NED STARK: “Jon was a man of peace. He was Hand for seventeen years, seventeen good years. Why kill him?”
VARYS: “He started asking questions.”
Halfway into the first season of Game of Thrones and establishment is beginning to give way to narrative momentum. ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ may not, on the face of it, be as action-packed as some of the previous episodes, and certainly not many of those to come, but in many respects it serves as the lynchpin of the first season and the core of David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ adaptation so far. Once again, the title says it all. Wolf and Lion. Stark and Lannister. The Dragon will form the culmination of this triptych, but not yet. We don’t see any sign of a Targaryen at any point in this episode.
That doesn’t mean, of course, they are not central and crucial to the conversations and conspiracies swirling around King’s Landing. We spend more time in the Westeros capital in this episode than we have in any other, principally because Benioff & Weiss are beginning to pull the threads of George R.R. Martin’s novel ‘A Game of Thrones’ which lead directly to his next book, ‘A Clash of Kings’, which would form the basis of the second season of the show.
At this stage, their adaptation is faithful. The majority of beats are being followed, characters being established, and storylines being developed, with the odd exception of creative license for television purposes; Littlefinger & Varys’ sparring, the much lauded scene between Robert Baratheon & Cersei Lannister for example, or bulking out the homosexual relationship between Ser Loras Tyrell & Renly Baratheon, more suggested in Martin’s novels.
Bear in mind, Benioff & Weiss had an enormous amount to establish with Game of Thrones. Most new television series don’t have to introduce an entire world from the get-go, but Benioff & Weiss were tasked with not just adapting the legion of characters populating Martin’s diverse ecosystem, but a feudal, capitalist society broken in the wake of revolution, and on the verge of civil war.
This doesn’t even take into account the entire Daenerys storyline across the Narrow Sea, with Essos and the Dothraki – alien cultures, essentially, to the people of Westeros, who in terms of allegory with our world are much more aligned with England and nations of Europe than they are the ‘savage’ horse lords. Game of Thrones had a monumental task, bigger than perhaps any previous television series, and it could account for why people avoided fantasy storytelling on the small screen for such a long time.
The Lord of the Rings’ titanic success at the box office, turning a respected but relatively cult, counter-cultural novel into a global, recognised cinematic franchise, re-awakened interest in the genre of high-fantasy, with its world of orcs and dwarves and all manner of creatures. The money now pouring into streaming and cable services has led Amazon Studios to commission multiple seasons of a show set in J.R.R Tolkien’s vast fantasy universe, but this wasn’t the case in 2010 when Game of Thrones was in the works. HBO were riding off the success of multiple critically acclaimed drama series – The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under – but while without doubt entering the cultural sphere, none of them were Lost, for instance, in terms of populist global reach. HBO had never truly developed a breakout cultural phenomenon in the manner of Game of Thrones would eventually be.
Which means that betting on Martin’s adaptation was a calculated risk. How many people truly knew of A Song of Ice & Fire before 2011, outside of avid book readers or fantasy/science-fiction purists? The amount of fantasy on television around this time was non-existent. Even science-fiction, a staple of television during the late 1980’s into the 1990’s, had vastly decreased in number. Lost, though a defining television moment, shed viewers and moved from household phenomenon to weird cult series the moment it moved away from being a desert island survival drama into an electromagnetic, smoke monster-y, time travel allegory of God and the Devil. There’s an argument, therefore, that Game of Thrones entered the televisual and cultural landscape at just the right moment – just as social media was transforming discussion, and just at the point Netflix was beginning the streaming revolution.
Nonetheless, episodes like ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ underscore just how much work these writers had to do, how much they had to accomplish in translating a fantasy book series from a wealth of doorstop, ultra-complex, rich tomes into ten hours of cogent, entertaining storytelling. Their style, often focusing on multiple characters in similar locations before flowing into another area, was elegant from the first episode, and it’s remarkable just how much time they afforded themselves to let the world steadily unfurl and develop and these characters grow. Tellingly, this method may account for why Game of Thrones had the opposite effect of Lost; the more it veered into magical, science-fiction fantasy with dragons, witches, undead FrankenMountain’s, the more viewers seem to have eaten the show up with a big spoon.
