(1.07 “You Win or You Die”)
In the sea of red, the Lannister camp, the mighty Tywin Lannister is skinning a stag. Yes, that both is and is not a metaphor. There’s no better time to have a heart-to-heart with your son than while removing the entrails and skin of a recently deceased animal. Tywin’s not so impressed with his son Jaime, rebuking him for attacking Ned, but also for letting Ned live. Despite believing Jaime has wasted his potential so far, Tywin insists on giving him 30,000 men to go retrieve Tyrion, who though the lowest of the Lannisters is still family, and if a Lannister can be abducted without retribution then their name will no longer be feared. And it is the name that will live on after the current generations have passed, so Tywin’s done waiting for Jaime to decide to be the man he is supposed to be. In King’s Landing Ned and Cersei have a singularly unpleasant conversation about paternity. Ned reveals that he knows Cersei’s children are Jaime’s and that that fact is what Jon Arryn died for. Unashamed, Cersei explains that, as twins, she and Jaime belong together, and that when she first married Robert she loved him, but he was still in love with Lyanna (Ned’s dead sister). Ned encourages Cersei to take her children and get as far from King’s Landing as possible, because he’s going to tell Robert the truth. Cersei practically laughs in his face, chiding him that he should have taken the throne the day the city fell during the rebellion, since after all “when you play the game of thrones you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” Littlefinger has a new employee, Ros the whore of the north, but she isn’t up to par. Littlefinger gives her some advice about sexually satisfying her clients, she has to go slow enough to convince them to forget that they paid her, which makes for a nice analogy to how he must proceed in his pursuit of the girl and the glory. Theon seems sadly affected by Ros’ relocation, because he tries to get friendly with Osha after they have a really confusing geography/etiquette discussion. Maester Luwin interrupts, which is probably for the best, since Osha looks like she could break Theon in half, which he might have preferred to being reminded that a hostage can be treated very well. After Theon beats a hasty retreat, Osha clues Luwin in to the fact that there are some monsters stirring in the woods north of the wall. Atop the wall, Jon and Sam see a horse approaching from the north, but without a rider. It turns out to be Benjen Stark’s horse, but without a trace of Benjen, an understandably upsetting event for Jon. Ned’s upset too; due to the fact that Renly runs up to him to tell him that Robert’s been gored by a boar while hunting. Hobbling to the sickroom, Ned finds Robert, surrounded by friends and family, telling Joffery that he should have been a better father, and then he kicks them all out so he can talk to Ned. Robert knows he’s dying, and that he hasn’t left the kingdom in the best of shape, so he charges Ned as Protector of the Realm, to help Joffery be a better king than he was. He has Ned take down his last testament, but Ned balks, and instead of writing Joffery he writes “true heir,” unable to tell Robert on his deathbed the monstrous lie his life is, but unwilling to perpetuate Joffery’s fake claim to the throne. Finally, Robert informs Ned that he’s changed his mind about Dany, and to do what he can to stop the assassins sent after her. Leaving Robert to be heavily medicated, Ned lets Varys know about Robert’s changed of heart, but Varys has some bad news of his own, for it’s his opinion that it’s too late to call back the birds on Dany’s death. Not yet knowing the danger she’s in, across the sea Dany is having some trouble convincing Drogo that he should pursue the Iron Throne, because though his son will be the stallion that mounts the world, he believes the world ends at the sea. Dany is frustrated. Nothing like a walk to make you feel better. Jorah and Dany go walking in a market, where he takes off to see if there are any letters for him. The letter he’s been waiting for actually has arrived; his royal pardon! Time for Jorah to go on home. But when he walks back towards Dany he sees a wine merchant chatting her up, trying to give her a fine cast as a gift. Suspicious, Jorah insets himself, demanding that the merchant try the wine, and Dany picks up on his wariness. Knowing he’s made, the wine merchant/assassin makes a break for it, but Dany’s bodyguards catch him in no time flat. Maybe Jorah is more committed to Dany than he thought. Back on the Wall Jorah’s dad has some news of his own, assignments in fact. Jon and his class are ready to take their vows, to be men of the Night’s Watch, in one of three departments: builders, stewards, or rangers. Sam and Jon are joking around, both kind of happy, and agreeing to take their vow in front of a heart tree/the old gods. That is, until Commander Mormont reads from his list, naming Jon a steward. Shock. Furious at being named a glorified maid for the rest of