*Please be aware that this review contains spoilers for Episode 5, but not for GRRM’s first book, A Game of Thrones.*
When you play a board game for the first time, you start with a box wrapped in plastic. You can see through the plastic to get a sense of what the game entails: You can read the title, you can sometimes see what the pieces look like, and you can maybe read a quick blurb about the general purpose of the game.
After pulling the plastic away, you have a box. Take off the cover and you can take out the pieces- the board, the player markers, cards, props and whatever else may be necessary for gameplay. You then set up the game and get ready to start. But before you play, you need to familiarize yourself with what you’re getting into. You need to know the rules.
“The Wolf and the Lion,” Episode 4 of Game of Thrones, was our instruction manual for just that- the game of thrones. We unwrapped the box in episode one, and since then we’ve set up the game. We laid out our board and got familiar with our starting points. We took out our pieces and got to know our characters. And tonight we learned how to play.
Rule #1: Trust no one. The Starks may have their honor, but just about all the other faces in the Red Keep hide ulterior motives. At the front of the pack are Littlefinger and Varys, who actually trade blows of wit over who has a better system of informants. It is clear they each have their own agenda, yet they both seem to want to aid Ned in his search for the truth about Jon Arryn’s death. Varys even goes as far as to tell Ned that Robert is a fool and dead unless Ned saves him. Yet, in the next scene, Arya gets lost chasing cats and stumbles upon Varys and Illyrio Mopatis, the magister from Pentos, talking about dying Hands and a Dothraki invasion. Varys wears a hood and escorts Illyrio through the isolated dungeons; it’s clear he wants to keep the meeting secret. But Varys of all people should know there are no secrets in the Red Keep, especially when you find yourself up against Petyr Baelish. Littlefinger knows about Illyrio, and further, he lets Varys know he knows. The best weapon to wield against someone who knows everything about everyone? Letting him be aware that you know everything about him.
Rule #2: Everyone wants power. People want different types of power for different reasons, but they all want it in some way (even Ned, who wants an honorable sort of power to protect and aid Robert). Robert wants power so he can do what he wants without consequences. Varys and Illyrio want power for the Targaryen exiles for an unknown reason. Littlefinger wants control over the council and court, seemingly so he can always one-up his opponents. Renly wants power so he can show his brothers he is tough enough, and Loras Tyrell wants power to prove himself a warrior and not just an able tourney knight. Arya wants power to set her apart from her sister and to give her something to aspire to other than being a lady. The Hound wants power to overpower the Mountain. Tyrion wants power to prove he’s not just a dwarf.
Rule #3: Steel cuts deep. Violence alone may not sustain power, but it sure can grant it, at least for a little while. The Mountain rages over his tourney loss by slicing off his horse’s head and attempting to do the same to Ser Loras. He’s a very large man with a very large sword, so no one steps in to aid the young Tyrell, except the Hound, who is apparently driven by a hatred of his brother. The Hound has a decent piece of steel of his own, and the swords clash even until Robert calls for a truce. Catelyn Stark showed us last week that it was swords she needed to capture Tyrion Lannister, not just words or rope. When Jaime Lannister attacks Ned outside Littlefinger’s brothel, he doesn’t bring honor or law, he brings metal. Ned and Jory don’t slouch when it comes to warfare, but the mere truth of the matter is that the Lannisters just have more blades. Jory ends up dead, and Ned wounded and left alone in the street. Jaime Lannister had ordered he be left unharmed, yet one of the Lannister guards speared Lord Stark in the leg. Jaime answered that with a blade. . .to the soldier’s throat. Actions do speak louder than words.
Rule #4: Nothing is as it seems. Tyrion is Cat’s prisoner and accused of murder. But he also saves her life from an attacking mountain clansman. Lysa is Cat’s sister, yet she shows nothing of the honor and duty we see in Lady Stark; she is instead unstable and shrill. Varys pretended to know nothing about Jon Arryn’s death for over a month but tonight spilled to Ned. Ser Loras is the ideal knight and chivalrously gives Sansa a rose, but behind closed doors he’s giving Renly a lot more. Cersei and Robert loathe each other, yet they also seem to mutually understand that their marriage is a sacrifice for the stability of the Seven Kingdoms. Everyone has a poker face, which makes it a lot harder to know who’s bluffing. You can never know what to expect.
We’ve finished with the rulebook. The initial action has kicked off the game, and now it’s time to play. Players are inching toward the finish line, using wit and might and intrigue to stay abreast of the competition. But the prize isn’t mere pride; the stakes are much higher. No one can foresee exactly how the game will end, but we know we don’t want to be the loser. And, as Cersei Lannister loves to remind us, when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
[NOTES: This was probably my favorite episode yet. Great added scenes, a lot of character development, more perfect acting, and finally – action! Some highlights were the fight on the high road: Tyrion’s MIND-BLOWING moves with that shield (see what I did there?) and Bronn’s vicious sword skill put both of them at the top of Episode 5’s Badassometer. One of the best scenes of the night, and probably the best new scene, was the mental sparring match between Littlefinger and Varys; nothing could have captured their characters more perfectly. Bran and Arya/Isaac and Maisie both continue to be adorable/incredibly talented: Bran with the childlike indignation he shows Maester Luwin and Arya with her frustrations over being mistaken for a boy. We finally got a Tyrell, and although some people were uncomfortable with the gay relationship between the Knight of Flowers and the young Lord of Storm’s End, I thought their scene together was well-woven into the story (do it now to build context for S2!). Last but not least: JORRRRRRRRRRRYYYYYY 😦 😦 😦 I will miss you.]