*This review contains spoilers for Baelor, Episode 9 of Game of Thrones, as well as the first ASOIAF novel, A Game of Thrones.*
Wow. And there it is, guys. For us book-readers, the one episode we’ve been anticipating all season. The instant we knew would shock, anger, drive away and reign in viewers who had not read the novels. A hallmark moment in A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps the most important sword swing in the series, and at least in the first book. The day that changed the course of Westeros forever, and the hour that cemented the fate of a widow, six children and a kingdom’s worth of commonfolk. Okay – you get it by now, right?
I’m writing a little bit late, as life has unfortunately kept me from finishing this review. But it’s been wonderful to see the reaction and be able to incorporate that here. I deeply, thoroughly enjoyed catching every “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!” or “HBO didn’t!” or “How COULD they?!” These seem like angry responses. And they are. But they also indicate passion – that people cared enough about Ned, or his children (or that they hated the Lannisters enough) to take to their Twitters or their Facebooks or blogs or Youtube channels and scream out their rage to the seven hells. Anger like that shows a connection. And if that’s the case, then we can say HBO has won. The biggest gamble going into Game of Thrones was whether or not viewers, especially those unaccustomed to fantasy, would care enough about the characters to wade through generation-long winters, packs of direwolves or schools of dragons, and a few ancient spells to keep coming back week after week.
I’m going to get into the actual review soon, but let me start off by saying I don’t know if this is the best episode. That’s a terrible choice to have to make, and I think the episodes from “The Golden Crown” up until now could all be in the running for the title. But in Baelor, there were scenes that clearly rank among the most emotionally poignant of the series to date. Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, this episode was an expression of the spirit behind this production. Although George wrote the story, and the design teams created the world, and the actors bring that world to life, it is the combination of David & Dan (D&D – I feel they must always be combined by an ampersand) that connects all the threads and weaves them into a tapestry. They are the cerebellum of the show – the seat of power that tells the feet where to walk and the hands what to grab and the eyes what to see and the mouth what to say. So, it was insightful and gripping to see what they chose to express on screen in their episode.
I’m going to start with Jon Snow, because I think that segment is the easiest to tackle first. Kit Harington, you are amazing. Fantastic work, as always. Jon gets Longclaw, and despite his initial protests that he could not accept it, he looks pretty happy afterwards. I think he’s just glad to be recognized for something good. All throughout his life he’s been a bastard. Even when he got to the Wall, he was just a trainee who Thorne loathed and Benjen left behind. He didn’t even get chosen to be a ranger, the one type of distinction he believed he deserved. So now, Jon Snow finally gets to play the hero. But of course, because he’s Jon Snow, that elation only lasts a few minutes. When Sam tells Jon about Robb’s march to war, Kit shifts gears immediately. He becomes concerned, alarmed and lost once again. You could see the conflict of interests displayed in his eyes as he slips back to his all-too-familiar position of emotional torment.
Maester Aemon is chopping food for the ravens as Jon approaches. Sam ratted him out, and the ancient wants a word. Aemon knows exactly what Jon is going through, even if Jon can’t recognize the similarities between them right away. I would say that along with Luwin, Aemon is among the best-intentioned maesters in the Seven Kingdoms. He does not plot his ambition, but just simply does what he trained to do – aid, serve and counsel those who need him. He plays guidance counselor for Jon, but at the same time, Aemon is able to lift a burden from his own chest. We know other highborn boys have joined the Watch since Robert’s Rebellion (we know Waymar Royce did, at least). However, we don’t know of any that fit the role Jon Snow and Aemon Targaryen have both had to face: members of noble houses who had to stay silent as they watched their fathers and brothers and kin suffer through war and pain. Aemon a maester, Jon a bastard, and both of them brothers of the Night’s Watch were forced to remain on the sidelines while their teams played the game of thrones.
