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'Game of Thrones' Season 1, Episode 7 Recap

by Maureen Ryan, posted May 29th 2011 10:30PM
['Game of Thrones' - 'You Win or You Die']

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I thought the fifth episode of 'Game of Thrones' was very strong, but, given how talky, clumsy and static some earlier episodes were, I half-wondered if the relative strength of both the fifth and sixth episodes was a fluke.

This week's excellent outing, which saw the stakes raised in satisfying and suspenseful ways, proved that it was not.



There are still the occasional rough patches, to be sure. Even the masterful Tywin Lannister scene contained a couple of dialogue clunkers ("I need you to become the man you were always meant to be"), and the Littlefinger bordello scene may require a dissertation-length digression on how some female characters are being portrayed on the show.

But as the show has dug deeper into the themes that animate George R.R. Martin's novel -- power, how it is gained, how it is abused, who's affected by its use and whether it is more or less effective when yoked to a strict moral code -- 'Game of Thrones' has showed new vigor and depth. And this week, with many of the characters forced to make momentous decisions, 'You Win or You Die' crackled with a sense of melancholy anticipation.

Early in this debut season, characters were in very different places (psychologically or physically), and even if that was understandable from a world-building perspective, it often made for choppy storytelling. But in this episode, almost all of the characters are in the same boat, no matter where they are (though, as I've said before, focusing on a few locations was beneficial to the pace and the overall energy level).

Each one of the people we saw in this hour knows something bad is coming (even the men up at the Wall got a grisly reminder of that), and many of them aren't entirely sure what to do. There are few certainties left in Westeros, and with the death of the King, even those truths are in doubt. The epic world of honorable knights and loyal courtiers -- if it ever existed -- is passing away, and a mad, bloody scramble for power has begun. As Cersei says, if you lose this game, you die.

Ned's dilemmas are particularly thorny at this stage, and once again we see that good intentions and a strong moral character don't always lead to the wise and effective use of power. If we think of a television show as asking a question, the central questions of 'Game of Thrones' were posed to us quite clearly here: Can a good person use power wisely and well? How do you define what's good for an individual and what's good a society, and which of those two things takes precedence? When does nobility devolve into naivete, and when does pragmatism camouflage the amoral pursuit of power for its own sake?

There's no one way to regard Ned's situation: You can view him as the last good man at court, or the only man unwilling to play the game as it must be played when a crisis looms. He's both of those things, and he's also just a father, a husband and a man in a great deal of physical pain. Once again Sean Bean's performance gave us all those nuances; the look on his sweaty, sickly face said Ned would have liked nothing more than to be in his own bed, in his own home, grabbing a bit of the rest he so clearly needs.

'You Win or You Die' did an effective job of depicting Lord Stark's plight -- perhaps an even better job than the book, given that we saw all the knotty options before the Hand, each one more distasteful than the last, and we witnessed all the forces arrayed against this one well-intentioned man. Here's a man who's injured, in obvious pain, far from home, trying to carry out the wishes of his dead friend.

But the problem is, Ned doesn't fully commit to a plan -- backing Robert's brother Stannis -- until it's too late. Everyone else at court has been planning for this moment for years, and the player from the North may well have entered the game too late to have any effect on its outcome. And what chance did Ned really have against the Lannister gold, which had likely bought the protection of the City Watch long ago?

Yet even Ned, in his own way, tried to impose his agenda on the succession. He wrote "rightful heir" on Robert's document rather than inscribe Joffrey's name (who among us can blame him?). Part of Ned saw what needed to be done to prevent anarchy (if indeed it could be prevented), but as Littlefinger pointed out, Ned didn't quite have the stomach to take a strong stand that would result in serious turmoil. But by not committing more strongly to one position, Ned more or less ensured that turmoil would erupt (though in fairness, he was merely a pawn in a deeper game being played by Cersei, Littlefinger and Varys).

You can see Ned's actions as those of a moral man trying to do right by his friend. Or you can see what transpired in 'You Win or You Die' as the dithering of a man who tries to remain willfully ignorant of the fact that power usually goes to those who have the will, the cunning and the stomach to grab it. Given that everyone playing the game knew he never really wanted the throne, the powerful people at court could use Ned as they saw fit, and Ned, who unswervingly stuck to his moral code, let them.

It's actually a good thing, in some ways, that I read the books a few years ago: There are certain things about the novels that I don't fully recall. I'm not exactly sure what Varys and Littlefinger wanted to achieve by putting various tidbits of intelligence in Ned's ear, but it didn't really matter why they used him, just as it didn't really matter why they betrayed him in the end. Someone like Ned is bound to be betrayed in the world Martin created. It's not that goodness doesn't exist in that universe, it's just that unless altruistic qualities are tied to an extremely pragmatic outlook, things get very tough, very fast for the altruists.

