(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first book in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read that book and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fourth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the second, third, and fourth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments.)
Ever since I read the book Game Of Thrones, well before it was picked up to be adapted by HBO, back when it seemed like it would become a movie, if anything, I wondered how the hell the execution of Ned Stark would play out for those who haven’t read the books. Oddly enough—and this might just be the fact that I’ve read the book talking—I do think that the series prepares viewers slightly better for what happens but only slightly. The final scene of “Baelor,” unquestionably the finest episode of Game Of Thrones yet, is devastating in all of the right ways, and it really hammers home just how deeply this season has gotten us to care about these characters—particularly the Stark family and Dany, who ends the episode in mortal peril—but also just how bad things can get.
It’s not that Ned is the “main character” as I’ve seen several who’ve threatened to stop watching the show full-stop, now that he’s dead, bleating. At best, he’s one of about a half-dozen “main characters,” who all have played important roles in this first season. But he IS the touchstone. In a series filled with people whose morals are a slippery slope, he’s the closest thing we have to a decent man, someone we can cling to, even when things turn to shit around him. Without Ned, we’re being swept downstream. Cruelly, the narrative even teases us with the idea that Ned might head up to the Wall. As we’ve seen, there’s some really bad stuff going down up there, and Ned could certainly help out his bastard son in the process of cleaning out the White Walkers or the zombie men or what have you. It’s really kind of a smart set-up, all things considered, and it’s easy to assume—even knowing what’s coming—that Joffrey will relent, will allow Ned to head off into the white wastes, and all of this will come to a head seasons from now.
There are a lot of reasons fantasy and science fiction are so popular with many readers. One of them (which is true for some readers but not all) is the fact that in many ways, they can reflect the world as we wish it would be. Many of us might wish we could jump on a rocket ship to the stars or go to a magical kingdom and fight dragons alongside a brave and noble king. There are other traditional fantasy types in Game Of Thrones—Jon’s following the very basic outlines of the outcast son who makes something of himself, at least so far—but Ned’s the one who most reflects the world we’d like to live in. If Ned Stark, honorable, virtuous Ned Star, was our leader, it would be much easier to follow him unquestionably. Ned belongs to the kinds of stories we like to tell ourselves, and that means that in the grittier, darker world of Game Of Thrones, he has to die.
It’s also, honestly, a pretty kick-ass moment, at least in terms of gutsy storytelling. (I can't think of a TV series that's booted a character this big in the first season.) I get why there are people who want to tune out of the series after Ned’s death. I do. Without him, it’s easy to feel centerless, and Sean Bean really made him an interesting and fascinating figure. I’ve heard complaints from other book readers that the Ned of the series is too stupid to live, but Bean’s portrayal of him is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. He somehow found the honest humanity in a man who could have seemed impossibly noble, with long flowing hair and teeth gleaming white, in other hands. Instead, he portrayed Ned as a man who knew he lived in the muck but hoped for better and assumed everyone else would come along for the ride. Instead, everybody else loved playing around in the muck and trying to gain control of it.
And yet there’s far more to this episode than that wonderful final scene. This is an episode HBO submitted for Emmy consideration, and it was a good choice. While having paid attention to the series up until this point is enormously helpful in understanding everything that goes on, many of the conflicts are self-contained to the episode, and there are plenty of setups that get payoffs within the hour itself. Even Ned’s final moments are setup nicely with that early scene between him and Varys. Furthermore, this episode works so well because it weaves a couple of themes throughout the hour, including questions of family vs. duty and just how good it is to be a hero if you still end up dead.
The most obvious scene involving family and duty is the one where the Maester of the Citadel talks with Jon about just why those who are in the Night’s Watch don’t have families. It’s easy to say that you would choose your honor over your family, but when the chips are down, you’ll almost certainly choose the family. (It’s genetically hardwired into us. I heard about it on RadioLab!) This scene makes the reveal that the Maester is… Aemon Targaryen (a reveal I’d totally forgotten about), and it’s a nice depiction of how for the men on the Wall, duty trumps all else. And yet we thought that was true of Ned as well, and he, instead, chose to besmirch his legacy by essentially pleading guilty to the charges of treason, solely because he wanted to save his daughters, both from the danger of the Lannisters and from seeing him beheaded. Naturally, of course, this backfires, but even Ned has his limits.
