Game of Thrones – “Baelor”

“Baelor”

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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30 Comments

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30 responses to “Game of Thrones – “Baelor”

  1. Louis B.

    Man Tyrion’s “battle scene” was lame. Doesn’t outweigh all the awesomeness in this episode, and I realize there are budget constraints, but I was so looking forward to seeeing Peter Dinklage spear a horse with his fucking helmet.

  2. mck

    I started reading the series a few months before the show started and since I finished the first book I’ve been waiting anxiously too see how TPTBs would handle Ned’s death, or if they would at all. There are lot of things I dislike about the book series, but the fact that is is far more unpredictable than others, keeps me reading. And I’m glad to see the producers are honoring Martin’s story. Now, like you, I can’t wait to read newcomer’s reactions.

    However, unlike you, I really disliked tonight’s depiction of Shae. I’m now reading Storm of Swords (1/4 the way through) and it’s difficult to remember every single detail of past books, but HBO’s version of Shae verges from the book’s, no? In my opinion, the book’s version (sweet and willing to please) simply demonstrated that Tyrion had learned little from his first marriage and clung to anything that resembled true love. Of course, I have much more to read, but that’s been my impression. HBO’s Shae seems more of an equal, as she challenges Tyrion throughout the episode. The differences between the two might not matter to HBO’s version of the books in the long run (I can understand wanting to give the character more depth), but it did rob the audience of a more subtle introduction to Tryion’s weaknesses and force more exposition on to us than needed.

    Very excited for next week nonetheless and to catch up on the books as well.

  3. First of all, I’d like to thank you for your efforts in avoiding any spoilers in your writing (here, on twitter, whatever), I hope you continue like this. I am one of those aforementioned individuals without knowledge of the books, and I managed to completely avoid any piece of information about the show’s developments. I was only aware that “nobody is safe”, as the old 24 adage went, and quite frankly that’s all I needed to know – in fact, I’m puzzled by the emphasis that some commentators put on this “event” in talking about how big of a deal it is for the rest of us. It certainly IS a big deal (make no mistake, I’ve been as thrilled and involved as I could be, and I’ve invested highly in this show from the edge of my seat), but I would argue that the blasé know-how of contemporary narratives gives us a thick skin when it comes to such issues. Again, when I say thick skin I do not mean that a death like this is less effective (or I should say ‘affecting’), just that we are prepared to shift into a receptive mode that we know very well. It’s a ‘cultural support’ that gracefully helps us reframing our understanding of the text according to what we’ve learned so many times in this age of narratological familiarity. We’re quite used to shock deaths, killing off main characters (it’s customary now to use the old trick of killing a pilot’s protagonist) and similar devices.

    There’s also the fact that killing off Ned Stark is not quite the same as deciding to kill off the main character in a long-running original show; this one had a season of plotting leading up to the event, and has the solid backing of the novel, so it’s not really “shocking” in the truest sense (once again, I’m separating my critical thinking from my viewing enjoyment which has been unprecedented).

  4. Tom

    I recently started reading the books, but have not gotten to Ned’s death yet. I have to be honest, I was sort of expecting it in a way – There aren’t many films that Sean Bean has been in and not died… (See this list: http://www.seanbeanonline.net/cow.php )

    Joking apart, it was a fantastic, shocking scene. I really felt that sinking feeling when Joffrey started talking, and was hoping against hope that the writers would suddenly make the show fantastic (in the traditional sense of the word) enough for Arya to jump up and take down the guards with Needle and rescue her dad… but I knew that would never happen: it’s not that kind of story. Despite being a shock, Ned’s death did have a certain inevitability to it. Like Miles said, the honorable choices Ned made in a city surrounded by those who thrive on dishonor meant there was only one natural conclusion for his story.

  5. I haven’t read the books, and the moment at the end was more intense than I was prepared for. I needed a few minutes afterward just to regain my composure. I was thinking of Ned as the main character of the show, and you don’t kill off the main character of a TV show. Beyond that, the final scene had me waiting for someone to come save him the whole time, what with Arya reaching for her sword and running toward him. I didn’t actually expect Arya specifically to save him, but I expected some sort of conventional scene where just as it seems like it’s too late, someone shows up from out of nowhere and saves Ned. That’s how this sort of scene goes, because you can’t actually kill off the main character. Except that apparently, you can. Wow.

