This article was orginally posted on the ToweroftheHand as part of their Series Re-Watch. The other Season 1 analyses can be found on the website.
The Point of No Return
What a rollercoaster it’s been! After the first season of Game of Thrones, I had to run to the nearest book store and buy the series. Never before had I seen a show so gripping, with such juicy drama. And it is in the seventh episode, “You Win or You Die,” that the crux of the story lies. For after, the characters can never return to where they once were. The chess board can no longer be reset, the pieces must play to the very end.
“You Win or You Die” begins with trumpets at the Lannister camp. Jaime is reading Ned Stark’s decree to his father Tywin. We don’t get this scene in the books, but it is one of the most brilliant inclusions in the show. Tywin’s debut involves him admonishing his son while skinning a deer. It is a perfect act on so many levels. It depicts Tywin as one who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He reveals his desire to establish a dynasty. His actions foreshadow Robert’s death at the hands of Lannisters. Goes to show that when you hold true to the source material you can save your creative energy for incredible scenes.
We then find ourselves in King’s Landing with Ned meeting with Cersei to show off his poker face. Although Ned appears to hold the power, he spells his doom for the rest of the episode. It’s ironic that Ned claims that of all the “mistakes I’ve made in my life, that was never one of them,” (not seizing the throne for himself during Robert’s Rebellion) while making the greatest mistake of his life. It is at this point that Cersei drops the tagline of the season, the title of this episode, and a lesson that viewers will never forget.
And forget they do, for the next five minute scene (yes, five minutes!) shows us Petyr Baelish, Ros, and another whore engaging in what will (in)famously known as “sexposition.” Whose idea was this? Why do we need these distractions while the dastardly villain reveals his motivations. I get the art of misdirection, but it’s garbage like this that has and always will be a drag on this show. Whenever we’re told, “You can’t fit a book into ten hours,” remember scenes like this. And last episode’s scene with Theon and Ros. Both of them. And all the rest that’s to come. All the Ros scenes in general.
Skip over to Winterfell, where Theon bothers Osha about Iron Island justice. THIS is how you establish characters. Theon makes this big deal about Westerosi hierarchy and Iron Island awesomeness, while Osha’s ignorance makes him look like the fool. Then wise maester Luwin enters, making Theon run off with his tail between his legs. He inquires about why she’s traveled so far south and Osha alludes to the White Walkers. Ned beheaded a deserter in episode 1 babbling about White Walkers. Luwin, you’re smarter than that.
Over at the Wall, Jon Snow and Sam see some riders. Dead riders.
At King’s Landing again, Robert is on his deathbed, having been gored by a pig. Seeing Joffrey’s face makes me feel for him for the first time. Can we all acknowledge that Jack Gleeson’s the best child actor on the show? Please and thank you. Anyways, Robert sends everyone but Ned out and dictates his will. Ned makes a pretty savvy move here, writing “rightful heir” instead of “Joffrey” as the next claimant to the throne. He also tells Ned to call off the hunt for Daenerys. Watch Ned whenever the camera cuts to him looking at Robert. Sean Bean can act with his eyes. Wish he got something for his talent. One does not simply ignore Sean Bean’s contribution to this show. I doubt the series would be anywhere as popular without him. Interesting tidbit. You don’t see Varys’ teeth in this scene. I can’t remember ever seeing his teeth. Actor’s choice? If so, it’s brilliant.
Over in Vaes Dothrak, Daenerys and Drogo talk about chairs, er, thrones. Daenerys tells him it’s a chair for a khal to sit on… Or a khaleesi. Foreshadowing strikes again! Next, Dany and Jorah Mormont are walking through the market and Jorah breaks away to receive is royal pardon. His big bear nose smells something afoot. Sure enough, there’s a wineseller, with stronger vintages. Can we give props to the wineseller? His acting here is genius and completely steals the scene. The close ups on Jorah and the wineseller heighten the tension. Beautiful cinematography. Thanks to Rakharo’s quick whip, the fleeing salesman is captured.
Back at the Wall, Jeor Mormont speaks to the recruits about taking oaths. Jon really wants to be a ranger… and really wants to find his uncle. Jeor finishes with the penalty for desertion: death. Hint: wait for later. Jon wants to pray before the old gods, and Sam wants to be with his new brother. Jeor pulls out the Sorting Hat, and Jon Snow didn’t whisper Gryffindor hard enough. He and Sam get assigned to the stewards. Sam is Aemon’s personal steward, Jon is Mormont’s. Their roles are assigned here. Jon asks if Aemon takes him for servant. “We took you for a man of Night’s Watch,” Aemon responds. Sam drops some knowledge on Jon: he is being groomed for command. This reveals Sam’s greatest talent: seeing the big picture.
Back at King’s Landing, Renly tells Ned he can help round up the Lannisters if he gives him the time. The build up to the conversation is accompanied by the panning of the camera, creating an unsteady background to match the uneasy conversation. It finally settles when Renly declares his intention: to seize the Iron Throne for himself. You rarely see this kind of cinematography in future seasons.
