Winter is coming, but not soon enough. So to help pass the time until season seven of Game of Thrones, we’re doing a weekly re-watch of the series, episode-by-episode, with the knowledge of what’s to come and, therefore, with more information about the unrevealed rich history of events that took place long before the story began. Be warned, though: that means this series is full of spoilers for every season, even beyond the episode itself. So if you haven’t watched all of the show yet immediately get on that and then come back and join us for Game of Thrones Re-Throned.
Because the next best thing to watching new episodes is re-watching old ones.
Season 1, Episode 7: “You Win or You Die”
Original Air Date: May 29, 2011
Director: Danial Minihan
Written by: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Oh Ned. Some men were meant to be soldiers, and others were meant to play the game. In this, the seventh episode of the first season—”You Win or You Die”—Cersei tried to explain to Lord Eddard how the game works, but what he never realized was how good she was at playing it. However, before we get to the tense final scene, lets go back to beginning of the episode—one full of longer sequences than normal, where we finally got to meet one of the most important players in the entire game.
The Lannisters already look ready for a war, and Jaime rides through their camp until he reaches his father’s tent, upon which we at last meet the only previously discussed Tywin Lannister, who is currently skinning a stag. That’s our second dead stag, the sigil of House Baratheon, of the season—the other coming in the first episode—but it won’t even be the last of this episode.
Tywin tells Jaime his attack on Ned Stark was brash and stupid, but also that he should have killed him. Jaime says he was worried it wouldn’t have been a clean death, and the two argue over whether or not Jaime should care what people say about him. The Kingslayer says he doesn’t, but it rings hollow. Tywin says he is giving Jaime 30 thousand men (half the Lannister forces) to go get his brother (who is already free) from Catelyn Stark.
Throughout the scene Tywin stresses that Lannisters should not act like fools, and that even if he doesn’t have much love for Tyrion he is still one of them, because ultimately the only thing that matters is the family name. The Lannister name will go on, and preserving that legacy is what is important. If no Lannisters come out of this story alive (or if Tyrion proves to be the secret son of the Mad King), Tywin’s only goal will have failed.
Back in King’s Landing, Ned—who has discovered the truth about Cersei and her children—wisely has her arrested and thrown in the dungeons of the Red Keep. Just kidding! Ned is about to embark on a series of poor decisions, all in the name of honor and not wanting to have the blood of innocent children on his hands.
He tells Cersei he knows the truth about her children and urges her to flee with them across the Narrow Sea before Robert has them all killed. She doesn’t deny her incestuous relationship with Jaime, but gives him her signature Cersei smile and tells him he screwed up by not taking the Iron Throne for himself all those years earlier. She says, “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
The title of the show having been said, the end credits then roll and the series concludes. Thanks for reading everyone!
Ned, rather than understanding what she has said, compounds the mistake of telling her by letting her go, instead of placing her under arrest immediately. Not good.
During this exchange Cersei manages to extract some sympathy from us, telling Ned that she did love Robert once, that marrying him was the happiest moment of her life …until their wedding night when he whispered Lyanna’s name in her ear. Lyanna Stark’s memory was a bigger presence in season one than we might have remembered.
From there we get a very long scene at Baelish’s brothel, where we find Ros has already managed a job. This is one of those scenes that got mocked at the time for being “sexposition,” but this isn’t that. Sure, the two prostitutes heavily training throughout is gratuitous, but that’s to show that the Littlefinger we have seen thus far isn’t what he presents himself as. He is teaching them how to manipulate men, to let men hear what they know isn’t true, but still make them believe it. He is a master manipulator, and the friendly ally of Ned is presented as a lot more dangerous than we may have realized.
This is highlighted further when he reveals he has always, and will always, love Catelyn. He then references the time he challenged Brandon Stark (Ned’s older brother and the man originally meant to marry Catelyn) and what that exchange taught him:
“Do you know what I learned, losing that duel? I learned that I’ll never win. Not that way. That’s their game, their rules. I’m not going to fight them. I’m going to fuck them. That’s what I know. That’s what I am. And only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.”
And what does he want? “Oh, everything, my dear. Everything there is.”
In Winterfell we see that Osha has been put to work, and Theon comes to mock her, but instead she mocks him and the whole “my Lord” mentality of “Southerners” from the other side of The Wall. Maester Luwin comes in, points out to Theon he too is a guest/prisoner here, and then asks Osha why she traveled south. When she mentions the coming of the Long Night he is skeptical. The maesters never believe any of this stuff about monsters and magic, which is interesting when you consider the popular theory that it was the maesters that conspired to kill off the dragons.
There is then a quick scene of Sam and Jon at the top of The Wall when they then see a riderless horse return. Benjen’s gone missing (see you in about a thousand episodes Uncle Benjen! Stay warm) and Jon’s reaction to it contains a very subtle line here that will pay off later. The horn is blown and Sam says, “One blast for a ranger returning, two for wildlings, three for–.” He doesn’t finish it, but a third horn blast means White Walkers, which will matter eventually.
Later in the episode the recruits get ready to swear their oaths to the Night’s Watch (look at this picture below, Jon with his brown fur really stands out in a sea of black, a possible bit of foreshadowing), and Sam says he will join his friend at a weirdwood tree to recite their vows, hoping the old gods will help him in a way the Seven never did.
They then hear their assignments (stewards, builders, or rangers) and_positive he will be a ranger because of his fighting prowess—Jon flips when he is named the steward for Lord Commander Mormont. I mean, he really throws a tantrum, even whining, “It’s not fair.” Jon thinks this is Ser Alliser’s revenge, but wise Sam points out Mormont is doing this to groom him to lead one day. That calms Jon down.
When the two do go to recite their vows later, it is a beautiful scene, touching and powerful, but then (still just normal wolf-sized) Ghost finds a human hand, so that kind of ruins the moment for everyone.
Hear my words and bear witness to my vow.
Night gathers and now my watch begins.
It shall not end until my death.
I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
I shall live and die at my post.
I am the sword in the darkness.
I am the watcher on the walls.
I am the shield that guards the realms of men.
I pledge my life and honor to The Night’s Watch,
for this night and all the nights to come.
Back in Vaes Dothrak, Drogo tells Daenerys their son won’t need a chair (in reference to the Iron Throne), and she realizes he will never try to take Westeros. Then, while walking through the market of Vaes Dothrak, Jorah suspiciously goes off on his own to see if he has any letters, and one of Varys’ little birds gives him a royal pardon, allowing him to go home. With that in hand, Jorah then stops a would-be assassin from poisoning Daenerys, proving that although he had been willing to betray her so that he could return home, he has now decided to throw in his lot with her out of duty and love. Jorah got what he thought he wanted, but at that moment he realizes what he really wants is her. Later he tells her that she will never be safe, because her Targaryen name makes her dangerous—an important lesson for her to learn.
This attempt on his wife and unborn son enrages Drogo, who totally flips out (in the same hut where Daenerys ate the horse heart and would one day murder the khals in a giant fire), leading to him promising to take the Iron Throne and Westeros.
Renly, covered in blood, comes running to Ned and tells him it’s Robert (remember, Ned was going to tell the King about Cersei and her kids when he saw him next). When Ned goes to see him, Robert says he knows he is dying from the giant hole a boar put in his side, but that he killed the boar. Cersei looks petrified during all of this, fearful Ned will tell Robert the truth.
When he leaves Robert’s side, Barristan Selmy feels as though he has failed his king (again), but Ned assures him he couldn’t have saved Robert from himself. However, Varys subtly lets Ned know Robert might have been drugged by Lancel Lannister, his squire, reminding Lord Stark of the danger the family poses.
Later, Renly finds Ned and tells him they must get Joffrey away from his mother and that whoever controls the king has the power. He says he can give Ned 100 men (Ned is low on men after Jaime’s attack), but Ned asks about Stannis. Renly tells us he is unloved and will be a terrible king, but Ned argues he has led men into battle. It’s a great, quick scene, where Renly says he will be king instead of his brother, but Ned passes on Renly’s offer. We find out later that Renly has fled King’s Landing with Loras Tyrell.
This felt like a mistake at the time, but 100 men from Renly probably wouldn’t have done much. Grabbing Joffrey would have helped for sure, but even then Stannis would have been the rightful heir, no matter how much Renly hated it, and the Lannister army (and money) would have had a huge advantage in the coming war. It wasn’t a viable solution. Renly’s insistence on being king over his older brother was the problem here more than anything. Otherwise the Baratheon forces (and the Tyrells, too, potentially) would have been able to hold the throne for the family over the Lannisters.
Baelish (uh oh) then comes to see Ned, who has just sent a letter to Stannis telling him everything, and Littlefinger tells Ned not to do anything but swear fealty to Joffrey. It will mean peace and safety, and they can always reveal the truth later after they get rid of Stannis. “You are now Hand of the King and Protector of the Realm. All of the power is yours. You need only reach out and take it,” he says to Ned, who has never wanted it, but still doesn’t see the danger in not grabbing it.
Not to mention Ned hasn’t forgotten that they tried to kill Bran.
“Make peace with the Lannisters, you say. With the people who tried to murder my boy.
“We only make peace with our enemies, my Lord. That’s why it’s called ‘making peace.'”
What Ned really wants is to know if Baelish will help him the way he promised Catelyn he would, specifically by getting the 2,000 strong City Watch Goldcloaks to back him when he names Stannis king over Joffrey. Baelish says he will.
Then it happens: Robert is dead, and King Joffrey and the queen call on Ned to come to the throne room. Ned has Robert’s edict naming him Protector of the Realm, but this is also the despicable toad he shows up with as an ally.
Cersei (to the utter dismay of Selmy, which will be important soon when he is dismissed from the Kingsguard) rips up the letter and demands Ned kneel to her son. Ned doesn’t and says he doesn’t want this to end in blood.
Then all of his men are murdered and Baelish puts a knife to Ned’s throat, telling him, “I did warn you not to trust me.”
Ned never understood that, even when his enemy told him the consequences of not playing to win, and as a result he lost this brief fight over the Iron Throne, and ultimately his life. As a loyal man of House Stark, I kind of wish the credits had rolled when she said “game of thrones.” Could have saved us a lot of dead Starks and Northerners.
What did you think of this episode? What was Ned’s biggest mistake? Tell us in the comments below.