The seventh episode of Game of Thrones has a pace unlike any of the episodes that have preceded it. The episode, titled “You Win or You Die“, opens in the impressive camp of Tywin Lannister, who we have heard much about, though this is the first time he’s been seen in the series. Tywin is ably skinning a stag — also the sigil of the house of Baratheon, so this is a rich bit of foreshadowing — while he reacts to the news that he has been branded a traitor by Ned Stark.
Tywin criticizes his son Jaime for his vanity in failing to kill Ned, and for failing to live up to his considerable potential. We learn that Tywin is plotting to install the Lannister’s as a dynasty, and is actively plotting against the king. Though we’ve suspected as much, we’ve yet to see the inner-strategic workings of the Lannister camp until now – and the sight is chilling. In contrast to Ned, Tywin clearly has none of the current Hand’s hang-ups about honour — and we suspect his realpolitik approach would be much more effective in King’s Landing than Ned’s “honour first” approach has been.
Side note – seeing Jaime criticized by his overbearing father was a very sympathetic moment for the Kingslayer. That type of paternal criticism struck me as relatable and unfair, and when you combine that with the whispers and gossip that accompany Jaime’s Brutus-like role in the history of Westeros, it furthers the upward momentum of Jaime’s likability in the series. By the end of season two, I’m convinced, Jaime will have evolved into a “good guy” despite his family’s heinous artifice.
Following our introduction to Tywin, is a scene that puts all the cards on the table: Ned and Cersei’s conversation in the gardens of the Red Keep. It’s unusual to see such a matter-of-fact scene in a series that has, until now, been mostly about political posturing, maneuvering and scheming. In one fell swoop, the wounded Stark calls the Lannister Queen out on an array of crimes: the poisoning death of Jon Arryn, Bran’s mysterious defenestration, and the incestuous affair with her brother Jaime.
Ned’s tireless investigation has led him to the conclusion that the “royal” children (including heir-apparent Joffrey) are a product of that twisted coupling; a fact that Cersei not only freely admit to, but actually defends – pointing to the Targaryen dynasty’s own proclivity for inbreeding. She attempts to justify these seriously heinous acts as merely acting in the best interests of her family, arguing that Ned would do the same thing in her position – though hopefully without the incest part. Yechh.
In characteristically direct and honest fashion, Ned orders Cersei and her children to leave King’s Landing, warning her that Robert’s wrath will follow her once he informs him of her deeds. Cersei retorts by mocking Ned for what she believes was his greatest mistake – not seizing the iron throne for himself at the end of Robert’s rebellion. While that was one decision that Ned does not regret, his decision to call Cersei Lannister out is definitely one that he will. The Queen’s bold declaration about the titular “game of thrones” having life or death stakes does not bode well for the King’s Hand.
Ned’s rather tragic evolution as Hand of the King comes to the forefront in this episode, as do Littlefinger’s machinations. I see this episode, in some ways, as Aiden Gillen’s real coming out party as a “bad-guy” in this series. The soliloquy he delivers while instructing his whores on the correct way to empathetically please their customers, and his desire not to defeat the noble-houses in battle, but rather, to “fuck them” was full value. I found this scene reminded me of those classic blow-job soliloquy’s given by Ian Macshane in his portrayal of Al Swearengen on Deadwood.
The hanky-panky between Ros (who travelled from Winterfell to King’s Landing with remarkable speed – didn’t she?) and the other whore was titillating, but their presence served a purpose in this scene – to underscore Littlefinger’s skill for empathy and misdirection. His instructions to his whores about how to please the John’s they’ll be servicing reveals a lot about Baelish’s calculating nature.
Littlefinger has an unparalleled understanding for the motivations, and the likely emotional reactions of the other figures in King’s Landing – and he’s clearly been able to use that to suit his purposes. “Look at you” he tells Ned as he sizes him up, “you know what has to be done, but it’s not honorable so the words stick in your throat.” Clearly Littlefinger knows what stuff Ned is made of.
When we consider all that Littlefinger has done to inflame the animosity between the Stark’s and the Lannister’s (his information about the knife was pivotal in Tyrion’s abduction, he was the man who led Stark to all of Robert’s bastard children and he tricked Ned with the “support” of the City Watch) it becomes pretty clear that Littlefinger has some sort of devious plan going on. Would he have betrayed Ned had the Lord of the North been more politically savvy, and willing to work with Renly? Possibly not, but when he saw which way the chips were falling, Littlefinger likely hedged his bets.