This scene felt inexplicably eerie for me. Perhaps it was the presence of the ravens (“dark wings, dark words”), or the fact that Maester Aemon still thinks it’s okay to use a cleaver unattended despite being blind. Or it was the way Peter Vaughan transforms from calm, wise old Maester Aemon into a fiery Targaryen, a dragon roaring in pain at the death of his family and the ruin of his house. Fanboys and gatewatchers may point out that a generation of Targs was left out of the lineup, but Aemon still delivers the same message: He could barely take it when he found out how the rebels had slain Aerys, Rhaegar, and above all, Rhaegar’s young children. Jon had just been indignantly whining about how Aemon couldn’t understand, but this shut him up. He was in the presence of a dragon, long thought extinguished on Westeros. And more importantly, he was facing a man who did go through exactly what he was feeling…several times over.
I want to specifically touch on a part of their conversation, as it manifests later in the episode in several ways. Aemon says “love is the death of duty” and asks what Ned Stark would do if forced to choose between honor and the ones he loves. Jon says Ned would do “what was right, no matter what.” Aemon reflects that Ned is one in 10,000. I’ll save analysis of this dialogue for my section on Ned, but I wanted to point out the reference now.
I think this scene was some of Kit’s best acting to date. EVERYTHING is in his eyes. He goes from grief to anger to disbelief to a slight horror to an unsettled understanding. While there are many fantastic actors in this production, I think Kit gets to play the character with the deepest-seated psychology. I think Jon internalizes a lot, and carries his secrets and pain deep inside his heart. One would think this should be really difficult to portray, but Kit is consistently brilliant. We are so lucky to have him.
ACROSS THE NARROW SEA
Drogo is dying. He sways on his horse, falls from his saddle and mumbles pained words. Qotho, his chief bloodrider on the show, says that a khal that cannot ride is not a khal. Daenerys experiences difficulty getting some of the Dothraki to obey her commands, but she eventually gets them to set up camp for the night so Drogo can rest. Jorah appears and wants to take Dany away. Once Drogo dies, his men will fight for control and baby Rhaego will be murdered to eradicate potential competition. Qotho, Drogo’s cruelest bloodrider, tells Dany she means nothing after Drogo dies.
But Daenerys Targaryen remembers what it’s like to mean nothing. She remembers the days spent wandering the Free Cities with her brother, wondering if they’d have a place to sleep or if the Usurper would be on their heels. She remembers having no safety and no love and no place in the world, and she refuses to go back. So she sits up straight, raises her voice and ignites a fire behind her eyes as she tells Qotho, and the world, “I have never been nothing. I am the blood of the dragon.” That line was brilliant. In the novel, it’s, “Before I was khaleesi, I was the blood of the dragon.” D&D’s addition of “I have never been nothing” empowers the sentiment and more strongly expresses Dany’s resolve. It’s very sad what Dany is going through in this moment. For the first time in her life, she found a place she felt safe. And she knows that her safety, and the safety of her unborn child, is at risk once Drogo dies. Yet she loves him and will not leave him. She has learned to stand her ground, and she is tired of running.
She grows even more desperate when she calls for Mirri, and her fear is palpable when the maegi suggests blood magic. A standout moment is when Mirri says only death can pay for life, and Dany whispers, “My death?” Her whisper is so childlike and innocently fearful. We can breathe a temporary sigh of relief for Dany when Mirri reassures her and calls for Drogo’s horse. Once again, sucks to be a horse on Game of Thrones; the poor beast gets his throat suddenly slit open as Mirri initiates the forbidden blood magic. Emilia’s last line in the tent is perfect – half plea and half command – “Bring him back to me.”
We’ve just been told that no one must enter the tent after Mirri begins. And it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to. We hear Mirri’s shrieks and the inhuman growls emanating from the tent, and we see wind blowing only inside the structure. The Dothraki begin to panic, and Qotho denounces the khaleesi as a maegi. He pushes her to the ground, which prompts Ser Jorah to challenge him to battle. With his armor, Jorah makes easy work of the ko. Meanwhile, Dany has gone into labor, but the midwives will not tend to her because they deem her cursed. Rakharo suggests Mirri deliver Rhaego, and Jorah, despite the earlier orders, carries Dany into the tent.
I would tell you to prepare for some nitpicking, but I don’t think what I’m about to say is nitpicking. Is there any logical reason why Dany was wearing cut-off tops with no signs of pregnancy until Episode 9? All of a sudden she has her stomach covered, and she looks a little bigger, and she clutches her abdomen when she walks. Do we write this off as a sign of an unhealthy pregnancy? I can’t imagine HBO would slip up on something so simple – it’s like they had to CHOOSE to not make her look pregnant – so I’m trying to find the reason for it. There are enough poorly-cut clothes in regular stores that make normal women look pregnant when they’re not, so we know it’s easily possible!
