CERSEI: When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die. There is no middle ground.
If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of ‘Winter Is Coming’, you could do worse than point to ‘You Win or You Die’. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.
Though it contains a number of extra elements, ‘You Win or You Die’ can be seen as a clearer successor to ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ than ‘A Golden Crown’ was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season. Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.
They do take a little cheeky license in having Cersei Lannister specifically voice the title of the entire series, and the first of Martin’s books, but it allows for one of the most iconic and pointed lines of dialogue the show ever gave us, and one which encapsulates what will form the essential basis of the show: games, power plays, lies, false narratives and manipulations. I’ve talked before about how Ned Stark has always felt doomed, and Sean Bean plays him right from the beginning as a man with a target on his back, and that becomes ever more apparent here. Ned does not have a place in the world Cersei is looking to create, a world where you take what you can by whatever means necessary. Ned belongs in a world of honour, chivalry and justice – a world which died once Robert’s Rebellion began breeding corruption in a system which was already intensely broken.
Ned is painfully honest with people he really shouldn’t be across this episode. He openly tells Cersei he knows Robert’s children are secretly Jaime’s. He tells Littlefinger that he plans to cede control of King’s Landing to Robert’s brother Stannis, long in exile on Dragonstone, after the King dies. He consistently refuses to play a game everyone around him seems to already be engaged in, and it begins the slow and steady road to his inevitable death. It’s a road he’s been on since the moment he left Winterfell, but at this stage Game of Thrones hasn’t quite played all of its cards as a television show yet. Audiences are still expecting Ned’s innate nobility and honour to see him through the day. We are about to be swiftly disabused of the notion that honour gets you anywhere in Westeros.
A good example of that is Tywin Lannister. Played immediately with dialogue-chewing relish by Charles Dance, he gets one of the strongest symbolic and character-based introductions the series has ever given anyone. The first moment we see him, if the foreshadowing wasn’t clear enough, he is skinning a stag he has hunted (the stag of course being the sigil of House Baratheon). Any other lord no doubt would get his servants to hack away at the beast, pulling out its entrails and shedding it of its pelt, but Tywin clearly is very at home with death. You get a sense the man revels in it. Tywin has nicely been played up in previous episodes as a force to be reckoned with, one of the major string-pullers in the puppet show that is the Seven Kingdoms, which is why it comes as something of a surprise to find Tywin doesn’t seem to be as interested in the game as his children.
Tywin chastises Jaime who claims he didn’t kill Ned Stark during their combat at the end of ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ because “it wouldn’t have been a clean death”. For all his slick, patronising arrogance, Jaime wants to maintain some sense of personal honour as a warrior – no doubt because he has spent his entire life being scornfully called the ‘Kingslayer’ by people who consider him a man who betrayed his sacred oath to the Realm. This bothers Jaime more than he would admit to anyone other than Tywin, but whereas reputation bother both Jaime and Cersei in different ways, Tywin thinks very differently: “A lion doesn’t concern themselves with the opinions of the sheep”. Tywin’s only game, his only interest, is in protecting a bigger concept: the Lannister name.
This is what makes Tywin one of the most fascinating and complex characters in Game of Thrones, because aside from the fact we later learn he is a gigantic hypocrite when it comes to his own arch position outside of game playing, want and vice, Tywin has a self-awareness which borders significantly on nihilism. He must have been a fantastic character to write for because he’s one of the few, rare characters in the Seven Kingdoms who has some genuine understanding of the sociological and political complexities of the feudal system in Westeros, and importantly how it seems to be breaking down. Dance himself has described Tywin as a victim of the system, and there’s truth in his words:
Power is always a corrupting influence. In this mythical time – let’s call it medieval, feudal – people in power are dictatorial and don’t want their positions of power to be threatened. People like Tywin Lannister are very much victims of that system, and of that environment: ‘This is my place, don’t threaten it’. I don’t know how relevant that is to today. Politics is the most corrupt profession on earth, no matter where you are.