Ned’s honorable paralysis was pretty frustrating to watch. For all his considerable virtue, he frankly couldn’t be more ill-suited to the task at hand. Despite his strong-positioning (as hand of the King and the rightful protector of the realm) he manages to make nothing of the entreaties made of him by both Lord Renly and Littlefinger. The very fact that both are seeking to ally their cause with Ned, demonstrates the political strength of his position, but Lord Stark manages to waste the opportunities thrown his way. If we look at the narrative structure of the series so far, it appears that Ned’s honorable affectation could be his Elizabethan ‘tragic flaw’.
Lots to chuckle about during the King’s deathbed scene. “I wasn’t cut out to be a father” he tells Joffrey while the audience thinks to themselves “you weren’t much cut out to be a king either!” Planning his epic funeral feast in advance, King Robert Baratheon – frivolous to the end! His dislike of “titles, titles” as he narrates his dying commands to Ned. It’ll be sad to see no more of Mark Addy in this series, he did a bang-up job providing comic relief as King Robert.
The episode is almost half-over before we are swept across the Narrow Sea to catch up with Dany, Jorah and the Dothraki horde. The Targaryan/Dothraki arc is neatly contained in three scenes: Dany has trouble enticing Khal Drogo to invade Westeros, an attempt on Dany’s life is made by a wine merchant in the market, and as a result of this attack – the Khal makes a rousing, barbaric speech — committing his horde to the task of conquering the seven kingdoms.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Khal’s Hakka-like speech, and the dialogue especially. Having a built, braided fellow dancing dramatically around a fire while yelling things like: “We will cross the salt water in wooden horses”, “I will break their stone houses” “we will defeat the men in iron suits” – is very elemental, and makes for fun television.
It was interesting how Jorah received the King’s Pardon, then went on to save the life of Dany. He seemed even more committed to her after he was cleared (foiling an assassination attempt and offering further advice). We’re left to wonder about his real intentions. Is there a romantic interest at play, as suggested by Viserys in the sixth episode? We’re not sure, but Jorah’s efforts to protect Dany, despite having been pardoned, really muddy the motivations of his character.
Though Dany escaped this particular (and frankly rather weak) attempt on her life unscathed, Varys described his efforts on her life as “those birds have flown” (plural) when Ned ordered him to call the deed off. I think we are safe to assume that the Spider’s best-shot has yet to be thrown, and Dany’s situation remains rather dangerous.
Similarly the scenes at the Wall are contained in three short scenes: the discovery of a riderless horse returning to Castle Black, the Lord Commander assigning the new recruits their tasks, and Jon and Sam taking their vows as men of the Night’s Watch — climaxing with a gory arrival.
Snow and his fellow recruits have finished their training and await to hear what future awaits them on the Wall once they’ve taken their vows. As Lord Commander Mormont announces the duties each recruit will be assigned, Jon remains convinced that he will be made a ranger like his Uncle Benjen. Others, like Sam, desperately wish to become part of the order of Stewards, put to some mundane task like helping in the kitchens or stables of Castle Black. When Jon is assigned to the Stewards it is a shock to everyone, everyone but the glib and cruel Ser Alliser Thorne, who clearly engineered the assignment as a way to get back at the Stark bastard for his insolence.
It’s a crushing blow for Snow, who despite his clear martial abilities is made personal assistant to the Lord Commander. “Stewards are nothing but maids!”, Jon proclaims before getting a dose of reality from poor Pyp. Sam manages to convince his distraught friend that he’s being groomed for command, but it’s little consolation for Jon who had his heart set on becoming a Ranger. Little consolation for viewers as well, who have repeatedly watched the young bastard get the short end of the stick the entire series. If only there were some good news for Jon, but it seems that it is not to be.
The return of Benjen Stark’s horse sans Benjen is going to spell trouble for the Night’s Watch. Ned’s younger brother was one of the most experienced Rangers on the Wall, one whose absence will be keenly felt – particularly by Jon Snow, who idolizes his uncle. But what has become of Benjen and his men? An encounter with wildings or white walkers to be sure, and we know which one is the worse option. The unknown fate of the Rangers is hammered home even more deeply as Jon and Sam complete their vows; Ghost (who we haven’t seen nearly enough of!) interupts the congratulatory atmosphere with a frozen, severed hand.
And so episode seven leaves many of our players in even worse shape than they were before – as if that were even possible! King Robert is dead, Ned Stark stands betrayed, Dany faces the possibility of another attempt on her life, and Jon Snow faces an uncertain future on the Wall, potentially without his uncle. Add to that the now likely prospect of a Dothraki invasion of Westeros and things have never been worse for the people of the Seven Kingdoms. The Lannister’s and Littlefinger come out of this episode as the clear winners, despite their array of secrets and plots now being out in the open. It’s how the other players like the King’s brother, Renly, the lesser-Lannister, Tyrion, and the rest of the Stark clan react to events that will determine the fate of Ned Stark and the kingdoms.