Afterwards, Littlefinger meets with Ned. He tries to conspire with Ned: keeping Joffrey’s parentage a secret, and using it as leverage to keep him in line. Ned won’t hear any of it. He wants to buy Littlefinger’s gold cloaks. In this scene, the camera rests on two characters who are unmoving in their positions.
Back at the Wall! Boy we fly throughout the world. Jon and Sam swear their oaths before a heart tree. Perhaps the old gods are with them because they give Ghost… a hand!
Back at Vaes Dothrak, Dany and Jorah talk about Robert’s hunt for Daenerys. Little do they know, Robert’s dying and doesn’t want to kill dragons anymore. Drogo shows up and damn, do we have some fine acting with eyes from Jason Momoa. His look to Dany and then to the assassin is chilling. Drogo doesn’t like his wife and child threatened, so he decides to fight the world, giving a rousing speech of killing men, raping women, and enslaving children. Dany looks… somehow happy? Aroused? She’s feeling some kind of way. They tie up the assassin and have him walk behind her horse as they ride out of Vaes Dothrak.
Back King’s Landing. Ned is summoned by Joffrey and the queen to the throne room. Robert has died. Janos Slynt swears his loyalty to Ned. Joffrey and Cersei’s outfits are simply gorgeous. Again, the camera is still, even while Cersei reads what should have been earth shattering words. Except for Barristan, he doesn’t know what to do. Everyone else does, for the gold cloaks betray the northerners in brutal fashion. The episode ends with Littlefinger’s dagger at Ned’s throat in one of the moments where I truly threw my hands up in the air and yelled, “What?”
There is no going back from this. This episode launches the War of the Five Kings. It galvanizes Daenerys and Drogo. But more importantly, as a viewer, it starts the “What if…” scenarios. This brilliant, beautiful hour of television was worth every minute (except for five lost to Littlefinger’s sex education. Five minutes!). And for those of us who hadn’t read the books at that point, it made us want to.
Call the Banners
We begin “The Pointy End,” an episode written by George R. R. Martin himself, with Arya dancing and northmen dying. Sansa and Septa Mordane are arguing before the latter sacrifices herself for the former. The shot is breathtaking, looking up at Septa Mordane’s shocked expression, she steels herself as she walks willingly into the Lannisters’ bloody swords. Syrio gives Arya a lesson on “watching” versus “seeing” and then throws himself in front of Meryn Trant and the Lannisters to save her. I like this fight, the Lannister men actually throw themselves at him, not fight one at a time. Syrio’s just that good. But Meryn Trant’s smart enough to know he can grab a sword.
As the girls run, the camera chases them. A simple twenty seconds convey danger with great camerawork. At the stables, Arya stabs a boy. It’s kind of cringy, they could have done better with a close up on his face as she runs him through.
We’re in the dungeons with Ned afterwards, with Varys giving him complimentary beverages and information. The quarters are tight, and the staging is beautifully done. Ned is literally against a Wall, Varys carries the only light out. Ned learns Cat lost Tyrion. When asked, Varys claims to serve the realm. Hmmm…
At the Wall, Jon and friends haul in two bodies. As Sam notes, they have no smell. Jon has the bright idea to burn them, but we need information. A raven comes, with news of Robert’s death and Ned’s capture. The Lord Commander has a fire burning behind him, and a ton of candles (seriously, half their prop budget must’ve went into candles). Anyways, Jeor Mormont carries revelations for Jon. When Jon gets up to leave, he stops at the perfect frame: he is on the left side of the shot with two candles to his left, one candle directly center, and the stone door on the right side of the frame. Three fires? Three headed dragon? Targaryen? Of course, fire symbolizes his passion and safety at the wall, while the door only leads to the cold.
Back at King’s Landing, the small council and Cersei are manipulating Sansa against her own house. They are arrayed perfectly: Pycelle and Cersei are clearly seen, whereas Varys and Littlefinger are cast in shadow. Littlefinger stands behind and between Cersei and Pycelle. He is the great manipulator, whispering in both ears. Varys stands to the side. He influences events from the fringes, ever careful not to get anywhere near the thick of things. Incense burns on the table in front of him; he is ever a man keen on using smoke and mirrors! Again, when you’re not trying to make up new material, you get to focus on the little things! Sophie Turner brings her A-game here. She somehow makes herself look even younger than she’s ever been on the show; a sad soft-eyed doe backed into a corner.
Cut to Winterfell, and Robb, Maester Luwin, and Theon. He reads the letter Sansa wrote, begging him to bend the knee. Richard Madden brings his A-game here. In a matter of seconds he sheds his boyhood and becomes a man. Camera work comes into play here once again. A quick cut when he says “I won’t refuse” places him at the center of wisdom and impulsivity. Luwin is placed at the left, stoic and straight. Theon sits at the table, aloof and hunched. Robb stands with feet planted, shoulders wide, a dagger at his hip. He hadn’t known it til then, but he was ready for war before he hands Luwin back the letter. “Call the banners” is one of my all time favorite lines in the show and he delivered it with gravitas. “All of them, my lord?” cements the exchange as one of the show’s finest original additions. Robb may not be a main character in the books, but he’s come to life on screen. From outside Winterfell, many ravens fly.
