Last night we got our first look at the titular throne on Game of Thrones. And we also learned enough to make us wonder: Why the hell would anybody even want to sit on it?
The current occupant of the Iron Throne turns out to be a terrible king, but in all fairness, he's far from the worst king Westeros has ever had. And all the people who are in line to replace him are even worse. But most of all, it seems like being the king kind of sucks.
Ned's first view of the Iron Throne in several years is accompanied by a history lesson: It was in this room that Ned's father was murdered by the Mad King, and 500 men just stood there and watched. So that's the perk of being king, right? You get to commit even greater atrocities than all the rest of Westeros' enlightened citizens, and nobody will bat an eye.
Except that Ned points out the flaw in this arrangement: Jaime Lannister, who stood and watched the murder of Ned's father, finally stabbed the Mad King in the back.
"You served when serving was safe," says Ned. And then he and Jaime start making out. Oh wait, that part didn't actually happen.
Talking to her son Joffrey Bieber, Queen Cersei puts it another way: "One day, you'll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it." Except there's a catch: Joffrey can do whatever he feels like — but he still has to marry Sansa Stark, and he still has to make nice with the Northerners. He can't impose punitive taxation levels on the North or try and conscript all of the Northerners for the royal army. "A good king knows when to save his strength," says Cersei. Translation: You can do anything you want, except you can't do anything.
What happens when a king simultaneously gets to do whatever he wants, and doesn't get to do anything real? The King becomes sort of a spoiled brat. Ned goes to the King's Council and discovers for the first time just what a terrible king the man he put on the throne has turned out to be: Robert Baratheon has pushed the kingdom deep into debt with a fiscal policy so ludicrous, it would make Warren Rudman cry. The King doesn't understand the meaning of "No," and he loves to throw a bloody good party. Case in point: the King wants to throw a giant tournament celebrating Ned's appointment, with the realm going deeper in debt to the Lannister family to fund it.
Meanwhile, the whole "reality is whatever the royal family says it is" principle is still in effect when it comes to Joffrey Bieber's encounter with the Butcher's Boy and Arya's direwolf. Arya doesn't understand why Sansa didn't tell the truth about Joffrey's horrible behavior, and the two sisters are looking murderously at each other. Ned tries to explain to Arya that Sansa has to take Joffrey Bieber's side, because they're going to be married, and she's going to be queen. But Arya doesn't really understand, because she's a warrior princess. At least Ned lets Arya keep her sword and arranges for her to get awesome sword-fighting lessons.
Catelyn arrives in King's Landing with the dagger that someone tried to use to stab Bran, and Petyr Baelish intercepts her and stashes her in a whorehouse, where almost nobody will know where she is. When Baelish takes Ned Stark to the whorehouse to bring her to his wife, Ned gets angry and shoves Baelish up against the wall by the throat. And then they make out. Oh, wait.
Anyway, Baelish says the dagger used to belong to him, but he lost it at a tournament — to Tyrion Lannister. Unfortunately, there's no proof that Tyrion ordered Bran killed. And without proof, they can't do anything. What will Ned do if he does get proof? Take it to the King — "and hope he's still the man I knew." Would Robert be willing to go up against his wife's family, the people who are bankrolling his reign? The Lannisters are wondering the same thing — Jaime Lannister says he's willing to fight the King if he has to. "They can write ballads about it: The war for Cersei's cunt."
Everybody talks about the King, but we don't actually see him in the ruddy flesh until halfway through the episode, when he's trading stories of first kills with Barristan Selmy — and Jaime Lannister. The King is both thrilled and haunted by thinking about the people he killed, and the stupid ways people die in war. Of course, now the only way that King Robert can get his violence fix is through wasteful, boring tournaments like the one in Ned's honor, which he insists the realm go into debt for.
But as bad a king as Robert is, Viserys would be much, much worse. Even as his sister comes into her power as Khaleesi, the exiled prince is becoming more and more powerless and stupid. She's learning to command the savage Dothraki horde and the slaves that they collected as tribute, while he's learning nothing. He has total contempt for the people he expects to put him on the Iron Throne, and they have total contempt for him in return. So when he tries to bully his sister one time too many, he tastes Dothraki justice. (Although I am really sad that it's Random Dothraki Guy, instead of Daenerys, who tells Viserys that he must walk.) And now Daenerys is pregnant. It's a blessing from the Wyld Stallyns!
What are a king's duties, besides sitting on a nasty throne made of melted-down swords, and throwing his weight around? Well, there's defending the nation's borders. And to his credit, Robert doesn't underestimate the threat of the Dothraki horsemen and their ransacking, enslaving ways. Even if his solution — murdering the teenage Daenerys and her brother — is somewhat drastic. But when it comes to the biggest threat to Westeros' external security, the untamed North beyond the Wall, Robert's weak on national defense. We see first-hand just how bad an idea it is to have your border defended by convicts and untrained weaklings — Jon Snow's dreams of a noble garrison are shattered when he sees the actual squalor of the Night's Watch.
The men of the Night's Watch are a decrepit bunch, an army of "undisciplined boys and tired old men." And Jon Snow takes out his disappointment on his fellow new recruits, thrashing them all in training — until Tyrion points out that he's the only one who's ever held a sword before, and he's bullying them for no good reason. So Jon starts helping to give them proper training instead, but it's not going to be enough. Can Tyrion Lannister help convince his royal kin that there are real dangers beyond the wall, and that the ancient mythological threats are real and terrible? Don't count on it — even Tyrion seems not to believe.
The thing is, Joffrey Bieber is actually right — it would make more sense to have a royal army and conscript from throughout the Seven Kingdoms. That's one of the keys to transforming Westeros from a primitive feudal society to a more modern federal system. In exchange, though, the King might have to give up some of his authority to his lords, in an arrangement similar to Magna Carta. The sad fact is, nobody's really thinking about statecraft in Westeros — they're just thinking about how to get power, not how to use it. And in that sense, the Dothraki have created the perfect system: They go around conquering, but not attempting to rule what they conquer. Because ruling? That's the boring part.