Just like that, the stakes of George R.R. Martin's world became even higher, the pain even more intense, and the searing sense of loss all the more unbearable. These are cruel times that the Starks and their enemies find themselves. The quality of mercy, as we know, is not strained... but there are often greater reasons to restrain oneself from enacting punishment upon others. Sometimes the open hand is the wiser council than the keen edge of a blade.
The cost of life--and the folly of youthful, headstrong kings--is keenly felt in the latest episode of HBO's Game of Thrones ("Baelor"), written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and directed by Alan Taylor, which depicts one of the most shocking moments within the first season of the adaptation.
For those of us who have read the novels, it didn't come as a surprise, but I will say that I was watching this with my wife--who has remained wholly unspoiled about any plot developments within the novels--and she not only gasped aloud, but started to cry.
And, as the Valyrian steel flew down onto the neck of Eddard Stark, I'll admit that I shed a few tears of my own as well. Ned was a dead man the second he set foot on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor that day, but that doesn't diminish the horror of his passing, mercifully not glimpsed by his daughter Arya, thanks to the intervention of Yoren.
The juxtaposition of Ned's gruesome end and Arya wringing the neck of a plump pigeon seems too intentional to be mere coincidence, given the untimely ends of both man and animal. Nor is it coincidence that what Arya sees, rather than her father's head falling to the ground after Ser Ilyn swings [Ned's] greatsword [Ice], is a flock of birds in the sky, flying away. Is Arya a little bird bound to fly away? Had it not been for Yoren, she would have likely cut her way through the crowd to Ned, killing them both in the process. But just as Arya doesn't have to see her father die, so too does Ned go to his grave, believing that his daughter is safe, that she hasn't had to witness firsthand the tyranny of evil kings, the vengeful wrath of the crowned man.
Ned's death proves, more than any other to date, that no character within Game of Thrones is safe and that the showrunners and Martin himself seem to relish the opportunity to pull the rug out from underneath the viewer. There's something to be said for the shocking nature of these twists, from the removal of Ned Stark, the series' putative hero, from the board. If Ned can be killed, so too can anyone else. Joffrey's myopia is what we're left with as Arya contemplates a life without her father in it, and Ned's head leaves his shoulders. Even Cersei seems horror-stricken at what he has done, just as her beloved twin brother Jaime Lannister falls into Robb's hands after the Battle of the Whispering Wood. (It leaves only Sansa as their last remaining bargaining chip.)
There's little difference between the juvenile pleasure Joffrey gets in stunning his mother, Pycelle, Sansa, and everyone by commanding Ser Ilyn to behead Ned, and that of Lord Robin gleefully announcing his intentions to see the little man fly. Both foolish boys who have yet to see the value of life and the finality of death. But Joffrey takes his ego too far, spilling blood in one of the most sacred places in all the Seven Kingdoms: right outside the Great Sept of Baelor. It's a sin that is an affront to the very gods themselves, and a bad omen of the blackest kind.
Elsewhere, the Lannisters think they've got Robb by the short hairs, but they learn that the young wolf is a cunning adversary, sacrificing 2000 men in order to divert attention away from the real battle, in which he seizes Jaime Lannister as his prize. I'm glad that the writers stuck to the novel's device of not showing us the pivotal Battle of the Whispering Wood, but letting the tension remain with the steadfast Catelyn, waiting for word of her son.
My only complaint--which seems to be a season-long one--is that we're again missing the direwolves. I don't know that we've even seen Robb's wolf, Grey Wind, at all, and his absence is keenly felt in the battle scenes. (My overall complaint of the show, one I've shared time and time again, is that we don't really get a sense of the emotional/spiritual rapport between the Starks and their wolves, a fact that may become even more worrisome as the series wears on.)
Meanwhile, my suspicions that the character of Ros was being groomed as a composite of Shae was revealed to be completely off the mark this week, as we see the introduction of camp follower Shae here, who quickly becomes Tyrion's sexed-up shadow. I loved that Tyrion is injured by his own men and misses the entire battle, and has to ask Bronn if they won. We're also given further insight into Tyrion's backstory via his harrowing and awful account of his brief marriage to Tysha, which shows not only his innate loneliness but also the cruelty of his Lannister clansmen, particularly that of his father Tywin. While Dinklage's accent seemed a bit iffy this week, I can't imagine anyone other than him in this role and he continues to remind me of why Tyrion is such a beloved character in Martin's novels.
And then there was Daenerys, who stood up to Qotho and tried to save the life of Drogo by enlisting the help of black magic. There's a sense of perversion about the use of blood magic here, which sullies the entire khalassar just as much as Joffrey's murder of Ned Stark destroys the sanctity of the sept. But Dany is desperate to save Drogo by any means necessary, even as her position within the tribe becomes perilously tenuous. But with any dark magic, there is always a price to pay, as the maegi tells Dany. It's not her life that is forfeit, but it's especially telling that she's injured in a fall when Qotho pushes her to the ground on her stomach. (Not a good thing to happen to a pregnant woman.)
I loved the battle between Qotho and Ser Jorah, which illustrated perfectly the pros and cons of the Westerosi armor and the Dothraki arakh: while Qotho is able to slash at Jorah's face, the arakh becomes caught in Jorah's armor when Qotho goes in for the kill... allowing Jorah to open him up with his broadsword. But it may be too late for Daenerys and for her unborn child by that point. While Jorah carries Daenerys, perhaps to her salvation, one can't escape the horror that is unfolding within Drogo's tent: the unnatural sounds and shapes that emanate from the other side of the canvas walls.
Daenerys is stronger than anyone realizes, really... She is the blood of the dragon, one of the last of her kind. But as we learned this week, there is another dragon clinging to life, hiding in plain sight for the last 100 years: Maester Aemon of the Night's Watch is one of the last Targaryens alive, and many decades earlier he renounced his claim to the throne and sought the chains of a maester at the Citadel instead. He tries to show Jon that one must choose family or honor, but it's not always possible to choose both, and that their true duty is to the fellowship they pledged to serve for life. But it's impossible not to think of what might have been, had Aemon sat the Iron Throne instead of his brother. Would the Mad King have come to power? Would Stark and Baratheon clashed swords with House Targaryen? Would the Starks now be howling against the lions of Lannister?
What might have been? What could have been? But as the sword meets bone, a little girl looks to the sky and sees only a flock of birds in flight. For Arya and for the others, the what ifs of imagination and hindsight no longer apply. We can run or we can fight. And sometimes that decision is made for us.
What did you think of "Baelor"? Did this week's episode live up to your expectations? Were you surprised by the death of Ned Stark? What was your reaction? Head to the comments to discuss and debate.
Next week on Game of Thrones ("Fire and Blood"), a new king rises in the north; a Khaleesi finds new hope.