As usual, spoilers in the post, but if you’re spoiling beyond the episode in comments, give a holler to warn folks who are experiencing this all for the first time.
One of the most common criticisms of HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thronesis that the first couple of episodes were slow, packed with exposition rather than with action. “You Win or You Die” makes clear just why all that exposition was necessary: Westeros is a house of rotten cards, and the rot’s become untenable in a dozen areas at once. And if anything, HBO’s moved more swiftly than George R. R. Martin to make some of that rot clear, whether it’s Tywin Lannister entering the stage a book early to berate his son Jamie and to brood over the greatness his House can have if his children dare to reach for treachery, complaining, “Clean? You spend too much time worrying on what other people think of you,” or Jorah Mormont finding the limits of his willingness to betray the pregnant queen he’s been reporting on since she married Khal Drogo.
This is also the episode where certain changes in characterization begin to pay off. While we get to know more of Cersei Lannister’s mind in A Feast for Crows, the show’s done more to show her as a person earlier, to suggest that she might once have been a loyal Queen to Robert, a capable asset to his kingdom. Of course, he was always incapable of knowing how to use her for anything loving or productive. But knowing that she cared for the idea of him, at least, makes it more plausible when she explains how that potential love turned to hatred. “I worshipped him,” she told Ned. “That night he crawled on me, stinking of wine, and did what he did, what little he could do. And he whispered in my ear, ‘Lyanna.’ Your sister was a corpse and I was a living girl and he loved her more than me.” If Cersei had been indifferent to Robert, she probably never would have grown to hate him that much. But she cared, and so she’s capable of being bitterly, poisonously disappointed, and actually tracing that whole arc this early on is a wise decision.
And it’s the moment when it becomes clear what a weakness Eddard Stark’s brittle honor is. It’s built on an inherently unstable foundation: as Littlefinger points out, Stark had little care for succession or distaste for rebellion when his father and brother had been murdered and a mad king sat on the throne. But once his friend seized that seat, Stark made honor the core of his existence. Giving the throne to Robert Baratheon was a way for Ned to absolve himself of his participation in that rebellion, to build a foundation for a life defined by righteousness. It was a luxury he could afford as a regional lord when he only had to enforce a few simple laws, but he can’t see beyond enforcing the law to understand what it would me to interpret it. He’s a good subject, but merely a subject, unable to learn from his early years that it offers no protection at the level of grand strategy.
He’s in no position to manage all the corrupted institutions and people he’d have to be able to play off each other in order to pull off an orderly transition: Ned can’t see the corruptibility of the city watch, even though he’s shored them up early in the series, he doesn’t predict Renly’s revolt or Cersei’s decision to stay and fight, and he trusts Petyr Baelish even after the man explicitly tells him not to, even after he’s blown off Littlefinger’s latest plan. It would be a devilish act to pull off for even a man of clearer vision, but Ned can’t even see that this is what politics is — and it would be a devilish act to pull off fully and with full impact without all the seeds sown in earlier episodes. It’s a tragedy, but an infuriating one, more so because of how the script makes those errors coalesce.
The one scene that I thought really didn’t work, and that failed as a product of decisions that have been made throughout the series, was Khal Drogo’s decision to take Westeros. The series has cut out almost all explanation of Dothraki society that appears in Martin’s books: we don’t know who the Mother of the Mountains is, there’s no explanation of the Dosh Khaleen (and thus, why Dany’s chomping on horse hearts and eager to get out of Vaes Dothrak lest she become a creepy widow), no scenes of the broken gods the Dothraki have taken from other lands, and correspondingly, no sense of the scope of Drogo’s horde or the continent it operates on. The stakes in the internal conflict in Westeros are high, of course, but this is really a clash of civilizations, not an internal power struggle, and seeing a man rage in a tent, or Theon Greyjoy complain bitterly about his father, is telling rather than showing. For viewers who haven’t read Martin’s books, that’s a lot of worldbuilding and emotional investment to take on faith.
This show is going to live because it convinces people to invest in it, to investigate every nook and cranny of the world where it’s set. But if the showrunners and HBO are going to demand that level of dedication, they’d better be prepared, and more prepared than George R.R. Martin was, for the level of detail and consistency viewers are going to want in return.