This could well be because Benioff & Weiss took their time. Martin has talked about how his background as a scriptwriter in the 1980’s bled into his prose, allowing him the opportunity to structure his novels as much like a television show of scripted episodes as much as chapters:
One of the things you learn when you are working for network television, the importance of the act to break because unlike HBO, network TV requires people to come back after the commercial. So you know, you always want to have an act break that it’s a moment of revelation, a twist, a moment of tension, a cliff hanger what it is, but each act has to go out on something, you know. The da, da, da, da moment as my wife, Parris, calls them when we watch Law and Order, you know. … I want to keep I want to keep people turning the pages here, keep them engrossed. And so I tried to end every chapter with an act break. A cliff hanger is a good act break certainly, but it’s not the only kind of act break. It can just be a moment… a character moment, a moment of revelation, it has to end with something that makes you want to read more about this character.
Arguably, Benioff & Weiss came full circle in writing Game of Thrones by adapting the same style that Martin had used in his novels from his days of television. ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ is largely a character piece, and a character piece focusing on the machinations around the Iron Throne, but it works hard to deepen these players, even in brief moments of exploration.
Ned Stark talking up Ser Barristan Selmy as the most legendary fighter in the land; Robert imposing the established Westerosi expectations of masculinity on the effete Lancel Lannister by mocking the boy; or the Hound, in an act of uncharacteristic bravery, leaping in to save Loras’ life before the Mountain can kill him – all of these moments, for characters who appear maybe in just one scene, sow seeds that will pay dividends much much later down the road. The show already has an eye for detail and a foreshadowing scope which dwarfs many series that came before it.
As an aside, this would be the last appearance by Conan Stevens in the important role of hulking beast Ser Gregor Clegane, as he left the show to take a role in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit (some Tolkien irony there!). Ian Whyte would play the role in Season 2 but arguably the Mountain wouldn’t truly come into his own as worthy of his soubriquet until Hafbor Julius Bjornsson took over the part from the fourth season onwards.
The Mountain is as vicious and ill-tempered as you might expect here – savagely decapitating his horse after being felled by Loras – but he’s not nearly imposing enough to genuinely make you feel Rory McCann’s Sandor Clegane will have to fight hard to defeat him. The unexpected recasting of the Mountain over numerous seasons ended up being an unforeseen boon for the series portrayal of powerful villainy overall.
The title of course suggests the episode is focusing on the two central players thus far in the game – the Stark and Lannister families – but it’s appropriate the third elephant in the room, the unseated Targaryen’s, prove to be what begins to drive both of these families apart. They don’t even have to be there causing the realm problems to sow discord. Robert is more than capable of making that happen himself, even if he is given a little push from the circling, conspiratorial vultures hovering just out of sight across the episode. Benioff & Weiss seem at pains to suggest to us that the title is a falsehood; in some ways, the story of this episode is about anything *but* the Wolf and the Lion, but rather the chess players and string-pullers attempting to control and engineer everything both of these noble families do.
Robert, let’s face it, is easy to manipulate. He’s not the most nuanced of characters, or men. He is the allegorical King Henry IV, V or VIII, depending on who you consult. A true rebel without a cause, we have seen across the series so far that Robert never, in his mind, left the field of battle following his rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty. “I thought being King would mean I could do whatever I wanted…” he wistfully laments, discussing his political marriage to Cersei in not so direct terms. Robert has grown fat and old because he realised, upon becoming King, he was no romantic hero or warrior, but simply another custodian of a system and concept much greater than one man – the Realm, with a capital R. Robert may be King but he is just as much a puppet on a string as everyone else, and there’s a sense he knows it, even if he would never admit it.
