Noble Ned tries to fight fair after the king dies, but he soon learns that in Westeros, scheming beats straighforwardness
"When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground."
With only three more episodes left in Game of Thrones' first season, the series has finally kicked its "game of thrones" into high gear. King Robert's death in last night's "You Win Or You Die" puts a complex set of schemes and competing interests into motion, and the iron throne—not to mention the future of Westeros—hangs in the balance.
King Robert's sudden (and very unexpected) death after being gored by a boar on a hunting trip has forced everyone to play their hands in the game of thrones. Robert calls Ned into the room to take down his last will and testament, but Ned can't bring himself to tell Robert that Joffrey, his named successor, isn't actually his son. As Robert expresses his last wishes (blackly funny to the end, he requests that the boar that killed him be served at his funeral feast), Ned surreptitiously changes Robert's successor from Joffrey to the non-specific "rightful heir." The particulars of Robert's death remain unclear, and Varys hints at the possibility that Robert's wine was poisoned, but I'm inclined to agree with Ned: In the end, no man could have protected Robert from himself.
Though Robert's death forms the backbone of the show, the real star of "You Win Or You Die" is Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, whose strategic double-dealing leads him to betray Ned in favor of Queen Cersei by the episode's end. When it comes to smarmy charm, Littlefinger is second only to Peter Dinklage's Tyrion (who was sorely missed in last night's episode). An early scene in "You Win Or You Die" features a terrific monologue that offers the clearest glimpse we've had into Littlefinger's slippery motives (though it's annoyingly overshadowed by the series' most gratuitous sex scene to date).
As always, Littlefinger is a lot of fun to watch, but there's always been something faintly tragic about him, and "You Win Or You Die" brings some of that tragedy to the surface. Littlefinger sees himself as the David to Ned's Goliath, but over the years, he's had to accept a hard fact: in the real world, the Davids usually lose. Though he can't hope to defeat Ned in open combat, Littlefinger has discovered a sly competitive edge: a moral flexibility defined by his willingness to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. As Littlefinger correctly notes, the vast majority of Westeros' population has no stake in the game of thrones—they just want to get paid, and they'll support the rulers who pay them, regardless of any actual claim on the throne. And Littlefinger, always looking for an advantage, picks the side with the deepest pockets.