Halfway into the first season of Game of Thrones and establishment is beginning to give way to narrative momentum. ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ may not, on the face of it, be as action-packed as some of the previous episodes, and certainly not many of those to come, but in many respects it serves as the lynchpin of the first season and the core of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ adaptation so far. Once again, the title says it all. Wolf and Lion. Stark and Lannister. The Dragon will form the culmination of this triptych, but not yet. We don’t see any sign of a Targaryen at any point in this episode.
That doesn’t mean, of course, they are not central and crucial to the conversations and conspiracies swirling around King’s Landing. We spend more time in the Westeros capital in this episode than we have in any other, principally because Benioff & Weiss are beginning to pull the threads of George R.R. Martin’s novel ‘A Game of Thrones’ which lead directly to his next book, ‘A Clash of Kings’, which would form the basis of the second season of the show.
The title of course suggests the episode is focusing on the two central players thus far in the game – the Stark and Lannister families – but it’s appropriate the third elephant in the room, the unseated Targaryen’s, prove to be what begins to drive both of these families apart. They don’t even have to be there causing the realm problems to sow discord. Robert is more than capable of making that happen himself, even if he is given a little push from the circling, conspiratorial vultures hovering just out of sight across the episode. Benioff & Weiss seem at pains to suggest to us that the title is a falsehood; in some ways, the story of this episode is about anything *but* the Wolf and the Lion, but rather the chess players and string-pullers attempting to control and engineer everything both of these noble families do.
Many fans consider the aforementioned Robert & Cersei exchange in ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ the best exchange of the episode, and one of the best of the first season, and it’s hard to disagree. The conversation is riven with hard truth and powerful subtext, not to mention more than a liberal dose of mythology and foreshadowing. Robert essentially game theorises what we end up seeing in Season 7, once the woman opposite the table from him is in charge, and though he may be a poor King, the skilled tactician in him rightly guesses that “only a fool would fight Dothraki on an open field”, which is precisely what Cersei does in ‘The Spoils of War’ (and pays for it).
Neither of these characters are fools. A hidden agenda lurks behind Cersei’s every word in this fascinating scene, the last true conversation they’ll ever have. “That’s a neat little trick you do. You move your lips and your father’s voice comes out”Robert quips, and though we’re a few episodes away from meeting the imposing Tywin Lannister, even Cersei doesn’t refute it. Both are tragically honest in this sequence, even while Cersei plots and schemes off screen. She gets him to talk about Lyanna for the first time in almost two decades, talks about the son they lost as a baby (the only true Baratheon Robert fathered that wasn’t a bastard), and Cersei admits she did have some feeling for the man early on. Robert almost signs his death warrant when he replies “No” to her question “Was it ever possible for us. Was there ever a time or moment?”.
Sexual proclivities and expressions of sexual power are rippling underneath ‘The Wolf and the Lion’. Take Theon. It’s interesting how we see Theon’s penis fully here in a way we haven’t for any other major character thus far. There’s a suggestion Theon relies on his virility for his arrogance, and he consistently has to try hard to fit the masculine, warrior paradigm other men in the Kingdoms find with ease.
As mentioned when discussing ‘Broken Things’, Theon has serious anxiety issues about the Greyjoy position in Westeros, angry their failed rebellions have made them something of a joke in the eyes of other houses.“You’re a very serious boy…”whore Ros quips when he turns angry at the idea he’s been subsumed by both the Starks and Lannister’s. Theon’s sexual prowess being established so early on makes his eventual physical and psychological emasculation by Ramsey Bolton even more powerful, in hindsight.
In King’s Landing, Littlefinger stares at the Iron Throne with an undisguised hunger. This could be sexual. He is, after all, a remarkably asexual character given he runs a brothel. If Varys cannot feel sexuality due to his emasculation in a biological sense, you never feel Littlefinger truly feels it for another human being, even despite his love of Catelyn and his eventual creeping around Sansa. Littlefinger’s lust seems to be for power and the occasional chess match played between the Machiavellian grand masters we see here (in scenes added for the show, perhaps to take advantage of the fine dynamic between Aiden Gillen & Conleth Hill) draw a line between these two men which unfurls across the show but become apparent here: Littlefinger wants the Throne, Varys wants to protect the *idea* of it. They may seem alike but they could not be more different.
Let’s talk a little about Illyrio Mopatis, given this is remarkably the last time we see him. He gets a mention or two at the beginning of Season 5, but despite the fact Varys hides the fugitive Tyrion at his home in Pentos, the man is never seen (possibly due to Roger Allam not being available). Illyrio is, however, significant to the bigger conspiracy at work: the restoration of the Targaryen’s.
Illyrio was partly responsible (with Varys, quietly) in getting Rhaella Targaryen out of King’s Landing when Aerys was overthrown. He got Dany & Viserys to Braavos and kept them hidden for years. He arranges Dany’s political marriage to Drogo in order to give Viserys a potential Dothraki army. And, crucially, it’s Illyrio who gives Daenerys her three dragon eggs in ‘Winter Is Coming’. He is the third head of the Machiavellian dragon, if you like, after Varys & Littlefinger, and remains largely a silent player across the remainder of the show.
His motives remain even more uncertain than Varys. Both seem to have been counting on some kind of Stark & Lannister conflict to help throw Westeros into disarray before the Dothraki invasion, but Illyrio fears events are moving too quickly. He seems less able to adapt than Varys, who is prepared to help fuel the brewing war as “this is no longer a game for two players”. Varys it seems wants to protect the Realm (we’ll talk more about this down the road) but what does Illyrio want?
Money? He’s already rich as Croesus so does he need more? Fame? Unlikely as a merchant Prince who seems happily ensconced in the shadows. Does he have the same philosophical approach to peace and stability as Varys? It’s hard to say. Illyrio vanishes from the picture here, watching the game unfold in those shadows, and one wonders if he may reappear toward the end of the story to act almost as a bookend. Plus, maybe we’ll find out quite how he got those dragon eggs in the first place.
It’s a shame indeed that Arya couldn’t fully interpret what Varys & Illyrio were saying when she overhears their conversation (symbolically hiding in a dragon skull). She may have understood and even helped Ned to head off the terrible events to come, but all she translates is: “They said you found the bastards, and the wolves are fighting the lions, and something about the savage”. Arya’s innocence and the journey to her transformation continues to begin with these kind of scenes, watching important events and conversations happening almost out of everyone’s view. Moreover, she only ends up trapped & listening to that secret conversation because she was chasing a cat, presaging her Braavosi future in the books as ‘Cat of the Canals’.
‘The Wolf and the Lion’ ends almost like a Western. Jaime riding in with his evil posse to confront the noble lawman, Ned, and give his men a good hiding before riding out with an ultimatum. He serves as a polar opposite at this point to brother Tyrion, who selflessly saves Catelyn’s life and ends up in a tower at the Eyrie because of it, but it continues to draw out the broader, overarching themes inherent in this important, lynchpin episodes. Wars are brewing. Conflicts are growing. Secrets are spiralling. And the gulf between Stark and Lannister is growing wider and wider by the episode.
A quieter but crucial piece in the first season of Game of Thrones, helping to underscore the series as a whole, in some ways ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ triggers a turning point. We know this world now. We know these characters. Time now to see the paths they are facing…
Are you a fan of Game of Thrones? Let us know what you think of this episode. This is an abridged version of an essay first released on Cultural Conversation, which you can find here.