“You Win Or You Die” is a monumental episode of Game Of Thrones, perhaps the defining hour of the show until “Blackwater” if not the Red Wedding. There are several story reasons for this: Drogo’s speech, Ned’s confrontation with Cersei, Robert’s death, Jon’s brief fit of petulance, and Littlefinger’s betrayal are all among the most notable of the series so far. But I don’t want to focus on those specifically as story. Instead, I’d like to look at just why these scenes are so stunning: they’re fantastic to simply watch.
The opening scene of the episode may be its, and one of the show’s, very best. Jaime Lannister visits his father’s tent, and for the first time, we meet Tywin Lannister. Now, at this point, the show has set up two prime villains: Jaime and Cersei Lannister, with Jaime’s application of direct violence shaping him as the primary threat. Thus Nikolaj Coster-Waldau waltzes into that tent, with his gorgeous floppy hair and customary sneering tone (“Poor Ned Stark. Brave man. Terrible judgment.”), and our expectations get flipped. The expected big bad guy of the series is dressed down by his father almost immediately, in a way that disorients expectations of how the story should progress.
It’s not just what’s done in the scene, it’s how it’s done….
First off, Charles Dance is such a perfect choice to play Tywin Lannister that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role now. It’s not just that he’s the ideal older blond patriarch in visage, but how he carries his body and voice. The way he bears his body in a predator’s pose, stares down his nose like a hawk, and uses his voice would shut down almost anyone, and Coster-Waldau responds with the discomfort of a theoretically adult son. “So the lion does concern himself with the opinions-” “No, that’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.”
But the producers and director reinforce Tywin’s presence with the brilliant choice of having him gutting a stag during the entire conversation. It’s a choice that works on multiple levels: the stag being the symbol of the Baratheons, the characterization of Tywin having an entire camp available to do this yet choosing to do it himself, and the simple benefit of giving Dance props to manipulate. More than any of that, though, it’s the particular act of skinning. The violence Tywin does to the deer corpse is instantly arresting, and gives the scene a tension of focus that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s not at all subtle, but neither is Tywin Lannister. And with this scene, it becomes clear that story expectations that put Cersei and Jaime as the lead antagonists are totally gone.
The entire episode is filled with these incredibly memorable images. Some of them are simple. Ser Jorah Mormont receives a letter granting him a pardon, and immediately has a choice to make. Again, the way the camera lingers on Iain Glen is not subtle, but it’s in no way over-the-top, and more importantly, it’s gorgeous.
And this episode makes all its moments look memorable. Sam and Jon hugging under the Godswood. The camera hover’s over Ned’s shoulder so we see the symbolic power of the Lannisters as he marches into the throne room, with the Kingsguard arrayed in front of the steps, Joffrey leaning, and Cersei unbalancing the shot to the side. “You Win Or You Die” is one of three episodes this season directed by Daniel Minahan—alongside the fifth and eight episodes, all excellent—which makes it somewhat puzzling that he didn’t come back after Season 1.
The most striking entire scene in “You Win Or You Die” is the one that gives the episode—and the show—its title, with Ned confronting Cersei in the gardens. The lush backdrop has a sort of imposing sweltering density that I’m not certain the later seasons, having been filmed in Dubrovnik, have had (they may not have needed them either, as King’s Landing is a very different place after the events of Season 1). Unlike the Tywin scene preceding it, this one’s tension is built from the text. Ned and Cersei are playing a high-stakes game, representing their hands, knowing that death could easily be the result. “And what of my wrath, Lord Stark? You should have taken the realm for yourself.”
The contrast in costuming is also another great technical detail here. Ned’s scruffy leathers and Cersei’s dress are actually similarly-colored—rich brown and off-red—but apart from that, they’re presented as opposites. Cersei is intricately dressed, urbane, and feminine, while Ned is disheveled, rural and masculine (“jaw like an anvil”!). Of course Ned also is supposed to have the audience sympathy for his rural, masculine, conservative ideals, while his opponent represents wanton immorality and feminine deception. In a simpler—and duller—story, that would be enough.
Indeed, what I like about the first season at this point is how it makes the simpler story seem plausible. There’s still a way that this can work out according to normal fantasy conventions. Ned defeats the Lannisters at King’s Landing, Dany and the Dothraki show up, they have it out, and maybe get ready to fight the Northern zombies. The episode even makes this seem extra-plausible by another of its most impressive scenes: Drogo’s speech.
This is perhaps the most obviously technically put-together scenes, because there’s no way it would work without total commitment from every aspect of the show. Here we have a man shouting in a made-up language, giving an inspiring speech about raping the women of his enemies—“enemies” who are the show’s heroes in many cases—and it works. I’m not usually keen on the whole “created languages” thing, but I’m not sure this can work without Dothraki sounding plausible. And of course Jason Momoa’s physical performance, bounding and flexing around the tent, demonstrating affection for his wife at the same time as menace toward his enemies, is just incredible.
