The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of Vaes Dothrak: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Kraken of Winterefll: Theon Greyjoy
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
The Eyrie is deserted.
The episode is in eleven parts. The first runs five minutes; it is set at the Lannister encampment in the Riverlands. The opening shot is an establishing shot of the camp.
The second runs eight minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jaime and Tywin Lannister to Cersei. The other is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Cersei leaving the godswood to a street in Flea Bottom.
The third runs two minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is from Ros to Theon.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Osha talking about the things north of the Wall to Jon sighting the returning horse of a dead ranger.
The fifth runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family and dialogue, from Jon Snow reacting to Benjen’s empty horse to Ned. It features the death of Robert Baratheon, murdered by a pig (and by Cersei Lannister).
The sixth runs six minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak; the transition is by dialogue, from Ned and Varys talking about the order to kill Daenerys to Daenerys and the attempt on her life.
The seventh runs seven minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Jorah to Lord Commander Mormont.
The eighth runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Ned Stark.
The ninth runs two minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Ned Stark to Jon Snow.
The tenth runs four minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen.
The last runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by theme, from Daenerys riding off to take the Iron Throne with King Robert’s assassin being dragged behind her horse to Ned Stark being informed of King Robert’s death and the passage of the Iron Throne to King Joffrey. The final shot is of Ned Stark with Littlefinger’s dagger at his throat, as Littlefinger hisses “Mornington Crescent.”
Given that it is the last episode to feature him in the bulk of it, it is fitting that “You Win or You Die” provides Ned Stark with a classical tragedy in miniature, taking him from his position of relative strength at the end of “A Golden Crown” as someone who has figured out the truth of Jon Arryn’s death and who literally need only succeed in making it into a room with Robert Baratheon and pointing out that Joffrey isn’t his son before he’ll have basically won to being completely and utterly defeated. This impressive demonstration of complete and utter failure is, as befits a proper tragedy, due to the fact that Ned Stark is a man whose skills and virtues are exactly wrong for the situation in which he finds himself. Were he a man with even a trace of ruthless cunning within him, he would recognize the absurd folly of his confrontation with Cersei, would realize that telling Robert the truth on his deathbed is self-evidently the safest and sanest way to go about things, would appreciate that Renly makes by far the most reasonable proposal in the wake of Robert’s death, or would at the very least take Littlefinger up on his suggestion that perhaps an immediate confrontation with Cersei is not the best move. Instead he is, at every turn, loyal and honorable, and at every turn completely and utterly fucks up.
But although the game is rapidly turning into a tragedy for Ned Stark, this is in no way the endpoint of the story, and the board is already reconfiguring itself around these events, laying the foundations for a game without Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell in it. Central to this is the first scene, which finally introduces Tywin Lannister. This in and of itself constitutes a significant revision of the state of play. The Lannister/Stark conflict that was used to deceptively frame the series at the outset only ever had room for the three siblings. Tywin is mentioned in passing, but as a figure from Jaime and Cersei’s childhood. It’s not until “The Wolf and the Lion” that Tywin begins to exert any visible power over the narrative, as opposed to simply being referred to as a figure from the past, as Tyrion notes that word of his capture has no doubt reached Tywin, and Robert (in a fantastic added scene between him and Cersei) accuses Cersei of simply parroting Tywin’s words regarding the Targaryens.
But “You Win or You Die” opens with Tywin, and, more to the point, does so with intense symbolic bombast, such that the audience’s first sight of Tywin is as he butchers a stag. The result quietly frames both Robert’s death and Ned’s downfall as things that stem out of his newfound presence in the narrative, creating a new center of gravity and power that will take up the slack as two of the most obvious existing centers of power fall. The introduction is brief – he appears only in the five minute scene at the top of the episode, and as much of that is concerned with Jaime as with introducing him – but effective, with Tywin’s dialogue focusing almost entirely on the question of the Lannister name and its future, clearly setting up the character’s motives.
Also significant is a lengthy monologue for Littlefinger, which serves to nail down his loyalties (or lack thereof) early in the episode so that his betrayal of Ned Stark in the cliffhanger has motivation and precedent. This is, to say the least, not the most impressive scene the show has ever mustered. Its reasons for existing are sensible enough – as usual, lacking the ability to deliver exposition via interior monologue, there have been few opportunities since his initial dialogue back in “Lord Snow” to remind the audience of his relationship with Catelyn. A scene in which this is reiterated is an important step in building to the episode’s finish. The problem is that there is precious little reason for him to reveal his motivations, and the scene consists of little more than him providing a motivation-free monologue while the issue of visuals is handled by a lengthy sequence of shots of naked women. It is this scene, more than any other, that results in the show’s reputation for “sexposition” (a term coined in direct response to this scene), and while it will never again engage in sex scenes quite as pointless as this, it is nevertheless revealing with regards to the show’s general approach.
There is little, in the broad case, to say here. The rueful shaking of the head that such blatant objectification and willingness to wallow in the male gaze produces is, by and large, the sum of it. It is not, to be clear, the focus on sex, which stems logically from the materialism of the game’s sense of historical progress, just as its commitment to depicting the raw brutality of violence does. The centrality of brothels and the acknowledgment of sex as a form of currency and power is crucial to what the show is. Nor is there anything amiss in most of the characters’ attitudes towards sex. The comparative disenfranchisement of women is a crucial part of the arcs of several female characters, and that goes hand in hand with the depiction of particular male attitudes towards women and sex. Rather, the sins are on the part of the camera, which unerringly allies itself with these attitudes, moving the show from being set in a world that features disenfranchisement and objectification of women (but that leaves it as a valid object of critique) to one that enjoys being set in such a world. Much like the thousands of slaves killed building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, this is something that must be acknowledged as an unfortunate design flaw in an otherwise entertaining game.
This poses a significant problem elsewhere, however. “You Win or You Die,” like several episodes before it, makes a quick excursion up to Winterfell to remind the audience that it exists (despite the fact that essentially nothing of import happens there between Bran waking up and the end of this episode), and, as with most of those episodes, opts to focus on Theon. A major takeaway of the scene between Theon and Osha is meant to be the fact that Theon is something of a nasty piece of work. But when the scene is immediately preceded by the show engaging in exactly the sort of leering entitlement that Theon displays, the point is more than slightly lost.
This is not the only spot where the storytelling frays a bit (and it’s also worth recalling the inadvertent suggestion that Joffrey is a Targaryen that comes out of the editing in “A Golden Crown”), with the handling of the assassination attempt on Daenerys serving to badly muddle the revelation in “The Wolf and the Lion” that Varys is in league with Illyrio and thus with the Targaryens. The books eventually establish that Varys, through Illyrio, got word to Jorah so that he could prevent the assassination attempt. But here Varys is, by all appearances, the primary force behind the assassination attempt, which matches poorly with his apparent motivations. It is nothing that cannot be papered over – it takes little to assume that at this stage of the game Varys still believed Viserys to be the best candidate to back, and thus saw eliminating Daenerys as a safer move than it was. Nevertheless, coming so close on the heels of the explicit revelation of Varys’s intentions, it ends up being a sloppy bit of storytelling.
But for all of these bits of confusion, the overall shape of the game is rapidly evolving, and the episode’s cliffhanger is an especially dramatic one. Where Viserys’s death mostly served to make things more straightforward, Robert’s death serves to completely destabilize the entire board, and with Ned having everything completely unravel for him, the show finds itself in a state that could hardly have been predicted at the outset.