Episode 7: You Win or You Die

Cersei and Ned in King's Landing

These episodes are only getting better and better.  Because we got a large dose of exposition earlier in the season, we are really able to move forward with all the different plot threads that Game of Thrones offers.  This episode consisted of little actual action and a lot of “behind-the-scenes” type maneuvers, but it was fantastic.  Several moments gripped me emotionally, especially the ending of Robert, Ned and Dany’s storylines for this week.  We are in the thrust of Season 1’s crescendo, and I can’t wait for the last three installments.  If ASOIAF newcomers think things were intense in Episode 7 they have no idea what’s ahead.

*This post contains spoilers for Episode 7 of Game of Thrones, and one instance of obscene language.  Please refrain if either bothers you.

Parents Just Don’t Understand

Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, Warden of the West, richest man in the Seven Kingdoms. Up until last night, we had only heard of Papa Lannister in passing, mainly in references embedded in the speech of his children. But last night he was before us in all his glory- tall, groomed and commanding. Jaime entered his father’s tent with every ounce of confidence he has displayed throughout the last six episodes of the show, but he exited with next to nothing remaining. The father-son talk begins with Jaime sarcastically reading Ned’s command that Tywin report to court to answer for the crimes of Gregor Clegane. Tywin pays this no mind, and instead turns on his son immediately. He doesn’t scream and yell, he doesn’t rage. In fact, he barely faces Jaime for most of the conversation, instead preferring to skin his catch – a large stag – while berating his son with cool, collected words. The dead stag is a piece of direct foreshadowing of the way in which the Lannister family brought Robert Baratheon to his demise. But it also sets up another parallel: Just as Tywin is able to easily slip his knife right under the skin of this once-powerful beast, he is equally capable of stripping his son of any sense of power. Before Tywin, Jaime is nothing more than a dead animal. He receives command of half of the vast Lannister army for the upcoming attack against Riverrun, yet we can tell from Jaime’s eyes that he feels more wounded and skinned than powerful.

No Middle Ground

In King’s Landing, Ned meets Cersei in a castle garden. He tells her he knows that her children are bastards born of her incestuous relationship with her twin. Cersei seems rather proud of this fact, and she even thanks the gods that none of her children were Robert’s. She reasons that she and Jaime have shared everything, even a womb, and are therefore meant to be together. Cersei also says how she once admired Robert and was happy to marry him, until on their wedding night, he called out Lyanna Stark’s name instead of hers. Ned reveals a slight pain at his sister’s name, but he remains composed, and advises the Queen to take her children and flee, for upon Robert’s return, he plans to tell the king of the children’s sinful lineage. Cersei offers Ned some advice of her own: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Cersei has essentially ripped out the show’s heart, buried under layers of intrigue, and held it up for us all to see. Despite her malice and arrogance, she speaks a truth. You do win or die when you play the game. The question now becomes: What exactly are you willing to pay for victory?

Renly staggers down the hall to call Ned to Robert’s chambers. The King has suffered a mortal wound during the hunt. Drunk, the mighty Robert was bested by a boar. In a private moment with Ned, Robert names his best friend Regent and Protector of the Realm, and dictates in his last will that Ned should rule the Kingdoms until Joffrey comes of age. Ned plays scribe for Robert’s words, except, instead of writing Joff’s name, he inserts “the rightful heir;” he cannot bring himself to mar his best friend’s last moments of life with the trauma of truth. Robert signs and after a few chuckles, asks for a pain reliever and the opportunity to die. Robert’s last moments are quiet and strained, but still laced with laughter. It’s slightly ironic, because it’s this over-jovial aspect of his personality that killed him. The pig is a symbol of gluttony and hedonism, and these tendencies were what slew Robert. His need to always feel alive through wine, whores and violence undid him; he never found the balance he needed to rule well or live happily. His death even brings him a solace, expressed in the books but excluded by the show: In Robert’s last moments, he says he will send Lyanna Ned’s love.

Later, Renly finds Ned again, although this time he wishes to speak in private. Renly pledges Ned 100 swords within the hour if the Hand agrees to launch an attack against Cersei and her children. Ned asserts that the throne must pass to Stannis, the middle Baratheon brother who has been absent from King’s Landing. Renly doesn’t take to this idea. He believes Stannis is too cold and hard, not the kind of man that can inspire loyalty in the common folk. Renly states that he should be king. His face displays a mixture of pride, arrogance and duty. Although it seems at first glance that Renly may just be another power-hungry player in the game of thrones, there’s also the possibility that the youngest Baratheon does genuinely care about the Kingdoms. Last week he chided Robert for glossing over the pain of the common people during his reminiscence, and he senses that Joffrey’s ascension would be disastrous for all. He tells Ned that good soldiers like Robert and Stannis do not necessarily make good kings, and it’s not hard to see the truth in his statement. Robert was far too restless for the throne, a quality which left the realm in pieces and him dead. Carefree and cordial Renly may not have the experience necessary to be a king, but he has the sort of personality toward which people gravitate. But we will have to wait to see this, as he leaves the city soon after Ned rejects his proposal.

