“Game of Thrones” Review: “You Win or You Die”

While I reviewed “Game of Thrones” a while back, I haven’t done a weekly review of it since. Part of that is pure logistics: at my busiest, I was working my normal 9-5 and also completing writing assignments for which I was actually paid. Throw in a weekly podcast, and writing another weekly column turned into a near impossibility. But above and beyond that, I found myself wanting to take a huge step back from what had turned into an increasingly histrionic atmosphere, punctuated by those that had seen the first six episodes (such as myself) and the vocal fans of the book that found themselves unable to comment upon the content of the show but using the books to bolster their arguments.

It felt like a lose-lose situation: until all parties were on equal footing, I felt it best to take a step back from “Thrones”. That’s not to say others couldn’t have proper weekly discussions of it: I just felt at a loss as to how to proceed. It seemed like one didn’t have to watch much to earn a positive review, but any negative review was met with the “wait until you get to Point X” counterargument. In other words, it seemed like negativity couldn’t be accepted as truthful: it simply was a byproduct of a lack of comprehension.

I’ve moved on from that viewpoint, mostly because it isn’t true: many people upset by the review were just wanting others to enjoy “Thrones” as much as they did, not denigrate those that “didn’t get it.” But the past six weeks have also allowed me to come at the series anew, which has definitely improved my opinion of them as a whole even if the problems in my initial review still remain. Things that didn’t stick out upon first view (Daenerys’ sauna bath, Bronn’s interactions with Tyrion on the way to the Eyrie) turned into sharper focus, and characters such as Jaime seem to have added depth as opposed to schizophrenic direction. Being able to actually differentiate between Robb and Theon (something that was difficult through the first three episodes for a newbie like me) also helped.

you-win-or-you-die-scene_558×429.pngSo I wanted to try and revisit the show, critically, with tonight’s episode, “You Win or You Die,” since it was the first episode that all of us basically got to watch at the same time, and since I came to it having rewatched the entire series a few times in order to better acquaint myself with the world. I say “basically at the same time” since HBO used this Memorial Day weekend as a chance to push its HBO Go platform by putting “You Win or You Die” online immediately after last week’s episode initially aired. So I, like many of you, saw it after “A Golden Crown.” Watching it on HBO Go isn’t the same as watching it on a screener, but a lack of universal access to the episode kept me from giving thoughts about it until now. Certain cable outlets that provide HBO do not as yet provide HBO GO, creating the type of critic/viewer dissonance that plagued the interwebs in the lead up to the show’s initial premiere. I had no desire to go down that rabbithole again, so here we are now.

So where are we? Well, “You Win or You Die” is the best episode so far, primarily because it seems to coincide with the time in the book in which the disparate storylines come together. (I say “seems” to because 1] I haven’t read the books yet, and 2] if the show is generally following the novel, then this is the point in most novels at which the final act starts). There have been certain episodes (“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” comes immediately to mind) that have had thematic resonances, but there’s not often been the sense that what’s happening in Place A is directly commenting upon or acting upon Place B. There have been hints about they ONCE connected, or WILL connect, but the immediate here-and-now resonances have often been lacking.

“You Win or You Die” puts the action in the present, and the results are striking. If I had to make a comparison to another recent turn in television, I’d point to the final two episodes of “The Chicago Code,” when every carefully laid plan suddenly exploded, forcing characters not to plan but to react. That transformation took “Code” to another level, and it took “Thrones” to a higher one as well. Hearing Robert and Ned argue over the merits of killing Dany is one thing: but to see the attempted murder onscreen gave everything an urgency it had previously been lacking. Moreover, it united the actions in King’s Landing and the Dothraki land in a concrete way, making the show less about vignettes in multiple parts of world and into different facets of the same story.

So, all good, right? Yes and no. In the past six weeks, I’ve struggled to figure out my primary problem with “Game of Thrones” as a whole. I stand by my initial review, but there was something else at work that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Watching the show a few times through since, I think I’ve hit upon it. My issue with it is the same that I have with many shows that I admire if not love: applicability. By that, I mean the act of taking something from a fictional/artistic place and applying it either sympathetically or empathetically to my own life. Applicability turns things from being merely academic and turns it into something deeply emotional.

game-of-thrones-episode-7-preview.jpgI think this notion of applicability helps explain the things I’ve loved about the show since day one (Ned, Arya, Jon Snow) and the things that I haven’t. And almost everything that I don’t love about the show centers around the titular game itself. In a recent podcast, some fellow critics that have read the books assure me that I’ve not wrong in assuming the game itself is something that I shouldn’t necessarily be paying attention to. And that’s fine, and good, and the way I’ve been approaching things. But that still doesn’t undo the fact that the show spends a LOT of time with people talking about sitting atop the Iron Throne.

