“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die”
This episode was one of those episodes you get once or twice or season in Game of Thrones that is quite plot-heavy and largely consists of moving each of the individual pieces forward a few paces. The same can be said of the next episode too, and you tend to get these sort of episodes around about this time in the seasonal arc as they build to the now-inevitable episode 9 clusterfuck of jaw-dropping madness and emotional ruin, with episode 10 leaving us to pick our collective selves up off the floor to cradle each other until the hurt starts to assuage. The result of this is that episode like this are perhaps slightly less thematically rich [or at least thematically consistent]. They are, however, jam-packed with content so there’s plenty to discuss here. I’m quite enjoying using the titles of the episodes as a gateway into my multifarious ramblings, so I think I’ll stick with that format for the most part.
As it has become apparent while using this approach, the titles have a concrete moment/ scene/ thread that they ostensibly refer to and then also provide an insight into what ties many of the other parts of the episode together, servicing the thematic interests of each hour. This time out our title is obviously referring to a scene with the Lioness Cersei Lannister and dear old Eddard. Cersei is the issuer of that moment that is always simultaneously extremely satisfy/ oddly a little awkward where she gets to deliver the line of dialogue that includes the series’ title. On the flip side of this, she also gets to issue perhaps the central thesis of the programme as a whole: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Fitting that it comes from her: one of the chief players without getting her hands dirty. She really is daddy’s little girl. The terminology of her statement is interesting to me. The verb choice of ‘play’ seems to highlight the importance placed on one’s ability to act [and by extension, deceive] in order succeed in the clamour for the throne. Similarly the word ‘game’ has connotations which appear to diminish the significance of what is at stake. From Cersei’s withdrawn position, of course, it undoubtedly does seem to be something of a game with what could be construed as some very childish motivations behind the participants.
It’s an interesting line for sure and it is the two facets of her ultimatum that are on show throughout this episode: winning and dying. I mentioned daddy Lannister above and it is with him that both we, and the episode, begin. And, boy, what an introduction. Previous to this episode, Tywin had been pulling strings from behind the scenes while seated at Casterly Rock. This is the beginning of him emerging from the shadows to have more of a hand [pun intended] in the power politics in King’s Landing. This opening scene seems a good place to start for this recap as it covers both sides: we get to see exactly what constitutes winning for the Lannisters whilst also getting a meditation on death and its implications.
Tywin Lannister is all about legacy. It is virtually his sole motivation as this episode spells out for us and, as such, winning for Tywin Lannister is ensuring that his family’s reputation remains that of the highest order. All of this comes from a very deep-rooted place of course. Tywin’s father, Tytos, was a egregiously feeble leader and almost single-handedly ruined the name of the Lannister household. He was a kind, but weak man with little control over his vassals. He frittered away much of the Lannister fortune and loaned money without repercussions. As such he was mocked for his frailty and this perception of weakness led to House Reyne of Castamere to rebel against their liege lords. It was during this uprising that Tywin established himself as a force to be reckoned with and the true leader of House Lannister as he eradicated House Reyne from the face of the earth, now immortalised in song.
The apple couldn’t really have fallen much further from the tree when it comes to Tywin and Tytos. Tywin is a cold, calculated, ruthless man with a very strongly defined sense of family and success whilst also showing wisdom and prescience [his talk of “building a dynasty that could last as thousand years” with a few right moves in the upcoming months” shows an acute awareness of the conflicts now going on in the corridors of power]. The Lannister patriarch’s declaration to Jaime reads as a his own mission statement: “If a house can hold one of our own, without impunity, we are no longer a house to be feared”. He values being feared so highly and his ire at the prospect of this being undermined clearly underlines his attitude. So for Tywin, success constitutes the consolidation of the Lannister’s reputation of a House to be feared and the continuation of his family’s legacy at the expense of his own personal one. As long as House Lannister is held in esteem by the rest of realm as the most powerful House nothing else matter, even if ” A Lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of the sheep”.
“He’s a Lannister. He might be the lowest of the Lannisters [TYWIN PUN KLAXON] but he’s one of us.” This seems to be further evidence of the high value Tywin places on family and reputation. However, it also has a much sadder tinge to it. It seems significant given that Rickard Karstark kills the two young Lannisters that the Northmen were going to ransom off towards the end of season 3. Given Tywin’s lines here, plus the above line about impunity, it seems that the Lannister captives would held some important political value.
What would be conceived as ‘winning’ for Tywin appears to be inextricably tied to death: “Your mother’s dead. Before long I’ll be dead. And you and your brother and your sister and all of her children. All of us dead. All of us rotting in the ground. It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.”. He sees the current members of the House to be stewards for their reputation: they might individually die but they must ensure a lasting legacy. They must serve a greater ideal at the expense of personal glory, an ideal he attempts to get Jaime to reconcile with.
