The kingdoms of Nunziata, Miller and Rappe meet once more to whisper in the shadows.
Josh: Oh, baby. “You Win or You Die” finally introduced Game of Thrones‘ tonnage of shit to its fan, in a couple of big ways. Most notably, obviously, was the sudden and shockingly mundane death of King Robert. So mundane was the larger-than-life man’s death that even he had to laugh; “Killed by a pig,” Mark Addy chuckled out in his barrel-chested delivery in one last great scene. I loved it. I think it would have been thrilling to have actually witnessed Robert’s ill-fated showdown with that boar, but regardless, it was his deathbed scene that was going to have the most drama. And that scene was a winner. Seeing Joffrey teary-eyed over his father helped keep Lil’ Prince Fuckface contextualized as an actual human being, just as seeing his teary eyes quickly turn indignant and spiteful when forced to leave the room – while Ned Stark was allowed to remain – also showed the boy’s true nature. Mark Addy’s King Robert loomed large over Thrones, and though he has suddenly left us, the ramifications of his weaknesses as a man and ruler will clearly be felt for some time.
The turn of Khal Drogo in this episode is a great example of George RR Martin’s love of complexity and tragic circumstances. As many characters had said in previous episodes, and as was really hammered home in this ep (in the conversation between Daenerys and Drogo), the Dothraki were potentially never going to cross the Narrow Sea to invade Westeros – they ride horses and fear/hate the sea – that is, until someone tried to kill Daenerys in King Robert’s name. Then Khal Drogo got just a little bit irked. I love the idea that had the assassination never been attempted, Drogo and Daenerys may have just lived out their days indifferent to the Seven Kingdoms.
Drogo has finally come into his own as a character in the past two episodes. First with his golden gift in the previous ep, and now with his epic tantrum in which he swore to give his tiny bride the “iron chair” upon which her family once sat. I’m still not sold on Momoa as Conan, but he is definitely serving his purpose here.
There is a lot of stuff to chew on in this episode. But let’s talk Ned. There was a Game of Thrones picture meme going around last week called “Stupid Ned Stark” detailing what a colossal blockhead Sean Bean’s character can be sometimes. This ep had a major “Stupid Ned” moment. Ned, don’t tell the Queen your plan, fool! Jesus, man. You and your pesky sense of honor. But this, of course, is also what is great about the character of Ned Stark, and especially what Sean Bean brings to the character (Bean has always been great at imparting steely sincerity; whether good or evil). In some ways Ned is actually an unlikable and unsympathetic character. He’s burdened by a moral code so rigid and heavy that it not only makes him act stupidly half the time, but it also makes him self-absorbed. This comes through in glowing colors when Robert’s brother Renly tells Ned that he wants the throne. Ned doesn’t disagree that Renly’s older brother Stannis will make a terrible king and plunge the country into war, but he’s only concerned with tradition, which he views an inalienable “rights” for those it applies to. He also won’t preemptively act against Joffrey, even though he knows this will also save time and lives. Ned won’t dishonor himself, even if it means saving thousands and thousands of lives. And that is as selfish as it is noble. This is the heart of Ned Stark. And this is what makes him dangerous to people like the Lannisters; he can’t be bought, or even persuaded with logic. Unfortunately for him, it is also what makes him extremely predictable, to people like Littlefinger. He really blundered right into that trap at the end of the episode.
Elisabeth: Yeah, the noose tightened in this episode. I keep thinking of all the non-readers out there, and how they’re probably saying “Oh, so that’s why Drogo and this blonde chick are here. Invasion!!”