And it’s just not something that particularly applies to me. “Game of Thrones” might be unique in the world of fantasy for the realism with which it depicts its events. But that speaks more to the way in which “Thrones” deconstructs the fantasy genre more than the way it humanizes the actions. Now, again: on several fronts, far removed from the game itself, the show is successful in getting those human aspects across. I could probably watch an entire show of Jon and Sam at The Wall, two Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque figures unsure of their place in a much larger world yet at the center of so many of its struggles. I could watch Tyrion figure out his place in a world that ignores yet underestimates him. I could watch Arya systematically reject the life supposedly waiting for her to forge her own future.

What I have a harder time doing is figuring out which level of lie people like Lord Varys are currently wading in. I have a harder time trying to read glimpses on faces that betray backstory that may wait two seasons to unfold. And mostly, I have a hard time watching so much energy go into obtaining a seat of power that will only bring pain and misery for the person sitting in it. The show seems to be laying groundwork for a petty struggle that masks the true threat to the North, but that doesn’t really interest me. I’ve seen that story before. And I’m much less interested in story than in character.

“You Win or You Die” thankfully does invest some more character backgrounds into the action. Tywin’s speech to Jaime hints at a greater nobility to the latter than would appear for a man who threw a child from atop a tower in the first hour of the series. Maester Aemon’s initially cruelty is revealed to be a tough-love style of grooming. Littlefinger is still largely impenetrable, but his Al Swearengen-esque monologue in the brothel speaks to a man that has everything he wants except the one thing he does want. These elements help, to be sure. I care less about who wins the throne than those that unnecessarily suffer for its perpetual playing. If the show focuses on the latter rather than the former, then I’ll certainly enjoy it more going forth.

After all, I don’t want to watch a game. I didn’t like feeling that “Lost” was turning its characters into pawns on the chess board of Jacob and The Man in Black. (Check out my thoughts about that here.) I found “Rubicon” most effective about the ways in which certain jobs can kill one’s personal life over the conspiratorial aspects of that show. Anytime when plot mechanics overshadow character development generally generally turns me off, no matter how intricately those mechanics are deployed. One need only look at the opening credits to see how much emphasis the show places on those mechanics: King’s Landing and Winterfell are literally depicted as mechanical devices in which gears constantly turn.

Me? I’m all about that solitary tree that grows up from the middle of all those machinations. That’s the heart tree in Winterfell, and I can think of no better element in the world of Westeros to describe what I want out of the show. I want more heart. Plain and simple. There’s one beating below the surface of this show, and there are scenes and situations in which it has pounded so loudly I need to turn the television down. But it’s been too sporadic until this point for me to truly engage with the show. I’ve too long heard the gears of power churning. It’s time to hear the hearts of the characters pounding.


  1. Jose
    Posted May 30, 2011 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    It’s partly a function of poor/inadequate writing, an inability to integrate character development seamlessly with plot development.

    But having only ten episodes is clearly making it difficult/impossible to let the heart come through. No matter how talented the writers are, characters need screen time to develop, and there is just too much action to get through.

    That being said, it’s still a good, fun show. It just could be better.

    They really need to give 12 or 13 episodes for season 2, it’s as dense as the first book, if not more.

  2. sff
    Posted May 30, 2011 at 3:05 am | Permalink

    This isn’t a criticism of what you’re saying, but a lot of what made a song of ice and fire meaningful to me was the very emotional consequences of all unemotional scheming.

    People who aren’t interested in politics (like Ned and Robert) still live the consequences of them.

    I think one scene that’s already happened that is representative of the series as a whole is the death of the butchers boy in episode 2. “The games the high lords play” in this instance the younger versions of them, can have horrible consequences for those without the power to protect themselves.

    As entertainment you have the subjective right to criticize the amount of time spent on unemotional matters; but I think artistically Martin demonstrates (and hopefully hbo will follow suite) that these things are important in there human consequences.

  3. The Fool
    Posted May 30, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    I can’t quite comment as much as I’d like since I’ve read the books, but I think the problem is that for a lot of the characters “you win or you die” has become pretty much the core of their character. They’ve been so close to power, been on such a precipice for so long that the game has consumed them. They cannot afford not to play the game because you can’t just step away from it. You’ve got family, friends, land, family honor…there’s just too much rooted into their position that will be destroyed if they either leave or try to stop playing.