his life, he storms off. Sam, being the good friend and voice of reason that he is, follows Jon, and doesn’t even mention that Jon told him moments before that there is honor in being a steward. He explains to Jon, that despite the fact that he’s wanted to be a ranger forever, by being the Lord Commander’s steward, Jon will be groomed for future leadership. And as just another example of why Sam is awesome, instead of leaving Jon to feel like shit for acting like a shit, he tells him that he always wanted to be a wizard when he was growing up. It’s funny. Not so funny is Renly approaching Ned suggesting that they take Cersei and her kids into custody and crown Renly himself instead of his older brother, and Robert’s heir, Stannis. Ned has two problems with that, the first that he won’t disturb Robert’s last hours by apprehending his “family” and the second that Stannis is the rightful successor and Ned isn’t just going to ignore that because Stannis is unqualified. Littlefinger goes to visit Ned, whose just sent a letter to Stannis. Littlefinger encourages Ned to support Joffery’s claim, to act as the protector, thereby rule by proxy, and if Joffery proves unmanageable they can reveal his paternity. Ned refuses, determined that they follow the letter of the law, which puts him in an awkward position. Knowing that he doesn’t have enough men to stop her if Cersei decides she won’t go quietly, Ned haltingly tries to ask without asking if Littlefinger can bribe the Gold Cloaks to fight for them. Littlefinger, sensing and taking advantage of his distress, agrees to support his plan, since after all, the Gold Cloaks protect the man that pays them. Ready to forsake all payment, Jon, Sam and some witnesses head beyond the Wall to the heart tree. Jon and Sam say their vow, rise men of the Night’s Watch, and there are hugs. It’s wonderful. Until…Ghost comes bounding up with a human hand in his mouth. Ick. Loosing a hand is the least of the wine merchant/assassin’s worries, seeing as he’s tied up in a tent and Jorah tells Dany he’s going to be dragged behind the horses in the morning, whether he can walk or not. Drogo arrives, checks on Dany, and then proclaims for all that he will take the Iron Throne. It’s on bitch. King Joffery might want to watch out. Yes, the little squint is on the throne, summoning Ned to bend the knee and prepare for his coronation. Undaunted, Ned produces Robert’s will, which Cersei tears up, almost laughing in Ned’s face. With a nod to the Gold Cloaks, Ned calls for her arrest. With a second nod the Gold Cloaks slaughter Ned’s men. With a knife to his throat, Littlefinger remind Ned that he told him not to trust him.
From a certain perspective, this wasn’t the most exciting episode: light on the sword fights and the wow-I-didn’t-see-that-coming information, heavy on the talking and the veiled threats. I can see how this thought could cross someone’s mind, but instead of focusing on what this episode wasn’t, let’s look at what it was, namely a perfectly crafted succession of conversations: sifting through the fragments left behind by momentous acts, arranging the pieces to (perceived) best effect.
And the mighty Tywin is on the scene now. Whatever your disagreement with his message, you have to admit, there is no better way to get across that you mean business than to scold your child while skinning a giant animal that represents the house of your enemy. Tywin’s cold precision, as if the entrails he was discarding were an afterthought, brilliantly reflected his estimation of Jaime, a man he sees as having wasted his talents in ways that do not solidify the Lannister’s as the house that will always be respected. It can only emphasis your words of disappointment in your golden son when you say them wiping blood from your hands. Tywin stages his scene masterfully, both reiterating Jaime’s flaws, as well as acting out what he is trying to make Jaime understand; it is by methodical pursuit, not rash outburst, will the enemy fear him. The joyous irony is of course that Tywin doesn’t address, either because he doesn’t know or he doesn’t want to know, Jaime’s gravely misguided behavior that will really bring shame on the Lannisters. Tywin doesn’t see his children as individuals, as people, he sees them as Lannisters, and it sort of makes sense that if you view your family as an undifferentiated whole, you might not notice that Jaime and Cersei were more attached than brother and sister should be. Tywin misses this big issue, but because he makes no distinction between a Lannister and the Lannisters, he also misses the small ones. Tywin doesn’t hear in Jaime’s voice that he loves Tyrion, that Jaime isn’t concerned that Catelyn abducted a Lannister, he’s concerned about his brother’s welfare, and in missing that, Tywin misses that he and his son are to some extent talking across purposes. Tywin can browbeat and manipulate his son into acting the way he wants him to, but unless he can convince him to care about the same things, he will never really have his son’s loyalty.
