the show have no fear that I will spoil events still to come in the adaptation.
The earlier posts are:
- "Winter is Coming"
- "The Kingsroad"
- "Lord Snow"
- "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things"
- "The Wolf and the Lion"
- "A Golden Crown"
The introduction of Tywin Lannister is a fantastic scene. Charles Dance is excellent in the role and the character seems a fit for the series straight away. His barely contained fury and disdain for others immediately informs our understanding of his children. Establishing his own concern with legacy in this first scene gives us a clear insight into his character too. I love the symbolism of Tywin skinning a stag as he greets Jaime, this being the episode of Robert’s death.
Cersei and Eddard’s second scene together this season is an improvement over their first. I like seeing the two of the face off. Cersei is surprisingly honest with Eddard when confronted with her secret which suggests to me she has already set her plan in motion to have Robert endangered during his hunt; if I am wrong she certainly will after Eddard gives his warning. She is clearly defiant in the scene so Eddard’s failure to appreciate the threat she poses seems all the more tragic.
The third scene of this episode is the one I have heard the most complaints about since it aired; Littlefinger teaches Ros and Armeca his view of seduction. His monologue offers insight into his methods and motivation. He speaks about his love for Catelyn Stark (without naming her) and his duel with Brandon to explain his approach to the game. It is important for the show to establish Littlefinger more firmly in the mind of the viewer in this episode before his betrayal of Eddard. We have had hints of his childhood before and he referenced the duel when he was first introduced to Eddard but it is worth exploring his history in more detail so that we more fully understand his motivations. While his back story is delivered by Catelyn’s inner monologue in the book we don’t really have an insight into his thinking until much later in the book series. I think making him less enigmatic here is an interesting choice. We don’t necessarily need to know the mental state that leads to his betrayal of Eddard because we didn’t in the book but I don’t think it hurts the show or his character to establish it now. It certainly strengthens this single episode by giving the viewer the information they need to answer “Why did Littlefinger betray Eddard?” at the close of the episode. The device chosen is controversial; backing this scene with Ros and Armeca having sex has been called distracting. I think it was necessary for Littlefinger to have an audience and one that was not listening too closely to what he was saying for him to reveal what he does here. He is contemplating his self image while simultaneously teaching the women the techniques he used to manipulate Eddard into trusting him (minus the instructions on the mechanics of sex!) It does make uncomfortable viewing because we are seeing women being taught to exploit their sexuality for money but also because of the window we get into the darker thoughts of Littlefinger. I think it was supposed to be uncomfortable though so don’t mean that as a criticism. Overall the scene is purposeful but off putting. While it seems to be aimed at the television viewer the backstory is kept so mysterious as to be difficult to understand on the first watch through. I don’t think it deserves the criticism I have seen heaped upon it but it is definitely not the show’s finest moment.
Natalia Tena gets to overcome Osha’s introduction as a ruthless kidnapper to be feared in her scene with Theon. Having a clash of cultural identities between the two is a great opportunity for humor and softening of her character. It also gives us insight into the Wildling and Ironborn cultures, particularly the Wildling’s very different (and more consistent with the modern) approach to rulers and inheritance. Finally it is another opportunity to resonate the tension of the prologue by having Osha explain what she is fleeing from and why Theon’s sexual menace doesn’t scare her. Having reminded the audience of the White Walkers the next scene of a riderless horse arriving at the wall is more foreboding.
Jon gets a heavily featured episode here after being absent from the last two. The Night’s Watch graduation scene is nicely put together with great use of the Castle Black set. James Cosmo is great as Lord Commander Jeor Mormont and does a fine job of refuting some of the negative claims made about the order in the first half of the season. Jon’s reaction to his assignment is a low moment for the character and his self obsession is unappealing. It does give Sam a chance to show the sharpness of his mind by reading the Lord Commander’s intention and gives Bradley another funny line in “I always wanted to be a wizard.” Taking the oath before the heart tree is a nice scene and I am glad the majority of the words made it on screen. Ending the arc with Ghost rediscovering the hand keeps it from being to saccharine and again keeps that note of tension that underpins the season long arc resounding.