We will learn in later seasons, though you get more details in Martin’s books, about how Tywin’s entire persona was shaped because of the weaknesses of his father, but at some point the Lannister patriarch began to mythologise his own family and house. He doesn’t talk about his children with any sense of paternal care, right from his first scene down to his last. Tywin has an incredibly dark and philosophical concept of what the Lannister name means: “Your mother’s dead. Before long I’ll be dead. Then your brother, your sister, and all of their children. All of us dead. All of us rotting in the ground. It’s the family name that lives on. That’s all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honour, but family.”
That is a powerfully aware world-view, and one which most of the characters we have met so far do not share. They *are* concerned with their own personal honour, or legacy, or status. They want to take from the world what it can offer and they have little regard for the consequences on society as a whole. Tywin doesn’t care about ‘the people’, he’s no socialist, but he understands the cyclical futility of life as a whole. One of the key messages we see play out in Game of Thrones is how, ultimately, history is want to repeat itself. Wars, great families, great heroes or villains, they all come and go. The wheel keeps turning. The system continues. The entire point of Game of Thrones, ultimately, concerns what happens when that wheel breaks. What happens when society, despite conquering Targaryen’s or rebelling Baratheon’s, starts to unravel.
The difference between Tywin to someone like Daenerys Targaryen, by the time she plans on *changing* that system, is that Tywin wants to control it. He doesn’t think in terms of his lifetime, or his children’s, or even his grandchildren’s. “We can create a dynasty that could last a thousand years” he tells Jaime, trying to convince him now is the time to strike against their enemies, and there is something incredibly Nazi about that. Tywin has something of a Teutonic efficiency about him; blonde, rapturous in his monologuing or sermonising, and with one eye on the kind of thousand year ‘Reich’ that Adolf Hitler hoped to create out of the ashes of Europe. Tywin’s idea of peace is a totalitarian rule he can’t enforce with ‘honourable’ men like Robert and Ned in the way.
Tywin, therefore, in just one scene, is perfectly characterised. We will learn more about his past which explains a level of his morbid nihilistic fascination with power, but we know enough from his interaction with Jaime to characterise him as a major player, even if Tywin is playing a different game to almost everybody else. He is the first person to truly wrong-foot Jaime, bring out a vulnerability in the man which will later lead to his honour, at times, overcoming his Lannister arrogance and cruelty. “I need you to become the man you were always meant to be”, Tywin encourages him. “Not next year. Not tomorrow. Now”.
Let’s be honest: Jaime is *not* his father. If anything Tyrion is more like Tywin, we just won’t really know that until revelations in the fourth season. Cersei is more like Tywin than he gives her credit for most of the time, but she lacks his Machiavellian intelligence. Jaime is, in many ways, much more of a straight arrow. He is vain, selfish, with an unhealthy sexual obsession regarding his sister, but he wants respect more than anything else. Jaime wants a place in the history books and thus far has felt robbed of it. His swaggering arrogance is fuelled by a deep-seated insecurity about the reputation that follows him everywhere after the events of the Rebellion.
What Tywin offers him here is the chance to prove himself, not just to his father, but to everyone else. To gain some of that honour Tywin doesn’t believe in. Tywin of course doesn’t know at this stage about Jaime & Cersei’s long-held passion, nor the fact his grandchildren are the product of their unholy union, mainly because he fears the erosion of the Lannister name in the vein of what he perceives happened to the Targaryen’s. Cersei’s own viewpoint on this differs; she doesn’t deny Ned’s accusations and makes the point that the Targaryen’s inter-bred for years to preserve their bloodline and dynasty.
There is a sense, however, that the Rebellion was partly fuelled by changing ideas in Westerosi culture about incest; much like how in human history, intermarriage of Royal bloodlines was common place (and cousins still do marry each other in the present day in certain cultures), changing social attitudes—perhaps thanks to a growing religious undercurrent—turned such practices into a social taboo. Cersei spends most of Game of Thrones kidding herself this isn’t the case, and only truly has to face it once the High Sparrow incites his religious persecution in Season 5.