His determination therefore to kill Daenerys and her unborn child feels driven by his own sense of rebellion, as much as fear any child of hers could help launch a restoration. Robert doesn’t necessarily believe the people would be on his side should the Dothraki invade, mainly because he has *become* what he sought to overthrow – Ned even compares him to the Mad King when Robert rages against Ned’s refusal to go along with killing a baby for political means due to his own sense of honour. “Honour! I have seven kingdoms to rule. Seven kingdoms and one King. D’you think it’s honour that keeps the peace? It’s fear! Fear and blood!” Robert seems acutely aware that revolutions are cyclical, that he could one day find himself on the wrong side of history much like the Targaryen’s were. The price of power for him was to become that which he grew to hate.
Remember, also, that Robert didn’t launch the rebellion because he *wanted* to be King. ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ further makes the point that Robert’s actions were born out of love, and what we now know to quite possibly be unrequited love, for Lyanna Stark. Martin’s fantasy saga seems born of these ‘songs’ which build to that of Ice and Fire, how kingdoms rise and fall on love. The rebellion after Lyanna’s ‘abduction’, the vengeful actions of Oberyn Martell we will later see after his sister Elia’s murder during the last days of the rebellion, Dany and Drogo, even Cersei and Jaime in their twisted way. Many of them love affairs or romances destined to either fail or end in death and destruction, and many built on lies and falsehoods. Robert’s was the biggest of all – he seems to have no idea what we later learn, that Lyanna loved Rhaegar Targaryen & died bearing his rightful heir to the Throne.
The fact Ned therefore gives up his position as Hand holds an extra resonance with the revelation about Jon Snow’s true parentage. This is a man who spent almost twenty years hiding from his best friend, the King himself, a baby Robert would have had killed in the crib much like he intends to murder Daenerys’ child in the womb. Ned is aware not only of the darker conspiratorial forces swirling around the court, actively influencing Robert’s actions even if he doesn’t truly know it, but he’s acutely aware of just how much his friend has been changed by power. Ned remains a virtuous character, and suits a tragic demise, precisely because he refuses to let himself be corrupted by the Throne, and play the Game. Ned stays true to his honour and virtue right up to the end, and Robert’s fury at his resignation and subsequent depression is likely due to the fact he wishes he could be like his friend, and stand with him again.
Many fans consider the aforementioned Robert & Cersei exchange in ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ the best exchange of the episode, and one of the best of the first season, and it’s hard to disagree. The conversation is riven with hard truth and powerful subtext, not to mention more than a liberal dose of mythology and foreshadowing. Robert essentially game theorises what we end up seeing in Season 7, once the woman opposite the table from him is in charge, and though he may be a poor King, the skilled tactician in him rightly guesses that “only a fool would fight Dothraki on an open field”, which is precisely what Cersei does in ‘The Spoils of War’ (and pays for it).
He also predicts how mercurial the ‘common folk’ as the highborn lords call them (aka society) are, fearing popular support would sway to the invaders while the Westerosi houses engage in trenchant, siege warfare. This is a symptom partly of his depressed mood at the collapse of his friendship with Ned, but it’s also a remarkably prescient level of foresight from a man characterised often as a boorish fool.
Neither of these characters are fools. A hidden agenda lurks behind Cersei’s every word in this fascinating scene, the last true conversation they’ll ever have. “That’s a neat little trick you do. You move your lips and your father’s voice comes out” Robert quips, and though we’re a few episodes away from meeting the imposing Tywin Lannister, even Cersei doesn’t refute it. Both are tragically honest in this sequence, even while Cersei plots and schemes off screen. She gets him to talk about Lyanna for the first time in almost two decades, talks about the son they lost as a baby (the only true Baratheon Robert fathered that wasn’t a bastard), and Cersei admits she did have some feeling for the man early on. Robert almost signs his death warrant when he replies “No” to her question “Was it ever possible for us. Was there ever a time or moment?”.