All that aside, the bloodmagic scene was really cool. No emphasis on shadows and dancing, and I’m glad. In order to keep people from going all “GoT JUMPED THE SHARK WITH THE MAGIC” (even though it…is…fantasy), they made it a BIT more natural, but still really creepy. The wind INSIDE the tent only, the shrill singing, the inhuman growls and guttural sounds. The unknown is always scarier, and HBO unsettled us by leaving the mystery unseen.
THE LIONS’ DEN
Oh Tywin, Dad of the Year! What a massive tool. Some of us may complain about family reunions, but we can’t hold a candle to Tyrion Lannister. After a family dinner in which his father essentially says he wishes Tyrion were dead, the Imp returns to his tent to find his ever-awesome bro, Bronn, with an unknown woman. Enter Shae, who is apparently foreign in the TV show! She was a surprise, but so far she is impressive. I wonder if they intentionally made Shae foreign, or if they molded the character after they cast Sibel Kekilli. Either way, I don’t think it changes Shae all that much, and it gives her an interesting charisma. The actress has a good mystery and naughtiness to her, which characterizes Shae well. I just wonder where they were going with her – will she be a completely different character from the Shae in the book?
The trio is having a right slumber party! Tyrion’s in his Snuggy and they’re playing the Westeros version of “Never Have I Ever.” Shae refuses to answer Tyrion’s questions, but we learn a bit about the two men. Bronn suffered beatings from his father, his first kill was a woman, and he’s been north of the Wall (interesting…). Tyrion once loved a woman and it ended badly, so he never let himself love again. This brings forth the story of Tysha, a story that Tyrion tells with a mask that veils a lot of his heartbreak with a matter-of-fact admission of once being young and stupid. Essentially, Tysha was Tyrion’s first wife, who he later found out was a whore commissioned by his brother Jaime. Because Tyrion had married the girl, Tywin allowed all his guards to rape her. Nothing like some Tywin Lannister parenting…you never forget it! (Seriously, you never forget it.) You know, for that type of parenting, it’s a wonder Tyrion ended up being a good guy and Jaime ended up being half a good guy. It’s like disfigurement is the only remedy to Tywin’s poisonous, paradoxical cocktail of arrogance mixed with low self-esteem!
The Tysha story was well-delivered by the always on-point Dinklage. I just wish they had left in the bit about how Tyrion was forced to take her after all the guards were done, and how Tywin paid a gold piece for his son. Just because he didn’t say it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I do think that part of the story has a real impact. It’s doubly cruel, because it shows Tywin’s two-facedness and callousness. He says his son is worth more than common men because he is a Lannister, yet that worth only manifests in the Lannisters’ gold. Tywin does not see any worth in Tyrion as a person when he makes him suffer through Tysha’s disgrace.
The next morning, the lions wake to Northern troops at their front door. Robb Stark stole a night’s march on the over-confident Lannister camp. Tyrion dons his armor and addresses his wildlings. His speech felt like it was building a great momentum for the impending battle. But that all went down the drain when we didn’t SEE the battle. Tyrion just gets knocked out by one of his own men and wakes to a Lannister victory. At the very least they could have let him hit SOMEONE! In the book, Tyrion surprisingly takes down an armed, mounted man. Maybe that much wasn’t necessary, but he could have gotten into the fray before getting knocked out. He was cheated slightly, and now he’ll seem like a spaz heading into the next season’s Battle of the Blackwater.
And now, the Sellsword Comic Relief Moment of the Week Award goes to…….Bronn, for “stay low!” Oh Bronn, you win every week! Save some wit for someone else!
