June 12th, 2011
“I learned how to die a long time ago.”
It has been a bit of an adventure tiptoeing around the events of “Baelor” over the past eight weeks.
It’s been a bit of a game, honestly – from the moment the show was announced, people who had read the books were well aware that this episode was going to come as a shock to many viewers. This was the moment when the show was going to be fully transformed from a story about action to a story about consequences, and the point at which the series would serve notice to new viewers that this is truly a no holds barred narrative.
On some level, I don’t know if I have anything significant to add to this discussion: as someone who read the books, I knew every beat this episode was going to play out, and can really only speak to execution as opposed to conception. The real interest for me is in how those without knowledge of the books respond to this particular development, and how it alters their conception of the series. While I don’t want to speak for them, I am willing to say that “Baelor” was very elegant in its formation, rightly framing the episode as a sort of memorial to that which we lose at episode’s end.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll save my other thoughts for after the break so that I can finally talk about this without fear of spoiling anyone.
Yes, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss killed Ned Stark, just like George R.R. Martin did.
While it is true that I can’t say it could have ever surprised me, given that I already knew about it, “Baelor” really spent a long while choreographing his exit. I don’t mean to say that they made it obvious that Ned was going to die: that is still a surprise to almost everyone at the Sept of Baelor in those final moments, and I thought they made the initial lies he was forced to spew punishment enough to seem like an injustice (and thus not lead us to expect that more was coming). Rather, they clearly organized the episode as an assurance to the audience that the themes that Ned exemplified will live on, and that the show is not over despite his death. Appearing only in the first and last scenes of the episode, Ned Stark was already a footnote in the larger story being told before Ser Ilyn’s blade fell through his neck, an important narrative shift that should hopefully dispel any concerns over the longevity of this story.
The show has never been very subtle with Ned’s character, even as Sean Bean has put in a subtle (and, to my mind, very strong) performance. The whole point is that Ned’s attempts to follow the letter of the law or the most moral of options is far more conspicuous than if he had lied and cheated his way through his time in King’s Landing. For every move that Ned believes will draw no attention, he finds himself with a knife to his neck: he is a Northern man, a man who never wanted something of this nature, and a man who wasn’t willing to learn how to be a worse human being in order to survive. The show has really hammered home the nature of his mistakes, to the point where some have observed that he has seemed more stupid than stubborn, and more blind than principled.
I will admit that the show has really hammered home Ned’s mistakes, especially for those of us who already knew what they were, but I would not argue that they have rendered him stupid. Ned knew what he should have done, and he knew what he had to do: while one might argue that he should have had more foresight, this was not an impulsive or irrational decision. It was what he had always done, the way he had been raised and the way he chose to raise his children, and so to follow another path would have been impossible. Ned comes to that realization too late, creating a scenario where he must shame himself on the Sept of Baelor by owning up to a fabricated story that paints him as a traitor to the realm instead of a man of principles. There is no room in the narrative of Westeros for well-meaning men who simply want things to be “right:” just as they don’t write songs about the fact that people shit when they die, they don’t write songs about upper-level bureucrats who protect the proper lines of succession. Ned had to either be a rebel or a traitor, and by choosing neither he chose a hasty exit from the narrative.
And yet, his dilemma lives on. What “Baelor” does even before Ned’s death is transfer his struggles with honor onto his sons, with both Jon and Robb struggling with their own roles in this larger conflict. Jon, now a hero of sorts for saving Mormont from the wight, struggles with the fact that he feels he should be at Robb’s side. He left his family during a time of peace, when he felt out of place; now, his brother marches South without his father, an inconceivable circumstance when the season began. Jon is forced to choose between his old brother and his new ones, and in doing so he must consider whether his father’s way was the right way. As Maester Aemon says (in a speech that Peter Vaughan really nails) as he explains his own struggle as a member of the Targaryen family, there is no easy answer: while Ned may have been an honorable man who always did what was “right,” what is “right” anyways? Is that such a simple concept when dealing with the entangled notions of honor? Jon has seen enough carnage at the Wall and has heard of enough carnage through ravens to know that this is not a world where “right” is consistently defined. He is living his father’s dilemma as much as he is living Maester Aemon’s, and the show did a nice job of highlighting that particular issue.
Robb, meanwhile, is charting a different path: faced with real decisions and real consequences on the battlefield, relative to Jon’s more philosophical concerns at the Wall, he must make some difficult calls. The decision to sacrifice two thousand men in favor of a more strategic move (that being the capture of Jaime Lannister) is one that must be made in times of war. Having accepted that he is in fact at war, Robb seems to be tapping into the twisted sense of honor as it is shaped during those difficult times, times that Ned always resisted. Ned had seen what war had done to Westeros, and one feels as though his sister’s death still haunted him (which, for non-readers, was actually made more explicit in a chapter of the books which featured a dream-like memory of Robert’s Rebellion – I think I’ve spoken out against that flashback earlier, but I see where it fits into the series’ narrative as the show progresses). He didn’t want to operate as if he were in a war because he didn’t want to be in a war, and thus couldn’t use his information in the right way to avoid his eventual death. While Robb is able to avoid the same issue by maturing through his command, and showing a willingness to swallow the consequences of war (whether they be sending men to their death, or marrying one of Walder Frey’s daughters and forcing Arya to marry one of his sons), there’s still that lingering feeling of whether he can follow through. Should he have killed Jaime then and there, to set a tone? I would argue that the show isn’t making Ned’s death a lesson to be more brutal, or to ignore honor, but rather to make us consider the delicate balance of it all, which I feel has become paramount in Robb’s experience.
