Game of Thrones Revisited: 1.07 You Win or You Die
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And in 2019, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world; this time the balance of power changes radically in King's Landing in this latest season one episode...
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
After the slight lack of tension in King's Landing last episode, You Win or You Die sees things really heat up as the political machinations of Cersei, Varys and Littlefinger result in Ned's fall from grace. After seven seasons, we easily take for granted that events don't turn out as you expect, heroes don't win and the villains often win the day. This episode is the first real example of that.
Having discovered the truth about Cersei and Jamie - and their three children - the episode perfectly moves Ned into gaining the upper hand. He confronts Cersei in a terrific scene in the sun-dappled courtyard and it is one of those rare moments where every word they speak is truthful. Lena Healy absolutely convinces that she once loved Robert and her feelings of vengeance and hate stem from years of abuse and her husband's love for Ned's dead sister Lyanna. Sean Bean remains as stoic and noble as ever in his performance as Ned but you can see how tired his character is. It is painfully clear how out of his depth he is now - and he knows it.
"When you play the game of thrones you win, or you die. There is no middle ground."
Cersei's words a clear summarisation of the situation; Ned tries the middle ground - the noble, honest way - but throughout the episode Cersei never once breaks, even when Ned attempts to threaten her and demands she leaves King's Landing before Robert returns from his hunt and learns the truth.
The death of Robert in a 'hunting accident' feels surprisingly downplayed; Mark Addy gets one final gruff, bitter final monologue in his scene with Ned. This is a man long broken by the weight of the throne who feels relieved to die, skewered by a boar. There is the sense that he knows the truth of his children's heritage, his actions in making Ned regent suggesting that he is more aware than perhaps Cersei and the others believe. Again, Ned's inexperience is laid bare; he clues into the fact that Robert was slowly poisoned by his Lannister squire but is all too willing to trust in the good characters of Varys and Littlefinger, the latter using position of wealth to set the final trap that is Ned's downfall.
Talking of Littlefinger, Aidan Gillen is superb in this episode, though his brothel scene with Ros, as he talks of power over his enemies, was too much. Game of Thrones has never been afraid to be graphic when it comes to language, violence or sex, but this feels gratuitous for gratuitous' sake. Did we really need a scene where he asks a naked Ros (Esmé Bianco) to play with her prostitute cohort's ass? We already know that Littlefinger controls the populace of the city through sex and money; this just lays it on a little heavily.
I wonder if this scene - along with Tywin's introduction - were scripted with the visuals in mind, or brought about through the direction of Daniel Minahan. The debut of Charles Dance as the elder Lannister was superb. The actor's performance was already incredibly intimidating, his ability to put down cocky son Jamie with a withering look, already demonstrating that he can outclass pretty much anyone in Game of Thrones in his one scene. Adding in Tywin skinning a deer and he becomes an even more frightening character. He doesn't bask in the luxury like his three children do; this is a man who demands respect and will get his hands dirty to get the job done. When you could watch Tywin talk and skin a deer for a whole hour, you know it was a fantastic scene.
Over in Vaes Dothrak, Viserys' death passed by without barely a mention. The first season does an excellent job of building the bond between Daenerys and Khal Drogo. While Jason Momoa is relatively one note for much of his performance, he does demonstrate his character's deep love and passion for his Khaleesi when her life is threatened by poison through one of Vary's spiders.
There was a great irony in this threat by Robert being the moment that convinces him to invade Westeros for Daenerys and his unborn son and it is rather tragic to think that this will all come crashing down soon enough. Emilia Clarke is getting better each episode too, building maturity and depth of conviction to her character. There is a surprising speed of development in Daenerys that would not be consistently maintained in later seasons.
Finally the Wall continues to develop its roster of characters; James Cosmo's Night Watch commander Jeor Mormont has great presence in the scene where the new recruits take their vows and Peter Vaughan's Maester Aemon is also shown to have great wit as he puts Jon Snow down after his anger at being appointed Mormont's steward. You can't help but feel for Jon, denied his chance to become a ranger after Alliser Thorne's likely intervention, but bigger things are still to come. The bond of friendship between Jon and Sam is also developing nicely.
You Win or You Die is a fast-paced episode with a dramatic twist as Ned's attempts to arrest Cersei backfires spectacularly. This is joy of the show - anything can happen - and as Littlefinger's cunning betrayal shows, the bad guys often have the upper hand. The death of Robert suffers a little, more underplayed than I would have liked, but there was so much happening here and ultimately his role in the show was just a footnote. But then, so was Ned's. We just didn't know it at this point.