State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly.
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: King Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon
Direwolves of the Eyrie: Catelyn Stark
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen, Viserys Targaryen
Bears of Vaes Dothrak: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Starks of Winterfell: Robb Stark, Bran Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
And the Lion of the Eyrie, Tyrion Lannister
The Wall is unmanned.
The episode is in thirteen parts. The first is four minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The first shot is of Ned Stark in bed recovering from his injuries.
The second is two minutes long and is set in Vaes Dothrak. The transition is by dialogue, from Ned and Robert talking about Daenerys to Daenerys.
The third is five minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Brynden Rivers. It features the death of several wildlings in a skirmish with Robb and Theon.
The fourth is one minute long and is set in the Eyrie. The transition is by image, from Osha being taken captive to Tyrion in a skycell.
The fifth is two minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from the closed door of Tyrion’s cell to Syrio closing the door.
The sixth is six minutes long and is set in Vaes Dothrak. The transition is by hard cut, to Arya beginning dancing lessons with Syrio having heard his views on the Many-Faced God to Daenerys eating a horse’s heart.
The seventh is eight minutes long and is set in the Eyrie. The transition is by hard cut, from Jorah to an establishing shot of the skycell. At the episode’s halfway point, Tyrion is demanding a proper trial.
The eighth is six minutes long and is in two sections; it set in King’s Landing. The first is section is two minutes long. The transition is by hard cut, from Bronn shrugging to a shot of the forest and Robert’s hunting party. The other section is four minutes long; the transition is by theme, from Robert to the Iron Throne.
The ninth is four minutes long and is set in the Eyrie. The transition is by dialogue, from Ned Stark talking about the Lannisters to Tyrion. It features the death of Ser Vardis Egan, killed in battle by Bronn.
The tenth is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion walking free to Sansa and Septa Mordane.
The eleventh is one minute long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by theme, from Sansa kissing Joffrey as part of his abuse and manipulation of her to Theon confronting Roz as she goes to King’s Landing.
The twelfth is two minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Roz riding off to King’s Landing to King’s Landing.
The thirteenth runs five minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak. The transition is inadvertently by dialogue, but intended to be by hard cut, from Ned talking about Joffrey’s golden hair to the Targaryens. It features the death of Viserys Targaryen, killed when Khal Drogo dumps a pot of melted gold over his head. The final shot is of Daenerys’s face as she proclaims that fire cannot kill a dragon without first reaching Mornington Crescent.
There are two firsts in this episode that may not immediately be obvious. First, although there have been previous deaths in the series, some quite graphic, this is the first episode in which a credited regular dies. Second, and not unrelatedly, it is the first time the title of the episode has come from the Targaryen plotline. These facts largely set the tone, and a look at numbers is also compelling. Here’s the number of minutes devoted to wherever Ned Stark is in each of the first five episodes: 35, 31, 30, 23, 43. In “A Golden Crown,” King’s Landing amounts to seventeen minutes of the episode, with the Eyrie and Vaes Dothrak each at thirteen, and Winterfell at another six. While Ned Stark is still a bigger share of this episode than anyone else, his plot is less emphasized here than it ever has been.
In some ways this is necessary. Ned’s plot, by this point, has become one that depends both on him not being alone with Robert lest it advance prematurely. The show has an efficient and effective plan to handle this, but the bulk of that is put into place next episode, and for now there’s very little for the plot in King’s Landing to do. Worse, the biggest and most important scene, the one in which Ned sits upon the Iron Throne, is a textbook example of the sort of scene that prose is better suited to, since it has the space necessary to give exposition about the implications of events by tracing through Ned’s thought processes as he reacts to events. Instead the show has to rely on an enormously labored trick of having Littlefinger obsequiously deliver exposition that all the characters already know as a means of manipulating Ned, which means that the bulk of implications and consequences of the scene get swallowed.
With the focus comparatively off King’s Landing for an episode, attention can instead go to two other characters, namely Tyrion and Viserys. Of these, it is Tyrion who is perhaps the most overdue. His importance as a character has been stressed in a number of structural ways, from his framing of “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” to his introduction at the precise halfway point of “Winter is Coming,” but to date he hasn’t actually done much of anything. His trial scene is a real opportunity both for Peter Dinklage to finally cut loose as an actor and for the character to show what he’s good at, and it’s both written and shot gloriously. It’s not really until this point that it becomes clear that Tyrion’s major structural role is as a character who can plausibly talk his way out of absolutely anything. (It’s probably worth giving a quick nod to the fact that the great Jane Espenson contributed to this script, as this is the sort of scene she excels at.)
The scene also makes the narrative’s presence at the Eyrie interesting, however. Although it will stay on the map for two further episodes, once Tyrion strolls out a free man the action there is in effect concluded, and it will be a long time in the narrative before the Eyrie casts much influence over the plot. This will happen again in a few episodes, and in both cases the location’s presence serves as a gesture forward – a promise that these are places and concepts that viewers will want to remember at some indeterminate future point. In this regard, Tyrion is basically being used as he was on the Wall, providing an introduction to a location that he has little to no long-term future in.
But it is the events across the Narrow Sea that are, clearly, the most important here. As with (almost) any of the times in which a credited regular dies (Viserys is the first of a dozen to have done so to date), the removal of a piece from the board marks a significant shift in the balance of power. In this case, the effect is largely liberatory. Viserys had by this point spent four episodes being established as an idiot who stood in Daenerys’s way. His removal from play serves mainly to allow Daenerys to develop in the ways that have been set up for four episodes now without having to deal with him. It is, in other words, a relatively safe death. Instead what really stands out about it is its gruesomeness – the sheer macabre brutality of how Viserys dies. This is something the show set up carefully in the preceding two episodes, first with the lingeringly gruesome shot of Ser Hugh’s death in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” then with the death of Jory in “The Wolf and the Lion,” and it goes a long way towards making Viserys’s death have weight on its own terms instead of just feeling like it was long overdue.
But what is interesting is the way in which Viserys misunderstands the plot of his own story. To be fair, his assumptions are not entirely out of line with the world in which he finds himself. There is ample evidence for his claim that the Targaryen line is a special and blessed thing. Virtually everything he says in his confrontation with Jorah about having the fate of a dynasty on his shoulders is true. As noted in “Winter is Coming,” the only thing he’s wrong about is his belief that he is the subject of the story he describes. But this raises further questions, most obviously why it is that he is not, in fact, the heroic subject. In one sense the reason is obvious: because he’s a complete ass. And yet why should this matter? While prophecies clearly hold considerable weight in the game, it is not as though craven fools do not from time to time ascend to power, and the idea that prophecy is some sort of insurance policy against injustice and incompetence is clearly ridiculous.
A more brutally tautological answer is simply that Viserys is not the Prince That Was Promised because Daenerys is (or, if one wants to get deep into the details of prophecies from the books, because she is one of three iterations thereof). But tautology is an unsatisfying answer, not least because underneath this is one of the great paradoxes animating the game. On the one hand, the game takes place in a world where prophecy exists and where absolute cosmic forces are at play. There is a dualism of ice and fire, and the interplay between them matters. On the other, the game is an acutely materialist one, where being a catastrophic fool is something that gets you killed. In the case of Viserys, it is possible to split the difference, concluding that his failure to retake the Seven Kingdoms is down primarily to prophetic bad luck, but that his death is due to him being too much of an idiot to simply flee as Jorah suggests. But this doesn’t eliminate the underlying tension between materialist history and magical prophecy that his death embodies.