  6. frog212

    I haven’t read the books either, and even though in the back of my mind I knew people were going to die I conveniently pushed that thought away. The opening scene where the eunuch is talking with Ned gave me false hope that he was going to profess and go take the Black at the Wall. My 2nd thought was that this was truly the Queen’s evil plan to make Ned a traitor and kill him, but in the scene she was also yelling to stop her son from carrying out the inevitable beheading. So far though, the most unexpected death to me was the King. One episode he’s walking through the woods having wine and the next episode he is dead. I was like “wait, what?” Back to Ned’s death though, the guy who stopped Arya is a person from the Black right?

    • danielrandkai

      Exactly right. The man who kept Arya from looking at the execution was a man of the Night’s Watch. He is a recruiter sent periodically to King’s Landing to scour the jails and dungeons for new prospects, and to escort them back The Wall.

      • Susie

        Why would that guy care about doing that favor for the confessed traitor Ned? Was he from House Stark or a Winterfellian (? Winterfeller? Winterfellow?) or something?

        • Donnie

          The guy (Yoren) told us when he brought the news about Catlyn capturing Tyrion in an earlier episode:
          As a man of the Night’s Watch he is a brother to Benjen Stark, who’s Ned’s brother, too.
          And also the Starks have been friends of the Night’s Watch for many years, while southerners normally care much less about them.

          • Susie

            Thanks. Nice to hear that at least one person still upheld Ned’s principles of honor and family in his hour of need.

        • Yoren is also the same brother of the Night’s Watch who visited Winterfell with Benjen Stark and then took Tyrion back to see the wall. He travels all over to bring back recruits, that’s his job (fleshed out more in the books but he does tell this to Tyrion in the series). So he doesn’t just know Benjen, he knows the Starks of Winterfell. Specifically, he already knew Arya, which is how he recognized her so easily (and in the show, Ned merely has to point to the statue for Yoren to know exactly who he means).

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  8. Ash

    Please let us know how your mother responded. Both of my sisters have not read the books. One is refusing to watch anymore and the other one is still in shock. I’m sure they’ll get over it though.

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  10. Nigel Tufnel

    “before Ser Ilyn’s blade fell through his neck”

    Technically, it’s Ned’s own blade Ice that Ser Illyn uses, IIRC. I know…nitpicky…but even a further injustice.

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  12. Susie

    I’m still in shock. (I haven’t read the books.) Ned was the only character we were led to care about. I have no interest in watching a show that’s only got villains. They can all kill each other for all I care.

    Another character will have to be brought forward now to lead us through the story. But not enough time has been spent on Robb Stark or his mother for me to be as invested in them, to care about tuning in next year. Next week’s episode will have a lot of work to do to push that person forward and create a new emotional bond with the audience. But I will watch the ep to at least see the aftermath of Ned’s execution.

    • garik16

      Really? I think many people care about Arya and Tyrion, and perhaps Jon as well. None of whom are villains (Well Tyrion’s ambiguous).

  13. Boggy

    Ned is not dead, is just a dream! I hope! he wakes up and realise it not worth it to let go of the principles since death is inevitable but will die but not seen as a traitor; check that twist! that’s my wish

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  15. First your blog is simply brilliant; I prefer your analyses over other mainstream media zines. That said, I must say that I find that the conclusion that Ned Stark’s execution to be “surprising” for us non-reader rests on the idea that we see Ned Stark as the main/central character. Literature lends itself more readily the controlling of this, but film and celluloid is too open and that certain unquantifiable trait of chemistry is more heavily at play here. (I cite the Harry Potter series where it is my understanding that the Hermoine-Harry relationship is more clearly brother/sister and it is clear she should be with Ron, but in the movies it is painfully obvious that the actors who portray Hermione and Harry have more chemistry with each other than either do with their supposed romantic partners.)

    Furthermore, Ned Stark seemed doomed to die from the first episode. He was reluctant, to steadfast to his code of honor (a code which the show has pointed out as being colored with contradictions) when it would be wiser to act in other ways, and constantly emphasizing that he was a man of the north in the south. Oh and the show has seem to embrace the idea of championing the “underdog,” the “young” the “new” to the point that the moment you hear Robert and Ned and others remarking about old wars and reminiscing about their youth, you know their fates are sealed.