Or take a look at Walder Frey, who features in one of the week’s best scenes and one of the series’ creepiest. He’s a petty tyrant in an out-of-the-way, shithole kingdom, who’s mostly entertained himself by taking wife after wife and having lots and lots of kids. (His, “Your mother was a milkmaid until I squirted you into her!” wins the award for sensitive dialogue.) But he’s also the guy who controls a major river crossing, and if Robb wants to execute his plan—which ends up involving the distraction of Tywin’s army while Robb takes on Jaime’s army (and wins!)—he’s going to need to cross that river. Frey isn’t going to let the Stark army cross. Really, why should he? It’ll put him in danger, should the Lannisters win the war. And yet Cat dangles in front of him what he wants most in the world: getting a couple of his kids out of his kingdom and off into better lives. One of his sons will marry Arya (which she should be just thrilled about). Another will be Robb’s squire. And, finally, Robb will have to marry the Frey daughter of his choice. (I like how Cat’s pretty much just, “Well, one of those girls appears to have all of the right parts in working order” as a response to her son asking if his daughters were good marriage material.) Frey’s duty may be to keep his kingdom safe, but he’ll sacrifice that for a better life for his kids—or maybe just to get the kids out of his damn hair.
Or there’s Dany, who finds herself apoplectic as Drogo seems at death’s door. His wound has festered, and the witch’s poultices don’t seem to be doing much of anything (unless she’s purposely killing him, in which case, they’re doing exactly what they should be). Jorah says he won’t survive the night, so Dany brings on the horse slaughter, procuring a steed for the witch to use in the course of doing blood magic. And in the scene that follows—with Drogo’s tent erupting with unearthly howls and strange noises—we get our first real taste of actual magic in this series, not magic that’s been relegated to a bygone age. But this is the kind of magic that terrifies the Dothraki, the kind that should never be unleashed. And in the ensuing scuffle, Dany is knocked to the ground, prompting her baby to come early. Jorah, making the best of a bad situation, carries the girl into the howling tent, and that’s where we leave her until next week. And yet the underlying idea of this story is that Dany has chosen family over duty, twice over. The smart thing to do is flee from the Dothraki and let Drogo die. Yet she loves him, so she elects to unleash hellish magic to save him. And at the same time, she needs him to restore her family name to the top post in Westeros, so her actions also call to a larger duty beyond just her love for him. For most of these people, family and duty are all bound up in each other, but they especially are for a Targaryen. (Interestingly, the Mormonts are an example of a family torn apart by duty, as Jorah abandoned father Jeor to head off across the Narrow Sea.)
And yet there are some people who should probably just give up on their families, like Tyrion Lannister, who recounts the tale of when his brother and father fooled him into thinking a whore had been raped and then fallen in love with him. It’s another example of the show using storytelling as a dramatic plot point, and it’s another example of the show doing it well. (In general, this scene involving Tyrion, Bronn, and Shae playing a Westeros version of “Never Have I Ever” was a nice respite from the growing tensions outside the tent.) The Lannisters, in general, are a pretty messed up bunch, but they have this devotion to the idea that they and they alone are meant to rule Westeros, a devotion that has led them into the situation they’re in now, where anger they have for each other has calcified outward. But that anger is growing on Tyrion’s part, especially when Tywin places Tyrion’s gang of mountain men on the frontlines of the battle against Robb’s 2,000. (For budgetary reasons, I suppose, the battle scene is largely eliminated, with Tyrion getting knocked out much earlier than he is in the books. I honestly thought the show would give us a few snippets of this battle, followed by Tyrion getting conked in the head, but it was not to be. It’s not like I miss it horribly anyway.)
Finally, there’s the man who’s asked this simple question about family and duty: Jon Snow, whose status at the Wall continues to rise but who continues to wish he was anywhere else, especially if it would involve helping his father, brother, or sisters. In this episode, Jon is the one character who chooses duty over family. He could split for the battle. He could risk his life doing that. But instead, he chooses to stay where he is because the White Walkers are coming (or so the stories say), and someone needs to be there to turn back that tide. And so he sits and waits and clutches the sword Jeor gave him and listens to Aemon’s crazed stories. The Wall is a place where men cling to whatever dignity they have left, in lieu of going mad. But it’s also a damn good place to go a little mad when that dignity is gone.
