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.
The wild card in the game of thrones is Daenerys Targaryen, who narrowly dodges an assassin from King's Landing in last night's episode. Daenerys arguably has a greater claim on the iron throne than anyone—Robert ruled Westeros for a short 17 years, and only after usurping the throne from the Targaryens. The line of succession is jumbled by the parentage of Joffrey and the many bastards Robert left behind, which leaves a vacuum that the former royal family could easily fill. And based on quality of character, Daenerys may well be the best candidate: She's wise and kind, but she's also proven that she has the strength to make hard decisions without flinching. I'd certainly rather serve under her than the spineless Renly Baratheon or the sneering, petulant Joffrey.
In line with his conscience (and against the advice of virtually everyone), Ned backs the candidate determined by the actual line of succession: Stannis, Robert's heretofore unseen (and apparently underqualified) younger brother. But Cersei acts too quickly and too unscrupulously for Ned to predict, and when Ned reenters the castle walls, he finds King Joffrey atop the iron throne.
Ned can't win the “game of thrones” because he's dedicated to playing by the rules. Cersei tears up Ned's trump card—the paper that names Ned the caretaker of the kingdom until Robert's “rightful heir” comes of age. She and Ned are playing two different games, and while he attempts to fight fair, she's content to lie, cheat, and kill to get her way. Conflict has been building for weeks between the Starks and the Lannisters, and the throne room erupts in a battle that's a decisively gory symptom of that tension coming to a boil. There will be far-reaching consequences for both families (and troublingly, we don't see either of Ned's young daughters in this episode, though both stand to suffer greatly without Ned's protection). But for now, Queen Cersei's gambit is a successful one, and at the end of “You Win Or You Die,” Ned finds himself at the wrong end of Littlefinger's knife.