Take Tywin Lannister, Littlefinger, Cersei or even Osha (the servant woman that Theon Greyjoy spoke to at Winterfell): These are characters who know what they want and have no illusions about what they need to do to achieve their goals. Their decisiveness makes them formidable, but in the case of the Lannisters or Littlefinger, does it make them admirable? Not really, but then, do good people (or good soldiers) make good rulers? This endlessly fascinating question helps animate many of the small and large stories in Martin's books, and one reason the books (and, at its best, the TV show) have staying power is because we all want to know the answer to that question. Our world may not resemble Westeros in superficial ways, but we have just as hard a time defining the just and moral use of power.

Speaking of Tywin and Osha, we only had one scene each with them this week, but there's no doubt that they were both perfectly cast. As we discussed in the podcast, it could have been heavy-handed symbolism for Tywin to be gutting a stag (the sigil of Robert's house) during his scene, but the way Dance tore into that animal helped give us a convincing and compelling portrait of the head of House Lannister.

Here's a man who could be resting on his laurels -- or presumably on bags of gold -- but he isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. We not only got a wonderful sense of Lannister's rock-solid confidence and his formidable energy, we saw how his acerbic assessments and his commanding nature unsettled his son. Not only was Dance perfectly charismatic as Tywin, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau did excellent work as a Jamie -- a different Jamie than the man we've met before. This wasn't the arrogant knight or the sly courtier but the cowed son -- a man who is both frightened of his father and desperate to gain his favor.

As for Osha, all I can say is, wow. George R.R. Martin has said in interviews that the casting for this role went in a direction that he wouldn't have predicted, but he also said that Natalia Tena was spectacular in her audition. I certainly can see why she was the obvious -- and only -- choice for the role. In her short scene with Theon Greyjoy, she not only demonstrated Osha's savvy at reading her "betters," but she put a shiver down my spine when she talked about the dangers that lurked in the North. Get used to this complaint, this season and next: I really wish each 'Game of Thrones' season had more than 10 episodes, because there are characters who come alive in new ways in the TV show, and I'd love to spend more time with them. Osha's definitely on that list.

The Dothraki scenes were also quite strong: Director Daniel Minahan had a sure hand throughout, and the way he led the viewer through the marketplace scene was quite effective. In short order, he had to show us how Jorah Mormont changed sides (he was willing to give up an official pardon in order to commit to Danaerys' cause), how Jorah's caution saved Dany's life, and how Dany's own commanding presence caused the unlucky wineseller to tremble in his boots. Also, note to self: Never run from a man who's handy with a 20-foot whip.

However the best Dany scene was her encounter with Khal Drogo, who rather enthusiastically decided to give her a present of the Iron Throne. In many of her scenes, Emilia Clarke hasn't had a ton of dialogue (or she's been speaking Dothraki), but it's uncanny how well she communicates exactly what Dany's thinking and feeling. As Drogo makes his pledge (and Jason Momoa's intensity was certainly memorable in that scene), you can tell that she's falling even more deeply into love with this man, and she is, in that moment, ferociously committed to both him and to the idea of taking back Westeros. You look at here and see a formidable woman who would go to the ends of the earth for her husband and for that throne.

And she rode from Vaes Dothrak with the unfortunate would-be poisoner tied to her saddle, what a look of queenly resolve on her face. This is the face of someone who could rule a nation; this is an Queen Elizabeth 1 or a Queen Victoria in the making. Contrast that look with the Dany that we met in episode 1, and the change is quite staggering, but Clarke has sold every single step of Dany's journey with great subtlety and admirable conviction.

OK, now, on to that Littlefinger scene, which I'm sure will engender a lot of commentary, and I'm betting I spend half the week to trying to explain (again) what I mean in the comment are. Let me be clear about a few things before I talk about the brothel scene with Littlefinger and the prostitutes: First, I recognize that sexuality is important to Martin's novels; second, that's an aspect of his storytelling I like and enjoy; third, I understand that, in films and television, scenes of a sexual nature often express important information about characters and their worlds. And I certainly expect that kind of content from the top-tier cable dramas.

Having said that, boy, am I getting sick of the show parading around a lot of naked women whose names we never even learn. Sometimes 'Game of Thrones' uses sexual scenes to shed light on character. But quite often, it shows naked women because it can. At times, the show appears to be trying to cover up clunky exposition with naked flesh, and at other moments, the vibe comes off as, "Hey! It's HBO! Here are some boobs!" Sigh.

