The only thing lacking in the latest and best episode yet of Game of Thrones was the wonderful Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, who must be making his way back to King’s Landing since his escape from Catelyn Stark and her sister last week. And what he will find there when he gets there … Actually, there was another bum note. An extended “HBO After Dark” sequence with Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) instructing two prostitutes on the finer arts of the act while telling his background love story. We get it, HBO, you can get sexier on cable, and we get the metaphor. We have already been told that Littlefinger still loves Catelyn. But the “screw them, before they screw you” lesson — did it have to be that literal and obvious?
But now on to what was really good, which was the rest of the episode. Most of “You Win or You Die” was seen from Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) perspective, and featured his attempts to do what he thinks is right, what is honorable. After spending all this time in King’s Landing he still has no idea who he is dealing with. Many characters tried to tell him during the course of the episode the way the things work, but he just wasn’t listening. He believes that right is right.
Ned is contrasted with Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), head of the Lannisters, who dressed down son Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) while working on a deer carcass, the animal the symbol of King Robert and the Baratheons. He wants the throne for the Lannisters and he wants it now.
In King’s Landing Ned showed his King’s Hand and tried his first power play — he summoned Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) to tell her what he learned from studying the family trees of the Baratheons last week — that she and Jaime were not only twins, but lovers, and that he knows they were behind his son Bran’s death attempt. He tried to show mercy by giving her a head start — he ordered her to take her children and leave before he tells her husband King Robert (Mark Addy) what he knows. Cersei stayed cool as always and suggested that he should have seized the throne when he had a chance, “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” Ned is so out of his league.
At Winterfell the Wilding woman Osha (Natalia Tena), who is a Stark hostage after trying to rob Bran while on horseback, is being hassled by Leon Greyjoy (Aidan Gillen), who tries to mess with her as well as make her call him “Lord.” But she cleverly gets him off balance, questioning why he would be considered a Lord. He is a Stark hostage, just like herself. I still hate this guy. He’s just annoying. Stark factotum Luwin (Donald Sumpter) stops Greyjoy before he makes a real move. Osha warns Luwin that there are more than animals to be concerned with out in the wild, that other creatures are stirring again. She’s been trying to get south before the long night comes. She doesn’t say “White Walkers,” but she doesn’t have to.
At the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington ) and his friend Sam (John Bradley-West) spot a horse without a rider approaching. It’s Jon’s Uncle Benjen’s horse. A memorial for Benjen is quickly held — life is cheap at the Wall. Soon after the young men officially become members of the Night Watch. Jon is beyond disappointed when he is named the Lord Commander Jeor Mormont’s personal steward instead of a Ranger. Just like his father Ned, he only focuses on what he thinks is right and doesn’t see the way the wind is blowing. Sam points out that there are two ways of looking at things — being the right hand of the top man might help him become a Ranger or even something better. While the new recruits take their vows, Jon’s direwolf brings him a disembodied arm. Benjen’s?
Ned tries to stop the King’s hit on Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), but is told it’s too late, the assassin is already on the job. In the land of the Dothraki, Daenerys yearns to cross the sea and fight for the throne of the seven kingdoms, but her husband Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) shows no interest. Her advisor Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) gets a royal pardon, which effectively would free him to leave the Dothraki, and return to his home, but he has no desire to leave Daenerys. While walking through the market, a wine merchant (King Robert’s agent) tries to sell Daenerys poisoned wine and Jorah jumps into action and exposes the assassination attempt. As soon as he hears that Daenerys was in danger, Khal Drogo vows to get the “iron chair” for his son. And he gives Jorah a horse for saving his beautiful bride. Drogo doesn’t fool around. Everyone saddles up. Daenerys gets what she wants. The Dothraki are going to war. They ride off, with the poisoner, naked, roped, and dragged along with them.
Back at King’s Landing, King Robert (Mark Addy) has been fatally wounded while out hunting — by a boar. “I want the funeral feast to be the biggest the kingdom ever saw.” He asks Ned to take down his last words and appoints him as Lord Regent until Joffrey comes of age and becomes King. Ned doesn’t write down Joffrey’s name, but “rightful heir” on the King’s proclamation.
Everything starts to move very fast, but Ned doesn’t realize how fast. The King’s youngest brother Renly (Gethin Anthony) approaches him, asking his help to gain the throne. But Ned is focused on who he thinks is the rightful heir — Robert’s older brother Stannis and send him an urgent message. Then it’s Petyr’s turn to make him an offer. He suggests that Ned quickly marry off Joffrey to Sansa and take the power for himself — with Petyr as his right hand man. Ned doesn’t go for that gambit, ether, but asks Petyr to get the soldiers on his side for when he is ready to make his move.
Ned is summoned by the Queen. On his way to see her he is told the King is dead. And Renly seems to have left town. This can’t be good, for the Hand of the King to be so out of the loop. He gathers his men before he enters the throne room, where Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is seated on the throne, demanding to be crowned in a fortnight. Ned pulls out his trump card, the King’s last will, naming him as Lord Protector. Cersei rips it to pieces, “We have a new King now.” Ned plays his last card, denouncing Joffrey as a bastard to the court and ordering his men into action — but insisting that they not to draw blood, just take the Lannisters hostage. Oh, Ned. Swords are drawn and his few loyal men are (again!) killed by soldiers as Ned is betrayed by Petyr, who holds a knife to his throat. Ned, you should never underestimate a Lannister. Or guy who covets your wife. Or a King’s younger brother.
The game of thrones is really on. The Lannisters have no idea that the Dothrakis and the last Targaryan are now on the way and hell-bent to get what they believe is theirs. And what about the White Walkers? As Osha warned, the long night is coming.