Directed by Daniel Minahan
IMDB Synopsis (by HBO Publicity)
Explaining that the future of the Lannisters is at stake, Tywin (Charles Dance) presses Jaime to “be the man you were meant to be” as they prepare for battle. Ned confronts Cersei about the secrets that killed Jon Arryn. With the fate of the missing Benjen (Joseph Mawle) very much on his mind, Jon Snow takes his Night’s Watch vows, though not with the assignment he coveted. After Ser Jorah (Iain Glen) saves Daenerys from treachery, an enraged Drogo vows to lead the Dothraki where they’ve never gone before. An injured Robert takes pains to ensure an orderly transition at King’s Landing.
“You Win or You Die” is a moment the show has been building to for seven episodes, and it executes it all very smoothly, very well… but perhaps, for the first time, the fact that we know the story so exactly means that some of the shine has been taken off of this moment; but perhaps that’s only us. This is a very solid episode, and there’s some excellent work both from director Daniel Minahan and writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss. Of the new scenes, by far the best for us was Tywin Lannister’s introduction. Charles Dance was the actor we most wanted from the role when Benioff and Weiss asked the forum, early in casting, for suggestions, so it was fantastic to see him in the part. As we say in our preview, he was born to play this part, carrying off the lean, arrogant, incredibly dangerous persona perfectly. Oh, his Tywin his different, as some will tell you—he shows emotion more easily, he goads Jaime, he’s personally skinning a stag (though we doubt Tywin would never have done that; lords hunt in Westeros, and they’d know how to skin animals)—but it serves to underscore the man he is. Tywin is very much George R.R. Martin’s taking Machiavelli’s fictional prince and realizing him on the page. We’re looking forward to more from Dance. A very minor gripe, though: “I could care less” is a very American phrase and one that’s ungrammatical, since what one really wants to say is, “I could not care less”. It was about as jarring to hear as Eddard talking about fighting “for real”. Fortunately, such missteps are rare with these writers.
Oh, and the stag? Great symbolism, as he skins the sigil of House Baratheon. Did the writers choose to borrow a bit from Samwell’s tale of his father skinning and gutting a deer in front of him? Tarly has nothing on Tywin Lannister as far as being absolutely unyielding and tough, but where Tarly seems to be tough for the sake of toughness, Tywin’s driven by family and a deep pragmatism that makes him very dangerous indeed. Where other men worry about their personal honor, he’s abandoned all such trappings, instead focusing with intensity on the future of his family.
Despite how good that scene was, possibly the nadir of the show was reached with the new scene featuring Littlefinger, Ros, and the unnamed prostitute (called Armeca at some point during casting, and played by adult entertainer Sahara Knite). It’s not so much that we mind Littlefinger’s dialog, because Aidan Gillen’s always a pleasure to watch, and here he’s rather brassy and forthright in a satisfying way. And it’s not as if we can fault the actresses for doing exactly as they were told to do, and looking good while they were doing it. But the show has perhaps a bit too often associated sex scenes with exposition, and there’s a surprising amount of exposition during this surprisingly long sex scene. No matter how well written, hearing loud moans and groans takes something away.
Beyond that, yes, whether Littlefinger would ever reveal so much of himself to anyone, much less two lowly prostitutes… well, that doesn’t seem very in-character compared to the character in the novel. Even if this is an adaptation, what sense does it make for him to reveal so much? It feels, unfortunately, like a somewhat sloppy approach to make some things explicit that, perhaps, need to be explicit. How else to do it? We don’t know, but we wouldn’t have minded something more subtle. Especially since it does rather strongly suggest Baelish is preparing to betray Eddard (so that he can have Catelyn, whom he’s “saving himself” for), which is something we think would have been better not to reveal.
Maybe just leaving his instructions to the women and leaving out his explicit declaration that he “fucks” his enemies would have served to allow viewers to come to their own conclusions. And then, of course, leaving out the claim that he was saving himself would make it less obvious that he’s looking to get rid of Eddard at his earliest convenience. We’ll be curious to see how viewers respond on Twitter to this particular detail.
The rest of the King’s Landing material is well-played. We won’t get into our Cersei issues too much, but you can probably spot our problems in the book-to-screen analysis. That aside, the scene with Robert on his death bed was good, and the scene with Renly was our one real surprise as we sort of failed to realize that Renly was going to explicitly tell Eddard he should sit the throne. As that never happened in the novel, the fact that Loras has put the idea in his head did not impact the way we thought the scene would go. It’s an interesting choice, but at the same time, it’s a huge political miscalculation by Renly; he should have known Eddard Stark would never go for it. In the novel, even if one supposes he was angling for the throne in that scene, he didn’t come out and say it—he focused on stopping the Lannisters, something he knew that Ned was in agreement with. This Renly took a bold chance by being very upfront, hoping beyond hope that Eddard would go for it, but it’s simply no surprise that it failed whereas in the novel, Eddard’s refusal seems just a touch more out of touch with reality. We also miss the exchange about the gods being good and Renly’s reply that the Lannisters are not. Our own view is that, in the novel, Renly certainly wanted to be prominent at court, and saw an opportunit as Eddard’s staunch supporter to increase that influence… but he wasn’t actually aiming for a crown at that time.
Over in Essos, the story is largely quieter, with less time devoted to it… but the heavy use of Dothraki, created by David J. Peterson of the Language Creation Society, was a pleasure. Though some of the details play out differently—particularly the message Jorah received, which somewhat recasts the situation as presented (or at least hinted at) in the novels—it stays largely faithful. Simon Lowe deserves a mention as the wine merchant, both for the way he played his overtly unctuous friendliness and the way it slowly turned into nervousness and then desperation…. and, well, for that rather full-frontal nude scene, as well! Takes some courage to do something like that, we expect. As to the Wall, we admit, we quite miss the fact that the fifth Jon chapter was utterly cut out.
It does a nice job giving Jon something to really do, a chance to achieve something positive, revealing his loyalty and also his thoughtfulness as he recognizes that the Watch can’t afford to waste a single man. Without it, we instead focus on his angst about being named a steward, but that’s quickly resolved and mostly we’re left wondering at just what the production meant with Pypar’s story changing as it did. As it is, it’s already rather different from the novel, and the reference to his signing makes us wonder if they aren’t toying with him replacing Dareon later on. And, speaking of Dareon, we see “him”—in the form of an extra without any lines—but curiously, I’m almost certain a different extra was used when I saw the scene being shot a few times. Oh well!
Otherwise, the show plays out exactly as expected, and this is a good thing, but also perhaps a reason why it felt anti-climactic to Linda and I as we watched it. Our response at the end was a satisfied nod that the producers did it right, without the shock of what it was like actually reading that scene for the first time. We’re sure many others, readers and non-readers alike, will likely feel quite differently.
For more great Game of Thrones coverage head over to Westeros.org!