Robert and Cersei encapsulate what Martin fills his novels with – characters who are, essentially, playing parts. Robert is the dashing King who saved the Realm, with Cersei his beautiful wife, the most beautiful woman in the Seven Kingdoms (as she was described in her youth). To those ‘common folk’, they are meant to represent that heraldic romantic ideal, grow old gracefully, and be remembered as a glorious partnership. That’s the spin.
Robert in truth never came to terms with that ideal being a falsehood, and ending up the victim of a complicated capitalist system where he needed Cersei’s money and power more than her love. Cersei, equally, became embittered once she realised hers was purely a political marriage, that her husband loved a dead woman, and she was essentially a tool for Tywin’s silent control over the Iron Throne. Both may, literally, have all the power in the world, but they are in some senses less free than a Night’s Watchman.
Other falsehoods and quiet truths litter an appropriately shadowy episode filled with skullduggery. Establishing the clear homosexual relationship between Lords & Renly shows how repressed the outward sexual politics of Westerosi society remains in this feudal system. Youth blinded by cosseted naivety, such as Sansa, are oblivious to the ‘Knight of Flowers’ (if ever a name gave someone away) giving a man the eye while giving the pretty girl a rose. It does afford Littlefinger possibly the best quip of the episode, after Renly accuses him of being friendless: “And tell me, Lord Renly, when will you be *having* your friend…”.
Given the oppressive masculine politics tied into power in Westeros, it makes sense Renly & Loras have to operate discretly (even if we later find sexual freedoms are much looser in places such as Highgarden or Dorne). Renly is grappling with how to fit inside the paradigm his brother Robert, in his youth, personified, and Loras accentuates his own innate femininity to whisper suggestions that Renly deserves the Throne. Loras, undoubtedly with some level of calculation, is just another manipulator with eyes on who sits on the Throne, all of which continues pointing towards the inevitable war we will see start playing out in the second season.
Indeed sexual proclivities and expressions of sexual power are rippling underneath ‘The Wolf and the Lion’. Take Theon. It’s interesting how we see Theon’s penis fully here in a way we haven’t for any other major character thus far. There’s a suggestion Theon relies on his virility for his arrogance, and he consistently has to try hard to fit the masculine, warrior paradigm other men in the Kingdoms find with ease.
As mentioned when discussing ‘Broken Things’, Theon has serious anxiety issues about the Greyjoy position in Westeros, angry their failed rebellions have made them something of a joke in the eyes of other houses. “You’re a very serious boy…” whore Ros quips when he turns angry at the idea he’s been subsumed by both the Starks and Lannister’s. Theon’s sexual prowess being established so early on makes his eventual physical and psychological emasculation by Ramsey Bolton even more powerful, in hindsight.
In King’s Landing, Littlefinger stares at the Iron Throne with an undisguised hunger. This could be sexual. He is, after all, a remarkably asexual character given he runs a brothel. If Varys cannot feel sexuality due to his emasculation in a biological sense, you never feel Littlefinger truly feels it for another human being, even despite his love of Catelyn and his eventual creeping around Sansa. Littlefinger’s lust seems to be for power and the occasional chess match played between the Machiavellian grand masters we see here (in scenes added for the show, perhaps to take advantage of the fine dynamic between Aiden Gillen & Conleth Hill) draw a line between these two men which unfurls across the show but become apparent here: Littlefinger wants the Throne, Varys wants to protect the *idea* of it. They may seem alike but they could not be more different.
Littlefinger talks the talk sexually. He mocks Varys in tempting him with the pleasures of the flesh his brothel can offer that the eunuch can never enjoy, and throws shade by suggesting illegal sexual activities can be arranged. “Lord Redwyne likes his boys *very* young, I hear…” Varys counters. It’s interesting how only the suggestion Littlefinger is a purveyor for necrophiliacs does the idea of a King’s law come into account. Child abuse and paedophilia may not directly be in the open in houses of ill repute, but no one particularly seems to be clamping down on their existence.
