(This Game Of Thrones post is written from the point of view of someone who has not read the books the series is based on. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. If you see spoilers, please mark them as best you can and e-mail todd at vanderwerff dot us or contact Todd on Twitter at tvoti, and he'll take care of them as soon as possible.)
If Game of Thrones wasn't based on a successful novel, "Baelor" would be one of the more audacious episodes of TV ever. As it is, it still has a conclusion sure to blow the minds (and break the hearts) of all us non-initiated fans. The episode itself, while terrific, was not quite as fast-paced as a lot of the latter half of the season has been. But it's impossible to criticize this show for lack of narrative thrust considering those last few minutes.
The question is, for those of us who hadn't read the books, did you see this coming? Were you, like me, hoping against hope that Arya would somehow draw her sword and save her dad, or that Ned would be able to take the black and hang out on the wall with Jon? His plot was loosely linked with his illegitimate son this week, as both weighed the choice between honor and love. Ned, discussing his possible death with Varys, says he has no problem dying, since he's a soldier. But lying, throwing himself on Joffrey's mercy, and calling himself a traitor — Ned says, and we know, that that's not in his character. And yet once he sees Arya in the crowd and Sansa next to Joffrey, the choice for him is no choice at all, since he desires to protect his kids more than anything.
On the flipside, Jon's talk with Master Aemon up at the Wall reveals that Aemon was once in line for the throne himself, as part of the Targaryen dynasty, but he turned it down to take the black, and had to remain neutral even when his family were deposed and killed. Jon is now wrestling with a similar choice as Robb heads to war with the Lannisters and Ned dies (although obviously he doesn't know that yet). Aemon's point is that the black watchmen, who have no wives or children, still have to wrestle with their familial ties — something Jon will be doing even more now that Ned is gone.
Benioff/Weiss and HBO really pulled off a grand trick with this one. All of the Game of Thrones marketing had Sean Bean front and center, and from the start it was clear he was our hero, our eyes into the world of Westeros. But as the show went on and everything seemed to go against him (even as he remained the steadfast honorable man), it became clearer that this wasn't a show about a traditional hero saving the day. Ned did everything right — he challenged Robert's bad decision-making, he solved the mystery of Bran's attempted murder and Jaime and Cersi's parenting of the royal children, and he tried to maneuver Joffrey out of the throne once Robert died without bringing the nation to civil war.
But all that failed. Oh well. Ned's failure is his belief that he's playing on an honorable field, as we've discussed in previous episodes, and his mistakes are too many to number here. His final scene was very effective and disturbing. Everyone — Petyr, Pycelle, Cersi, the Hound and the rest of them — who had greeted Ned as the new Hand of the King at the beginning of the show (OK, Renly was missing, but apart from him) was there to see him die. It's clear that Joffrey's decision to kill Ned was not part of the plan, from Cersi's panicked reaction, given that it will just serve to piss everyone off.
The second Joffrey shouted his command and the slow countdown began, it was pretty obvious no one was going to rescue Ned, and, well, the whole thing was just very upsetting. Beautifully directed, very moving, and quite the tear-jerker. Ned's final act of compassion, having his man protect Arya from watching her father die, was especially touching. Unfortunately for Sansa, a prisoner in the gilded cage of the Red Keep, things aren't going to get any easier.
Jeez. What else happened this week? There was a lot of fighting, but all of it was off-screen. The majority of the episode focused around Tyrion — Ned was only seen at the very beginning and end — and Peter Dinklage rose to the occasion as usual. His little slumber party with Bronn and his new concubine was quite an amusing sight but turned into a very well-acted game of truth, as Tyrion revealed his sad history with romance, revealing more twisted layers to his relationship with his father. Those Lannisters are a fucked-up bunch.
I'm happy to see that Tyrion remains his own special kind of hero — his men win a victory on the field, but it's against a decoy force sent by Robb to draw them away from his main attack. And Tyrion isn't really there to savor the victory, since he gets knocked out with a hammer after rallying his men to battle (although that does technically give him a war wound, to the surprise of Tywin). In his scenes the night before with Bronn and Shae, we see his real fear over the idea of going into battle, and so, even though he doesn't participate, the sheer fact that he's getting thrown into the thick of it is a real growth for his character.
Robb's doing a lot of growing up, basically assuming the role of Lord of Winterfell before his dad is even executed. I was happy that the negotiation scene between Catelyn and Walder Frey was kept pretty short, but after bitching about stalling tactics last week, I actually could have done with more Walder Frey, since he was played by David Bradley, the king of grumpy, cantankerous British thespians (he also did far more subtle work, recently, in Mike Leigh's Another Year). Maybe we'll see more of him next season, considering Robb is now engaged to one of his daughters. Catelyn's report on their beauty ("One was…") is not encouraging, but Robb takes the news like a man, and later makes the decision to send 2,000 men to their deaths to draw the Lannisters away.
It's too bad we couldn't see Robb's guys take on the Lannister host, however. I know that every show has a budget, even one as opulent as Game of Thrones, but all this off-screen fighting is just getting my blood rushing for some on-screen fighting. There's been lots of excellent dueling and a few group fights (this week, Jorah's battle with the Dothraki was great) but I hope there's enough in the HBO coffers for one all-out war scene before the season is done. Jaime's capture could have been especially exciting. As it is, Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau is forced to simper at Robb and challenge him to some sort of ridiculous duel before being hauled off to the dungeons. I can't imagine Cersi will be thrilled with that development.
Over in Dothraki-land, Drogo is in pretty damn dire straits himself, which is quite a leap from the slightly big flesh wound he had last week. I know riding around in the sun isn't going to heal him, but even still, by the end of the episode he's at death's door and the crazy witch lady is making some impressively fucked-up noises to try and save him. It all rushes by a little too quickly (if Ned wasn't dead, Drogo's death would probably feel like a bigger deal) but it does serve as a sad and effective reminder of Daenerys' loose grasp on power, assured only through a marriage deal she had no part in. Invoking Drogo's name (and Jorah armoring up to back her up) seems to be getting by for now, but somehow I don't think we'll be seeing a Dothraki invasion by next week, especially since she's in labor. I could have done without all that underlined "this magic HAS A PRICE" stuff, but I won't speculate on Daenerys' near future. I am beginning to see a pattern with this show, though — there's always bad shit around the corner. Or, as Ned would have said, "Winter is coming." Sob.
Varys' scene with Ned was very effective, as he basically admitted he has a role to play, and that involves not ever being the hero. Conleth Hill has been a superstar this season.
Walder Frey really needs an All in the Family style spin-off show. His wife was creepily young.
The black watch boys' excitement over Jon's sword — a testament to how sex-starved those guys are.
Tywin is the king of backhanded praise, championing Robb's "mindless provincial courage."
Bronn stole Shae from "the ginger cunt, three tents down."
His knife game doesn't involve the potential for losing fingers. As long as you win.
A lot of great Bronn lines this week. His first kill, before he was 12, was a woman. "She swung an axe at me!"
And his quiet exit as Shae and Tyrion just start doin' it in the tent was very classy.