The footnote to all of this is that this pivotal scene is played magnificently by Charles Dance who is commanding, majestic and truly intimidating in the role. He joins a long line of traditional stage actors bringing a professionalism and legitimacy to fantasy roles and he really is a shining light in an exemplary well-cast set of actors. Additionally, this scene is intersected by one of those moments where the show utilises the visual signifiers of the noble houses to great effect. The camera alternates between close-ups of Jaime’s face and low-angled shots of Twin skinning a stag. Deeply symbolic given what we saw in the last episode with Lancel Lannister and King Robert Baratheon.
There certainly seems to be some merit in Cersei’s statement that you either win or you die when you play the game of thrones, but the scene with Petyr Baelish highlights that there is more than one way to play the game. In a scene that’s more notable for his direction of Ros in the art of seduction, Littlefinger’s words are dripping with ulterior meaning. He is essentially drawing a parallel between his own actions and those of his whores: “it’s all an act”/ “he’s always known he’s better than other men…” before outlining his own mission statement of sorts: “I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them.” we get a little insight into his own background with the description of the fight with Brandon Stark for Catelyn Tully’s love that left him with a scar from navel to neck. He reveals his own bruised ego [“leave him alone, he’s just a boy”] and indication of the value he places on lineage: “Impeccable bloodlines though.” He makes an interesting counterpoint to Tywin’s from earlier – we have the Lannister’s preoccupation with legacy and lineage from an insider’s perspective and then Littlefinger’s desire to marry into such lineage from an aspirational perspective. As such, Baelish’s statement that he’s “going to fuck them” gain another dimension – not only is he going to fuck them over, he is literally going to fuck his way into a noble bloodline. This scene is what Littlefinger is all about: leading you down one alleyway whilst taking another himself. Misdirection is the key. There really is more than one way to play this game.
We get a more intimate look at the game-playing that is going on with two attempts are grabbing power that occur later on. First we see that Loras’ seeds have firmly taken root in Renly’s power play to Eddard Stark: he wants to take Joffrey away from his mother in order to strengthen their position as “he who holds the King holds the Kingdom” and for then Ned to put Renly on the throne. Ned obviously objects as Stannis is the rightful heir but Renly dismisses his brother – despite his military prowess he is not a King and would not command the love of his subjects in the way Renly would. Winning for Renly then would be rule by popular opinion and sitting on the Iron Throne. He tells Ned that they’re not talking about the “bloody line of succession”. It seems in Westeros that is a literal statement more often than not. This sentiment is then mirrored by the conversation between Daenerys and Jorah about how Viserys was the rightful heir. Jorah then points out that her ancestor Aegon “seized “the [the Seven Kingdoms] because he could”.
The second power grab is our mate Littlefinger again. He advises Ned to make the most of his dual positions of Hand of the King and Protector of the Realm by making peace with the Lannisters, marrying Sansa off to Joffrey and then using him as a puppet. If things go awry he can bring up Joffrey’s illegitimacy and, at a price of course, Littlefinger would advise him and help him deal with things, especially if Stannis became an issue. Ned is enraged by the suggestion: “Have you no honour?!” and refuses to even consider breaking bread with the family who tried to murder his son. Littlefinger then points out that you can only makes peace with your enemies, that’s why they call it ‘making peace’. Unsurprisingly Ned ignores his advice and strikes a ‘deal’ to utilise the Gold Cloaks as his own personal guard.
On top of all of our differing views of what ‘winning’ is [and how to achieve it], the spectre of death looms large over this episode. The most obvious touchstone for this is the death of our win-swilling King, Robert of House Baratheon, first of his name [“you know how it goes…fill in the titles”]. It provides us with another moment that actually characterises Joffrey as a character worthy of our sympathy. He looks genuinely saddened by his father’s condition and you can’t help but feel a tinge of sorrow at Robert’s woeful declaration that he “was never meant to be a father” and there is a sense of desperation in his voice as the dying King implores Ned to help his son. Of course, the real sorrow comes in the exchange between Ned and Robert. An inverse of the sickbed sequence from the last episode sees Robert admiring his friend’s steadfastness towards doing the right thing in the face of many who fought for the alternative. A bit of quick thinking on Ned’s behalf changes “my son Joffrey” to “the rightful heir”. Never underestimate the power of words, kids. In a final act of mercy, robert wishes to undo the attempt on the Targaryen princess’ life, but as we soon find out from Varys, perhaps it is too little too late. During the ensuing finger pointing as to who was responsible for Robert’s death, Ned points out that “No man could have protected him from himself.” Lannister plot or not, Lord Stark is probably right and that is ultimately what makes Robert’s death a tragic one.
