Photo: Game Of Thrones (HBO)
Season OneGame Of Thrones season one  

Month of Thrones

We’re counting down to Game Of Thrones’ final season by distilling the fantasy epic to 30 essential moments. This is Month Of Thrones.

The moment

The execution of Ned Stark

The episode

Baelor” (Season one, episode nine)

Ned Stark was the hero of Game Of Thrones. Or rather, that was the narrative feint HBO pulled off with poker-faced ease, casting Sean Bean, easily the biggest marquee name in the cast, as the noble-minded lord of Winterfell, and putting him front and center of all the publicity for season one. And as the season progressed, it looked as though this was a normal quasi-medieval tale of political intrigue and warring families, another fictional iteration of all those good-man-enters-a-den-of-vipers tales of centuries past, as Ned gets a harsh lesson in the Machiavellian realpolitik of King’s Landing. But all through his capture and imprisonment, viewers were waiting to learn how our hero would get out of this jam—at least, those of us who hadn’t read the books were.

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That he doesn’t is a testament to the storytelling chops of George R.R. Martin and his determination to shred the conventions of the genre, creating a world and story where no one is safe and where messy twists of fate intrude upon the clean structures of traditional fantasy tales. But it’s also a credit to the series that it refused to telegraph the death, or to streamline or sanitize Martin’s vision. As Arya Stark watches, her father is executed—against the wishes of just about everyone, including his enemies, thanks to the hot-headed impetuousness of Joffrey. The first season is an excellent lesson in world-building and juggling a large cast of characters without sacrificing momentum or plot. But Ned Stark’s execution is the moment viewers learn that nothing is certain, and no one is secure—it’s when the series truly became Game Of Thrones.

What we said then

“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.”

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Elsewhere in the episode

Jon Snow realizes just how fully the Night’s Watch values duty over all else, when he learns that his mentor, the maester Aemon, is actually Aemon Targaryen, who turned down a chance at the throne to take the black; Catelyn Stark meets with the creepy and procreation-happy Walder Frey, securing safe passage for Robb’s army in exchange for Robb and Arya marrying Frey’s offpsring; Dany makes a desperate move to use magic to save Khal Drogo’s life, but the ensuing fracas causes her to go into labor early; Tyrion leads his men into the frontlines of battle against Robb’s forces but is immediately knocked unconscious, missing the victory—which turns out to be a decoy, Robb having sent 2,000 men to die as a distraction so he could capture the more valuable prize of Jaime Lannister.

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Previously: Cersei tells Ned Stark, “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.”
Next: Daenerys Targaryen “gives birth” to her dragon babies