If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of ‘Winter Is Coming’, you could do worse than point to ‘You Win or You Die’. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.
Though it contains a number of extra elements, ‘You Win or You Die’ can be seen as a clearer successor to ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ than ‘A Golden Crown’ was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season. Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.
There is a sense that Robert’s Rebellion, which kick-started much of the mess, was partly fuelled by changing ideas in Westerosi culture about incest; much like how in human history, intermarriage of Royal bloodlines was common place (and cousins still do marry each other in the present day in certain cultures), changing social attitudes—perhaps thanks to a growing religious undercurrent—turned such practices into a social taboo. Cersei spends most of Game of Thrones kidding herself this isn’t the case, and only truly has to face it once the High Sparrow incites his religious persecution in Season 5.
Speaking of taboos, the episode caused some controversy with its quite passionate lesbian whorehouse scene in which Littlefinger drops a major chunk of his backstory while coaching northern whore Ros into the seduction of one of his fellow brothel madams. The scene is an interesting choice by Benioff & Weiss. Cynically, you might suggest it provided them an opportunity to show off Esme Bianco’s beguiling wares again (given we’ve seen more of Ros with her clothes off than on so far this season) in order to entice viewers with the promise of ’T&A’ which comes with a cable demographic free from network restrictions on taste and decency.
That being said, if you can move past the aesthetic choice (and it is a really quite explicit sex scene, even for GoT), it provides the first true, fascinating window into Littlefinger’s chameleonic character. What exactly does Littlefinger want? We’ve seen him scheming, plotting, whispering scary seeds of knowledge in Sansa’s ear or swopping veiled barbs with Varys, but where does he position himself in contrast to Varys’ apparent desire to serve the Realm?
Littlefinger presents a narrative to Ros, during her coaching, which at this stage could be a pack of lies given we see no flashbacks to cement his claims in truth, but one which seems to tie into suggestions he has long been in love with Catelyn Stark. No names are mentioned, but we can infer he was essentially ‘friend zoned’ by Catelyn as a young boy, a girl who loved Ned’s elder brother Brandon Stark, who young Petyr challenged to a duel and quite embarrassingly lost. Cat ended up marrying Ned after Brandon was killed with their father Rickard in the Throne Room by the Mad King, events which sparked Ned’s alliance with Robert Baratheon which helped trigger the Rebellion itself. Littlefinger’s part in these bigger political events is minor but, if true, it cemented the psychology of the man who would end up defining himself by his moniker.
“I learned I would never win. Not that way. That’s their game. Their rules”. What young Petyr learned was that he was never going to conform to the masculine paradigm in which *men* are defined within Westeros. If Varys’ masculinity was robbed from him due to the literal loss of his manhood, Petyr suffered the same fate in more of a metaphorical context; he knew Cat would never see him in the way she saw Brandon or later Ned, so he became someone else. Littlefinger is much like the Joker, certainly the incarnation Christopher Nolan brought to the screen; his personal narrative is questionable but he seems to value the idea of power in chaos, in opposition to Varys’ belief in power through order. “Only by admitting who we are can we get what we want”Littlefinger tells Ros. “And what do you want?”she asks. “Oh… everything…”is his response.
Littlefinger is the entire game of thrones in one character. He lives for the game, and we will come to further explore some of this psychology particularly in later seasons when he tethers much closer to Sansa. It’s one of the reasons Littlefinger’s position as a brothel owner meets intelligence gatherer is so interesting, as is the Ros scene, because Littlefinger is an intentionally asexual character, and in a different way to Varys. Whereas Varys is biologically asexual, Littlefinger chooses to abstain from pleasures of the flesh and traditional passions.
His motivations are tied up, in a complex way, with love, lust and loss, not to mention a significant deep-seated hatred of the Stark’s, but you sense he keeps himself at a distance from the sex he peddles precisely because he knows how much sex corrupts. Littlefinger’s openness with Ros in such a sexual manner is perhaps telling of how little he considers his whores people. To him, they are just his equivalent of Varys’ ‘little birds’, gathering knowledge in the beds of corruptible men, and bearing strings of bastard babies who he keeps in his courtyard. For the first time this season, Littlefinger’s deeper characterisation begins to assert itself.
The game is far less apparent in the cold, harsh realities of the North. ‘You Win or You Die’ is not an episode which indulges a great deal in the prophetic, foreboding nature of the series’ stranger, darker threats or more fantastical elements which will creep into the storytelling, but Benioff & Weiss continue layering in a growing suggestion that something terrible lies beyond the Wall. The Stark’s new Wildling captive, Osha, talks of “things that sleep in the day and come out at night”, referring to the Long Night of the kind of legend Old Nan would tell Bran in his bed. It’s clear the Wildling’s, who will begin to be truly characterised next season, believe strongly in what the ‘civilised’ world consider nothing more than silly old superstitions.
We haven’t seen a great deal of the Night’s Watch over the last few episodes either, and Benioff & Weiss here importantly start to etch in some detail about how the organisation works. Thus far, we have really only seen the Watch through the prism of Jon Snow as he tries to find his place within the framework of the group, but Lord Commander Mormont’s speech speaks to another deeper theme which runs throughout the episode: the meaning of the Realm. He describes the Watch as a place where Rangers have “no past, no history, no house”. They strip away the entitlements or crimes or misdemeanours of their past and serve a bigger idea – the Realm. The Watch is about serving the people rather than gold, glory, or your own self-interest.
We learn the Watch isn’t just about fighting and killing Wildlings or worse; there are Builders who maintain the castles that protect the Wall, Kitchen staff who prepare food to keep the Watchmen going in the terrible cold, or Stewards who essentially act as housekeepers for many Rangers, the men who go out and do the fighting and exploring. While Sam is happy to be a Steward, content with his place as an emasculated figure, Jon can’t let go of both his privilege as a Stark but also his entitlement as a man brought up to believe he is a true born, masculine warrior, when named a Steward. He may well be right, but it proves Jon still has some way to go in accepting his place in the Watch.
Someone who does appear to have accepted her place is Daenerys, barely giving much though to the fact her brother just had his brain melted by liquid gold, as she tries to convince Drogo to invade Westeros and help her take back her homeland. It’s interesting how the Dothraki have no word for ‘throne’, forcing Dany to say the word in her own tongue; it suggests the Dothraki, as a tribal, honour-based race, have no interest in conventional power in the frame Westerosi civilisation would see it. It takes the intended assassination of Daenerys to spur Drogo into action, but he isn’t operating out of any sense of political aspiration, rather out of passionate anger that the Seven Kingdoms would dare try and murder his wife and child.
Though Daenerys has in many ways been radicalised and indoctrinated by the Dothraki, these are the first suggestions she doesn’t really fit in this world any more than Viserys did. Jorah’s presence provides a necessary bridge between her indulgement of Dothraki ‘savagery’ and the vestiges of a civilisation she has never truly known; he points out her ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror, had no rights over Westeros when he invaded—after Dany suggests the Kingdoms are hers by right—and he simply won out because he had the power to take it. Here’s the difference with Viserys; Dany understands entitlement and bloodlines aren’t enough: to win the game, she needs the right players. She’s still to naive to see how herself, given how easily she is almost poisoned by a sycophantic assassin in disguise.
Little does she realise, however, that on his death bed Robert gives her a reprieve, though as Varys points out to Ned,“that bird has already flown”. It’s interesting to wonder if Varys ever intended that assassin to succeed; he likely sent someone quite hapless, someone he knew a man like Jorah would smoke out, precisely because he wanted the attempt to fail. Varys does suggest to Ned the possibility conspiracy is afoot concerning Robert’s death too, in his own way playing the game and manoeuvring the players, because it only serves to propel Ned further toward his quite questionable choices which lead to the gambit in the final moments.
Robert’s death arguably is what really opens up the narrative of Game of Thronesgoing into the climax of its first season. Though by no means an inevitability, you feel Robert had to die in order to begin the game. It feels like the first major move by the shadowy players on the chess board. Cersei almost certainly gets her buffoonish cousin Lancel to tinge Robert’s wine with something that allows a stag to gore him in the way it did, and she in a later episode confirms as much. Is she acting on the orders or advice of Tywin? He is sending Jaime off to get Tyrion back from the Starks, risking war, so does he know a simultaneous power grab in King’s Landing by the Lannister’s is a crucial part of that first play for power? None of this is confirmed but it’s extremely likely.
In the end, however, Littlefinger almost certainly knows that Ned will reject his political marriage suggestion (one which in the end Tywin effectively brings in between the Lannister’s & Tyrell’s). Littlefinger wants the chaos and instability that war will bring and understands that he could be one of the people to profit from it. Ned grows more and more visibly weak across the episode, suffering from his wound by Jaime’s men, which is quite apt given how the Lannister position ultimately takes advantage of his deeper weakness: his refusal to listen to Cersei, or Littlefinger, and play the game. Littlefinger’s final line to him:“I did warn you not to trust me”is prophetic and fitting, perhaps even a wink to the audience. Can we trust anything we heard earlier in the episode?
‘You Win or You Die’ is an important episode for Game of Thrones, in quite how it establishes the key, central thematic concept of the show that will play out across the entirety of the series’ run. As the show races headlong toward its first point of climax, you sense after the events of this episode, Westeros may never quite be the same.
This is an abridged version of a longer essay on Cultural Conversation which you can find here.