HBO’s Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones episode review: “You Win or You Die”

This week on Game of Thrones, Dany learns about the evils of alcohol, Ned is the most naive person in the Seven Kingdoms, and Robert loses the game of thrones. Episode spoilers ahead.

Sometimes, as I’m watching Game of Thrones, I like to imagine a conversation going on at GoT HQ that sounds something like this:

“We have some information that needs getting across. We’ve got to have two characters talk to each other about stuff.”

“But this is HBO. The characters can’t just talk. We’ve got to put either a sex scene or something gross in the background.”

“How about a chest-shaving scene? A corpse’s neck being sewn up?”

“No, no, we already used those two. How about a dead deer being skinned?”

“Perfect! And then we’ll have two whores perform oral sex on each other while another character monologues.”


I’ll admit that Tywin skinning the deer is actually kind of badass, and I did laugh about it, which is more than I can say about the Littlefinger-monologuing scene. (An aside: I get that everyone likes the actress who plays Ros, but does she really need this much of a storyline? She’s now slept with half the male characters on the show and traveled as far as anyone. If she has a POV in A Dance with Dragons, I’m filing a complaint.) Now those of you who weren’t already acquainted with him have gotten to see how much influence Papa Lannister had on the three paragons he raised. Tywin must be one of the last major characters to be introduced this season, and Charles Dance is pitch-perfect as he chews Jaime out for having any honor at all. What a strange concept to a Lannister! Also, he knows his way around a carving knife, apparently.

Jaime’s ears must be burning, because back in King’s Landing, Cersei and Ned are finally discussing “the truth Jon Arryn died for” out in the open. Ned knows that none of Cersei’s children are Robert’s. Cersei pulls the “the Targaryens practiced incest for generations, and none of them went mad or anything” card, which is less convincing than it could be. I love this little exchange between the two people whose goals are, at the moment, the most directly in conflict. Ned’s just disgusted, but Cersei clearly has a twisted sort of respect for Ned. “You should have taken the realm for yourself,” she tells him. Ned shoots back that turning down the throne wasn’t a mistake. “Oh, but it was,” she says. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

Speaking of which, Robert’s been gouged by a boar on the hunt. “Too much wine, missed my thrust!” he jokes as Ned comes in. (I bet Cersei’s thinking, “I’ve heard that before.”) He also tells Joffrey he wishes he’d been more of a father to him, which is… ironically appropriate. Then he throws everyone out so Ned can take dictation: Robert wants to appoint him Protector of the Realm until Joffrey comes of age. He’s under no illusions about his chances of survival. Ned does perhaps the only sneaky thing he’s done in his entire life, and writes “my rightful heir” instead.

Outside, Varys and Ser Barristan are discussing the fact that it was Lancel, the king’s own squire, who gave him enough wine to put him off his game. Ned, hearing this, is struck with a realization, but for once manages to keep a dangerous thought to himself. Instead he merely tells Varys that Robert decided to call off their “arrangements” about Dany. Varys replies regretfully that it’s too late, and she’s likely dead already.

Of course, she’s not; in fact, Dany is so much not dead that she’s… braiding Drogo’s hair as she lectures him on geography. Hey, it’s exposition without sex or grossness! Drogo is skeptical that the Seven Kingdoms even exist, let alone that they should invade them, and Dany is unable to convince him otherwise.

Later, she goes to the market with Jorah, who has sneaky spy business to conduct, so he sends her off on her own. A wine-seller offers her a sample of his wares and, when he finds out who she is, declares that he has an even better wine to give her. An even better poisoned wine, of course, which Jorah sniffs out just in time; he insists that the wine-seller drink himself, and the man runs instead. He doesn’t run very far.

If Dany had planned this exchange, it couldn’t have worked better in her favor. As soon as Drogo is assured that Dany is safe, he decides this whole invasion thing has gotten a lot more appealing. He will give his son “the iron chair that his mother’s father sat upon.”

We have only a brief glimpse of what’s going on in Winterfell, and what’s going on is that Theon is an asshole and Natalia Tena is awesome. GRRM has commented on the fact that Osha is supposed to be much older, but Natalia Tena blew everyone away in her audition, and even her brief appearance in this episode has convinced me that that was a great choice. I can’t wait to see more of her later on.

Note to citizens of Westeros: never, ever tell anyone “we’ll talk about it when I get back.” First Robert dies after telling Ned they’ll talk after the hunt, and now Benjen’s gone missing after telling Jon they’d talk after his return. Sam and Jon are stationed on the Wall and see a horse without a rider approach, which Jon recognizes as Benjen’s. Worse yet, when they make their vows to the Night Watch, Jon is made a steward. Maester Aemon informs him that Lord Commander Mormont requested him specifically, but Jon thinks it’s just Ser Allister’s revenge. Sam tries to convince him otherwise—that they’re grooming Jon for command. Somewhat calmed, Jon confides to Sam that he’s always wanted to be a ranger. Sam confides in return that he always wanted to be a wizard. This is not the first hint that if Sam were in our world, he’d be playing a lot of D&D.

The two of them swear their vows under a weirwood north of the Wall: “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death.” They’re welcomed as brothers of the Night Watch, and then Ghost appears (seriously, appears, since we haven’t seen him for quite a while), carrying a human hand.

Back in King’s Landing, Renly has apparently taken Loras’s words to heart: he wants Ned to strike against the Lannisters and put him on the throne, not Stannis. Ned replies that Stannis has led men into battle, so he’s fit to be king. Renly says with heat, “So was Robert. Do you still think good soldiers make good kings?” Littlefinger is in agreement with Renly that Stannis shouldn’t be king, though his proposed solution is somewhat different: leave Joffrey on the throne but keep him tame. If he gets out of control they can take care of Stannis, reveal the truth about Joffrey’s parentage, and put Renly on the throne. “What you suggest is treason,” Ned says, appalled. “Only if we lose,” Littlefinger points out. But Ned is determined to stick to his original plan, and with much discomfort, asks Littlefinger to ensure that the city guard will back him, which Littlefinger promises. Hey, everyone: remember what Littlefinger said to Ned about trusting him?

“King Joffrey” summons Ned to the throne room and demands an oath of fealty, the first Ned’s heard of Robert’s actual death. Joffrey on the Iron Throne is one of the most disturbing images this series has given us, and that’s saying something. Ned has Ser Barristan read Robert’s letter, which Cersei then asks for—and tears to pieces. “Is this meant to be your shield, Lord Stark?” she asks with amusement. “A piece of paper?”

Ned orders the city guard to capture the Lannister men, but instead they kill all of Ned’s. Littlefinger puts a knife to Ned’s throat and refreshes our memory: “I did warn you not to trust me.” People who are surprised: Ned. People who are not surprised: the rest of us.


Share your thoughts below, but please be warned that book spoilers may be discussed. For a true spoiler-free zone, please visit Leigh Butler’s ASoIaF read. (Though the TV show has now outpaced the novel chapters in the Read.)

Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9pm ET/PT on HBO.

Ellen B. Wright lives in New York, where she works in publishing and takes an excessive number of pictures.


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