Ned sends one of his guards to Dragonstone, the former Targaryen stronghold off the coast of King’s Landing. He instructs the guard to deliver a message to Stannis Baratheon and no one else. As the guard leaves, Littlefinger shows up. Ned has summoned him to use him for what he does best- pay people off to get what you want. There’s something strange about this moment. We all know Ned Stark is a man of principle and honor. In the series’ first episode, we see Ned tell Bran that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Back in the now, he knows that in the interest of the realm, he must remove Joffrey (and Cersei) from the throne. Yet he cannot bring himself to assault the queen and her children in the middle of the night, so he seeks to purchase the gold cloaks’ loyalty. Ned justifies this by saying the city watch is sworn to uphold the king’s peace, but at the very heart of the matter, Ned has done what he implied one should never do. He has passed the sentence: Joffrey has no claim to the throne. Yet instead of lifting Ice high over his head all by himself, as he did when he executed Will, Ned has asked the gold cloaks to help him lift the blade. He stands willing to execute the definitive swing, but he knows the blade is a bit too heavy to pick up on his own. Paradoxically, Ned could have perhaps swung the sword alone if he made a decision to act that was HIS – his best judgment call that worked within the circumstances in which he found himself – instead of saying he had no choice and acting as though he believed the honorable man would act. Just as Robert’s personality undid him, so too does Ned suffer. In one swift motion, Cersei Lannister shows him how much honor means at court: When Ned presents her with Robert’s letter that names him Regent, Cersei simply rips it up and throws the pieces to the ground. Ned still holds out hope, as he believes the City Watch to be his, but that unravels as well, and Ned ends up with Littlefinger’s blade at his throat.

Mind Over Matter

Petyr Baelish is not a fighter. He does not have height or brawn or training on his side. Slight of body, he makes up for his lack of physical presence by being mighty of mind. Littlefinger is perhaps one of the best players in the game of thrones. We understand why during the scene in his brothel. Ros has made her way into Littlefinger’s employ and is…at work with another whore. During an unnecessarily gratuitous lesbian sex scene that could qualify as soft core porn, Littlefinger narrates to us how he’s come to be who he is now. He says he grew up with Catelyn Tully and was her best friend and confidante. He loved her, but she was betrothed to Brandon Stark. When Petyr challenged Brandon to a duel for Cat’s hand, the much larger, more physical Stark won easily. Cat begged Brandon not to harm Petyr, and Littlefinger escaped with just a scar. Cat never married Brandon, who was murdered by Aerys Targaryen, but instead married Ned. When he lost that duel, Littlefinger realized what he was and how he had to play the game: He can’t fight his enemies, so he will fuck his enemies. It sounds vulgar, but it makes perfect sense. Littlefinger seduces people to do his will. He uses them for his own pleasure and then discards of them when they’re no longer needed.

This is exactly what we see happen later in the episode. Littlefinger goes to Ned’s solar with all sorts of schemes in his head. Keep Joffrey on the throne and bend him to our will. We can dispose of Stannis in the meanwhile. If Joffrey does not cooperate, we can reveal his lineage and install Renly as King. Ned balks at the our’s and the we’s, and reaffirms that Stannis is the only true heir. At that point, Littlefinger realizes that Ned will never be on his team. He can never manipulate Ned, and thus, Ned is useless to him. It’s an easy choice for Littlefinger to double-cross Ned in favor of Cersei.

A Chair for a Queen

Another factor in the game is far beyond the Narrow Sea: Daenerys Targaryen, who is trying to convince her husband to take his khalasar to the shores of Westeros and win back her throne. In a tender moment with Drogo, Dany explains that the iron chair she longs for is not just any chair, but a chair for a king…or a queen. Drogo clearly thinks she is silly; he crouches in front of her as though she is a child and tells her that a king doesn’t need a chair, only a horse.

