'Game of Thrones': Crowns No One Wants to Wear

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This week's episode examines whether the characters can really handle the power they're all chasing after

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HBO


"Who can rule without wealth or fear or love?"
–Viserys Targaryen

This week's Game of Thrones, "A Golden Crown," revolves around the shifts in power that continue to dictate the future of Westeros. King Robert's grasp on power is a tenuous one, and the Lannisters and Daenerys Targaryen are poised, in their own ways, to challenge his claim to the throne. How can he hang onto his title? And is it best for Westeros if he doesn't?

The Lannisters continue to administer their particular brand of influence over the kingdom with their wallets. Though he hasn't appeared on-camera yet, family patriarch Tywin casts a phantom presence over the show—both through regular dialogue referring to him and in the presence of his three children Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion. (Tyrion in particular, shows the impact of his upbringing in his crafty escape from the Eyrie and his continued insistence that "a Lannister always pays his debts"). In truth, Tywin's deep pockets may have more power of the fate of Westeros than anything that the king actually does.

We've previously seen the intensity with which Tywin's daughter Queen Cersei is grooming her son Joffrey, the presumed next-in-line for the throne. But it isn't until "A Golden Crown" that we discover why: Joffrey is not the king's actual son, and given his appearance (and the tryst we witnessed in the premiere episode), he's likely the result of the incestuous affair between Cersei and Jaime. If this is Cersei's calculated attempt to gain the iron throne for the Lannisters, it's too bad she doesn't have a better candidate than the bratty, amoral Joffery.

Of course, things aren't going very well in Westeros as it stands anyway. It's obvious by now that Robert Baratheon is a wholly inadequate king. He shirks his duties to indulge in a constant parade of wine and prostitutes, and the decisions he does find time to make—like the joust in Ned's honor—are rash and self-indulgent. When Robert thoughtfully says, "that was not kingly," after he slaps Cersei, it's like a child playing dress-up, trying to figure out how a grown-up would act (and his irritated "I'm the king, I get what I want" later in the episode also rings of a spoiled schoolyard bully). Robert is an enormously simple person doing an enormously complex job, and the negative impact of his reign has already begun to damage Westeros.

Given Robert's petulance, it may seem that one of his only positive actions was picking a good King's Hand in the honorable, guileless Ned. Ned has spent much of his early days as the Hand putting out the king's small fires and investigating Jon Arryn's death, but his temporary assumption of the throne in Robert's absence leads to a shocking order: the trial of Tywin Lannister, for crimes committed by his favored knight in retaliation for Tyrion's imprisonment.

Ned's principles are, as always, admirable, and he's clearly interested in justice. But the sad truth is that the lack of guile that makes him honorable also makes him a pretty poor king. It's a terrible idea to order the arrest of the man who is single-handedly financing your kingdom. Ned's other major cause as king's hand—a refusal to support the killing of the pregnant Daenerys —is a similarly principled but exceptionally dangerous position to take. By ordering Tywin's arrest, Ned is basically committing an act of war. No matter how noble his intentions, his total disinterest in politics is as dangerous for Westeros as Robert's carelessness.

Across the narrow seas, Daenerys completes her assimilation into Dothraki culture when she eats (and manages to keep down) a raw horse's heart—an old custom which the Dothraki believe will strengthen her unborn son. As a stunned Viserys observes, they love her, and it's easy to imagine them following her into battle should she decide to reclaim her birthright and take the iron throne.

But could she be queen of Westeros? Any doubts about Daenerys' willpower and strength of character have been erased over the first six episodes of Game of Thrones, and tonight's episode offers the strongest proof yet, as she watches impassively while her brother is burned to death by molten gold placed upon his head (a darkly ironic punishment which brings whole new meaning to "uneasy lies that head that wears a crown").

Unlike the haughty Viserys, Daenerys is in a unique position to navigate the cultural divide between the Dothraki and the mainlanders, because she moves fluidly between both sides. And her unborn son Rhaego—born of a union between the strongest of the Dothraki and the "dragon" of the storied Targaryen clan—will have even more symbolic and actual power, should he be in a position to use it.

But the odds of the Targaryens returning to the throne are small. There's still the matter of the Narrow Sea, which separates the Dothraki from the rest of Westeros, and which they superstitiously refuse to cross. And there are plenty of other factions vying for the throne who would stand in their way.

So what to make, in the end, of the "golden crown" of the episode's title? It refers, metaphorically, to the golden crown of hair that characterizes the Targaryens, who lost the throne, and the Lannisters, who stand to gain it. And it refers, literally, to the unusual, hubristic death of Viserys. His pursuit of the crown led to a "crown" that destroyed him. Those seeking the actual crown would be wise to recognize that it could easily do the same to them.

Read all of The Atlantic's Game of Thrones coverage.

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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