Speaking of taboos, the episode caused some controversy with its quite passionate lesbian whorehouse scene in which Littlefinger drops a major chunk of his backstory while coaching northern whore Ros into the seduction of one of his fellow brothel madams. Myles McNutt argues the scene should be best described as “sexposition”:
I have issues with “sexposition” only insofar as it has become a pattern. While the actual scenes with Tyrion, Theon and Viserys having sex with prostitutes serve as valuable insights into their characters (although Tyrion’s was a bit reductive, looking back on it), the fact that all involve sex with a prostitute raises some interesting questions. Actually, it only raises one question: why? Is it simply because we couldn’t be trusted to pay attention otherwise? I don’t argue with the logic that these three characters would be in these situations, or even that they’d have the conversations they do. It’s just the way the scenes were staged, the sex used as either an introduction or a variable in the discussion, which seemed strange. It’s as though they think having a prostitute appear and only talking, without actually having sex, would be some sort of cop-out. In my view, at least, it’s the other way around: it just feels lazy, even as I can see the scene itself has been written fairly carefully beyond the staging of it all.
The scene is an interesting choice by Benioff & Weiss. Cynically, you might suggest it provided them an opportunity to show off Esme Bianco’s beguiling wares again (given we’ve seen more of Ros with her clothes off than on so far this season) in order to entice viewers with the promise of ’T&A’ which comes with a cable demographic free from network restrictions on taste and decency. Game of Thrones, the more it moves away from being a medieval-allegorical drama into a science-fiction/fantasy series, dials down considerably the amount of sex and nudity in later seasons, but it is hard to deny in these early days HBO took the opportunity to promote the series as an adult show. Let’s face it, it was a canny marketing technique that often worked.
That being said, if you can move past the aesthetic choice (and it is a really quite explicit sex scene, even for GoT), it provides the first true, fascinating window into Littlefinger’s chameleonic character. I’ve already talked about how Petyr Baelish has been established in opposition to Lord Varys as one of the key game players in the Seven Kingdoms, and by this point we now have some idea of the broader chess pieces Varys has in play concerning the Targaryen Restoration conspiracy, but what exactly does Littlefinger want? We’ve seen him scheming, plotting, whispering scary seeds of knowledge in Sansa’s ear or swopping veiled barbs with Varys, but where does he position himself in contrast to Varys’ apparent desire to serve the Realm?
Littlefinger presents a narrative to Ros, during her coaching, which at this stage could be a pack of lies given we see no flashbacks to cement his claims in truth, but one which seems to tie into suggestions he has long been in love with Catelyn Stark. No names are mentioned, but we can infer he was essentially ‘friend zoned’ by Catelyn as a young boy, a girl who loved Ned’s elder brother Brandon Stark, who young Petyr challenged to a duel and quite embarrassingly lost. Cat ended up marrying Ned after Brandon was killed with their father Rickard in the Throne Room by the Mad King, events which sparked Ned’s alliance with Robert Baratheon which helped trigger the Rebellion itself. Littlefinger’s part in these bigger political events is minor but, if true, it cemented the psychology of the man who would end up defining himself by his moniker.
“I learned I would never win. Not that way. That’s their game. Their rules”. What young Petyr learned was that he was never going to conform to the masculine paradigm in which *men* are defined within Westeros. If Varys’ masculinity was robbed from him due to the literal loss of his manhood, Petyr suffered the same fate in more of a metaphorical context; he knew Cat would never see him in the way she saw Brandon or later Ned, so he became someone else. Littlefinger is much like the Joker, certainly the incarnation Christopher Nolan brought to the screen; his personal narrative is questionable but he seems to value the idea of power in chaos, in opposition to Varys’ belief in power through order. “Only by admitting who we are can we get what we want” Littlefinger tells Ros. “And what do you want?” she asks. “Oh… everything…” is his response.
Littlefinger is the entire game of thrones in one character. He lives for the game, and we will come to further explore some of this psychology particularly in later seasons when he tethers much closer to Sansa. It’s one of the reasons Littlefinger’s position as a brothel owner meets intelligence gatherer is so interesting, as is the Ros scene, because Littlefinger is an intentionally asexual character, and in a different way to Varys. Whereas Varys is biologically asexual, Littlefinger chooses to abstain from pleasures of the flesh and traditional passions.