THE WOLF PACK
Frey is such a douche. An old rude rapey douchebag. Ew. But the Twins were awesome. Great CGI and a great set – with Lord Walder on his high seat, alone on the floor, with his many sons in the galleries. And it was Argus Filch! Frey didn’t look as old as I imagined, but he was just as cranky and bitter. Michelle Fairley was also fantastic in that scene. Look at her face when Walder sloppily kisses her hand. She looks like she wants to slap him and throw up and leave immediately. There was good comic relief in Robb’s tent after Cat’s return. “Did you see these daughters?” Robb asks, like any young man might. Cat responds, “One was….” and leaves the gap open. Theon fills it with sniggers. This bit is funny, but it also reinforces the fact that Robb is just a normal teenager at heart. But when he accepts Lord Walder’s demand that he marry one of the many Frey daughters, we see “Robb the Lord,” as Bran calls him in the books. And worthy of a great Lord, a variant of the Game of Thrones theme music plays as the Stark hosts crosses the Green Fork at the Twins.
I would have liked to see a little bit of the Whispering Wood. Even if it was just Robb and his men preparing for the ambush in the thickets around the camp. It didn’t have to be an extravagant battle, but just something to set the scene so that the result – the scene with Cat – could be even more powerful in context. I think Robb’s plan to split his forces and go after Jaime’s lack of patience and overabundance of confidence was a bit lost in the show. And I consider that the Young Wolf’s boldest and most brilliant move in the war, so I wish it had been more thoroughly expressed.
The scene where Cat looks anxiously to the tree line and then breaks down in tears when she sees Robb riding heroically across the field was also one of my favorite scenes in the episode. The show’s theme song played slowly and sadly in the background as Robb addressed the North: “One victory does not make us conquerors.” For those of us who’ve read the books, this was a really touching moment, and a really sad moment. We see a mother gasp in relief when she confirms her first-born son has survived his battle debut. Her concern in expected, but nonetheless touching. But we know they are not conquerors, and won’t be, because the Red Wedding will take that chance from them. This scene featured some of the most beautiful cinematography in the show to date. Everyone was just perfect. Acting, lighting, picture, colors, music, composition, plot. Perfect. Richard Madden deserves a lot of praise. Robb is relatively flat in the books when compared to other characters, as we never get a Robb POV. But Richard has brought him to life. And in this scene, he was very heroic and gallant, but also strong and gritty.
The added bit about the Kingslayer challenging Robb to a one-on-one duel revealed that Robb is no kid with his head in the clouds among dreams of glory. We already knew this, I think, but here it is cemented. He’s realistic, and he knows Jaime’s proposal is ludicrous. Just because he smashed the Lannisters doesn’t mean he can win in hand-to-hand combat with their commander. He wants his sisters, and Jaime is his bargaining chip.
Varys wants Ned to submit to Cersei and proclaim Joffrey king. Ned says his honor is worth more than his life. And then Varys brings out the big guns – is honor worth Sansa’s life? This ties into what I talked about before with Jon/Aemon (which actually came after the Varys/Ned scene in the show). Ned’s honor isn’t worth the life of his daughter. He says he has learned to die; Robert’s Rebellion taught him that death is better than becoming a Tywin Lannister or a Gregor Clegane or a Mad King Aerys. But he did not learn how to let his children die. A great part of his honor relates to law and justice. But part of it also comes from his duty as a father – the duty to keep his children safe. So to fulfill that role, it would be honorable for him to put aside his own reputation to save his daughter. Jon Snow was right after all: Ned “would do what was right, no matter the cost.”
Let’s go out into theoryland for a minute and visit our favorite: R+L=J. In Baelor we saw Ned declare himself a traitor in an attempt to save Sansa’s life. If our favorite equation is indeed true, then Ned is no stranger to slandering himself to protect his loved ones. If Lyanna is Jon’s mother, and she asked Ned to protect the boy at all costs, then Ned also named himself an adulterer to honor his duty to the sister he loved so much and to his orphaned nephew, who had nowhere else to go. He carried this secret to his grave, as did everyone else involved. Howland Reed may be our last chance to find out what exactly went down at the Tower of Joy.
But that isn’t relevant yet for the show, because we didn’t get any flashback. No Lyanna, nothing. I do wish we had gotten something, and it didn’t even have to be a scene. It could have been a simple “Promise me, Ned,” intertwined into Ned’s sickness in the black cells. If R+L=J is true, then Ned’s promise to Lyanna monumental in both his and Jon’s stories, and I wish it had been touched on before Ned met his maker. On the other hand, we don’t want anything to be too obvious; it’s much harder to embed subtle hints in film than in text. I guess maybe that line Sean Bean had in the second episode was our tribute to the possibility of our favorite theory: “You may not have my name, but you have my blood.” I don’t think Ned was lying then, and looking back, I remember how sad I felt when he said it. I wanted so badly for Jon to know the truth, but I also knew they’d never see each other again.
