It's easy to think of King Robert as a fool, and Ned Stark as the wise counselor who tries to save the King from his own folly. But like most things in Game of Thrones, it's not quite that simple.
Last night's episode showed us a few hints that King Robert might actually be shrewder than we ever knew — and his Hand, Ned Stark, might be more foolish. And even if you're the wisest man in the world, governing seven squabbling kingdoms might drive you to foolishness after a while. Spoilers ahead...
The Ned-and-Robert show kicks off with a classic example of Robert being a dumbass and Ned having to rein him in. Robert wants to take part in the jousting in the Hand's Tournament, and the Hand has to convince him this is a terrible idea. Not just because the King is too fat (and even the mythical breastplate-stretcher won't help) but also because nobody will dare risk harming the King, and they'll basically let him win. Ned's the only guy who can talk the King out of his latest crazy idea.
But if you pay attention, even in this scene there are lots of hints that the King is just fucking with people. He loves to yank people's chains, because it's the only thing he can do nowadays. Like screwing other women and making the Queen's brother stand guard outside his chambers and listen. Maybe the King really does want to joust, or maybe he's just doing this to give Ned and his Lannister squire a heart attack. Like the breastplate-stretcher jibe, everything the King does is partly about making people jump. He's all powerful, but also weirdly powerless because he can't do anything to step outside of his role.
And later in the episode, the King shows signs that he does know quite well what his role is — he's the only one keeping this whole ridiculous assortment of kingdoms together, through sheer force of personality, or just because he's a figurehead that everyone can agree on. His way-too-fat royal body is the center of the precariously balanced peace. Talking to his wife, Cersei, King Robert shows a much deeper awareness of realpolitik than anybody gave him credit for.
And Robert is probably right: the Targaryens do need to die. (We don't even see them in this episode, but they're out there, Daenerys preparing to celebrate her pregnancy with a healthy boy, and Viserys agitating for his long-promised barbarian army.) It's a nasty business, but neither of the white-haired Targaryen kids would consider himself or herself too young to chop Robert's head off, if they had half the chance. The central question about the Dothraki horse-riders has always been whether they could even cross the Narrow Sea, and whether they'd stand much of a chance if they did. A week or two, we heard Ser Jorah Mormont telling Daenerys that King Robert's advisors would probably convince him not to engage the Dothraki in open battle — and now King Robert confirms that assessment, but he's already figured out what happens next: The Dothraki ransack the countryside while the King and his nobles remain behind siege walls, safe but helpless. (Here's an interesting discussion of the Dothraki's chances if they decided to lay siege instead.)
So if King Robert actually has a point about the unfortunate necessity of killing the Targaryen kids before they can cause any real trouble, then Ned is being principled but wrong — and it's true that Ned's seen enough war to know that people much younger than Daenerys get slaughtered in war every day.
Ned makes several foolish decisions this time around, actually. He resolves to leave and ride back to Winterfell with his daughters, which would have been his only smart choice since arriving in King's Landing. After all, he's just heard that his wife has foolishly tried to arrest Tyrion Lannister and dragged the Imp off to the castle of her sister, the crazy breast-feeding Lady Lysa Arryn. So he knows that if he stays in King's Landing, trouble is coming — even apart from the fact that the King wants his head on a spike. But then Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish comes and offers to show Ned the last person Jon Arryn spoke to before he died, and Ned can't resist.
Why is Ned investigating the death of Jon Arryn in the first place? Arryn, of course, was like a father to Ned and also was Catelyn's brother-in-law. But also, the eunuch/spymaster Varys comes to Ned and warns him that the same doom that faced Jon Arryn will soon face the King. Except, of course, that if someone decides to poison the King, especially someone very close to the King (like, say, his wife) it's not clear what Ned could do about it. And it's entirely possible that Ned is bringing the King's doom closer, rather than helping to prevent it, by asking unfortunate questions.
And if Ned only took the time to listen to his daughter Arya when she tells him about the secret conference she overheard, he might have figured out that Varys has his own unsavory agenda, which doesn't favor the King's well-being at all. And he might have realized that there's more than one conspiracy happening around him, and he's only going to cause more havok if he goes stomping around. (Something Littlefinger himself tried to warn Ned about, a while ago.)
And Ned's final mistake is to lie when he's confronted by Jaime Lannister — saying that he ordered Tyrion Lannister arrested for his crimes. It doesn't really ring true anyway — since why would Ned tell his wife to arrest Tyrion, instead of doing it himself when Tyrion returned to King's Landing? (Obviously, it would be harder to seize Tyrion with his family around, but if Ned really believed he had grounds, that wouldn't stop him.) By taking the credit/blame for his wife's actions, Ned is being proud but also doing something he seldom seems to worry about — he's saving face. What else could Ned do at this point? Maybe press Jaime for the truth about what happened to Bran — something Jaime knows rather a lot about. Might not do any good, but then you never know.
And in the end, Ned pays a high price for his policy of stomping around until he steps on the truth — he loses his most faithful retainer, Jory, and he also gets a spear through the leg. Ack.
Truth be told, this was my least favorite episode of Game of Thrones thus far, although I still really enjoyed it. There were just too many tacked-on scenes of exposition, where characters tell each other stuff they both already knew. These characters have such complex backstories that you kind of need a giant infodump, but it's still a bit clunky. You get Varys and Littlefinger talking to each other for like five minutes, King Robert and Queen Cersei rehashing all their old issues, and Theon Greyjoy and Ros going over the history of the Greyjoys and their rebellion against the King.
Although the Cersei/Robert scene had some nice bits and gave us some good character development. And I quite liked the chest-shaving scene between Renly and Ser Loras, the Knight of the Flowers, setting up Renly's vague and apathetic desire to be king despite being fourth in line behind his nephews and his brother.
And I almost didn't get to mention them, but all the stuff with Tyrion pointing out the flaws in Catelyn's reasoning — and her plan to involve her batshit sister — was great. And gotta love Tyrion killing a guy with a shield. Also — horse decapitation! And the Knight of Flowers was more ridiculous than I ever could have pictured him.
Mostly, last night's episode was the final moment of slow burn before everything erupts into all-out war between the Lannisters and the Starks, with everybody else grabbing for anything they can in the confusion. It's going to be crazy.