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A Game of Thrones – Episode 7: “You Win Or You Die” Review
By now, newcomers to Westeros may have figured out a maddening clue to George R.R. Martin’s storytelling style – momentous events almost inevitably occur with a whisper, a gasp, a sigh, and a few nervous looks. On my first plunge into this world, I thought I was simply reading too fast, or that so much happened between chapters that I failed to grasp the significance or somberness of someone’s death, bargain, or conversation. But no. For all his dragons, White Walkers and outlandish castles, Martin is cannily realistic in his handling of events. He grasps what few fantasy authors (or authors in general, really) do – if you’re living history, you’re rarely cognizant of it. A war that destroys your home is a disaster to you, of course, but when it happens you’re not wondering what it’s significance in the geo-political scheme is. You’re just wondering how you’re going to make it tomorrow.
And that is the look that flickered over poor Ned Stark’s face as he was told of the king’s accident, and of his death a few scenes later. What now? How do I make it until tomorrow? Even accusations – momentous, endangering accusations – are also met with shrugs and mixed with of-the-moment concerns. Cersei, has Robert hit you before? Oh, by the way, I know your kids are illegitimate. You might want to put some ice on that, and then leave King’s Landing.
It’s a good technique. It keeps readers and viewers on edge if a death of a king is handled so quietly, and with so little fanfare. If King Robert merits so little concern, how much does a Ned Stark, a Petyr Littlefinger, a Daenerys Targeryen or a Tyrion Lannister weigh in this saga? Very little. And no one enunciated this better than Tywin Lannister (calmly gutting a stag with rampant symbolism) who pointed out that nothing but reputation and surnames mattered in the long run. Your life matters only insofar as how it affects your name – and not even your personal name and story, but that intangible thing that is your lineage. You live for your descendants, not for you.
That scene cut through a million of my yawns as I wondered why Martin fussed over sigils, dead rebellions, cousins of cousins, and who owed fealty to whom by a marriage three generations ago. It wasn’t that I failed to grasp the importance of reputation, honor, and bloodline (I studied medieval history after all!), but Westeros and Martin harped on it more than any real medieval lord and lady. Our ancestors seemed keenly aware that life was short, brutal, and nasty and that your coat of arms or family seat could shift with the next king, or the next marriage. The sheer age and permanence of Martin’s world (decaying though it is) seems to encourage more of a fixation on Who You Are, and I suppose when the dust settles, that’s what might bring this whole world down.
But for now, of course, they’re living, breathing, and scheming. As I ponder all of the above, I have to throw out the possibility that maybe (save Tywin’s scene) it’s all a little too vague and esoteric for Sunday night television. This was a solid episode, full of slackjaw moments that seemed to hit non-readers the right way. It struck me as a bit leaden, and I wondered if the story’s “So, that happened” approach is the right one. Maybe it needs a bit more of a punch. Or is this just the perspective of someone who knows what’s coming in the next chapter? I’m not sure.
Certainly, their efforts to sex it up – literally – aren’t doing much for me. Enough with the bouncing, buxom prostitutes. No more girl-on-girl action. I’m quite liberal, but this episode finally crossed into Fleshbot territory, and was the very definition of gratuitous. Oh, we have a lengthy character monologue, so let’s have it set against a lesbian scene that will make True Blood blush. I’m all for sex and nudity on a show, but Game of Thrones has remained stubbornly immature in their depiction of it. Considering every sex scene save Daenerys and Drogo and Cersei and Jaime has been “off-script”, I’m baffled as to why the show hasn’t seen fit to extend the same sensuality to Ned and Catelyn (who at least had a post-coital moment in the book) or a happier Daenerys. If there was ever a time for a lusty, consensual, married-people-are-happy-too sex scene, it was when Drogo beat his chest and declared war on Westeros.
I realize all of this makes me sound creaky and conservative. I applaud the show’s willingness to show gay romance. While I didn’t necessarily like the way the Renly and Loras scene was shot — a little heavy on shock value – I was fine with it being there, particularly as it was a genuine moment of affection between two men. But nothing between the female characters has, in my view, been a positive lesbian relationship. It’s just to wind up certain demographics.
I’m also baffled by the screen time this Winterfell redhead has been given. (I’m sure she has a name, but I refuse to give her any more time.) Let’s remember we haven’t met Rickon Stark but once, Sandor Clegane’s been shoved to the back, and Sansa’s girlfriends were cut from the narrative altogether. She’s not taking the place of Tyrion’s Shae. So what’s the deal? If this is a Season 2 egg, waiting to be hatched, it’s already looking like a rotten one.
The whole Petyr-and-his-prostitutes scene was badly done in general, really. We learned a lot about Petyr, but I’d argue it was too much, and broadcast the betrayal at the ending a little loudly. Granted, these are the kinds of red flags non-readers may need, but it could have been done a little more subtly. As it was, many must have been screaming at Ned not to be so darn wholesome and trusting. He’s been told again and again that he can’t take anyone at their word.
For my part, the strongest part of the episode was Jon Snow, who has been long absent from our screens. It was so good to see him again, Kit Harrington impressed me all over again. How much did it hurt to see his shock, horror, and despair at being named Mormont’s steward? Jon is a character the writers and the actor have gotten right to the bone on, and it’s a beautiful thing when they grasp and present a character so perfectly. He’s a boy who has suffered so many slights, and yet he’s susceptible enough that new ones hurt just as badly as the past ones. We know his sensitivity allows him to show compassion to others, but what struck me this time was how open it keeps him to the comfort of others. Sam is able to pull him back from the brink, and Jon goes with a smile. He’s not Jaime or Theon, brooding on their slights, twisting with disdain and the contrast is quite striking, and framed well in an episode like this.
And you know what? I may occasionally watch this in a bit of a been-there-read-it stupor, but I completely forgot about Ghost’s little treasure. I don’t think it’s a spoiler (it is a severed hand, after all) to say that it means we’ll see some violent, spooky action in the next episodes. Won’t that be a wonderful break from the brothels…?