But again: just look at the scene. Drogo’s makeup combines with the tent’s lighting to give him an unearthly pallor. The camera moves around the room with him, and the claustrophobic nature of the set gives the fact that he can and does move around an extra emphasis on his power. The scene is a delight to watch, and that’s what made it, and him, such fan favorites despite the somewhat horrific text of the speech. Then there’s the fact that it’s some major plot momentum. Finally, after seven episodes of waiting, the Dothraki threat will become real, and the confrontation we’ve been waiting for will occur….right?
“I did warn you not to trust me” is the line associated with the final, and therefore most memorable, picture of the episode. Ned’s “I’ve made a terrible mistake” face next to Littlefinger’s grinning mug comprises the moment when it becomes clear that this episode isn’t going to have a straightforward Dothraki-Iron Throne confrontation. However this story is ending, it’s not going to be how we expected. And that’s consistently compelling television, regardless of whether you know what’s coming or not. Because neither the enemies nor the allies are who you’d expect.
Speaking of Littlefinger, “You Win Or You Die” also contains one visually memorable scene that’s not quite unambiguously excellent—the one in his brothel that inspired the term “sexposition.” “I’m not going to fight them. I’m going to fuck them.” There’s a complex, often-interesting, often-annoying conversation to be had about the use of female nudity in Game Of Thrones, and this is certainly part of that. But what I find fascinating about this scene is how nakedly (hah) cynical it is.
What’s occurring is not simply the show using sexiness to sell itself or make a boring monologue plausible. What Game Of Thrones is doing with this scene, whether intentionally or not, is making viewers complicit in its cynicism. It’s explaining that the joy viewers might receive from its nudity and sexuality is always tinged with an artificiality. Like one of Littlefinger’s customers, viewers who may enjoy female nudity in theory will never know if it’s special or if we just want to believe that it’s special. According to Littlefinger, it’s transactional—it’s all transactional. (Thrones pulls a similar trick in another controversial scene, with Joffrey and the prostitutes in Season 2.) Now, I’m not sure if Game Of Thrones fully succeeds in accomplishing this subversion of the idea of nudity; it definitely wants to have its cake and eat it too. But I do think its approach is not as simplistic as it’s often treated.
Notes and quotes:
- First up, sorry for no review last week. I had a bit of a writing traffic jam, and this was the easiest piece to delay.
- “I want the funeral feast to be the biggest the kingdoms ever saw. And I want everyone to taste the boar that got me.” Farewell Mark Addy. You’re missed.
- Two pretty amazing bits of sarcasm in the episode. First, Maester Luwin, with the straight-up burn: “Theon Greyjoy! The lady is our guest.” “Thought she was our prisoner.” “Are the two mutually exclusive, in your experience?”
- Then Varys’ sly snark: “Such a dutiful boy to make the sure the king did not lack refreshment. I do hope the poor lad does not blame himself.”
- Sam has his priorities straight, part 1: “There’s honor in being a Steward.” “Not much, really. But there’s food.”
- Sam has his priorities straight, part 2: “It’s just…I always wanted to be a Ranger.” “I always wanted to be a wizard.”
- Odd thing about this episode. Besides the illegitimate Jon Snow, none of the Stark children appear. I’m not sure if that’s true for any other episode. Also, no Tyrion, which is extraordinarily rare.
- “There is no other choice,” says Ned Stark. Anytime you see a TV character say this, they’re about to do something incredibly stupid. A great TV show will examine that.
- “We only make peace with our enemies, my lord.”
Last time we had a pretty interesting conversation about what Robert might have done to avoid war. So let’s talk about what Ned could have done to either avoid it—or to win the coup and then the war. Renly’s proposition, while interesting, would only have partially improved the odds, and the dishonor associated with it would never have been workable for Ned. A better plan alongside Renly might have been able to be hatched—but probably not with Renly wanting the crown for himself.
Instead, I think Ned’s biggest mistake is believing that, with the proof of the incest and Robert’s will in his hand, he is in an unassailable position. He’s negotiating from a position of strength according to the rules by which he’s playing. That’s why Cersei shredding Robert’s will is such a powerful moment.
So what I think Ned could and should have done is negotiated with the non-Lannister lords and given himself a position of pragmatic strength alongside his moral and legal strength. The show only portrays a handful, but we know that at least several minor lords are in and around King’s Landing at any given time. Had the Hand marched into that throne room with more than just his retinue and a promise, he might have had a chance. Maybe there wasn’t time. But Ned’s unwillingness to communicate with his allies and potential allies is what doomed him, beyond simply his honor and kindness.