At the Eyrie, Catelyn and Lysa argue over family and whether or not the Vale will go to war. At times, the camera shows Catelyn on one side and Lysa on the other. A septa lies in the middle, sewing. Perhaps she’s a symbol of what’s expected of mothers at times of war: to do nothing.
On the road, we see what will be one of the long enduring friendships of the series. Tyrion and Bronn are bickering about. At camp, they’re attacked by Shagga and the hill tribes of the Vale.
At the Wall, Alliser Thorne provokes Jon, and Jeor ain’t happy. At night, Ghost smells a wight, which ambushes Jon when he inspects the Lord Commander’s quarters. The ensuing fight is pretty awesome. The makeup on Othor shows a little can go a long way. The cuts to Ghost show the direwolf inquisitive then desperate to break through to his master. Let me take a moment of silence for the wolves, who have been criminally underutilized in the show. The dragons in the later seasons, like the excessive sexposition, demonstrate lazy writing. The wolves are the soul of the Starks and you rarely see Ghost and the others anywhere from Season 4 onwards. The dragons are thrown in every chance they get, and even then, half the time they’re all flash and little substance. The wolves are as much a part of the Starks as the weapons they carry. Sure, their actions and moods are subtle, but it’s still those little details that made Game of Thrones so juicy in the first place. May the old gods take pity on us all.
Across the narrow sea, Dany and Jorah conquer the Lhazareens. Well Dany’s husband does, and proceeds to rape, pillage, and enslave its people. Dany sees firsthand the cost of unleashing the khalasar. Emilia Clarke’s acting fit her character in the first season, but I don’t find her compelling later in the show. Momoa steals the scene here. His ability to act whether in silence or with a foreign tongue is electrifying. Drogo kills his raider, who dissed the khaleesi, in brutal fashion, but not before walking (literally) into the fatal wound that eventually kills him.
At Winterfell, Clive Mantle makes a compelling case for getting more screen time. The Greatjon Umber provides Robb with a taste of the opposition he’ll encounter from his own bannermen as they ride south. As Madden stands up, he physically and emotionally grows. Robb becomes a man everyday. We share a hearty laugh as Grey Wind tears his fingers off. Robb and Bran share a final farewell and Robb continues that cryptic adage, “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell.” Rickon speaks!
At the godswood in Winterfell, Osha gives Bran a lesson in theology. The colors are gorgeous: white and red against bright green and brown. Osha warns Bran that his brothers should be marching north. Speaking of north, the Night’s Watch burn the wights. Sam reveals tidbits he’s read about the White Walkers. In the riverlands, Catelyn meets with Robb. Umber’s absence in the rest of the show is a great shame. He could have almost filled in for Robert’s humor. As Robb and Cat talk, we’re given the stakes: You Win or You Die. Three simple scenes here, with juicy history and character development to boot. Osha, Greatjon, and Robb feel like important characters, not simple filler. Martin’s hand is at work here.
In the next scene, Tyrion reunites with his father at the Lannister camp. There’s a theme around fathers this episode, isn’t there? He (and we) learn about the various current events and theatres of war. Ser Kevan and Tywin look amazing, the former in his armor and the latter in black and gold. Tyrion’s continued reach for wine adds subtle humor to serious events.
Later, the Stark army is planning strategy and arrive at a dilemma: attack Tywin or Jaime. Either way, they need to cross the Twins. A spy is caught, and Robb shows mercy to the surprise of his council. Robb continues to ask, “What would father do?”
Finally at King’s Landing, as Janos Slynt gets his rewards and Tywin is appointed Hand of the King, Sansa witnesses the dismissal of Barristan Selmy. Ian McElhinney’s rage is palpable in this scene, and his threats make me believe he would carve his way through the entire room. After he leaves, Sansa begs mercy for her father before Joffrey and the council. Again Sophie Turner owns the scene. Give her something with substance, and this woman can act.
There we have it. Two exceptional, cohesive episodes; much like the rest of the season. I do wish they split up all subsequent novels into two seasons. None of them feel as put together as Season 1. But here we see masterful pacing, cinematography, acting, and storytelling. I promised to stick with the show to the very end, but I’ve yet to have as much of a thrill in this series since the days of Ned Stark. I can’t stop the complain train now that it’s been going on for seven seasons, but I know art when I see it. Season 1 of Game of Thrones is art. Everything after falls at the seams, in varying degrees of quality. When the next episode ends, the show is catapulted into new heights of popularity. But never forget how it got there. Season 1’s attention to detail, episodes dedicated to characterization and storytelling, and cohesive narrative got the show to that point. You Win or You Die. Season 1 wins.
See the original article at https://towerofthehand.com/blog/2019/01/08-you-win-pointy-end-s1e7/index.html