“You Win or You Die”
May 29th, 2011
“It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.”
[You can also hear additional thoughts on this episode in a special edition of the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast that I participated in.]
[Also, for more on "Sexposition," check out my review of Season 2, Episode 2, "The Night Lands"]
There has been a lot of conversation surrounding the question of exposition with Game of Thrones, understandable given the high volume of material that has been revealed through conversations in an effort to capture the complexity of George R.R. Martin’s world.
“You Win or You Die” is not particularly exposition heavy, although there is one example that I will break down in greater detail, but the function of exposition is to provide a sense of history and context and I would argue that this episode is very interested in this idea. Some have argued that flashbacks might be considered another way to provide insight into history, and that it would beat the somewhat sloppy exposition that has to this point been deployed, but I would ask this: is the point of exposition to inform or remind the audience of particular information, or is it designed to inform the audience that the particular information in question is, in fact, important enough to be discussed in this context?
The answer, as always, is that it is meant to function as both, but I think those decrying the very existence of exposition in its current form should consider the latter more carefully. The role of history within this world is an important theme that is highlighted in “You Win or You Die,” as various threads comes to a point where the past is either given new meaning or forgotten entirely.
Or, rather, forgotten in some circles and remembered in others.
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.
Now, I will be discussing sexposition in more detail when I return for the second part of the Game of Thrones podcast that I participated in with Ryan McGee, Maureen Ryan, and James Poniewozik, so I won’t go too far into it here. But what strikes me about this scene is that it is probably one of the more effective uses of exposition but is marred by some truly awful staging. The idea of reinforcing Littlefinger’s childhood and his opinion of Ned and his brother is integral to understanding his turn at episode’s end: it’s a nice bit of foreshadowing, and one which enriches the character’s participation in the event. The show is really letting Littlefinger become his own character, and that scene is an important part of giving him agency rather than making his turn against Ned seem like a convenient plot twist. But the choice to stage it while Ros and another prostitute loudly simulate sex just becomes too much to handle. I get that his story connects with their actions, and I like the idea that Littlefinger is using some of his own strategies for tricking/deceiving men like Ned in his advice, but any real symbolism is lost amidst the moaning.
However, once we get past the moaning, I do think that the scene establishes something very simple: Littlefinger is still living in the past when it comes to his relationship with Catelyn and thus his rivalry with Ned. While he considers himself a planner, someone who can think ahead to the various steps they would have to take in order to seize control from Cersei after Robert’s death, he is (like all people) driven by parts of his past when making decisions in the present. He can forget about lines of succession, and he can forget about promises that he’s made, but he’ll never forget when Eddard Stark married the woman he loved and Brandon Stark embarrassed him in front of his beloved.
The problem with flashbacks, I would argue, is that they’re factual: they show us what happened, usually in the form of an indisputable truth. What Game of Thrones seems more interested in is the function of memory, and how different people remember certain events. Sure, you could use a Lost-esque structure in which you exit the flashbacks with a character displaying a particular emotion in response to the memory, but you’re still suggesting that what actually happened is in some way important. For the sake of this show’s narrative, however, I would argue that facts are inessential. What’s important is how history is remembered, and how that lingers: what becomes the subject of songs, and what becomes the subject of an education, and what becomes the subject of hushed whispers? By voicing the stories out loud, and entering them into a more public dialogue, we get to see how people respond to these versions of stories, which tells us more than the story itself could have delivered.
In an ideal world, they would have had 13 episodes to tell this story and maybe could have taken the time to both show us more of the past and properly contextualize it. However, given the 10 episode order, I think they were smart to choose the latter. This is a show that works best when it is living in the present, and its best approach to history is to view it as a shifting entity which is growing more and more problematic the closer we are to the season’s climactic moment.
“You Win or You Die” is that climactic moment, on a number of levels, and it specifically looks at what role history plays in the heat of the moment. In the case of the big climax at episode’s end, which was really well handled by both the cast and the director (Dan Minahan), history means nothing: although Ned stands by the “truth,” Cersei stands by her convictions, and Littlefinger stands by his grudges. In all fairness to Littlefinger, he’s not simply acting on his grudge: if he felt that Ned was his best bet for gaining in stature, he would have swallowed his pride. But the way Ned waffles, refusing to accept that Stannis would be an inadequate King and refusing to move to actually remove Joffrey and Cersei from the situation entirely, basically dooms him even before Littlefinger makes his move. There are simply too many agents at play to make such a passive play, and there truly is no place for honor in a situation as harrowing as this one. There is also, of course, no place for history: the truth of Joffrey’s lineage becomes an accusation rather than a fact, and Robert’s letter is ripped up into pieces as if to prove that the sword is, in fact, mightier than the pen. It doesn’t matter what history has been written down: it only matters what those reading the history are willing to do about it.
It’s a similar principle to what we see operating beyond the narrow sea. Khal Drogo wants nothing to do with Dany’s past so long as it is simple stories: to him, the Iron Throne means nothing, as he has no reason to look beyond his station for health or happiness. It’s just history, and the Dothraki as a nomadic people are completely willing to simply move onto the next location. Obviously, his own history holds meaning, given the braid in his hair which charts his victories, but her history is not “real” in the same way. However, when Dany is nearly killed by an assassin sent by King Robert (and made possible by Ser Jorah), Westeros becomes very real to Drogo. What was once an injustice of the distant past becomes an attack in the present, and what seemed like an unnecessary and dangerous journey now becomes a measure of revenge.
The episode is significant in the fact that it finally allows Khal Drogo to become an actual character. While the value of silence is key to earlier episodes, that we haven’t seen him have an actual conversation to this point is quite damning, especially as many other non-POV characters (those without point-of-view chapters in the books) have been given scenes in which they can reveal more of their personalities and perspectives (although many of them did, you know, involve prostitutes). Drogo has not been offered the same, and so the brief scene of Dany braiding his hair was itself a welcome contribution to the character, and then his targeted rage at episode’s end really established the character’s position within both the Dothraki people and the series as a whole. Jason Momoa has, to this point, been asked to brood fiercely and get naked, but here he’s given some real material and makes the most of it.
The other reason I draw the theme of history to the surface is that Jon Snow and his brothers at the Wall took their oaths to the Night’s Watch, and therefore erased much of their history. The Night’s Watch, as was established early on, is a bunch of kids from a wide range of backgrounds who eventually all come out as equals: it’s something that Sam seems glad for, given an opportunity to try out a new family – which is nicely displayed in his decision to follow Jon to the Heart Tree to complete his Oath in the presence of the old gods – after his old one disowned him.
It’s more difficult for Jon, of course: he’s supposed to accept the brotherhood as a collective, but he can’t look past the fact that he was born to be a Ranger. He was also trained to be a Ranger by Lord Rodrik, and has proven his skills as a Ranger in the training yard at Castle Black. I like that the episode allows him to seem entitled, allows him to look like a bit petulant following the announcement that he would be bringing Lord Mormont water for his baths. Kit Harington has been doing well with Jon’s quieter roles, but here he does a nice job of showing Jon as what he is: a “boy” who suffers from an ongoing crisis of identity and who has been at least somewhat spoiled by his upbringing.
His failing is that he is unable to look past his own history and see what this position truly means. He imagined himself a Ranger because his Uncle was a Ranger, and because that’s what seemed like the most honorable role. I didn’t see it the first time through, but I love the way Jon (like Ned) holds up honor as this valued entity as he informs Sam that there is honor in being a Steward. I also love how Jon is too short-sighted to see that Mormont asking for him personally suggests a future beyond fetching bathwater, blinded by his rage to the point where he fails to realize that perhaps it isn’t the honorable Rangers who achieve power. As the “game of thrones” goes on down in King’s Landing, Jon finds himself being groomed for a similar succession, but it’s one free from bloodlines or any sort of history (including a history of desire, as Jon seemed quite clear in his plans to become a Ranger). Instead, it’s based simply on ability.
Ability, of course, is derived from history. The prevalence of that history throughout the first seven episodes has made it very clear that these characters are often framed by their history, or by the history of their houses: as Tywin points out in the pull quote at the top of this post, on some level history is the only thing that ever truly lives on. The difference, of course, is that one’s actions can influence a family name, or a line of succession, thus rewriting the historical record. Then, new songs will be sung, new stories will be told, and new lessons will be taught to schoolchildren. In an episode with a lot of exciting action across multiple storylines, a number of scenes foregrounded not so much the immediate effects of these actions but rather the long-term effects on the history of Westeros and what a character living 100 years in the future would be telling us about while having sex with a prostitute.
In the meantime, though, the show is more in the “present” than ever before, which means that history is about to take a backseat to a bit of a wild ride in the weeks ahead.
- I noted on Twitter that I wanted to spoil something to point out a possible connection, but actually it’s not really a spoiler. I will say simply this: given the uncertainty surrounding Jon’s lineage, it’s interesting to see how the episode foregrounds a comparison with Ned. Just as Ned very much refuses to take power and shows himself an inadequate ruler in light of his unshakeable honor, Jon finds himself being considered a great leader even as he displays characteristics that might question this. There’s something similar there, but there’s also something different, and I’m curious to see how they play that out in the series (and to what degree it relates to some of the ongoing debates surrounding the identity of his Mother).
- Seems odd to barely talk about Robert’s death, but as someone who’s read the books there isn’t an element of surprise there. The show sort of handled it as a sudden event, largely because it was. That being said, there is something sort of tragic about it happening offscreen given how much more central Robert has been in the series – Mark Addy did some tremendous work here, and while I get that “moving on while the body’s still warm” is part and parcel with this type of succession battle, it still felt awfully disrespectful given the strength of Addy’s performance.
- Related to a discussion that we had on the podcast, I felt that Cersei’s (eponymous) line about the actual game of thrones was important: those who play either win or die, perhaps, but what about those who are only playing because others chose to play for them? It’s interesting to note that Arya and Sansa are entirely absent here, despite this obviously directly affecting them. I’ll be curious to see how the show plays this out in the weeks ahead.
- Not a whole lot of material, but Gethin Anthony had a nice posture to Renly in this one. Joffrey is obviously a true Boy King, but I’d argue that Renly is similarly putting on airs as well, and there’s a real sense of attempted maturity in his discussion with Ned.
- Some great work from Natalie Tena and Alfie Allen in making what is basically exposition seem very sharp – Osha is not a character that made a big impression on me in the books, so this little war of wards was a nice surprise (Note: I meant to write war of words, but then I realized my typo was sort of brilliant, so I’ve left it). Also, Maester Luwin’s smackdown of Theon was one of those utterly pleasurable moments that a show this dark rarely achieves.
- Speaking of which: “I wanted to be a wizard” was delightful, even if it does make me realize that the Wall really is Band of Brothers mixed with Harry Potter. Sam as Ron never occurred to me, honestly, until that moment, but it totally fits.
- I watched Episode Seven on HBO Go, but now we’re officially on the same playing field unless something dramatically changes; accordingly, next week’s review will likely be less prompt, although I’ll still try to have it up Sunday evening (Central time).