‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘The Wolf and the Lion’: It’s bad to be the king

A review of tonight’s “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I find the breastplate-stretcher…

“You think honor is keeping the peace? It’s fear! Fear and blood!” -King Robert

This show is called “Game of Thrones,” and while perhaps only the two conspirators Arya comes across in her travels beneath the palace would actually refer to it as a game, it’s clear that some sort of elaborate contest is being waged, one in which there can only be one real winner – and one where the prize seems more trouble than it’s worth.

In previous episodes, Robert has complained about the burdens of command, but “The Wolf and the Lion” is the first episode to really get deep into the downside of sitting on the throne, even as it introduces more potential challengers to it. Robert has wound up stuck in an arranged marriage with a woman he has never loved – and who can never hope to compete with the memory of Ned Stark’s sister, even though Robert can no longer remember what she looked like – because he needed the Lannister fortune and political influence to gain and hold the crown. He has to maintain the peace between a variety of warring factions who have long since forgotten the sense of shared purpose they had when they overthrew the Mad King.

And, though Ned – high-minded, noble Ned Stark, whom Cersei accused last week, perhaps not inaccurately, of not having the stuff necessary to lead – doesn’t want to hear it, being king means Robert has to make horrible decisions like ordering the murder of a pregnant teenager(*) to keep his kingdom safe.

(*) I didn’t realize until the end of the episode that Dany never appeared, because she was so much on the minds and tongues of Robert, Ned, Illyrio, etc.

Robert’s not an especially likable character – the Lannister twins’ sympathetic moments almost always have to do with emotional abuse they suffer from him – but as played by Mark Addy, and as written here, you can empathize with how he came to be this fat, drunken, bitter, at times monstrous SOB. And as you watch Cersei and Jaime, and Illyrio and Varys, and Viserys, and Renly and Loras Tyrell, all ponder how they might take the Iron Throne away from him, it’s not hard to think they should all be careful what they wish for. The job’s not nearly as fun as it looks from the outside.

Robert’s assassination order causes a break in his arranged professional marriage to Ned, but before Ned turns in his hand pin, he keeps playing sleuth about the death of Jon Arryn – and as he kept on discovering all of Robert’s dark-haired bastards, I began to wonder exactly who the father is of all of Cersei’s yellow-haired children – before shifting back into warrior mode for the episode-ending showdown with Jaime and his men. We still don’t have an answer on whether Jaime’s speed and agility would be able to carry the day over Ned’s strength and grit, but that was another damned exciting climactic scene from a show that’s coming to specialize in them.

It wasn’t the episode’s only effective action sequence, as Tyrion Lannister has to resort to brawn (or, at least, effective use of a shield) rather than brains when Catelyn’s traveling party comes under attack on the road to see her sister (aka Jon Arryn’s widow) in her mountain-top stronghold of The Eyrie. The Eyrie itself is a fantastic location, from the three-walled prison cells (diabolical in their elegant simplicity) to the absurd, distrubing Alice in Wonderland quality to the behavior of the people who live and rule there.(**) Jon Arryn wasn’t the ruler of Westeros, but as we’ve seen with Ned, the king’s hand often winds up doing even more of the work than the actual king, and it’s not hard to imagine that job, and those people in the capital city, warping Arryn’s loved ones.
(**) In particular, I’ve had a nightmare or two about Catelyn’s 7-year-old nephew still feeding from his mother’s breast, and later cackling “I want to see the bad man fly!” When our first kid was about to be born, our new parent class showed us a pair of videos about the respective advantages of nursing and bottle-feeding, and the nursing one unsurprisingly had the more persuasive argument (not to mention vastly better production values, more cheerful testimonials, etc.). I think if I were in the bottle-feeding lobby, I would absolutely splice in a clip of that scene to future versions of those videos. Brrr….

We’re now halfway through this 10-episode first season. As someone who hasn’t read the books, I have no idea what’s coming in this game, but I expect it to be both bloody and something where the victory winds up being pretty pyrrhic.

Some other thoughts:

• The gore level continues to rise with the Mountain chopping off his horse’s head in frustration over the jousting defeat, and then Jaime stabbing Ned’s man Jorie through the eye.

• The show continues to tweak the opening credit sequence as the story takes us into new territory. The credits already started moving deeper into Dothraki territory after the pilot, and here our aerial tour of Westeros now includes a visit to the Eyrie, which looks just as cool popping up out of the ground as Winterfell, the Wall, etc.

• If you were to put Maisie Williams in pants and hand her a sword in 21st century England, no one would mistake her for a boy. In Westeros, though, her wardrobe and tomboy ways keep leading to gender confusion.

• Because of the hood he was wearing, it took me until after the scene to realize that Illyrio’s co-conspirator was Varys, the bald eunuch from the Small Council. Where it’s unclear exactly where Littlefinger’s loyalties lie, Varys is clearly up to no good, and it was fun to watch him and Littlefinger circling each other, each trying to prove he knows more about the other.

• The show continues to slowly peel the onion that is Theon Greyjoy, here with him having a long chat with Ros the whore about his strange relationship to the Stark family. (Though, as I think James Poniewozik pointed out, this show leans way too heavily on naked post-coital – or, at times mid-coital – to try to keep all the discussion of backstory interesting. At a certain point, it calls such attention to itself that it becomes a whole other distraction from the info you’re trying to convey.)

• At least this episode was somewhat equal-opportunity with its flesh-baring exposition, as Renly gets his chest shaved by secret (to everyone but Littlefinger, of course) boyfriend Loras Tyrell, and as the Knight of the Flowers does a little manscaping, we learn about the origin of their relationship, about Renly’s feelings towards big brother Robert, Loras’ desire for Renly to take a step up in class, etc.

Finally, let me remind you, once again, that the goal here is to discuss the show as a TV show – not to do endless compare/contrasts between the show and the books, nor to spoil things for those of us who are experiencing this story and these characters for the first time on HBO. The rule remains simple: do not talk about anything (not plot, nor backstory, nor character traits, nor anything else) that has yet to be revealed on the show. Any comment that starts discussing things we haven’t gotten to yet – even obliquely – gets deleted.

What did everybody else think?