His motivations are tied up, in a complex way, with love, lust and loss, not to mention a significant deep-seated hatred of the Stark’s, but you sense he keeps himself at a distance from the sex he peddles precisely because he knows how much sex corrupts. Littlefinger’s openness with Ros in such a sexual manner is perhaps telling of how little he considers his whores people. To him, they are just his equivalent of Varys’ ‘little birds’, gathering knowledge in the beds of corruptible men, and bearing strings of bastard babies who he keeps in his courtyard. For the first time this season, Littlefinger’s deeper characterisation begins to assert itself.
The game is far less apparent in the cold, harsh realities of the North. ‘You Win or You Die’ is not an episode which indulges a great deal in the prophetic, foreboding nature of the series’ stranger, darker threats or more fantastical elements which will creep into the storytelling, but Benioff & Weiss continue layering in a growing suggestion that something terrible lies beyond the Wall. The Stark’s new Wildling captive, Osha, talks of “things that sleep in the day and come out at night”, referring to the Long Night of the kind of legend Old Nan would tell Bran in his bed. It’s clear the Wildling’s, who will begin to be truly characterised next season, believe strongly in what the ‘civilised’ world consider nothing more than silly old superstitions.
We haven’t seen a great deal of the Night’s Watch over the last few episodes either, and Benioff & Weiss here importantly start to etch in some detail about how the organisation works. Thus far, we have really only seen the Watch through the prism of Jon Snow as he tries to find his place within the framework of the group, but Lord Commander Mormont’s speech speaks to another deeper theme which runs throughout the episode: the meaning of the Realm. He describes the Watch as a place where Rangers have “no past, no history, no house”. They strip away the entitlements or crimes or misdemeanours of their past and serve a bigger idea – the Realm. The Watch is about serving the people rather than gold, glory, or your own self-interest.
The Watch, thus far, hasn’t been portrayed as a particularly glamorous place or noble vocation; Jon is sent there largely because he’s a bastard, Sam Tarly was an unwanted nobleman due to his lack of masculinity, and poor characters like Pyp regale the story of how he ended up there because he dared to talk back to pervy Lord who tried to molest him (another example of sexual corruption and exploitation through power). Mormont’s speech, and the nobility of the ritual of the Watchmen being inducted into the organisation, suggests a deeper level of honour and self-sacrifice with the Watch than has previously been characterised. It really is the equivalent of joining a monastery, in many respects; sacrificing love, sex, or personal desire, for a greater purpose. In this case, it’s not worship of a higher power, but the protection of society as a whole.
Hence why it is interesting how religion does come up in direct regards to the Watch, when Jon and Sam both elect to be inducted under a weir wood tree beyond the Wall, in the sight of the Old Gods. The books go into great detail about the polytheistic nature of Westerosi society, how many of the different houses and different lands worship different deities, but the show hasn’t yet explored these religious characteristics in any depth. Sam claims he was brought up “in the light of the Seven” but is happy to switch to the Old Gods because he feels the Seven has never really spoken to him. It suggests the Seven Kingdoms polytheism among some houses and groups of people can be fairly elastic, and not as stringent as the worship we will later see in a monotheistic context with characters such as Stannis Baratheon.
Outside of religion, we learn the Watch isn’t just about fighting and killing Wildlings or worse; there are Builders who maintain the castles that protect the Wall, Kitchen staff who prepare food to keep the Watchmen going in the terrible cold, or Stewards who essentially act as housekeepers for many Rangers, the men who go out and do the fighting and exploring. While Sam is happy to be a Steward, content with his place as an emasculated figure, Jon can’t let go of both his privilege as a Stark but also his entitlement as a man brought up to believe he is a true born, masculine warrior, when named a Steward. He may well be right, but it proves Jon still has some way to go in accepting his place in the Watch.
Someone who does appear to have accepted her place is Daenerys, barely giving much though to the fact her brother just had his brain melted by liquid gold, as she tries to convince Drogo to invade Westeros and help her take back her homeland. It’s interesting how the Dothraki have no word for ‘throne’, forcing Dany to say the word in her own tongue; it suggests the Dothraki, as a tribal, honour-based race, have no interest in conventional power in the frame Westerosi civilisation would see it. It takes the intended assassination of Daenerys to spur Drogo into action, but he isn’t operating out of any sense of political aspiration, rather out of passionate anger that the Seven Kingdoms would dare try and murder his wife and child.