Through Jon and Robb, and the rest of Ned’s children, his legacy will live on. However, the show is not just about his legacy. “Baelor” also spent time playing out the growing descent of Khal Drogo’s health – as he sits on the edge of death with magic his only chance at life – while Dany suffers from complications with her pregnancy after a fall, and it also gave us some more insight into Tyrion as he prepares for his time on the battlefield. The former storyline was a nice continuation of last week’s work, drawing out the chaos that could result from Drogo’s death and letting us know that his won’t be like what we’ve seen in Westeros. While Westeros has a complicated process of succession that eventually led to Ned’s death, the Dothraki have no bloodlines to follow, meaning that it would be civil war if Khal Drogo were to die. Here is Dany with a baby that was supposed to be able to bring Westeros to its knees, if we believe the logic of the Small Council when they planned to murder Dany, and yet the baby means nothing if Drogo dies, likely to be killed without so much as a blink of the eye. Although I agree with many that the scale of the series hasn’t measured up to the books, I think the stakes have been tremendously well drawn, and I felt that as Dany was carried into that tent with her future in the hands of dark forces.
But the most important work here was probably in Tyrion’s pre-war festivities, in which we were introduced to Shae. Now, Peter Dinklage has been fine throughout the series, and he was strong here as well as he sketched out Tyrion’s relationship with his father and just how out of place he seems among the carnage of the battlefield – that shot with Tyrion stumbling away from his tent was one of the first to really use Dinklage’s size as a point of scale, and something about the angle just really sold the character’s place in this world. However, the real important note here is that Shae feels like a fully realized character, allowed a degree of character that has to this point been denied any of those figures who have been part of sexposition. Indeed, despite the fact that her drinking game with Bronn and Tyrion involved exposition, there was no sex to be found – although Shae appears topless earlier in the episode, and ends up in bed with Tyrion, that conversation is about reframing her narrative. Every time Tyrion tries to suggest a traditional back story for a prostitute, she denies it; as he tells his story of Tysha, an embarrassment that tells us a great deal about his relationship with his father, his brother, and women in general, she responds in a way that has a tinge of agency to it instead of just taking the story at face value. There’s a character here, and Sibel Kekilli has done a fine job of drawing that to the surface in just a brief set of scenes, and there’s something very encouraging about that for the future portrayal of prostitutes and women in general within this series.
What we will take away from “Baelor” is obviously centered around Ned’s death, and that moment was beautifully done: the final shot, with Arya looking to the sky as everything goes to silence and all she sees is the birds flying was just wonderfully haunting. Alan Taylor’s direction sold both the chaos and the resignation of that moment, and they were smart to resist the gore of earlier killings both to preserve this moment from Arya’s perspective and…well, you’ll see the other reason next week. As someone who has read the books, I was very satisfied with how that moment came across, and it is another “major” moment that Benioff and Weiss have brought to the screen with a great deal of confidence.
However, I also think they laid out some necessary groundwork that will make this series more tenable to those who may be shocked by Ned’s exit. “Baelor” is one of the show’s strongest hours not because of how it ends but because it doesn’t feel like an end at all. The episode laid so much groundwork for next week’s finale and for the series in general that there should be no doubt (at least through my eyes) that this eries has a great deal of longevity left in it. While Sean Bean was the biggest actor signed to the series, and his departure ushers the show into a new era, it is an era filled with fascinating thematic material, well-drawn characters, and a confidence that has overcome some short-term obstacles to maintain a great deal of momentum heading into the finale.
In other words, at the very moment at which the show could have seemed in peril of failing, Game of Thrones seems more viable than ever before – a great achievement for Benioff and Weiss, and hopefully a memorable moment for fans both old and new.
- I really enjoyed David Bradley as Walder Frey, but I enjoyed even more how Benioff and Weiss placed him as a representative of the realm – while he may be sleazy, he is made to represent those who don’t care about the Starks or the Lannisters, and who are almost subjected to this war happening around them. It renders him a villain, if we accept that the Starks are our heroes, but is it really all that unreasonable (or, more importantly, uncommon)? If there are others like Frey, if not quite as pervy, we see why Khal Drogo represented such a threat to Robert. I really like how those earlier exposition-heavy conversations are starting to gain more depth as the show goes on – very strong work.
- One thing that got more than a bit muddled in the episode was the Stark battle plan – frankly, it’s been a while since I’ve read the books, and I couldn’t tell you what they were either. Seems like they were just boiled down to the basics: distract Tywin’s army by sacrificing men, and then attack Jaime instead to take him hostage and gain leverage.
- Disappointed to get no time spent with Bran at all in the episode, but was there anything to really show us? The episode was chock full as it was, so there had to be some people left behind, and Bran probably makes the most sense.
- I noted about scale above in regards to the Dothraki, and I think what’s interesting is that human scale (as in the size of the Khalasar) has been sacrificed, but the scale of the locations (here the beautiful vistas) have been kept intact. It’s a bit of a trade-off, but one that I found very striking in this episode.
- Looking forward to the animated GIF of Bronn’s reaction to Tyrion and Shae starting to do it while he was still in the room.
- I am also looking forward to my parents’ reaction to the episode – I am hopeful my mother didn’t purposefully spoil herself, as she is a known Googler.