The problem with the Littlefinger scene was twofold: There was too much "sexposition," which is critic Myles McNutt's term for exposition or background information that is disguised with or surrounded by naked flesh (my term is "exboobsition," but I like Myles' word better). Once we got past Littlefinger's discourse on the art of seduction (and in fairness, there was some clever foreshadowing there, given that Littlefinger certainly seduced Ned into thinking he'd back Ned's play), there was a whole lot of his life history rather awkwardly grafted onto the scene.

Though Aiden Gillen tried his best to sell the "My History with the Starks and Tullys" speech, that half of the scene came off as somewhat clumsy exposition not-so-cleverly camouflaged with naked ladies. Regardless about how I feel about nakedness (and I'm certainly not anti), it's simple laziness to try to distract people from clunky dialogue with unclad whores.

But there's a bigger issue here, one that speaks to the show as a whole. I can see how you could make the argument that 'GoT' is trying to make some points about oppression in that society, in particular the oppression of women. I think a few scenes here and there have been effective in that regard, and I don't begrudge the show's attempts to portray the harshness of some female characters' lives in complex ways (even the Littlefinger scene was preceded by a shot of the prostitutes' children -- an acknowledgement that there are consequences to the sex that goes on there). But the show frankly hasn't had time to do much with that complex subject, and as this thoughtful essay on Overthinking It points out, 'GoT' has made some questionable changes to the stories of two core female characters.

Here's the thing: By frequently throwing in lots of random boobage into the mix, 'Game of Thrones' is undercutting its own goals. I can't take it seriously as a treatise on oppression or the examination of female roles in a feudal society if much of the female nudity is thrown in as frivolous window dressing.

Of the topless Dothraki women we've seen, of the countless prostitutes we've seen -- well, how many of these stories are being told from the point of the women themselves? What, really, do we know about Roz except that she's left Winterfell and now can be found naked in King's Landing? What of her intentions, what of the dreams and lives of any of the whores or Dothraki women we've seen so far? There's been precious little of that.

(Sidebar: For all you 'GoT' fans who like to mock 'Spartacus,' know this: I've rarely seen any drama depict power dynamics and the psychology of oppression better, and if that show has a lot of nudity, every sexually charged moment has a dramatic point to make, and by the way, there's as much male as female nudity on 'Spartacus,' whereas it's mostly the women who are presented unclothed on the HBO show. I'm just sayin'.)

Do I think the Littlefinger scene was a crime against humanity? Not at all. I could see what they were trying to do with the scene, which partially succeeded as a tutorial on Littlefinger's methods and strategies. It's just that there's a pattern in this show's depiction of women that I thought was worth exploring, and I welcome your (civil) comments on the topic in comments below.

All in all, however, 'You Win or You Die' was a very satisfying hour of television, and while I had a mixed-to-low opinion of the first few episodes of the show, I am pleasantly surprised by how much I'm enjoying the second half of the season. Let's hope the next three hours are this nuanced, suspenseful and emotionally acute.

In closing, I'll offer a few final bullet points:

• I really recommend listening to the two 'Game of Thrones' podcasts Ryan McGee and I are doing with Time TV critic James Poniewozik and Myles McNutt of Cultural Learnings. We'll delve into episode 7 in some depth in the second podcast, which should be available via our iTunes site and the podcast's home site by around noon ET Monday. The first 'GoT' podcast is already available on iTunes, and in that one, we discuss our experiences with the fandom, our take on the show itself and what we think is working and not working at this stage. By the way, Ryan, has a new overall review of 'GoT' up here.

• Littlefinger says his price won't be high. What is his price, anyway? If it's Catelyn, good luck with that.

• Speaking of characters that are coming alive in ways they may not have on the page, it was interesting to note that Cersei was initially thrilled to marry Robert -- she knew less about her handsome husband on her wedding day than Sansa knows about Joffrey. Once again, romantic ideals about nobility led to a character's brutal disappointment, and Lena Headey did an excellent job of making us realize that the pain of that disillusionment lingers to this day. (Sidebar: I still really hate Cersei's wig. A lot. Just in case you were wondering.)

• I don't think I've said much about Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont, but he's been giving a quietly excellent performance all season. This week, he had to sell us on the idea that Jorah would forego a return to his homeland in order to throw in his lot with the Khaleesi, and without word, he did so flawlessly.

• The scene between Ned and Robert was touching -- I'll certainly miss Mark Addy on the show.