And loyalty is hard to come by. I pretty much ignore Dany and all that in my analysis, and there’s a pretty simple reason. I don’t care. I don’t find her a particularly compelling character, since she is, as yet, pretty much a blank slate that everyone draws his or her desires upon. Furthermore, everyone is pretty much in agreement that a “claim” to the Iron Throne is determined on whether you can take it and keep it, not on any cosmic ordination of legitimacy, so Dany doesn’t provide any kind of just contrast to Robert’s dynasty; her family could not keep their crown, so she would be equally a usurper to Robert that Robert was to her father. Therefore it’s hard to think of her as some underdog that we really want to root for. What she is, a trait that could help her become more interesting, is pragmatic. She doesn’t turn away from reality in front of her, no matter how unpleasant it is. She is not always good at recognizing initially a situation for what it is, she needed Jorah to point out that there was something fishy about the wine merchant, but she ties him naked to her horse as the preferred punishment of her adopted people, taking the situation for what it is. In this way, she is much like Tywin Lannister. But with a marked difference: Dany engenders loyalty because she inspires love.
Sorry, I must digress into my love for just a moment. I love the Night’s Watch’s vow, the actual words. I read it over and over again in the book, just relishing how finely balanced the simple sentence structure is, how it builds to this sense of heroic finality, how it is a straightforward ideology that completely stands apart from the every shifting ambiguity of thought all the other characters are either trying to figure out or trying to manipulate. Watching Jon and Sam take their vow, and then Jon help Sam stand up, actually got me a little choked up. Here are these young men who have no place in the world, who are reviled and mistrusted for no other reason than birth or disposition, and with a single paragraph they are give a code by which they can structure their lives and orient their hearts. I love it.
And I love Sam. Yes, it’s a total must-have for the fantasy genera to have a fat sidekick named Sam, but Sam Tarly is sort of magical. Maybe he could have been a wizard. Sam has that rare combination of humility and low self-worth that allows him to see what is best in other people even if he cannot always see what is best in himself. He doesn’t indulge Jon’s (correct) paranoia that Thorne has gotten his revenge by denying him a position as a ranger, because Sam knows Jon doesn’t need that. (I’ll admit, when I was reading the book and Jon was named to the stewards I actually let go of my book to clap my hands over my mouth in surprise, and then I was super thankful that I was reading on my bed because it was my Nook, and it had fallen on the floor it might have broken, and then I would have been really unhappy.) He know that his friend has spent his life being told what he won’t have, he needs to be told what he can have, what his commander is giving him a chance to earn. And he doesn’t leave Jon to feel unhappy, he gets him to laugh, coupling comfort with correction. Sam’s father was an idiot: Sam would have made a wonderful lord.
Don’t we all kind of wish Ned had a friend like Sam in King’s Landing. I suppose at one time that was Robert (or maybe more likely Robert was Jon and Ned was Sam, but this isn’t really important). It most certainly isn’t Littlefinger. It never occurs to Ned, a man who wants so little, that Littlefinger could want so much, could want to punish Ned for ending up married to the woman he loves (I still say, Catelyn, really?) as well as position himself for whatever his next move will be. The saddest part is that in this case, Jaime’s assessment of Ned is true: “brave man, terrible judgment.” Littlefinger made his views clear, told Ned outright what he wanted for the kingdom, Joffery to be king, and how that was going to be achieved, through money, and Ned willfully ignored all that. Ned limps towards his own doom because he is participating in a game that he is not acknowledging, and it is just heartbreaking.
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