Daenerys and Drogo get a wonderful married couple scene as she braids his hair and tries to convince him to invade her former kingdom. Not exactly the sort of thing my wife and I do on a regular basis but nevertheless written and performed with a lovely sense of happy normality. The purpose of Jorah’s disappearance to Qohor is spelled out when he receives his pardon from Varys. This is a lot earlier than the revelation was made in the books but helps to lend weight to Jorah’s intervention in the assassination attempt and is a smart move for the adaptation. Abandoning the POV structure and having Mormont become a main character makes it difficult for the show to sustain the longform mysteries of the book surrounding him without it feeling like it is cheating the audience. Simon Lowe is excellent as the Wineseller assassin managing to underline his jocular patter with some menace. The failed attempt on Daenerys life also gives us a short action sequence for the midpoint of the episode. Drogo’s pledge after discovering the assassination is another adrenaline releasing moment and helps to build the episode to a satisfying conclusion. Dany’s seeming concern over the fate of the Wineseller is paid off by her having him lashed to her own saddle – I think it shows that her capacity for violence to those who have harmed her is growing following the death of Viserys.
Robert’s deathbed is established as a gory affair by Renly’s appearance when he summons Eddard. It is interesting that the show added a final moment between Joffrey and Robert. I’m surprised Joffrey wasn’t more pleased to see his father dying; he is not quite the sociopath I suspected. The deathbed scene of the book is filled with Eddard recalling the death of his sister at the Tower of Joy and on this rewatch I really missed those moments. Establishing Eddard’s manipulation of Robert’s proclamation is well done and again underpins the tragedy of the betrayal – Eddard is willing to bend his honor a little to protect his friend but does not do enough to protect himself. Selmy gets some consolation prizes in the next scene – he gets to stand among the small council reminding us that the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard is a member in the books and he gets Renly’s line about Robert ordering them to stand down which Ian McElhinney imbues with self recrimination. His rejection of Renly’s offer to help and his advice to act swiftly is singularly short sighted. Renly similarly makes mistakes though – he overplays his hand here, he could have enlisted Eddard’s help if he had concealed his intentions to make his own claim a little longer. Again the end of the episode becomes more tragic with so many opportunities narrowly missed.
It is good to hear so much talk of Stannis here – setting him up as a significant figure for the second season. Keeping him off screen is the right decision for the adaptation and no doubt made casting an actor like Stephen Dillane easier because they could show him more substantive scenes. I am pleased the adaptation did not decide to cut to him off on Dragonstone. I found it interesting that Eddard’s guard Tomard is told to ride straight to Stannis rather than stopping off on the sea journey with the girls as in the book. He then does not appear in the final scene in the throne room and I assume he made it out of the city. I wonder if the letter will be mentioned in the second season at all? Stannis knows about Joffrey’s lineage in the book and moves to Dragonstone after Jon Arryn is killed to gather his forces. In the show there is no mention of Stannis being involved in Jon Arryn’s investigation as Eddard retraces his steps. Perhaps the letter will be used to lend more significance to Eddard’s findings in the show although it would then be difficult to explain Stannis avoiding the capital.
Eddard’s scene with Littlefinger is one of my favourites in the whole series. Gillen does a great job of showing Littlefinger deciding to betray Eddard. I think Littlefinger honestly would support Eddard if he had convinced Eddard to follow his plans. Knowing that Eddard’s honour is prohibitive to him being of further use, Littlefinger abandons him in favour of Cersei. I love the final scene in the throne room. It is a fantastic way to end an episode. I think altering the staging so that Ser Barristan is already there is a good idea and makes Cersei’s dismissal of him seem all the more unfair in the subsequent episode. Not having Myrcella or Tommen present probably accounts for their being one less Kingsguard than there is in the book.
This is a well put together episode with the Tywin scene serving as a prologue of sorts and the three main arcs (Eddard, Jon and Daenerys) all building to satisfying conclusions. It is one of the best pieces of season two and a joy to watch.