Martin of course took from Medieval history, with Daenerys only around 15 when she is raped and sold into Dothraki bondage, reflecting a world where child brides in what would have been the equivalent of Western civilisation was not criminal or in any way taboo. Abhorrent a layer to Westeros this may be, it adds a historical authenticity, and again tracks with the undercurrent of sexuality at work. Littlefinger’s tactic is to try and bring down Varys by pointing out his lack of masculinity. Varys counters by suggesting Littlefinger’s love of Cat may mean he’s more loyal to the Starks. Both men trying to push each other’s weak spots, but only Littlefinger mentioning Varys has been spotted with Illyrio turns the eunuch a bit pale.
Let’s talk a little about Illyrio Mopatis, given this is remarkably the last time we see him. He gets a mention or two at the beginning of Season 5, but despite the fact Varys hides the fugitive Tyrion at his home in Pentos, the man is never seen (possibly due to Roger Allam not being available). Illyrio is, however, significant to the bigger conspiracy at work: the restoration of the Targaryen’s. Illyrio was partly responsible (with Varys, quietly) in getting Rhaella Targaryen out of King’s Landing when Aerys was overthrown. He got Dany & Viserys to Braavos and kept them hidden for years. He arranges Dany’s political marriage to Drogo in order to give Viserys a potential Dothraki army. And, crucially, it’s Illyrio who gives Daenerys her three dragon eggs in ‘Winter Is Coming’. He is the third head of the Machiavellian dragon, if you like, after Varys & Littlefinger, and remains largely a silent player across the remainder of the show.
His motives remain even more uncertain than Varys. Both seem to have been counting on some kind of Stark & Lannister conflict to help throw Westeros into disarray before the Dothraki invasion, but Illyrio fears events are moving too quickly. He seems less able to adapt than Varys, who is prepared to help fuel the brewing war as “this is no longer a game for two players”. Varys it seems wants to protect the Realm (we’ll talk more about this down the road) but what does Illyrio want?
Money? He’s already rich as Croesus so does he need more? Fame? Unlikely as a merchant Prince who seems happily ensconced in the shadows. Does he have the same philosophical approach to peace and stability as Varys? It’s hard to say. Illyrio vanishes from the picture here, watching the game unfold in those shadows, and one wonders if he may reappear toward the end of the story to act almost as a bookend. Plus, maybe we’ll find out quite how he got those dragon eggs in the first place.
It’s a shame indeed that Arya couldn’t fully interpret what Varys & Illyrio were saying when she overhears their conversation (symbolically hiding in a dragon skull). She may have understood and even helped Ned to head off the terrible events to come, but all she translates is: “They said you found the bastards, and the wolves are fighting the lions, and something about the savage”. Arya’s innocence and the journey to her transformation continues to begin with these kind of scenes, watching important events and conversations happening almost out of everyone’s view. Moreover, she only ends up trapped & listening to that secret conversation because she was chasing a cat, presaging her Braavosi future in the books as ‘Cat of the Canals’.
‘The Wolf and the Lion’ ends almost like a Western. Jaime riding in with his evil posse to confront the noble lawman, Ned, and give his men a good hiding before riding out with an ultimatum. He serves as a polar opposite at this point to brother Tyrion, who selflessly saves Catelyn’s life and ends up in a tower at the Eyrie because of it, but it continues to draw out the broader, overarching themes inherent in this important, lynchpin episodes. Wars are brewing. Conflicts are growing. Secrets are spiralling. And the gulf between Stark and Lannister is growing wider and wider by the episode.
A quieter but crucial piece in the first season of Game of Thrones, helping to underscore the series as a whole, in some ways ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ triggers a turning point. We know this world now. We know these characters. Time now to see the paths they are facing…
Check out our reviews of the first season of Game of Thrones: