The Longest Night — Game of Thrones: ‘You Win or You Die (1x07)’
“What we don’t know is usually what gets us killed.”
Writer(s): David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Director: Daniel Minahan
Plot/Events: Ned Stark confronts Cersei Lannister with the news that he has discovered the secret of her and Jaime’s incestuous relationship; before Ned can inform the king of their crimes, however, Robert is gravely injured and dies; Cersei acts quickly and seizes the throne for her son Joffrey, with Petyr Baelish turning on Ned; Daenerys escapes death when Jorah stops an assassin from poisoning her; Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly take their Night’s Watch vows together.
THREE-EYED-RAVEN’S WARNING: DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL SEVEN SEASONS OF HBO’S GAME OF THRONES.
Dropping both the title of an episode, and the name of the television show to which it belongs, into a single line of dialogue usually leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. It’s the sort of TV trope that’s been parodied a hundred times over by The Simpsons and the likes of Family Guy, and is perhaps best avoided if you want to prevent your audiences from creasing up on their sofas. But on this occasion, “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die,” causes no such reaction. That’s because it’s the coldest, clearest warning that Ned Stark receives during his time in King’s Landing. Put simply, his life is in very real danger, and he’d better stop meddling in matters that don’t concern him.
He receives this warning from Cersei Lannister after informing her of the knowledge he now possesses: the queen’s three children — Joffrey, Tommen, and Myrcella — are fathered by her brother Jaime. And as if that’s not enough, he also knows she was heavily involved in Jon Arryn’s murder. Ned’s on his way to give this news to the king, but out of decency he’s offered Cersei the chance of a head-start, allowing her to leave King’s Landing with her children before Robert finds out and has her killed. Cersei should quiver: her secret is out, her life is in immediate danger, and the lives of her children are too. Instead, she stands firm and succinctly delivers her mantra with a tongue so sharp it transforms into a prophetic threat.
The moment Ned’s head is lopped from his shoulders in ‘Baelor’ is Game of Thrones’ defining moment, and significantly influenced the way in which other TV writers treat death in their own shows. Ned is the clear protagonist of this tale, a single force of good, capable of slicing up the complex web of treachery that grows throughout the halls in King’s Landing. He’s on all the billboards, he’s played by the biggest name on the cast list, so he must be due to stick around for a while, right? Wrong. In his final moments, his complacency and ignorance during this conversation with Cersei suddenly catch up with him. In a way, Ned, like the audience who cried in shock upon the moment of his death, believes in the same age-old methods of storytelling that George R.R. Martin had no plans to respect: central, important characters tend to escape death.
However, as cruel as it is in our world, it’s completely inevitable in Ned’s. He trusts Petyr Baelish without knowing Baelish’s true feelings; he expects Renly Baratheon to allow his brother Stannis to take the throne following Robert’s death, simply because it’s the right thing to do; and he informs Cersei that he knows about the secret affair she’s having with her own brother and expects the law to find its way to her. He believes so much in honour, and he believes in his own status as Warden of the North, to the point where he feels protected by them. It leads to him making mistakes that eventually cost him his life. “There is no middle ground.”
Baelish is in Ned’s ear throughout this episode: “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.” And his, ahem, advice is echoed by Cersei, who reminds Ned that, once upon a time, he had the chance to “climb the steps” and seize the Iron Throne for himself. But it’s Ned’s lack of desire for absolute power that leaves him with a knife to his throat in this episode’s bewildering climax. Much like Viserys’ death in the previous episode, what feels like a surprise as the episode cuts to black is completely inevitable once you take a moment to consider the preceding events.
Earlier, as we’re purposely distracted by Ros and Ameca, two sex workers loudly practising their techniques, Baelish recounts a tale that’s crucial to both his own character and Ned’s destiny. It’s the story of his boyhood affection for Catelyn Stark that, in the very same verse, contains the concrete revelation of the contempt he holds for Ned. “I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them,” he states with typically devilish scorn. It’s a scene that displays Game of Thrones’ delightful knack for combining foreshadowing with deliberate misdirection, so that only on repeated viewings do we spot the clues ourselves. We’re just as ignorant as Ned in some respects.
