‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘You Win or You Die’: The boar war

A review of tonight’s “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I tell you I got caught stealing a wheel of cheese…

“And only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.” -Littlefinger

Holy. Cow.

Now that I’m seeing episodes week-by-week like the rest of you (see the bottom of this post for a reminder of my review schedule for the rest of the season), it took a whole lot of willpower to come away from the final scene (and particularly that incredible final image) of “You Win or You Die” to not bust out my copy of the book – or, worse, to just fire up the Google machine to find out what the hell happens next in that crazy country of Westeros. Because that episode, and that last scene, were both bananas.

The titular game of thrones (which gets namechecked in the line from Cersei that also provides the individual episode name) has moved past the opening gambit stage now. Major players are falling, alliances are being made and broken, and based on what we know is happening in the north with the White Walkers and to the east with the Dothraki, the game is bound to get a lot bloodier in a damn hurry. These people don’t have time to be stressing about who sits on the Iron Throne, not when giant zombies and/or relentless master warriors are on their way.

And what’s most obvious of all is how spectacularly out of his depth our man Ned Stark is.

I remember showing a draft of my pre-season review of the show to Fienberg for input, who’s read some of the books, and when he got to the section about me suggesting Ned as the only man who deserves the Throne, he said, simply, “Ned would be a terrible king.” I argued with him, forgetting of course that he knows more about the character and story than I did. But we’ve seen over the past couple of episodes exactly what George R.R. Martin has told me and others is a key theme of the story: that the best men don’t always make the best rulers. Ned’s an honorable man and a hell of a soldier, but he is (to borrow a metaphor from another great HBO drama) playing checkers on a chess board. And, worse, he assumes everyone else is doing the same. Renly and Littlefinger both try to warn him that he needs to get his head in gear before Cersei winds up 17 moves ahead of him, but he’s so convinced that his clever gambit with Robert’s dying proclamation will carry the day – and that the Baratheon relative best-suited to run the kingdom is a fellow soldier in elder brother Stannis – and is caught flat-footed when Cersei installs Joffrey onto the throne, and worse when Littlefinger betrays him just as he’s been suggesting for months that he would.

What a terrific episode (probably my favorite so far), and especially in the way it turned the spotlight on the characters who are villains in Ned Stark’s version of the story.

Cersei has been cheating on the king all these years, and plans to put a boy who’s not the rightful heir onto the throne, but we’ve seen and heard plenty of evidence about what a sham the Baratheon marriage was. And if incest – at least among royals – is more socially acceptable in ancient Westeros than 21st century America – well… Cersei’s still an unpleasant schemer, but she’s not without her legitimate motivations.

And Littlefinger’s lesson to Roz (who of course wound up in his brothel after leaving Winterfell) not only tells us how he got his nickname, but explains exactly how and why he wound up playing this particular role on the king’s council, and in this story. Like Cersei, he was betrayed and dismissed by the one he loved to the point of worship, and so he set about making himself more clever than his rivals, understanding that his brains and savvy would ultimately carry the day when his pure intentions and swordsmanship didn’t back in the day.

There’s an interesting contrast throughout the episode between those who know exactly who they are (Cersei, Littlefinger, Khal Drogo) versus those who don’t (Ned, Jon Snow, perhaps Jaime Lannister). The former group are all ascendant, all making impressive moves towards claiming some or all of the Iron Throne, while the latter are fumbling about, being given lectures on what they should do but not quite sure what advice to take.

Hot damn, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Some other thoughts:

• Charles Dance makes his first appearance as oft-mentioned Lannister patriarch Tywin, who spends the entirety of his scene with Jaime expertly butchering a hog, or boar, or some form of pig relative. Where Robert was too drunk to properly kill a boar without getting killed himself, Tywin knows his way around swine. (UPDATE: Or, as many of you – who may have watched in more optimal viewing conditions than me using HBO Go on my iPad – pointed out, it appears it was a stag, which is the sigil of House Baratheon.) 

• Speaking of which, rest in peace, King Robert. Given the nature of the story, I’m not exactly shocked that he didn’t even make it to the end of the first season, but I’m still surprised it was such a prosaic, seemingly random death. (Varys suggests that Lancel Lannister might have spiked Robert’s drink, but I also have no problem believing that Robert got that drunk on his own.)

• Given what we learned about Varys last week, I have a feeling that he could have very easily called off the assassination attempt had he wanted to. Meanwhile, we see Jorah Mormont apparently throw away his royal pardon for a chance to save Dany’s life, which seems to track with what the late Viserys said about Jorah’s feelings for his sister. Of course, given Drogo’s obvious feelings for his wife – note him bypassing an immediate opportunity to beat up the assassin because he’s so concerned to see that Dany is okay – I can’t imagine how Jorah thinks he actually has a shot.

• Another notable contrast comes between the oaths taken by Jon Snow (practiced, traditional, somewhat reluctant, and some combination of masochism and foolhardiness, given what he and we now know about life along the Wall) and Drogo (spontaneous, full of passion and resolve, and again affirming the love of his pregnant young bride). I hadn’t realized Jon hadn’t already taken the oath, and when I realized briefly hoped he’d be wise enough to get the hell away from that place.

• Jon’s oath scene also provides our first direwolf appearance in a few weeks. I know some of you were starting to worry.

• I liked the scene between Theon and the wildling woman he and Robb captured last week, mainly for getting the perspective of a foreigner who doesn’t know the rules of the games being played by the people of Westeros and gets to question them (like why Theon should be called “Lord”) in a way a citizen wouldn’t.

• Interesting to see Joffrey seem genuinely upset at his father’s impending death – or was it just that he was shaken to finally have his emotionally-distant father paying attention to him after all these years?

Two reminders. First, as always, our goal here is to discuss the TV show AS A TV SHOW. Many of us – myself included – haven’t ready the books and don’t want our enjoyment spoiled by readers giving away plot details, backstory, motivation, etc., that has yet to be revealed on the show itself. Simple rule: if it hasn’t come up on the show yet in some form, it is off-limits. For the most part, everyone’s been very good about this, but I had to delete a few comments last week.

Second, as mentioned last week, this is the last review of the season that’s going to be posted right after the East Coast airing, and only because I (like many of you) got to watch the episode early on HBO Go. My reviews of the season’s final three episodes are going to be posted either late Sunday night or else early Monday morning. Your patience is appreciated.

What did everybody else think?