“You Win or You Die” bleeds out any of the calm that might have remained before the impending storm in Game of Thrones‘ first season. After weeks of buildup, weeks of artfully moving pieces into place and honing blades for the impending cut, the storm begins here. It’s not the most beautiful episode of the series thus far, or the even the most emotionally resonant, but it is by far the most primal.
Warning: Plot details ahead. Proceed at your own risk.
As “You Win or You Die” begins, a massive stag lays dead on a table in the camp of Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). As Tywin’s son Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) looks on, he begins to skin the beast as he lectures his son on the importance of his house. Lannisters are to be feared, he says. Lannisters are too powerful to collapse. He implores his son to rise up and take command of the rising tide of conflict in Westeros, to cement the oncoming Lannister dynasty by brushing aside Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), the Hand of the King.
As Tywin works to cement his house’s power, another stag lays dying in King’s Landing. This stag is the head of House Baratheon, whose sigil is a stag. Robert Baratheon, King of Westeros (Mark Addy), gored by a boar during his hunt, waits to die in his bed in the Red Keep, and sends for Ned, his lifelong friend, to set his affairs in order. He too wants to preserve his dynasty, and asks Ned to serve as regent until his son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) comes of age. He signs a letter to this effect, asks for something for the pain, and waits to fade away into history.
But more is at work in King’s Landing than Robert’s will. Ned now knows that Joffrey is not Robert’s son, but the bastard product of incestuous love between Jaime and Cersei (Lena Headey) Lannister. In Robert’s final letter, which he transcribed, Ned was sure to write “the heir” rather than Joffrey’s name, in the hope that he can give the crown over to Robert’s brother Stannis. But Cersei will not be pushed aside so easily. While her father is imploring her brother to lead the house to victory, she is already taking action on behalf of the Lannisters. As Ned allies himself to Lords Baelish (Aiden Gillen) and Varys (Conleth Hill) in an effort to keep the King’s peace and place the rightful ruler on the throne, Cersei maneuvers to put Joffrey on the throne and remove the Stark thorn from her family’s side.
Meanwhile on the Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) prepares to take his oath as a man of the Night’s Watch and discover what his future will be, while across the sea Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) continues to search for a way to convince her horse-lord husband Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) to cross the sea and retake Westeros for her family.
More than any previous episode, “You Win or You Die” hones in on the Lannister-Stark conflict and pushes it farther than it’s ever gone. This is due in part simply to where we are in the story, but also to the continued ambitious re-imagining of the tale by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Their faithfulness to the tone and the character of George R. R. Martin’s novels is undoubted, but their desire to push the series, their story, into more adventurous territory than a simple rewrite of the source is what makes Game of Thrones so dynamic. If it were simply a direct, scene for scene adaptation, the crackling energy of the series would be dead. “You Win or You Die,” more than any other episode thus far, is an example of how captivating and exhilarating Game of Thrones can be when it has the courage to tell its own story.
It’s also another opportunity for Bean to carry the story along through his continually superb work. More than ever now, his Ned Stark is burdened by his commitment to honor. While almost literally everyone around him is set on their own intrigue, their own scheme, their own secret alliances and conferences, he is stubbornly dedicated to acting in the open, demanding justice, right and deliberate straightforwardness. It’s already cost him much, and even in the very early minutes of “You Win or You Die,” it’s clear that he stands to lose much more.
The episode ends, frustratingly but invigoratingly, in the midst of a climactic moment, but with the plain statement that the cloak and dagger intrigue that’s dominated much of the season so far is bursting into the open. With three more episodes left in the season, it’s clear that the fury bubbling under the surface of Game of Thrones is finally breaking free.