Each week, Vulture brings you a post-show analysis from Westeros first-timer Margaret Lyons and longtime George R.R. Martin fan Adam Pasick. This week, "You Win or You Die" was all about trying to — and trying not to — love, honor, and obey. Plus, some fingerbanging.
MARGARET LYONS"What we don't know is usually what gets us killed," quoth Littlefinger. From the mouths of pimps, Adam! He wasn't kidding.
Everything was in turmoil this week, which made for a very tense if very rushed episode. After so much laying of groundwork in the first few weeks, we're finally getting to the juicy parts, but we're only getting to them for a second or two. I guess it's good to know that the concept of molestation exists in the GoT universe, but I care a lot less about that rando guy with Samwell and Jon than I do about just Samwell and Jon. (Whom I love. Very much.) I wanted a few more minutes with everyone this week.
Especially Ned. Ned! Oh, Ned. The guy just can't win. He either knows too much or not enough, and when he tries to do what he thinks is the right thing, it's kind of shady even if it's done with the best of intentions. Early on, you said that every character thinks of him- or herself as the hero in this story, and this week was just a shining example of not just that idea but also its inverse: Everyone thinks of everyone else as the story's villain. And everyone behaves accordingly!
A few other thoughts: I am digging Osha, although I call her "Ally Sheedy" in my notes because, obviously, she's pretty much the Ally Sheedy character from The Breakfast Club except woodsier. Jon and Sam wildly grinning after taking their miserable-sounding oath brought me much joy. Sean Bean was crushing it this week, but I still need some more actual acting from Emilia Clarke as Daenerys. Can you convey some more depth and emotions, please, ma'am?
ADAM PASICK The Littlefinger scene: So much to unpack! He is turning out to be one of my favorite characters. In the books, he was just plain slimy, but Aidan Gillan takes such obvious pleasure in his dissembling that I can't help but love him. He tells Ned not to trust him, screws him over in the most blatant way possible, and Ned is still surprised!
He makes a damn good Whore Whisperer too, perhaps because he can empathize so closely with his employees. Check out his instructions to Roz, who wasted no time finding her way to the Best Little Whorehouse in Kings Landing, and her nameless "you be the lady this time" colleague:
"You're not fooling them. They just paid you. They know what you are. They know it's all just an act. Your job is to make them forget what they know." Then, in case we didn't somehow get the point: "I'm not going to fight them. I'm going to fuck them. That's what I know, that's what I am."
Game of Thrones, the series, is adding some very tantalizing layers of characterization to Littlefinger that weren't present at this point in the books. Not to mention the fact that this brilliant self-awareness-fest was taking place amid perhaps the most explicit sex scene ever to appear on an HBO show ("now play with her butt!"). Something for everyone!
As for dumb, earnest Ned: The show is playing with the GoT canon a bit here too. Having Ned alter Robert's will, which I’m almost positive didn't happen in the book. [Ed: Adam's superfan card is hereby revoked.] He's tiptoeing down the slippery slope, using the ends to justify the means. Forging your best friend's will when he's on his deathbed — not very honorable, is it?
LYONS Honorable how is the question. I mean, no, obviously, it's not honorable, but what was the better path: to tell the dying king that his kid isn't his? (How did Robert not know?) Live under the rule of a dirtbag teenager? I have a deep and real hope that Skins-kid Blacksmith is probably a really noble, upstanding fellow who's going to have a preternatural ability to be a leader of men.
Littlefinger's monologue laid out his — and a lot of the characters' — philosophy: Lying to get what you want is not inherently bad. Gillian's delivery of that spiel was wonderful (it would have to be to wrest my interest from a festive and enthusiastic fingerbanging sesh), and even if the content veered dangerously close to being too on-the-nose, the emotions behind it were so powerful. I really felt for the guy, all lovelorn and down on himself. Going after Ned certainly doesn't endear him to me, but when someone expresses real and honest human feelings, it's hard not to become attached to them.
Unless that person is Cersei, in which case, get away from me forever because I hate you. She had the unholy task of saying not just the show's title but also the episode's title and the series' tagline in one shamefully awkward bit of dialogue: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." (I'm sure this read fine on the page. But out loud, it just made me cringe.) She probably should have said "when you play the game of thrones, I'll try to kill you," but either way. This doesn't sound like a very fun game! Your options are being rich/noble so you're under constant threat of death, or being poor so you're sold into sexual slavery (for ladies) or shipped off to miserytown to live a life of snow-battered celibacy (for fellas); you can be bound by duty, which means you might fall into an abyss after a duel you were tricked into doesn't go your way, or you can be duplicitous, which means everyone is mean to you and even your dad thinks you're crappy. Human life is expendable, and real friendship is rare. I'm starting to get why everyone is so miserable all the time.
PASICK Wow, that is a pretty grim read on life in Westeros. Looking at it another way: What does it all mean? What's it all for?
According to Tywin Lannister, disdainer of cleverness, who unsentimentally and unsubtly butchers a deer while he teaches the Facts of Life to Jaime, it's pure Darwin: We're all going to die, and it's our family name and offspring that must live on. As David Mitchell says in Cloud Atlas, "The weak are meat, the strong do eat."
Renly, who apparently grew a pair since his were lovingly shaved, has a more enlightened and/or naïve view: Good soldiers don't make good kings. It's a "consent of the governed" argument that feels about a millennium premature in feudalist Westeros, and Renly doesn't exactly strike me as the John Locke type. Plus, his argument is totally self-serving.
And finally, there's Daenerys. She starts off as livestock, sold into horsey-style servitude by her brother, but somehow (I think her sex tutor had something to do with it) she has been transformed into somewhat of a benign despot. She cares deeply about the welfare of her people but is also willing to get ruthless when there are horse hearts to be eaten or someone needs to be molten-gold-crowned or dragged to death.
The latter two philosophies have at least a bit of honor to them. "Honorable how" does indeed seem like the basic question of this series.
Speaking of which, what do we think of Jorah Mormont? It's clear by now that he's having it both ways, telling Varys where Dany is on one hand, and foiling the resulting assassins with the other. Is he being driven by self-interest, loyalty, or an albino dragon fetish?
LYONS He's got to be a bad guy, right? Because pretty much everyone is a bad guy. Loyalty hasn't really gotten anyone anywhere good so far, so my money — in dragon dollars — is on him being out for himself.
I mean, how would he know any other way? There aren't a whole lot of role models floating around the various kingdoms. Maybe it's why the kid characters are so compelling; they're so thirsty for guidance they wind up gulping down poison. The last thing I want at this point is to slow the action down, but damn if I'm not curious about how Ned and Robert and Catelyn and Littlefinger and all the grown-ups behaved back when they were kids. Like Muppet Babies, but for Game of Thrones. ("Game of High Chairs"?)
There are only three more episodes to go. I'm getting the feeling that pretty much nothing will be resolved at that point, so I'm trying to get my expectations in check: Without spoiling anything, where should I set the bar? How much of the rest of this season will tie these stories together? Or are we just going to see more and more narrative sprawl?
PASICK "I should have spent more time with you. Taught you how to be a man. I was never meant to be a father." Terrible deathbed send-off. And, à la Billie Jean, the kid is not your son. Double fail!
I would so watch Game of High Chairs. But we already know quite a bit about the grown-ups when they were adolescents, if not quite toddlers. Ned was the second son, whose lordship and wife were thrust upon him when his brother and father were killed; Littlefinger was a nerdy nobody infatuated with Catelyn; Catelyn loved Ned's brother Brandon; Robert was thinner, less jaded, and in love with Ned's sister Lyanna, and Cersei had a schoolgirl crush on Robert. Sounds like medieval Gossip Girl, no?
More importantly, a little expectation-setting as this season draws nearer to an end: This is probably just my inner superfan speaking, but resolution is so overrated.
We're just getting warmed up! Why would you want all of these unknowns and unpredictable scenarios to collapse down into neat and tidy answers? Not that there isn't a time and place for that, but there are quite a few brilliant, surprising, compelling books/seasons to go. (And George R.R. Martin is due to publish the next installment in July.) The way you described the first couple of episodes — "After so much laying of groundwork in the first few episodes, we're finally getting to the juicy parts" — is how most die-hard Game of Thrones fans think about the entire first book.
If you've been enjoying yourself, that should sound tantalizing. If not, it may sound like a prison sentence. I sincerely hope it's the former!