• Minahan did a phenomenal job of directing not just the final scene, in which the regal throne room looked both majestic and like a frightening trap for Ned Stark, but also the terrific scene of Sam and Jon taking their Night's Watch vows. Another spine-tingling moment. There was nobility in that vow, but like the rest of the characters on the show, those young men must have been wondering what they got themselves into.

• I haven't spent much time on "graduation day" at the Wall, but I'll just say again that everything that transpires there has wonderful clarity and emotional truth. Sam proved himself not just a good friend but a perceptive young man.

• I wrote in last week's review about how I see some racially-tinged problems with how the show has treated the Dothraki as well. And just to be clear, here's something commenter Craig Ranapia wrote, and it's worth repeating, because I agree with Craig's sentiment: "[It] doesn't mean for a moment I think anyone connected with the show is actually misogynist or racist, just that I wish their treatment of such things was more complex and nuanced." Yes. Exactly.

• Regarding that Overthinking It post I mentioned above, I think it makes some very compelling arguments, but I recognize that there are counter-arguments to be made. I can see why, for dramatic purposes, it made sense to change some aspects of Catelyn's and Dany's stories. But that's a debate for another day.

Here are a few housekeeping notes. Please keep in mind that every commenter will be held to the standards set forth below.

• Like a number of other viewers, I'm guessing, I was able to see this episode early thanks to HBO Go, but I'll have to write my reviews the night the show airs for the next three weeks. Your patience on those evenings is much appreciated.

• On this site, we observe the Lurkers Rule: The environment here should be so accepting, so calm and so non-screechy that the most timid lurker should feel it's safe to express his or her opinion. If you have a problem with any comment on this site, hit the "report this comment" button or email me at maureen.ryan@teamaol.com.

• If you express yourself in a hostile, repetitive or unpleasant fashion, or if your starting point is that 'Game of Thrones' is not something that should be subjected to thoughtful, rational discussions of its positive and negative aspects, this is not the site for you. If you can't be civil and respect other commenters, your comments will be deleted.

• Please, please don't mention any spoilers about what happens in subsequent episodes. No talking about what happens in the books beyond the story lines we saw here.

• If you're new to the world of 'Game of Thrones,' do check out the fan sites Westeros, Winter is Coming and Tower of the Hand. They've got active message boards and a ton of interviews and intel, and if you want to get deeper into this world, you can't go wrong with those sites. HBO's got an extensive Viewer's Guide here. And of course, if you want to check out our features and interviews with the 'GoT' brain trust, including Martin and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, we've got loads of stories here.

'Game of Thrones' airs 9PM ET Sundays on HBO.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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kkpsmom

I agree totally about the Littlefinger scene. I am not a prude but I thought that the two prostitutes bordered on porn. I was uncomfortable watching the show with my girls who are 18,19 and 24. Did any male watching the scene even hear one word that Littlefinger said. I doubt it. I've read all the books so far and the sex in the book is not as explicit as that scene. I wish HBO had more class.

June 02 2011 at 9:30 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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June 01 2011 at 5:09 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
MadameWolfPack

I'm a woman and the nudity on the show doesn't bother me. The Dothraki women are topless because in their culture that's normal. Everyone is topless. Western society just has an oversexed reaction to the female chest. Drogo wears a loin cloth around and I am happy for it. Jason is hottttttttttttttttttttttttttt. The men in this fantastical land apparently like ******. ****** are commonplace here. It doesn't bother me. In real life, as on this show, prostitutes aren't bashful.

Even the sex scene between Roz and the other prostitute didn't bother me. Some say gratuitous, but I find that any act of girl on girl anything, lesbianism, etc... on these shows is always considered gratuitous for some reason. I find that more irksome than the sex scene and I'm not even a lesbian. People have sex and it doesn't necessarily need to be a phallus and vag to be considered appropriate or real. Would there be as much of an issue if Littlefinger were fingering (haha) Roz instead? I don't think so. Latent homo discomfort is what I think it is.

I didn't read the books so I don't know, but my issue with the show is that they introduce characters like Doreah and Roz and they're not developed. Roz may have more of a plotline, but some history on Doreah could have been appreciated. So far all we know is that she's a sex expert and she taught Dany a good lesson and then she got slapped around by the despicable brother and disappeared into the background.

So I hope Roz is developed, but yes I don't think the show is exploiting women. At least as a woman, I don't feel exploited. Now if the show had Ned Starks's wife or King Robert's wife waltzing around topless for no apparent reason, then I would be more plaintive.

