Nobody in Westeros has a particularly good claim to the throne. They overthrew the true King a generation ago. So if everyone's a pretender, the key is to get good at pretending.
Luckily, last night's episode begins with a tutorial on fake orgasms, and goes on to give us a whole master class in faking it until you make it. Spoilers ahead...
There really ought to be a term for the scenes in Game of Thrones that aren't in the book, and which appear to have been added to provide some exposition or flesh out some neglected characters. Sideshow scenes, maybe? In any case, they often seem to stick out like a kidney at a heart-eating party. This episode starts out with a couple of those scenes: 1) Littlefinger coaching Ros and another sex worker through a girl-on-girl scene, showing them how to make a man feel like the biggest stud ever. 2) Tywin Lannister gutting a dead animal while explaining to Jaime Lannister why it's not cool that Jaime's brother Tyrion was taken prisoner.
On the surface, neither of these scenes really adds much to the episode: They're just characters rehashing information we already know, for the benefit of the viewers who may be a bit confused at this point. (And the Littlefinger scene possibly sets up his betrayal at the end of the episode a bit more.)
But these two scenes also provide two different carnal metaphors for Machiavellian statecraft: You have to get up to your hands in blood and guts, to reach true greatness and lift up your family. And you have to sex people up, play on their vanity and their lust for power, so that you can "fuck them" and get ahead. Either way, you have to get your hands dirty.
And those are two interesting metaphors to think about during the rest of the episode, since this is the episode where the shit hits the throne. All along, everybody's been scheming to get on the Iron Throne, but as long as King Robert was alive, the scheming was sort of on a low simmer. Now it's fully on.
Now that Ned knows that Joffrey Bieber is not actually Robert's son, and it's too late to tell Robert about it, Ned is presented with a few possibilities:
1) Put Joffrey Bieber on the throne anyway, and just pretend that he's really Robert's son. At least for now.
2) Put Robert's youngest brother Renly on the throne, because we're told the people love Renly and he's awesome.
3) Seize the throne for himself. This one is only hinted at, when he confronts Cersei about her illegitimate children. Cersei points out that Ned could have seized the throne back in the day, instead of putting Robert on it. And if he's going to meddle in these matters, maybe he ought to take power for himself.
4) Put Renly's older brother, Stannis, on the throne. We haven't even met Stannis yet, but everybody loathes him, and nobody seems to think he'd make a good King. But he is the next in succession, if Joffrey and Tommen are deemed illegitimate.
None of those choices are especially great, but Ned is absolutely adamant that Stannis is the only acceptable monarch under the circumstances. That stance basically costs Ned the possibility of winning himself any allies in the fight to come, because Stannis isn't there and nobody else really supports him.
And this is really the episode where we learn, once and for all, just how badly Ned has botched things since coming to King's Landing. Ned's blundered around town, investigating the death of Jon Arryn, his predecessor as Hand of the King, and antagonizing the powerful Lannister family. Ned's sleuthing has probably hastened the King's death, since the Lannisters would have done anything to keep King Robert from realizing the truth, and it's strongly hinted that King Robert's squire, Lancel Lannister, made sure the King was good and drunk when he went up against the boar that ended his life.
And not only does Ned fail to keep his Miss Marple-ing secret, he also makes a point of arranging a meeting with Queen Cersei, so he can tell her to her face that he knows the truth. Ned's hoping that Cersei will just tuck up her skirts and run back home to Casterly Rock rather than face the music, because apparently Ned has never met Cersei before. And then the King comes back, mortally injured, and Ned decides to spare his friend the truth.
The last hope for avoiding a bloody succession battle is the King's futile gesture: He tries to name Ned as his regent, to rule until Joffrey Bieber reaches some semblance of adulthood. That might even have worked, if Ned was willing to keep the truth about Joffrey's parentage to himself. But now that Ned knows that Cersei and Jaime tried to kill Bran — and did injure him permanently — to protect their secret, he can't just keep it to himself.
So instead Ned chooses the worst of both worlds: He won't do the smart thing, picking a King that can get some support. But he still cuts a shady deal, arranging with Littlefinger to have the City Guards back him and arrest Cersei. Littlefinger, talking to Ned, gets to the heart of the question: When the Queen says one person is rightfully King and the Hand of the King names someone else, who do the City Guard follow? Answer: Whoever pays their salary.
Really, none of the candidates for kinghood is terribly legitimate. So it doesn't really matter who is King — just that everyone agrees on someone, to avoid a horrible civil war.
The throne is just a symbol, and it's not all that meaningful — just ask Khal Drogo, who doesn't understand all this fuss about a big chair. The horselord doesn't get the whole concept of a ruler who doesn't govern from horseback — how can a guy on a throne travel around and do all the important raping and pillaging that make a ruler legitimate? It just makes no sense.
Drogo seems to have dismissed the idea of invading Westeros, once and for all — until an agent of King Robert tries to poison his pregnant wife, Daenerys, and then he goes full-on "lamentation of the women." He's all set to cross that undrinkable water and slaughter all the nobles and break their stone houses and generally put all of the squabbles among Westeros' nobility into perspective. So yes, King Robert's decision to have Daenerys killed seems to have been a great idea.
Actually, the plot to poison Daenerys might have worked out, if her companion Ser Jorah Mormont hadn't had a sudden change of heart. Ser Jorah's been spying on Daenerys all along, and he's finally gotten a royal pardon and permission to return to Westeros — but only if he lets them kill the Khaleesi. Why does Ser Jorah intervene and save Daenerys? Is it because he's grown to care about her? Because he thinks she's got what it takes to become a powerful ruler, and her child might become a world-beating badass? Is he hoping that by swooping in and saving Daenerys at the last minute, he'll make her depend on him and trust him even more? Is he actually hoping that the poisoning attempt will make Drogo change his mind the way he does?
Probably a bit of all of those — Ser Jorah didn't have confidence in Viserys as a future ruler, but he does have confidence in Daenerys. And that's really what makes someone a ruler — not the arcana of succession, but the ability to inspire faith among key nobles and supporters. Which is why you need to study Littlefinger's rules of faking an orgasm and making people believe in your passion. (Littlefinger should host leadership seminars!)
While Ser Jorah Mormont is making a vote of confidence in Daenerys' leadership, Jorah's father Lord Jeor Mormont is placing his confidence in the future leadership of Jon Snow, who's newly joined the Night's Watch. Jon Snow is hoping to become a Ranger, but instead he's chosen to be Lord Mormont's steward. At first, Jon Snow feels insulted — he's going to be doing Lord Mormont's laundry and errands, instead of going and fighting Wildlings — until Samwell Tarly points out that Jon Snow is obviously being groomed for leadership. As Lord Mormont's steward, Jon will hear everything and see everything, and be in a position to learn everything the High Commander of the Night's Watch knows.
So while the nobles of King's Landing fail to agree on a successor for the late, largely unlamented King Robert, two generations of Mormonts have recognized leadership qualities in two different young people, and put a large bet down on them. Which Mormont do you think made the wiser choice?