I’ll take up the challenge of defending Ned. I find him maddeningly thick — Littlefinger TOLD him not to trust him, but Ned refuses to believe that anyone could, you know, be bad. I don’t think he made his decisions out of a noble self-interest, but out of just a stubborn belief that doing right would be the best course, and that lives would be saved. I can’t remember if the line made it to the show, but I remember someone (Ser Jorah?) saying something along the lines of the ordinary folk don’t care who the hell is king, they just want rain and good crops. And that’s the truth. That’s always been the truth about the noble classes, but they firmly believe they do it all for the Little People, and Ned is of that school. If Stannis doesn’t take the throne, the city will rebel, because “the people” won’t stand for a switcharoo with Renly, or an illegitimate son like Joffrey, they just won’t, dammit. They’ll rebel, the city streets will run with blood if propriety isn’t observed. Honestly, King’s Landing doesn’t care. No one does. But by admitting that, Ned would undermine his entire world. I don’t even think he’s capable of acknowledging that kind of truth. Someone like Littlefinger — who sort of exists within and without this world — does, but not a man to the manor born like Ned Stark.
In a big recap I wrote elsewhere I heaped a lot of praise on the blase handling of Robert’s death — which was completely offscreen in the book too — but I’ll play devil’s advocate with you, Josh, and say I wish we’d seen Robert gored up. While I’m a big fan of the show (and Martin’s) approach to brushing off big events instead of trumpeting them, as the episodes have wore on, I’ve longed for things to be punched up a little bit. Thrones revels in claustrophobia, and it helps and hinders its visual adaptation. It puts you into Ned’s boots a bit, because you’re trapped within King’s Landing walls, unable to know what’s going on out there, relying only on the whispers of twerps like Varys or Littlefinger. And yet…we AREN’T Ned, we know tons more than he does, so maybe let us breathe a bit and show Robert being attacked.
And I know I’ve been saying this all week, but enough with the childish Fleshbot sex scenes. I always thought Martin was perversely childish with his sex scenes, but the show has actually topped him. I’m not a prude, and I’m a big fan of HBO letting it all hang out — gay, straight, and everything in between. But the lipstick lesbian scene felt like it had been written by a 16 year old. If you compare this to Rome, Boardwalk Empire, or True Blood, it’s just laughable how cheesy and cut and paste the sex has become. It’s like they write a scene, and then say “Hey, can we put some gay-for-pay in this? Just in the background?”
Nick: I don’t care how many gratuitous peep and puss shots there are or how dumb Ned can be, the show just works so much magic that the faults (and there are faults) seem so much less. Robert’s death surprised the shit out of me because in my blindness I thought we’d be seeing Sean Bean and Mark Addy romp together for seasons. Now that I know what happens at the end of the first book I have a differing slant on the matter. Addy did fantastic work here, and I think an easy answer to why his reign was so flawed and Ned has been such a pushover is simple: These are warriors who truly have no place in a throne room. Their best years were on fields of blood and Ned was wise and went and raised a family in Winterfell. His role as the King’s Hand was doomed to fail. I don’t think of him as dumb, but rather more principled and stoic in an arena where dishonestly and duplicity rule the day. Naive, yes. Dumb, no.
I agree on Drogo. He has come into his own, though I do feel that the Queen would have gotten him to cross the sea even if an assassination attempt hadn’t happened.
Josh: Rappe, I don’t recall who said it, but that sentiment regarding what the regular citizens care about – and it not being about the lives and interests of the rich and royal – has definitely been said on the show. This is the area that makes Thrones stand out in the fantasy world — a feeling of historical realism. Most classic western fantasy is of the King Arthur variety, where bloodlines and the honor of nobles is important to peasants and serfs alike, and thus given extra emotional substance to the audience. As Sir Jorah says to Daenerys in this episode, she has no real “right” to the Iron Throne. Her ancestors seized the throne from whatever dynasty had it before them, just as Robert seized it for himself. I love the way Thrones plays with these various ideas. Our various characters all have different impressions of how the world works. Ned is clueless and that makes him powerless, ultimately. He’s part of the joke, whereas Littlefinger is someone who gets the joke. As he said, he isn’t going to play the “game” by the accepted rules.
We’ve been hearing about the leader of the Lannister pride all season — the papa lion, Tywin. As there are but few surprises afforded me with this show, I took great care not to poke into cast lists too thoroughly. Not only did I want to be surprised if and when the character might show up, but I also didn’t want to know what actor would be playing the part. With so much build up, I had to wonder if we’d get an impressive enough choice to carrying such a hyped up character. Charles Dance is certainly impressive enough. We got a wonderfully staged introduction to the character as well. Cleaning that stag while lecturing Jamie had so much loaded meaning. Here is the richest man in the kingdom (we’ve been told), cleaning his own kill. That let’s us know a lot about what kind of man Tywin is. He doesn’t trust important work to another man when he can just do it right himself. He knows best. Then of course there is the symbolism at play here, considering that the stag is the emblem of King Robert’s house. Dance brings with him so much gravitas too, that just looking in his eyes you can feel Tywin’s confidence. This man isn’t a blowhard like Robert, or a sneak like Littlefinger, or blinded by ideals and emotions like Ned. Tywin seems to know what’s up in a very pragmatic sort of way, and has the power to effect things directly.
Elisabeth: While Tywin is cooler-headed than Ned, I think of them as the same breed. The Lannisters can talk a great game, but they’re ultimately driven by the same things as Ned: history and lineage. They’re not as consumed with honor — though Tywin is a man of honorable appearance, while he visibly does not give a shit about Tyrion’s life, it’s about the larger, noble gesture of standing by your illustrious household and putting up that front of strength. It’s as fatal and leaden a lifestyle as what Ned was feebly trying to uphold. The twist is that the Lannisters will play the game to their own advantage … but for how long? You can weave a pretty good web and outlive a few Roberts and Neds, but eventually you’ll crash and burn, and probably even more spectacularly than the crusty old soldiers did. Being the good guy probably gets you imprisoned or killed a little quicker, but being the bad guy is going to wind up with you or your grandchildren being publicly murdered in the streets for your sins.
As you pointed out, Josh, that’s a bitter theme the show and the book loves toying with — that none of this actually matters to anyone except those playing it. Characters who seem smarter or more pragmatic are caught in the same web. They don’t remove themselves. Littlefinger and Varys are probably the only two who are like “Screw it, let’s play these people for what they’re worth!”, but even that seems short-sighted or foolish when you look at just who you’re dealing with. Alliances and power shifts so quickly that I’m not even sure Littlefinger is as wise and on the up as he thinks he is.
I know people have been on about us about spoilers, although I don’t think we’ve discussed anything the show hasn’t completely broadcast, so I’ll tread lightly — but the sad irony of the entire saga is that while ordinary farmers, fishermen and tradespeople *don’t* give a shit about royal decrees, the Hand of the King, the Lannisters versus the Starks, they’re the ones who pay the price when all hell breaks loose. That’s something I’ve loved (or admired, I guess) about the books is that our various noblemen and women get to see that firsthand … and yet it STILL doesn’t seem to deter them from their suicidal “My blood is better than yours!!” drives.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to Jon. I think the strongest part of the show (save any scene with Peter Dinklage) has been those on the Wall with Jon Snow. Kit Harrington is just a great find, broadcasting so much pain, wounded pride, and anger in his eyes. Jon was a character I had a difficult grasp of in the book — I liked him a lot, but he was very reserved, and his scenes were ultimately more about the barren world and crumbling poverty of the Night Watch. But they’ve wisely trimmed the fat of the daily grind, and showcased Jon as a boy who just can’t get ahead, no matter how hard he works. He gets stuck with the dirty jobs. And yet, all isn’t as it seems, and once he calms down he realizes the backhanded slap was actually a compliment. Jon is the rare character that does the right thing, no matter what, and doesn’t suffer for it. He didn’t get the glamorous job, but he got the entry level position. He has friends. He has room for advancement, and the respect of the Commander. Compared to his dad, he’s doing all right, and it’s a relief to see that in this world, even if it’s in the worst corner of it.
Nick: Snow is obviously a major character who they’re setting up for big things but I think that Harrington’s sad puss of a face carries the bastard banner too obviously and continuously throughout his scenes that we never feel that the guy is shaded and defined. Even though Ned Stark has proven to be much less than the leader we thought, Sean Bean gave him depth and inner fire. Snow is this sad guy who can kick ass and shows oodles of compassion but so far still wears that “woe is me” demeanor too heavily. That said, as an official member of the Watch you can only assume he’ll come into his own.
The meat carving scene and Charles Dance’s quiet ferocity is among the best moments in the show thus far. He does so much with a few glances here that it’s hard not to wish that the character was more prominent. Here’s a chess player who can back it up, and seeing him put his son in his place is great. It actually helps make the Lannisters seem like more than just a spoiled bunch of bitches.
Littlefinger is a paper thin character but I find it hard not falling in love with him. He relishes so much of his wicked little job and is so different from everyone else in the show that he forces the audience to wake up a little whenever he’s onscreen. It’s so tempting to cheat ahead and find out what’s in store, but the place the show is at now with this amazing and major episode setting so many things in motion (and putting an abrupt end to others) that it’s difficult to think it’s going to end up being one of the most solid and effective first seasons we’ve ever seen.
Josh: I agree on Littlefinger. He is kind of the worst major character on the show, yet is just so much fun. I share Rappe’s feelings on the silly “hooker lessons” salaciousness of that one Littlefinger scene, but once we get past HBO giving its subscribers some exploitation goods and settle into the actual point of the scene – Littlefinger essentially giving us his backstory – I loved it. We haven’t really talked about The Wire‘s Aidan Gillen in the role yet, but I think he’s doing a lot to save Littlefinger. As written the character sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise mostly understated show, but I’m with you Nick, I just like watching him do his thing; however obvious that thing may be. I’m a sucker for a good schemer.
Though I do have to disagree with you, Nick, on Jon Snow. Or rather on Kit Harrington. I think he’s doing great work. He does always have a “woe is me” look on his face, but I think that just makes him a “woe is me” character. That is his weakness, which would otherwise destroy him if he wasn’t also so compassionate. Had he not extended Sam a hand in friendship, no one would have been there to talk him down from his pouting rage, and he likely would have said some things to some superiors that would have altered his course at The Wall.
Jorah Mormont is increasingly becoming a really interesting character. That scene in “The Golden Crown” where he prevents the dragon eggs from being stolen by Daenerys’ brother was great. And I’m digging the precarious dance he is doing with the Dothraki. He received his royal pardon (implicitly from The Spider), yet saves Daenerys from being poisoned. His motivations, intentions and goals are still not clear at the moment, which is frankly quite exciting in the midst of all our other very vocal schemers and plotters.
Elisabeth: See, I thought they broadcast just too damn much of Littlefinger in that scene. They didn’t pander to the non-readers for seven episodes, and then come episode 8, they have a guy literally shouting to the audience that he’s about to fuck over everyone. It took the surprise out of the end, I thought, and made Ned seem even more oafish instead of someone seduced by a bland facade.
Sir Jorah is actually a great contrast to Littlefinger, in terms of the show, as he was a fairly bland character, a Basil Exposition to Daenerys. It took a long time for his personality and motives to come out. Instead of making him a mustache twirler (which they could, given his spy status) they’ve left him ambiguous and infused him with a lot of warmth. You *like* the guy, even knowing he’s a spy, and you do kind of cling to him as the one familiar thing in this rough world. I actually thought they had spoiled as much with Jorah as they had with Littlefinger — I thought it was a revealed much later that he was in contact with King’s Landing, but it’s right there in the first chapters of the book. He’s become an example of writerly restraint, and it’s so perplexing when they execute it….
Josh: True, it did soften the blow of surprise when Littlefinger turns on Ned at the end. But that was sort of what I was getting at. I’m loving the performance somewhat in spite of the character.
Nick: It has to be difficult to do a show like this. We talk about all these things that they’re overt with. The characterizations. The simplifications. The telegraphed stuff. They smooth a lot of edges for the screen, but do you guys not agree that it’s for the greater good? You have to wonder what kind of obstacles there are in delivering a big budgeted fantasy show for a cable network, where the creative battles are being fought. To me this is so much of a resounding win that though there are nitpicks it’s hard to really make too much of a stink about it. We’re so lucky right now.