King Robert, portrayed (unfortunately) for the final time by the terrific Mark Addy, is the first victim of Cersei’s grand plan, and Ned is about to feel the same sting. As was explored in last week’s entry, Robert has been standing over a trap door for too long with Cersei. He’s slapped her, repeatedly berated her, and informed her that he never loved her during their seventeen years together. Once Cersei snapped and took the initiative, his head would not have been long for the chopping block.
Before Ned has chance to tell Robert the truth about his “children,” and before he has the chance to react to the passing of his best friend, Cersei has “climbed the steps,” placed Joffrey on the throne, and conspired with Baelish to have Ned imprisoned. It’s an inevitability that the show has teased since he first stepped foot in King’s Landing, but it’s a disguised plot development that reaches its point of realisation within the blink of an eye. For Ned, who’s still using a walking stick following his duel with Jaime Lannister, it all happens too quickly, and he’s swallowed up in the fracas. He suddenly has Catspaw held against his throat by Petyr, who repeats the lesson he’d given him just weeks earlier (“I did warn you not to trust me”) and his fate is taken out of his hands.
As for Cersei, this is an action she repeats in the stunning finale of Game of Thrones’ sixth season. Only, instead of planting her son on the Iron Throne, she seizes the crown for herself. It’s an unbelievable power play that takes the warning she delivers to Ned here (“All you needed to do was climb the steps yourself”) and — quite literally — blows it up in a chaotic blast of incomprehensible sociopathy. But sadly, for him at least, Ned Stark doesn’t contain the same strain of pure evil that stirs inside of Cersei Lannister, and, as ‘You Win or You Die’ informs us so mercilessly, it’s why he’s no longer with us.
— Given his terrific redemption arc that began as season five ended, it’s easy to forget how much of a dickhead Theon Greyjoy truly was in the beginning. Here he is, lording it over Osha as she tidies the floor in Winterfell’s main hall. His arseholery is interrupted by Maester Luwin, though, who treats her with immediate kindness, despite their differences. She might inform Luwin of the White Walkers in this scene, but it’s a moment which neatly reflects their final meeting: when Osha has to kill Luwin out of mercy as he slowly dies from wounds incurred during Theon’s terrible reign over Winterfell.
— After Uncle Benjen is reported missing, and after he’s assigned to be Lord Commander Mormont’s personal steward, Jon takes his Night’s Watch vows with Sam. Jon’s ego is bruised after his wish to be assigned to the rangers is denied, and he’s being a whiny knobhead about it, but Sam brings him round and they kneel in the godswood together. It’s the beginning of a five-season arc for Jon.
— We’re introduced to Tywin Lannister in this episode as he skins a stag and speaks to his son Jaime. Their conversation eventually comes around to exploring Jaime’s insecurities surrounding his “Kingslayer” tag, but Tywin’s mind is fixed on preserving the Lannister name and creating a dynasty that will last a thousand years. It’s a terrific introduction to a terrific character.
— Daenerys, who clearly read The Longest Night’s entry for ‘A Golden Crown’ escapes death as Ser Jorah saves her from being poisoned. Seconds earlier he is given a royal pardon, a letter which allows him to return to stop spying on Dany and return to Westeros following his work for Robert. In this moment he can slink away from Dany and the Dothraki, he can go back home, but instead he stays loyal to her and has the wine merchant captured.
— Following Viserys’ death in the last episode, Daenerys now has her eyes set on the Iron Throne. Initially Drogo is reluctant to even consider crossing the Narrow Sea (“The stallion who mounts the world, has no need for iron chairs”), but following the attempt on her life he’s willing to risk it all to serve her. Jason Momoa delivers his best performance as Drogo, imitating some of the best death metal vocalists as he screams, “I will take my Khalasar west to where the world ends and ride wooden horses across the black salt water as no Khal has done before. I will kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses.”