Poor Ned Stark just can’t catch a break on ‘Game of Thrones’. Every time he thinks he has the upper hand, he’s proven to have no hand at all. This week’s episode may be his most humiliating defeat yet.
‘You Win or You Die’ opens with the introduction of Tywin Lannister, richest man in the kingdoms, played by the great character actor Charles Dance. He’s none-too-subtly revealed slaughtering a stag, which just happens to be the sigil of House Baratheon. A little symbolism, do you think? Tywin reads the letter summoning him to court, and chastises his son Jaime for acting rashly in attacking Ned. He’s more concerned for their family legacy than for personal glory. He wants to establish a dynasty that will last for a thousand years. However, now that the wheels have already been set in motion, he promises an army to Jaime to wage war against House Stark.
In the first of his mistakes, Ned confronts Queen Cersei with what he knows about Joffrey being Jaime’s son. She freely, proudly admits that all of her children are Jaime’s. She has kept the bloodline pure, and not polluted it with vile Baratheon blood. Ned warns her that he intends to tell King Robert everything. He suggests that she take her children and leave the city immediately, because Robert’s wrath will know no bounds.
Ned strikes me as a guy who’d be terrible at poker. He always reveals his hand too soon. This one is quickly undone when he learns that Robert was gravely wounded by a boar during his hunt. “King Robert Baratheon, murdered by a pig,” the king jokes. Knowing that he’s dying, Robert has Ned dictate his last will. He names Ned as Regent and Lord Protector until his son Joffrey comes of age to rule. Ned slyly changes the wording of the document to say “rightful heir” before Robert signs it. “You’ll rule now. You’ll hate it more than I did, but you’ll do it well,” his friend tells him.
Robert also admits to the foolishness of his order to murder Daenerys Targaryen. He tells Ned to rescind the order. Unfortunately, it’s too late to call off the assassin.
Across the sea, with whiny Viserys no longer harassing him, Khal Drogo has no interest in invading the seven kingdoms or claiming the throne. These things don’t matter to him. Jorah Mormont escorts Daenerys to a market and receives a secret message from Lord Varys the eunuch stating that he has been pardoned for all his crimes. Although not explicitly stated, it’s clear that this comes in return for leading Daenerys into a trap. So, he is on Varys’s payroll after all.
Daenerys meets a wine merchant from the kingdoms who feigns deference to the princess and rightful heir. He offers her a barrel of his finest wine. At this, Mormont has a change of heart. He can’t go through with it. He interrupts and turns the tables on the situation by insisting that the merchant drink the wine first. Clearly, it’s poisoned. Daenerys quickly clues in to what’s going on. The merchant tries to flee but is easily captured. With news of the attempt against his wife’s life, Drogo flies into a rage. At this, now he’s ready to invade the kingdoms. He pledges to cross the sea, sack their lands, and rape their women. (I bet Dany isn’t too thrilled about that last one.) Robert’s foolish plan has backfired spectacularly.
As Drogo rages on about what he’ll do to King Robert, the king himself dies. Ned is immediately approached by Robert’s brother Renly (the gay one) with a plan to sideline Joffrey. This would leave his older brother Stannis next in line for the throne, but Renly also seems to have a plan for what to do with Stannis. Next, Baelish advises Ned to follow through on Robert’s wishes, and to use Joffrey as a puppet for his own political gain. Ned wants nothing to do with these schemes. The truth must come out at all costs. Baelish pledges the backing of the City Guard to support him in whatever he chooses.
Ned marches into the throne room with a troop of City Guardsmen at his back. Joffrey sits on the throne, and Cersei orders Ned to pledge his fealty to the new king. Ned reveals Robert’s letter naming him as Regent, and also announces that Joffrey is not a legitimate heir. Cersei tears up the letter. Ned triumphantly commands the soldiers at his back to arrest the queen and Joffrey, which is precisely when they instead turn on him and kill the rest of Ned’s own men. Baelish slyly admonishes Ned, “I did warn you not to trust me.”
Oh Ned, you damned fool. A great soldier you may be, but the world of politics is a battlefield far bloodier than any you’ve experienced.