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Game Of Thrones (experts): "You Win Or You Die" (for experts)

Illustration for article titled iGame Of Thrones (experts)/i: You Win Or You Die (for experts)
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(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first book in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read that book and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fourth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the second, third, and fourth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments.)

We discussed last week some of the advantages the books have on TV in terms of giving us a stronger idea of characters’ motivations, but let’s discuss this week some of the things that the TV show has in its corner. Namely, the TV show has the actors and production designers and directors and other personnel, all dedicated to giving this show the “look” it needs. It’s one thing to read about the scene where Ned Stark heads into the throne room to confront newly crowned Joffrey and Cersei about how he’s the protector of the realm, thinking he has the City Watch behind him. You can picture Ned in your head, leaning on his cane and his piece of paper, hoping that doing the right thing will be enough. But it’s quite another thing to SEE it, to see Sean Bean, so dependent on that cane, to see just how small he seems in that space, even if he’s a fairly tall man. It takes something that already worked on the page and gives it an added dimension. It’s not better or worse, just different and more concrete.


Of course, that can be a danger, too. Some of the other people writing about this show who’ve read the books spend a lot of time discussing how the series doesn’t capture the “feel” of the books that they had envisioned. (This is one of the reasons I wanted David to come on board and offer his take on things; it can get irritating to read that kind of criticism.) I’ve always subscribed to the notion that when you read something and imagine it one way, having that text depicted and literalized on screen doesn’t take away your imagined version. Will I always picture Sean Bean when I read Game Of Thrones from now on? I have no idea, but I like having him there as a go-to. He’s done a successful job interpreting the character, and his performance doesn’t take away my earlier understanding of the character. As in the best adaptations, he enhances my understanding.

And in some cases, the actors make stuff that didn’t work as well on the page work on screen. There were complaints about how the Dothraki were portrayed as an exotic horde in the early weeks of this show (though they seem to have died down). But I’ve always felt just having actors play the Dothraki led to a more sensitive portrayal onscreen than was present on the page. Khal Drogo was something of a noble savage in the books, but on screen, as you can feel the chemistry between Emilia Clarke and Jason Momoa grow, there’s a growing sense of him as someone other than a vengeful warrior, hellbent on protecting his wife and son. You get some of the tenderness behind those ideas, some of the love that’s grown between the characters. Again, on the page, you’re kind of stuck with what the author gives you and what you read into it based on your own experience. On screen, you’re given a baseline that relies much less on raw interpretation.

So if “You Win Or You Die” was another episode that moved pieces into position (though that’s not to say some of the piece moving wasn’t thrilling on its own terms), there were plenty of smaller moments that offered the thrill of watching this talented cast pull off these complicated storylines. That was especially welcome in the opening 20 minutes, where the series went right back to a series of monologues (or scenes where characters declaimed at length with short interruptions from another character), a structure that often threatened to bury the show in the early going. All of these scenes are more functional than poetic. The first serves mostly to introduce us to Tywin Lannister (the great Charles Dance) and tell us everything we need to know about who he is by observing him as he butchers a deer. Another gives us more of an insight into Littlefinger and is seemingly there ONLY to set us up for what he does at episode’s end, to give it a little context. Yet another is mostly there to have Theon again remind us that he’s not a Stark. (I have to imagine even the non-readers get it by now.) Sure, there are plot advancing scenes interspersed here and there—like Ned telling the queen what he knows like the noble dolt he is—but for the most part, we’re getting motivation exposition all over the place.

Not all of these scenes are as well-written as they might be. The Littlefinger and Theon monologues, in particular, are a little thuddingly obvious, particularly since we’ve heard Theon spell this all out before (though never to a captured Wildling servant!). But the scene between Jaime and Tywin is a beauty, spelling out everything you need to know about father and son in a matter of moments. Who is Tywin? Well, he’s a man who’s not afraid to—literally—get his hands bloody if it’s going to get his family ahead. And in his exhortations about the wonderful nature of the Lannister name and the idea of a thousand-year Lannister dynasty, you start to get a sense of just why Jaime and Cersei would have been so attracted to each other. When you’re a Lannister, nobody else is going to measure up to your own legend of yourself. (It helps that Dance is perfect casting for Tywin, and he gives the character just the right amount of snarl to make evident just how dangerous he can be while not tipping him over into outright villainy.)


As mentioned, I had some problems with the Littlefinger scene, and if you’ve been reading these write-ups, you almost certainly know what one of them was. I’m not inherently opposed to nudity, but in this case, especially, it felt like the nudity was there because the writers didn’t much have confidence that the audience would pay attention to the scene without it. Sure, there’s some interesting stuff going on in the scene—in particular, I like that Theon’s favorite prostitute, being from the North and all, triggers Littlefinger’s lengthy monologue about his love for Cat (and I like that she didn’t disappear from the show and appears to have not just been someone there for Theon to monologue at)—but I’m not entirely sure what this is all supposed to add up to, other than giving us a hint as to just why Littlefinger might want to betray Ned at the end. Is it all about his control fetish? Perhaps. But it really does feel like the writers didn’t much trust the audience to keep watching the scene without some pay cable craziness going on in the background. (The use of the “gore” from Tywin cutting into the deer serves the same function in the opening scene, but Dance is able to put that scene across much better; maybe this is all a question of the actors’ comfort with the material.)

