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'Game of Thrones' recap: A tag line at last

May 30, 2011 |  6:23 am
Baratheon Last week, I wondered if showing written English on screen in "Game of Thrones" was a good idea. This week, the plot makes it necessary. The dying king, dictating his will to Eddard Stark, specifies that Ned is to be the acting monarch "until my son Joffrey comes of age," but what we see Ned craftily writing down instead is "rightful heir"-- said heir, most likely, being one of the seeds Robert Baratheon scattered across Westeros while Cersei "finished him off in other ways."
Ned is a clever guy, but he's far from the only one in this series; he's also the most noble of the clever guys, which makes him the most vulnerable. What's fascinating is that the people who hate him most hate him for reasons not of his making. Cersei loathes Ned because Robert made it clear (on their wedding night!) that he really loved Lyanna; Littlefinger despises Ned less because he married Catelyn than because his brother was the one she really loved.
The standout scene this time is Ned's and Cersei's deceptively relaxed, sunny outdoor dialogue near the beginning of the episode, in which we finally hear both the title of the series and its tag line ("you win or you die"), spoken aloud. Cersei also casually admits her relationship with Jaime -- the sacrifice play that sets off the game's sudden-death rounds. 
And then, in the final few scenes, everyone starts showing their hands in a cascade of schemes and counter-schemes: Renly's and Baelish's respective desperate plots and insistence that their ways are the only way, nasty young Joffrey sprawled across the Iron Throne like he's watching "Everybody Loves Raymond," Ned's revelation of the sealed royal will, Cersei's ice-cold Alexandrian response to Ned's gambit, the melee that suggests that nobody knows where anyone else's ultimate allegiances are, and the nicely foreshadowed double-cross in the final five seconds of the episode. There are even things that look more conspiratorial than they really are: Varys, who really should have a white cat to stroke every time he's on screen, suggests that the king's fatal accident was due to foul play involving his drink, although everything we've seen of Robert suggests that he had no problem getting blind drunk on his own.
But the episode's rhythms are thrown off by a couple of failed set pieces. Khal Drogo's histrionic speech (delivered in Dothraki, of course), about how he's going to cross the sea in a big wooden horse and take his revenge and claim the "iron chair" his khaleesi keeps talking about, is ultra-campy, and it's begging for Mad  magazine to mock it. (Can't you just see Jason Momoa drawn by Mort Drucker?) That also goes for Petyr Baelish's tedious monologue about his grudge against Ned, delivered against the backdrop of a girl-girl scene that seems to have drifted over from late-night Skinemax. And the young women's unconvincing, Littlefinger-directed groans are doubly creepy immediately followed by Theon Greyjoy suggesting that the "impudent little wench" Osha might be able to convince him to get her out of her chains. (The capper: the scene that follows that one begins with Sam complaining that he misses girls.)
Also, the series has been using a handful of music cues over and over, and there's a particularly intrusive one in the middle of the scene with Danaerys and the unfortunate wine merchant. Just before he drops his cup and bolts for it, the "guess what? this scene involves the Dothraki!" drums start up, which makes it seem like he's been attacked by the horsemen before he tries to run away.
A subtler problem has to do with the scope of "Game of Thrones." By the show's nature, there are now so many characters -- regular and incoming -- that there's no longer room to show us even what all the major ones are up to every week. This time, we see Tywin Lannister for what I believe is the first time, and several characters discuss the still-unseen Stannis Baratheon. Everybody knows why Stannis would be a bad person to have on the throne, we're told, although we're left to wonder why exactly. But we don't get any screen time for Tyrion or Arya or Catelyn, for instance. I realize that, given the show's fidelity to George R.R. Martin's books, there's not a lot of room for it to play up elements that worked particularly well in earlier episodes, but in a perfect world, Tyrion could be spun off into his own half-hour sitcom.
The sex, violence and catchphrase tally:
Bare breasts: Four, thanks to the unconvincing trainees at Littlefinger's cathouse. We also get our second naked man of the series, stumbling behind the Dothraki procession and probably wishing he'd just bottoms-upped his special vintage instead.
Fatalities: Half a dozen or so in the throne room, as well as (offscreen) the former occupant of the throne, not to mention the porcine king-slayer.

"A Lannister always pays his debts": one, from Tywin (technically, it's "Lannisters pay their debts" here).


-- Douglas Wolk

Photo: Mark Addy as Robert Baratheon in "Game of Thrones." Credit: HBO