Dany takes her frustration to her confidante, Ser Jorah Mormont, who after her brother’s death, is the only other person in the khalasar who understands what Westeros means to her. Jorah gives her a lesson that ties in to what Cersei was trying to teach Ned: no one has a right to a throne, only the ability to win and hold one. This is why Viserys died, and why Dany needs Drogo if she ever wants to reinstate her family’s dynasty. When Dany’s small group reaches the Vaes Dothrak market, Jorah breaks off to check for messages from Illyrio in Pentos. Dany asks to join, but he tells her not to worry. She looks at him uncertainly, but wanders through the stalls until she comes across a Westerosi wine merchant. The man initially offers her a sample because she is a khaleesi. Once he learns of her Targaryen identity, he ups his gift to a cask.

Jorah did in fact have a message, but it was from Varys instead of Illyrio. Jorah has been royally pardoned for his work as a spy for Robert, and perhaps for assisting in Dany’s assassination. Jorah returns to the group just in time to see the merchant gift Dany the cask. He approaches and demand the man pour and drink the wine. The man resists, but Dany commands he do as Jorah says. The merchant, known that he has been found out, tries to flee. But just as he was there when Viserys threatened Dany’s life, Rakharo is there with his whip and catches the assassin around the ankle. Throughout the whole event, Daenerys proves she is no longer a naïve, scared princess. She is a wizened, mature queen. Nonetheless, she is visibly shaken by the attempt at her life, and is almost reduced to tears when Jorah tells her Robert will never stop trying to kill her or her unborn child. Here, Dany exerts herself as a mother for the first time in the show. Protectively, she swears the Usurper will never have her son.

Robert’s attempt on Dany’s life is actually the best gift he could have given her. Once Drogo realizes that neither his wife nor child will never be safe as long as another sits the Iron Throne, he vows to take his khalasar across the sea and conquer the Seven Kingdoms. He swears to kill knights, rape women, and enslave children, all in the name of the Stallion Who Mounts the World. Dany looks on with an almost euphoric expression, perhaps because she realizes she has someone who loves her enough to literally fight to the ends of the earth for her, or perhaps because she realizes that she will in fact go home and take what she believes is now hers. For the entirety of her life, she has never known either feeling, and now she knows both.

And Now the Watch Begins

While the Southerners and Daenerys deal with the issue of succession, the Northerners have a much more tangible problem to face. Winter is indeed coming, and strange things are happening beyond the Wall. At Winterfell, Osha has become a servant. Theon Greyjoy interrupts her during one of her chores and the two match wits over Theon’s desire to be called “Lord.” Theon gets a bit creepy, telling Osha he knows how she can lose her chains, but Maester Luwin arrives to call him off. She says she has no problem, that she’s used to men who could break Theon in two. Osha clearly isn’t a woman with a propensity for fear. However, when Luwin switches topics to why she and her band of friends were heading South, we see her confidence replaced with anxiety. She tells Luwin something we already know: The White Walkers aren’t gone, they were just sleeping, and now they’re back for human blood.

Jon Snow and Sam are on duty when they see a horse returning to the Wall. But oddly, the horse, which belonged to Benjen Stark, has no rider. Jon asks Lord Commander Mormont where his uncle is, but he receives only a concerned glance in response. It’s a harrowing thought: If Benjen Stark, First Ranger, has gone missing in the expanse beyond the Wall, what chance do the rest of them have?

Jon doesn’t have too much time to ponder his uncle’s absence, however, because soon he must attend a graduation ceremony for his class of recruits. They are finally ready to become true men of the Night’s Watch, and Mormont reminds them that once they take their vows, their old lives disappear. The Wall is their home now, the Black is their coat of arms, and the brothers are their family. Jon appears eager to accept his new role, and he and his friends believe he will be named a ranger, the most adventurous of the three classes of Watchmen. However, Jon is sent to the stewards to work directly for the Lord Commander himself. Jon, who complains that he is a better rider and fighter than anyone in his class, can’t see past the fact that he will have to change sheets and tend fires. Fortunately for him, Sam is there to point out that he’ll also deliver the commander’s letters, ride with him in battle and know everything that’s going on. Sam has become a true friend to Jon Snow. If there’s one thing Sam has never experienced, it’s entitlement, so he is able to stop Jon from indulging in it.

Jon, who keeps to the Old Gods, and Sam, whose prayers were never answered by the Seven, recite their vows in front of the heart tree. In order to do this, they journey a mile beyond the Wall with a small ranger entourage and Jon’s direwolf (ASOIAF newcomers finally learn his name is Ghost). Just as the boys are celebrating their new transition to manhood, Ghost comes back with something – a hand. No one knows what to make of it, but they must surely have had Benjen’s disappearance in mind.  This scene serves to remind us that regardless of what trouble currently rocks King’s Landing, there is something far more ominous looming in the winter wasteland beyond the Wall, something that doesn’t care whether you are a Stark or Lannister, a king or bastard, or an honorable or ignoble man.

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