But one of the biggest events in the whole series happens in this episode, and I’m impressed with how abruptly it happens. King Robert’s dead, and in his wake, no one’s quite sure what to do, but for Cersei, who clings to her belief that the people will probably just rally behind whomever’s in the big, iron chair (as Drogo would have it). She’s almost certainly right about that, but Ned continues to think that if he does the right thing, he’ll eventually come out ahead. Instead, he ends up pinned down by Littlefinger for his troubles, even after doing an impressive-for-Ned amount of draconian scheming. He gets Littlefinger to supplement his guard (so depleted by Jaime a couple of weeks ago), but it turns out the City Watch is double-crossing Ned, at Littlefinger’s behest. The episode ends with Littlefinger’s knife at Ned’s throat, the gleam in his eyes genuine, as if he’s been waiting for this for decades (and, of course, he has).


But what I most like about this storyline is how thoroughly it underscores that the titular game of the series is rigged, that no one can win if they try to play by the rules, because someone will inevitably change the rules. Ned’s right that he’s the “next” in succession, at least until Joffrey comes of age (at which point he and Littlefinger will find a way to push Stannis or, ideally, Renly to the throne, or so Littlefinger says). But his armor is a piece of paper, much more easily destroyed than it is written. As in the book, there’s lots of build-up here for something that is very abruptly taken from us. We see Ned slip in “rightful heir,” instead of “Joffrey.” We see him carry around the declaration like it protects him. We even get a fairly sweet scene where Robert realizes that he’s been a massive disappointment to almost everyone. And then when it’s time for Ned to back up that piece of paper with action, he’s undone by his inability to scheme on the same level as everybody else. Just as he’s about to have his moment of triumph—and he would in most other tales of this sort—Cersei and Littlefinger change the rules of the game that he’s playing, and he’s at sea again. It’s a strong moment, and it anchors an episode that isn’t quite up to the level of the previous two.

The main problem here is that the Jon Snow storyline doesn’t have much to it. After leaving Jon for two weeks, we now learn that he’s just about done with his training and about to take the oath of the Night’s Watch. He’s assigned to be the steward to Jeor Mormont, and, of course, he chuffs at that role. But there’s not much more to it than this, and it feels—having read the books—as if the series has been forced to spread a storyline that didn’t have a lot to it in the book (featuring a fairly standard hero narrative for Jon) over 10 episodes. It seems like he always comes into conflict with the higher-ups and defends the little guys, and it seems like we get another scene about how he and Sam are the best of friends (and if there’s a character who irritates me in both formats, it’s Sam). There’s nothing terrible about this, but it does feel fairly rote, especially when compared to what’s going on with the Dothraki or down in King’s Landing. (I have the same complaints about Theon, but he often seems like he’s starring in his own spinoff series, awkwardly stitched together with this one.)


Fortunately, what’s going on with the Dothraki is more interesting. An attempt is made on Dany’s life via poisoned wine cask, and when her guard chases down the poisoner, Drogo takes this as an excuse to promise his wife that their son will sit on the Iron Throne. I love the expression on Clarke’s face in this scene, one of a surprisingly calm rapture, as she realizes that something she didn’t even know she wanted when the series began could very well be hers soon enough. Again, what’s going on here isn’t as complex and intricately political as what’s going on in King’s Landing, but the series is building something very strong out of the bond between Drogo and Dany, a relationship that seems built almost as much on bloodlust as anything else. And the storyline also builds to a nice stopping point, with a crescendo to that moment when Drogo is yelling about how Rhaego will sit atop the Iron Throne, followed by the quick cut to the Dothraki handing out their punishment. It feels like this story is going someplace, while the Jon Snow storyline feels like it’s repeating itself endlessly.

But this isn’t a bad episode, by any means. It just lacks a strong, coherent theme to keep all of the many storylines hanging together. If there is one, it’s probably something about how hard it is to predict the weather, unless you’re one of the people who make the weather. Put another way: We’re clearly meant to believe when Varys says that Robert was probably pushed toward his death by the Lannisters, but the show leaves us the ambiguity of what really happened to ponder. And because Ned’s not willing to be as paranoid as possible—even if the Lannisters really did have nothing to do with Robert’s death!—he ends up in the clutches of people who will do whatever it takes to hang onto power.


Stray observations:

  • Speaking of book to screen, I had the impression that the book made the Lannisters’ role in Robert’s death much more blatant. Or maybe that was just the fact that when I’m reading, I tend to assume the worst is what’s happening.
  • Also, speaking of adaptation issues, haven’t we gotten a rather small amount of Varys? Or am I misremembering again?
  • There was some good discussion in comments last week about how little the series has done with the idea of the direwolves, though we got some nice Ghost action this evening, what with the dead person’s hand and all.
  • Nikolaj Koster-Waldau pretty much just hangs out in that first scene, without a lot to do, but he really gives a sense of just how much Jaime is cowed by his dad. He’s the big, important dude in the series so far, and here he is just wanting to please his dad. Nice work.
  • It’s typical for cable series like this to give everybody a week or two off, and that’s what happens with Cat, Tyrion, and the rest this week. The kids also sat this week out, which is probably appropriate, given all of the scheming.
  • Sam’s taking on the old gods just cuz. (Man, I find his fawning admiration for Jon irritating. No idea why.)
  • Joffrey’s been mainly played as such a little shit so far that it’s nice to see him on the verge of tears as the man he believes to be his father slowly wastes away.

Here be spoilers:

  • Did you catch the subtle foreshadowing in the scene with Jorah and Dany about how if you have DRAGONS it’s a lot EASIER to INVADE WESTEROS? (Really, knowing how this season ends, it’s fun to watch the writers try to figure out a way to build to that moment.)
  • This was the first week where I started feeling a little sad for Dany, knowing what’s coming in re: her husband and unborn child. I’ve liked Clarke’s performance up until now, but now it feels like she’ll really have something to lose.
  • We’re also getting introduced to Tywin, a fairly important character, much earlier than we were in the books. And yet Stannis is sitting the action out for now.

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