And throughout, we return to this question of the dead, of what songs will be written, of how they will be remembered. The scene where Robb feels the sheer weight of what he’s done, of sending 2,000 men to their deaths as part of a ruse designed to get him the prize he really needed in Jaime, is another strong one. As he ponders this, he mentions to Theon, who says the bards will sing great songs of those 2,000, that the men will be dead and, thus, unable to hear those songs. It’s one of the major themes of this series, that idea that all of this politicking is ultimately futile because playing the game of thrones ends up more often than not with someone getting killed. And here are another 2,000 sent to early graves at the order of a young man who’s still getting the hang of commanding an army (though, admittedly, he’s doing a damn good job of it).
The temptation, then, is to ask for vengeance on behalf of the dead, or at least to ask for justice. When Ned dies, the hope is that Joffrey will follow him soon, an eye for an eye. And you can see that wish in the horror in Sansa and Arya’s eyes. But what good will that accomplish? What will that get Ned, who’s now dead and unable to appreciate anything done in his name? The last thing he sees is the jeering crowd shouting his name and Arya, down from the statue, safe in the arms of the Night’s Watch recruiter, who won’t allow her to look. He may have lost his life in the name of keeping his family safe, but at least he can know that they will live on, an attempt to build that empire of nobility out of the muck, no matter how impossible.
- Sorry this one is so late. I got a late start on the episode, then I spent way too long policing the newbies thread for spoilers. Next week, I’ll just have to be faster than David. (Incidentally, thanks to all of you and my wife for helping me police that section. The trolls are out in force tonight.)
- I didn’t mention just how masterfully directed—by Alan Taylor—that last scene was. The slow dolly in on Arya’s face when Ned spots her. The careful establishment of the geography of the area. The way he lays out just who’s where, so when shit hits the fan, you know what to expect. It’s the biggest setpiece of book one, and he nails it, taking a scene that felt slightly distant and clinical on the page and making it visceral and real. (The writers did too, of course, but it would have been really easy for this scene to grow far too confusing in the staging.)
- The introduction of Shae as a character is pretty great. Tyrion gives her all of his conditions, then tells her what she’ll earn for being by his side, and she announces her enthusiasm by taking off her top and making out with him. Bonus points for the scene where he and Shae start to get it on with Bronn still in the room. (I would watch a series about these three.) Also, I guess Theon’s prostitute friend WASN’T taking the place of Shae? So why was she around then?
- I would also watch a series called The Merry Wives Of Frey.
- Awesome moment: Jaime tries to tempt Robb into hand-to-hand combat to determine the fate of the kingdom. Robb’s not having it and says, “We’re not doing things your way.” Good on ya, Robb.
- One of the things that’s subtly improved as the series has gone on is how well the cuts between locations are motivated. It used to be the series would cut willy-nilly between all of its different locations, but over time, it’s figured out that the best time to cut to the Dothraki is shortly after talks about his disappointment of a son, etc.
- Cat’s really grown into one of my favorites in the past few weeks. She was pretty awesome in the scene where she gets what she wants from Frey.
Here be spoilers:
- OK, it’s pretty hard to spoil what happens in book one, now, since we’re just about done with it, and some of the stuff that happens—like Robb being crowned—is pretty obvious from what happened this week. But this episode prepares us nicely for the one, last reveal: Dany’s dragons. In particular, check out how the Dothraki take her to task about how the dragons are all dead. This has been really well foreshadowed, and I expect the last shot of next week’s episode (or, at least I ASSUME it will be the last shot) to drive some newbies wild.
- Also notice how this episode continues the subtle build of Stannis as a major, offscreen character. I wouldn’t be surprised if the show gets another pretty big “name” to play Stannis.
- Finally, I’ve read the people on the Internet who believe Ned isn’t dead. The idea seems preposterous to me, since we see his head get chopped and Arya and Sansa are there to witness. Anybody care to summarize this particular line of argument to me?