    Littlefinger isn’t just “a man who has everything he wants”…he’s a man who has everything he wants ONLY BECAUSE he’s a member of the small council and can lever that influence. He’s a nobody from a tiny speck of land that nobody cares about. He’s had to work his way to the top of a society that only really trusts family, and even then only to an extent, with virtually no connections. As soon as he steps away all those connections are cut and he loses all he’s earned.

    Lord Varys? Some foreign Eunuch who’s been spymaster, and earned a ton of enemies from it. What happens if he loses influence at court? “Who will mourn poor Lord Varys?”

    Cersei? Queen who has a secret that could destroy her entire family, especially her children and their father. Can she afford not to have spies everywhere to learn when anybody might be coming close to the truth?

    The moments you’re seeking are from people who are isolated from the system. Either they’re too young, or they’re too isolated to care about it (Ned’s seat of power is like Canada if the population were spread over the entirety of the country except the northern fringes, instead of concentrated in the south. Why would the denizens of the USA (the other six “kingdoms”) care to intrigue in that land? There’s nobody there). Nobody else can afford to show them except when there’s nothing left to play for or they can do nothing to affect the game.

  4. DA
    Posted May 30, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    An interesting review.

    On the one hand, court politics becomes less of a factor as the book series goes on, so that bodes well for your enjoyment.

    On the other hand, I think your criticism here is with genre (political thriller) as much as with quality. The book series has characters that are very fleshed out from the start, and peripheral characters like Varys+Littlefinger who take a long time to let their true colors show. Part of the fun is supposed to be in guessing what they are after.

    Since you bring up Lost, Varys+Littlefinger also seem pretty akin to Ben Linus. Now, I think Lost dropped the ball on Ben in the end but to me, he was the main attraction of the show for a couple seasons. Sometimes guessing at a character from only the smallest details can be enjoyable.

    If you don’t feel heart behind Jon, Bran, Tyrion, Daenerys, or Ned, the show has failed. But you aren’t supposed to feel heart behind Varys and Littlefinger here. If you need that to enjoy the show, it seems like you just aren’t a fan of the political thriller genre to which part of book 1 subscribes.

    Anyway, thanks for the review.

  5. Posted May 30, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    DA: I’d say that’s fair, and something I tried to get across my review. What I dislike here (or rather, can’t emotionally connect to, which is a more accurate way of putting it) has nothing to do with the fantasy genre at all and more to do with any type of plot machinations of this kind.

  6. cynan
    Posted May 31, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Great Review. Finally someone offering an actual “review” of the show instead of weekly synopses.

    I can definitely see where you are coming from regarding the lack of heart in the series. In the books, Martin has the luxury of slowly delving into the characters, gradually peeling back their superficial layers that serve as their armour in the various “Games” in which they are ensnared. (I actually found the first couple hundred pages of the first book to be quite slow, partially because I was not used to the gradual subtlety with which Martin unravels his characters).

    And it is no surprise that much of this subtlety is lost in the HBO version. Whether this can be solely attributed to the age-old problem of transferring from novel to film, or whether the writers have been a bit sloppy, the actors a bit overly wooden, etc, at times, is difficult for me to conclude at this point. But you are correct, some feeling is definitely lacking at times (at least in comparison with the books). I also think Jose is correct in pointing out that some of this might be mitigated by adding a few more hours to each season.

    The problem with stretching the screen time is that the main plot would unravel even more slowly, which companies like HBO are deathly afraid will result in a failure to hold viewers’ attention spans. (This is also the reason why producers have ramped up the gratuitous sex scenes, etc, compared to the books – to try to maximize the immediate titillation factor -they are trying to have their cake and eat it too, to the detriment of the show).

    I also agree with the other posters that the political intrigue (at least in the books) does not take away from the portrayal of the heart of the characters and their development. In fact, the cold, calculating, ruthless “Game” acts in juxtaposition to amplify the heart and soul of the protagonists that the readers are truly supposed to care about.

    It is sad that this is not coming across for viewers who have not read the books, as this is the most singular element that makes Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” so involving for the reader.

  7. cynan
    Posted May 31, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Quick addendum to my above post:

    The reason characters like Arya, Jon Snow and Sam (and even Ned and Robert to some degree) are easy to connect to emotionally off the bat is because they wear their true emotions on their sleeves.

    Other characters in A Game of Thrones are much more layered and take lots of time to unravel. There are characters who may seem cold and disconnected in A Game of Thrones that many readers have unexpectedly found themselves emotionally involved with only by the second or third books… This is one example of the tremendous depth of this series.