Death is present in Essos too, as Robert’s attempt on Daenerys’ life is too far down along the line to stop. As Jorah receives his royal pardon from one the Spider’s little birds you can see he is only now beginning to consider the full extent of the consequences of his spying. He returns to observe Dany talking to a wine merchant. There’s another moment clarity as Jorah realises how suspicious the merchant is acting before he intervenes and ultimately saves Dany’s life. If there was any question before hand about his loyalty, those questions have been answered in full. Khal Drogo is thankful to Jorah the Andal and grants him to choose any horse he chooses. A high honour indeed. Drogo then gives a rousing speech about his son and how he intends to take his Khalasar to the end of the world and go further than any Khal has before in order to deliver his unborn son the Iron Throne. As Jorah explains what awaits the assassin [“I saw a man last 9 miles before”], he tells Dany that King Robert’s attempts to kill her won’t end as he “won’t ever abandon the hunt.” Particularly loaded statement given the cause of the King’s demise.
There’s also some interesting stuff about how the different regions enact justice through death penalties. You have the Dothraki tying men behind horses and forcing them to run with them and you have Theon telling Osha that in the Iron Islands they tie criminals down during low tide and let them watch as the sea slowly takes their life. All of which you can match to the Night’s Watch deserter from the pilot episode paying the Iron price. I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about these other than the fact that they add to the omnipresence of death in the series.
Other minor points:
- How cool is Sandor Clegane’s dog helmet? I’m a huge fan I forgot to mention that you get a glimpse at Robert’s sweet stag-antlered helm in an earlier point. Really cool aesthetic touch that I hope we get to see some more of throughout.
- We get to see the boys at Castle Black become fully initiated Men of the Night’s Watch. Jeor Mormont’s speech about how they all “came alone in chains” but now “on the Wall we are all one house” is almost as rousing as Khal Drogo’s speech, if a little more understated. There’s a wonderful equality to the Night’s Watch in its serving of “the Realm” as a whole over any specific part of it that makes it an honourable institution.
- There is the first look at what lies beyond the Wall as Jon and Sam take their oaths to the Old Gods in front of the Weirwood Tree [the cry blood-sap is pretty terrifying stuff]. This comes after an intriguing statement from Samwell Tarly. After being asked why he would forsake the gods of his family and his house, he answers that the Seven never answered his prayers and perhaps the Old Gods will. Of course, this is largely just Sam rejecting the ties to a House that rejected him but the reason he gives is something to bear in mind. There isn’t much evidence of the Seven at work in Game of Thrones.
- I really love the oath itself: “Night gathers and now my Watch begins… I am the sword in the darkness.” Also get a good glimpse at Ghost which is always a treat.
- Samwell points out the true beginning of emo Snow: “You could look happy”. Jon has a big fat sulk about being a steward, not realising that the Great Bear is grooming him for command. Jon’s brooding continues until Sam’s revelation that he “always wanted to be a wizard.” cracks even Jon’s miserable exterior and makes him burst out laughing.
- The Wolf seal that Ned puts on to his letter to Stannis is neat and I want one please.
- Khal Drogo and Dany grappling with the intricacies of each other’s language is super cute. Drogo asking why kings need to sit on an iron chair when he can sit on the a horse is great.
- Littlefinger interjecting his otherwise soul-bearing speech with “Play with her arse is great”. Shortly after this he provides a genuine pearl of wisdom: “What we don’t know is usually what kills us.” From the ridiculous to the sublime.
- Tywin: “Lannisters don’t act like fools. You going to say something clever? Go on, say something clever.” Shut Jaime up pretty damn quickly.
- Samwell talks about missing seeing and hearing girls, not even talking to them – sounds familiar. Also introduces us to the number of horn blasts: One for a ranger, two for Wildlings, three for White Walkers.
- More examples of the need to take people extremely literally on this show. The leader of the Gold Cloaks tells Ned that they “stand behind you Lord Stark.” Perfect place to stab you in the back.
- Joffrey’s frantic screaming of “Kill them all!” is eerily reminiscent of the stories we’ve heard about the Mad King. Aerys’ madness is partially attributed as a result of his incestual heritage. This is our first hint that the same mental decline awaits our golden boy?
- Littlefinger points out to Ned in the final frame that he told the Wolf not to trust him. Oh, Neddy boy.
It’s only going one way from here everybody and I am NOT emotionally prepared for it.