Though Daenerys has in many ways been radicalised and indoctrinated by the Dothraki, these are the first suggestions she doesn’t really fit in this world any more than Viserys did. Jorah’s presence provides a necessary bridge between her indulgement of Dothraki ‘savagery’ and the vestiges of a civilisation she has never truly known; he points out her ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror, had no rights over Westeros when he invaded—after Dany suggests the Kingdoms are hers by right—and he simply won out because he had the power to take it. Here’s the difference with Viserys; Dany understands entitlement and bloodlines aren’t enough: to win the game, she needs the right players. She’s still to naive to see how herself, given how easily she is almost poisoned by a sycophantic assassin in disguise.
Little does she realise, however, that on his death bed Robert gives her a reprieve, though as Varys points out to Ned, “that bird has already flown”. It’s interesting to wonder if Varys ever intended that assassin to succeed; he likely sent someone quite hapless, someone he knew a man like Jorah would smoke out, precisely because he wanted the attempt to fail. Varys does suggest to Ned the possibility conspiracy is afoot concerning Robert’s death too, in his own way playing the game and manoeuvring the players, because it only serves to propel Ned further toward his quite questionable choices which lead to the gambit in the final moments.
Robert’s death arguably is what really opens up the narrative of Game of Thrones going into the climax of its first season. Though by no means an inevitability, you feel Robert had to die in order to begin the game. It feels like the first major move by the shadowy players on the chess board. Cersei almost certainly gets her buffoonish cousin Lancel to tinge Robert’s wine with something that allows a stag to gore him in the way it did, and she in a later episode confirms as much. Is she acting on the orders or advice of Tywin? He is sending Jaime off to get Tyrion back from the Starks, risking war, so does he know a simultaneous power grab in King’s Landing by the Lannister’s is a crucial part of that first play for power? None of this is confirmed but it’s extremely likely.
Ned just does not have any clue how to operate in the immediate role of Regent, attempting to shore up a very shaky political foundation. He rejects Renly’s (admittedly unconvincing) claim he would make a good King, still intent on shoring up political stability through a military option in Stannis, but Renly quite fairly asks: “Do you still believe good soldiers make good Kings?”. Renly, though as vain as Robert in many ways and certainly playing the game, is quite acutely positioned as an outsider to both masculine dominance and militaristic strength in the Seven Kingdoms; his point about Robert underscores how just because a man might make a good soldier, it doesn’t make him a good ruler. Ned can’t see past the structures and systems of Westeros to truly understand.
Even Littlefinger warns him about Stannis, and how it’s a bad idea. Trying to hand King’s Landing over to a man who would turn the Seven Kingdoms into a military, autocratic dictatorship will only further foster enmity and lead to war, but Ned’s own personal honour and refusal to play the game serves as a barrier to allowing the Starks & Lannister’s to politically unite and take power for themselves. Given Littlefinger’s mercurial approach to the chaos of game theory, he might well not have betrayed Ned had the man listened to his advice; indeed he may have thrown his lot in with Ned’s less militaristic junta: ‘What you suggest is treason!” Ned declares. “Only if we lose” Littlefinger rejoinders.
In the end, however, Littlefinger almost certainly knows that Ned will reject his political marriage suggestion (one which in the end Tywin effectively brings in between the Lannister’s & Tyrell’s). Littlefinger wants the chaos and instability that war will bring and understands that he could be one of the people to profit from it. Ned grows more and more visibly weak across the episode, suffering from his wound by Jaime’s men, which is quite apt given how the Lannister position ultimately takes advantage of his deeper weakness: his refusal to listen to Cersei, or Littlefinger, and play the game. Littlefinger’s final line to him: “I did warn you not to trust me” is prophetic and fitting, perhaps even a wink to the audience. Can we trust anything we heard earlier in the episode?
‘You Win or You Die’ is an important episode for Game of Thrones, in quite how it establishes the key, central thematic concept of the show that will play out across the entirety of the series’ run. As the show races headlong toward its first point of climax, you sense after the events of this episode, Westeros may never quite be the same.
Check out our reviews of the first season of Game of Thrones: