The Longest Night — Game of Thrones: ‘Lord Snow (1x03)’
“Someday you’ll sit on the throne, and the truth will be what you make it.”
Writer(s): David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Director: Brian Kirk
Plot: Ned arrives at King’s Landing and meets the Small Council; Catelyn also arrives in the capital following her investigations into Bran’s injuries; Jon Snow goes through his first few days as a member of the Night’s Watch; Daenerys discovers that she is pregnant.
THREE-EYED-RAVEN’S WARNING: DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL SEVEN SEASONS OF HBO’S GAME OF THRONES.
‘Lord Snow’ feels like something of a true beginning for Game of Thrones. The characters who call Westeros home either started the pilot in Winterfell or arrived there halfway through, with the episode focusing almost exclusively on introducing an ensemble cast, making necessary sacrifices in relation to its audience’s ability to digest information, and all to simply set the scene.
Two episodes later, and the huge cast of characters has been quickly dispersed. Ned and his daughters are in King’s Landing with Robert and the Lannisters; Catelyn is a step further in her investigation of Bran’s fall; Jon and Tyrion have arrived at Castle Black and are settling in with the Night’s Watch; Bran’s now awake and listening to Old Nan’s stories of White Walkers while he recovers; across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys and Khal Drogo head towards Vaes Dothrak. With the pieces now around the board, and with introductions no longer a central concern, ‘Lord Snow’ pulls back the curtain and informs us that the grand history of this world is nothing but a victor’s lie.
Over its 58 minutes, this episode employs a patient stride to reflect upon Westeros’ history and deconstruct its age-old myths: that war, sacrifice, and death are noble necessities, and that rich kings ruling peaceful lands are as gracious and proud as their public faces suggest. The “war stories” exchange between Robert Baratheon, Jaime Lannister, and Ser Barristan Selmy is one of the stand-out scenes from the first season, and possibly the show as a whole. The scene closes with Jaime’s haunting description of the Mad King’s final moments, but the scene is stolen by a despondent, resigned, and hugely quotable monologue delivered by Robert.
What begins as a sombre recollection of his first kill in battle (“They never tell you how they all shit themselves, they don’t put that part in the songs”) soon transitions into a resentful, disillusioned lament on the concept of power, ruling with a queen he doesn’t love, and raising children who aren’t his own. His unrequited, desperate love for his deceased intended Lyanna Stark seeps through even without a mention of her name. It’s the first tremendous example of what this show used to excel at: sitting two or three of its characters in a room together, their mannerisms and perspectives seeping into the action by osmosis, deepening the impact of their actions and consequences of those actions. It’s effective drama driven by more than huge spectacles. The increased pace of the latter seasons means that any dialogue exchanged must now prioritise the plot’s urgency, sometimes sacrificing character entirely simply to perform this function so we can arrive at the next gigantic set-piece. It’s why sitting in this scene, watching three men expose so much of their inner selves, slicing up bullshit stories with nothing more than the spoken word, is so rewarding.
A considerable amount of the episode is spent with Jon Snow as he begins to discover that grand histories and legendary stories are fanciful white lies at best, and deliberate tricks at worst. The show has continuously shattered the integrity of the sacred oaths and apparently noble traditions of the Night’s Watch, to the point where its seedy underbelly is all that remains. ‘Lord Snow’ ignites this process. As a resident of Castle Black, Jon will soon fall in love for the first time, learn how to lead a band of followers, and eventually become their Lord Commander. But it’s also where he’ll watch his first love die in his arms, where he’ll learn of the near destruction of his family but be powerless to prevent it, and where his pure heart and honest intentions will leave him dead on the ice.
The Night’s Watch is protected only by the widespread reluctance to truly question the accepted narrative — that they’re an honourable and noble band of men sworn to protect the realm, as opposed to a sordid, prejudiced institution — and Jon falls for it. The reality is that they’re filled with society’s miscreants, and Castle Black is their freezing prison. The Watch is a hundred times smaller than most armies, trapped at the end of the world, and serving its function as nothing more than a punishment for young criminals (“… pickpockets and horse thieves, bringing them here as eager recruits”). As of season seven, the Night’s Watch is a shivering, paranoid and depleted force, governed by an acting Lord Commander who doesn’t consider himself to be a leader at all.
The origins of these bullshit stories are displayed best in ‘Lord Snow’ by Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey. She treats him for the wounds he sustained in the previous episode while he moans (“I didn’t fight off anything, it bit me and all I did was scream”). She halts his whimpering and begins to doctor and manipulate him, feeding his tyrannical tendencies, twisting his words until he stops whining and starts unveiling his plans to crush resistance from the North, referring to the Starks as enemies. This is Cersei’s lust for power manifesting itself, yes, but it’s also the unfortunate truth of both Game of Thrones and our own world being shown to us: that the narrative of history twists and turns in the direction that winners decide. “One day you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it,” Cersei says to him, exerting her wicked influence.
Midway through the sixth season, Arya stands in a Braavosi theatre as the actors put Cersei’s promise to Joffrey into practise. We know the story of their performance is an embellished falsehood and so does Arya, but the hundred-strong, wide-eyed audience continue to gawp and guffaw in amusement. Ned, Robert and Tyrion are defamed by those portraying them, whilst Cersei and Joffrey emerge as the tragic heroes of the tale. The efforts of those who upheld the good and attempted to tell the truth were ultimately in vain, as the Lannisters’ narrative became accepted history after all.
· Ned’s arrival at King’s Landing is coupled with the reality that he’s entering a dangerous place with his daughters in tow. He quickly learns of Robert’s profligacy with money and his Small Council’s inability to control his spending, and Sansa’s behaviour is beginning to become unwelcome. Arya gets her wish to train at sword-fighting with Syrio Forel, but as Ned watches on he only recalls the sound of clashing metal and shouting soldiers, the gravity of his situation setting in.
· Ned’s meeting with Jaime in the throne room directly mirrors events that had taken place seventeen years earlier, when Ned found Jaime in the throne room standing over the Mad King’s dead body. It’s not until season 3 (and then season 6 via Three-Eyed-Raven flashback) that we get a true insight into Jaime’s feelings regarding the definitely justified murder of his own king, but the conversation he and Ned share here is our first window into the true events.
· Across the Narrow Sea, Viserys has become so consumed with writing his version of history that he’s completely missed the process happening under his nose. The Dothraki now worship Daenerys, Jorah too. Their scenes in this episode end with Viserys choking and spluttering after being strangled by one of Drogo’s (and Daenerys’) bloodriders. “Not a queen, a Khaleesi.”
· Jaime reassures Cersei that Bran will remember nothing of them pushing him from the tower. And they’re right. Instead, Bran listens to Old Nan’s stories of White Walkers and their “pale spiders as big as hounds!” Old Nan understands the importance of darker stories, and fair play to her for doing so.