By Alyssa Rosenberg
Before I begin, a brief reminder to start your comment with a spoiler warning if you’re kicking off a discussion of something we know from the books but not from the episodes that have aired so far. Thanks!
To me, “Lord Snow” is the episode where HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones genuinely becomes its own creation independent of George R.R. Martin’s work. But the adaptations and additions work because, now that the plot is well and truly underway, they tease out and expand upon Martin’s themes in really effective ways.
One of the things this episode does best is illustrate the futility of good intentions. Some of the errors people make are the inevitable hurts of parenting and friendship. When Ned tries to make Sansa happy with an exquisite doll, a toy she’s far too old for, and that in any case wouldn’t make up for the fact that he killed her pet, his disappointment is what’s most revealing about the scene. Ned’s exposed himself as dangerously sentimental, underestimating the extent to which his children have grown up into people with independent motivations, desires, and agendas. There’s a similar strain of nostalgia when Littlefinger brings Cat to his brothel. It’s meant to be a gesture of consideration, but Baelish can’t resist showing off that he’s sexually appealing to other women, even if they’re women that he essentially owns. He doesn’t get any of what he wants out of his grand gesture, though: Cat’s annoyed at his high-handedness, and she’s not jealous, just insulted. Everyone has someone who instantly returns them to the awkwardness of their teenage years.
But those failures aren’t always personal, sometimes they’re the result of the paranoia and institutional dysfunction of the circumstances the characters find themselves in, whether they’re in King’s Landing or on the Wall. I thought it was an interesting choice to have Varys, the King’s spymaster, make two social errors in this episode, the first when he tells Ned that he’s praying for Joffrey’s recovery, only to have Ned tell him he should pray for the dead butcher’s boy, and the second when he takes Cat’s wounded hands and murmurs over them. For all his knowledge, Varys doesn’t seem to be able to read people correctly. Ned’s angry reaction to the news of the crown’s debt is right, from a policy perspective (even if you haven’t read the books, it’s clear that to be on the wrong side of the Lannisters’ accounts in any possible way is a very bad thing), but entirely wrong when it comes to court politics. And Jon misunderstands the way meritocracy works on the Wall, angering both the men training with him and his uncle by focusing only on his existing talents, rather than what he has to learn.
All of these misunderstandings are the result of institutional rot. Varys goes wrong with the Starks by assuming they’ll operate by the same twisted rules as everyone else at court. Ned goes wrong by assuming that it’s possible to govern by principles other than the whims of the king and a court that’s engineered to satisfy them. And if the Night’s Watch was the force it’s supposed to be, Jon would be in a cohort of men he had something to learn from, rather than stuck in a system that’s oriented towards imposing basic order on people who got there in the first place because they couldn’t or wouldn’t abide by society’s rules. It’s striking that the only thing that anyone does right in this episode is in defiance of societal conventions, when Ned decides to get his youngest daughter a rather unorthodox dancing teacher. It works because Ned’s paying attention to Arya’s true desires, rather than convention. And it’ll be useful in a world where neither embracing principal nor playing by playing by artificial morals and rules work out very well for anyone.