    Finally, while sad, the death of Ned was sad for reasons other than the loss of this character. Ned’s death signified multiple deaths: Sansa’s naivety and self-centered ways were killed (hopefully this will make her more likable b/c seriously she can be a lemon); Arya girlhood’s certainly dead and gone; Rob is a child no more; Cersi’s control of Joffery seems waning (which is truly terrifying b/c it is like the most disgusting bully has been elected class president and given a licensee to kill).

    Ultimately, what I am trying to point to is that Ned has never really been the central figure; the children and women are better candidates as central figures; they go through the greatest cultural arcs. They seem to be facing the greatest threats and they are ultimately the ones who have to live in the world that the game will create. And this is something I think has been cinematically clear with all the emphasis on blood lines merging, and the emphasis on futures and planing for the new guard. So how can any of us really be surprised. Now if Arya had died that would have been shocking. This death was necessary; Ned couldn’t really play the game any longer nor did he ever want to.

  16. userj

    I really like the TV Shae much more than the Book Shae.

    Book Shae was… uck… I was constantly thinking to myself, how can Tyrion fall in love with her act – it’s so obvious fantasy-girl prostitute BS. I was like, really Tyrion? This is how you want your dream girl to act? THIS??

    No, the TV show took a different – and better – approach. They asked themselves, “What kind of woman would Tyrion fall in love with?” i think they got it right – someone who can talk to him, understand his jokes, match his wit with her own, and challenge him – as well as bring him the physical pleasure and intimacy he (like all humans) needs. The writers very pointedly diverge from the typical prostitue story by having Tyrion outline all the aspects, and Shae telling him to drink because, no, her mom’s not a whore, her dad’s still around, and she became a whore not because she had to but because she wanted to. So suck on it, little man. 🙂

    Great insightful writeup as always, I’m a longtime lurker.

  17. Meredyth

    Valar morghulis. Rest in peace, Ned.

  18. Chris

    Bad news: Sean Bean as Ned Stark is gone.
    Good news: So are all those big checks they had to write him! (Mark Addy too)
    Those of us disappointed with some of the sacrifices D&D obviously (sometimes painfully obviously) had to make because of budgetary restraints are now hoping the purse strings will be a little looser next season. Book readers know about a really big event coming up in book two. It sure would be nice if that doesn’t have to be shortchanged as brutally as the Battle of the Green Fork was. Tyrion gets knocked out and then it’s all over indeed!

  19. Tenesmus

    I heard a rumor that HBO is hammering out a deal with Chris Hemsworth to play Stannis Baretheon in Season 2. That would definetly get viewers in front of thier screens. I am pretty sure Avengers wraps shooting later this summer, so the timing would be right

  20. John

    I disagree with your assessment of Shae. Now, I’m only most of the way through A Clash of Kings, but it seems that this version of Shae is completely different than the book version. In the books, she’s more of a damsel in distress type that needs Tyrion’s protection. In a book filled with tons of strong female characters (Catelyn, Danaerys, Arya, Cersei and even Sansa to some degree), Shae was sort of refreshing. She might be a stereotype in generic fantasy, but she is decidedly not in Martin’s work. I actually really like her in the book, but I found both the rewriting of her character and the performance by the actress to be completely unlikable. From her telling Tyrion that he should have known that his wife was a prostitute (he was 13, so no, he shouldn’t have known–we all do dumb things in our earliest relationships) to her freaking out over the fact that Tywin doesn’t know her name because Tyrion is “ashamed” of her (well, duh–you’re a prostitute!), it’s a disaster. It’s bad enough that I’m rooting for the writers to call an audible and just kill her off as soon as possible. But considering that they’ve taken the effort to rewrite her, that’s not going to happen. Hopefully, they can salvage her in the next season. And even if they don’t, it’s a minor complaint about an otherwise spectacular series.

  21. voluntarymanslaughter

    I was also stunned by Ned’s death (although I had a sinking feeling that it would happen for those few minutes before the execution) and needed a few minutes to pull myself together afterwards. As someone else mentioned, in a TV show, you just don’t think they’re going to kill off the MAIN character. Now, it seems like this whole season has been just the prologue to what is sure to be a very bloody civil war.

    I’ve no idea where the Shea character is going, but I really hope they end up in a permanent relationship. Not many women surprise Tyrion any more and it is such fun to see him discomfited.

    I was also very impressed with Robb — as a character, though the actor is doing a great job. He seemed inept when trying to manage Westeros; as a war commander, he is insightful and decisive.

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