June 01 2011 at 12:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dkcincos

I found the prostitute scene wih Littlefinger distracting from the dialogue. The camera work was juvenile with the close up shots of skin as well. It would have been more effective to have the camera on Littlefinger's face while he delivered the dialogue with a few brief shots of the women.

May 31 2011 at 7:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dkcincos's comment
buffyspikeshiper

I think just about everybody had this reaction to that scene. While most of the 'additions' to the book have been favorable, IMHO-this scene was a dud. I understand that they thought that Littlefinger needed more exposition but this scene simply does not work. I also thought it oversold the point that he was treacherous and out to screw as many of the 'elite' as he could. It's supposed to foreshadow his betrayal of Ned but anybody could have seen that coming without this scene.

May 31 2011 at 3:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
vbayjay

Ghost barked :(

May 31 2011 at 12:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dvsman

Based upon a book. Book written by a guy for other guys (don't try to argue that Mr. Martin's readers aren't mostly if not all guys), and are meant as entertainment.

Thus why should the transition from book to movie be any different? This isn't a college course text on feminism and I hate people who try to overlay their own personal biases onto other people's artistic works. Those who can do ... those who can't - become reviewers.

May 30 2011 at 9:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to dvsman's comment
Sergio

For some reason I could not reply to another post by Craig Ranapia about the supposed imbalance of male and female nudity in GoT. I say "supposed" because there is no such imbalance. There are just as many bare-chested men shown as bare-chested women. And there have been MORE glimpses of male genitalia (2) than female genitalia (0).

Just because our culture and society does not sexualize male breasts as much as female ones does not mean there is an imbalance of nudity.

May 30 2011 at 5:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sergio's comment
Craig Ranapia

Dude, do I really need to engage in an enormously patronising man-splain about the way female breasts are sexualised and objectified in the RW we both live in ways men's chests are not? I'd also recommend a viewing of Kirby Dick's excellent documentary/critique of the MPAA 'This Film is Not Rated' -- if you really want to argue that there's not an epic balance in the way female and male nudity is presented and rated in Anglo-American film/TV then I suspect we're just going to have to agree to disagree and move on.

BTW, if I missed ANY scene where extras were floating around with their peens hanging out, I stand corrected. I'm just finding it rather tiresome being called a prude because I find a LOT of the topless women in this show a lazy exercise of a tiresome grindhouse trope that boobies = decadence. If I found that at all interesting, I'd go buy a stack of Tinto Brass DVDs.

May 30 2011 at 6:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to Craig Ranapia's comment
Chicago

Before the airing of the 1st episode, I was tempted to get the book. Boy am I thrilled I for once, did not! Wow!! I expected an entirely different ending with Cersei in full flight. The shameless hussy! I really enjoyed the Dothraki scenes, finally, some scenes of great substance. I also liked the woman from 'north of the wall.' Winterfell may certainly become a different place with her presence. I was also happy to see my favorite character once more, Jon. I've missed him. I liked the balance between his character and that of Samwell. I've been impressed from the start with Iain Glen's 'Ser Jorah,' esp. in Epi. 6. A commanding sexuality that I feel tops that of NC-W's 'Jaime.' Also, great chemistry between him and the Kaleesi. More lines for Jason M! A million thanks. As a Stargate fan, I've missed him dearly. And thanks for no 'airing' of Cat or Sansa, though I did miss Arya. Looking forward to the next episodes!

May 30 2011 at 4:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

This needs to be pinned to the wall of the writer's room for season two:

THIS SHOW IS CALLED 'A GAME OF THRONES' NOT 'A DRINKING GAME WITH NIPPLES'.

Of course, YMMV.

May 30 2011 at 4:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Craig Ranapia's comment
Sergio

Are nipples bad things? I happen to think nipples are no different than noses or mouths or knees. Are we so infantile that the mere appearance of nipples causes us to lose all of our mental faculties? Do we lose the ability to pay attention to dialogue at the sight of mammary glands? Do male nipples lack the mesmerizing qualities of female nipples? Are our reactions to art more telling about the state of our culture than the art objects themselves?

This ethnocentric critique of art is nowhere more apparent than Ms. Ryan's misguided castigation of the depiction of bare-chested Dothraki women. She pays no heed to the logic of Dothraki dressing customs, but merely projects her modern female-breasts-are-sexual-fetishes viewpoint onto the screen.

May 30 2011 at 4:23 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Sergio's comment
Sergio

Oh, and your complaints about the bare-breasted Dothraki women are hilarious. Have you noticed that Dothraki men are just as often bare-chested as well?

It's like complaining about National Geographic being sexist because it depicts bare-breasted native women.

May 30 2011 at 3:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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