While I imagine the plaza outside the Sept of Baelor to be much grander, I understand the restraints the show faces. Therefore, I thought this scene was so, so, so well-done. The setup, the lead-in through Arya, the cinematography and sound editing were all fabulous elements.
Arya hears that they’re taking her father to the Sept and she freezes. She drops the pigeon she had just caught and runs off. She weaves through the crowd and climbs up on the plinth of Baelor’s statue. Sansa is on stage, looking pleased, with Joffrey and Cersei and the council. But Arya looks confused and worried, and those feelings grow when two men drag her father, still injured limping, through the crowd.
AND THEN: Ned sees her! One brief respite from the pain we book-readers have experienced time and again. Imagine the solace Ned could take in knowing that his daughter is okay. That moment was the most touching in the episode. Sean and Maisie both surpassed amazing. The recognition, the worry, the hope…it was all there in that split second. I get the sense, especially from the show, that Arya might be Ned’s favorite child. Not that he loves the others any less, but they just understand each other, and she represents to him everything that Lyanna was. So with that thought in my mind, I was really torn up by this scene.
Fortunately Ned brushes past Yoren, and tells him, “Baelor!” Yoren recognizes Arya on the plinth and knows what he has to do. This is an interesting play on the Night’s Watch’s favorite dilemma: duty versus love. It’s reversed here. Yoren has accepted his new family, and that includes Benjen Stark. And here is Benjen’s niece, alone and afraid and without direction, and so Yoren must honor his duty and love for his black brothers and help the child home.
Ned’s self-declaration of treason was a sword in the side. My mom, a non-reader, said sadly, “They’re making him say all those things he didn’t do!” And so Ned was stripped of his honor. And then his life. This scene could not have been done better. Jack Gleeson’s insane, inhuman glee in condemning a man to death was so revolting, and obviously therefore well-acted. Sophie’s screaming, and the panic among the councilors and Cersei. Every element was there, just as it needed to be. Lena’s subtle reaction was so great and so Cersei. She doesn’t openly show panic in her body; Cersei is far too calculating for that (at least this early on anyway). Her panic is restrained, but you see it in her face, the way she immediately steps to her son’s side to point out his folly.
And then we’re back to Sean and Maisie. Sean plays a man who accepts his fate, but who also feels the weight of the world on his shoulders. He looks out for Arya and sees that she is not on the statue, and I think we see relief in his face – relief that she will not have to watch him die – and hope that Yoren got to her. Maisie is phenomenal. She is fierce and struggling, and then she is sad and submissive. Her father has died, and she just lets it all slip away. Yoren finds her and kindly forces her to look away. He tells her to look at him, and he pulls her tight, as though to shield her from the harsh crowd surrounding them.
The cinematography, editing and sound were SO amazing. The way the sound drowned out, like nothing in the world mattered except Ned’s last few breaths. The cut to him, to Arya, back and forth. And the use of the birds to symbolize when the deed was actually done, as Arya looks blankly into the sky and closes her eyes, clutching Yoren all the time. I was never expecting this type of scene, but now I can’t imagine seeing it on screen any other way. I can’t praise HBO enough for their work on this. It truly pulled at my heartstrings and made Ned’s death painful in new ways. For the first time, we got his POV while Ice was hanging over his neck. And in his last few minutes, we saw the melancholy heart of a man who tried to do his best in life, who sacrificed everything for his family, and who seemingly received no thanks from his world in return. But if ASOIAF plays out as I hope, Ned’s true redemption comes through his children: through Robb, who proudly and diligently rallies a nation; through Jon, who commands humanity’s last bastion against darkness and cold; through Sansa, who we can only hope will grow wise from experience and reclaim her family’s ancient right; through Arya, who proves the Starks are survivors, no matter the cost; through Bran, whose dreams may be the key to saving the world; and through Rickon, who is young and wild, but still full of possibility. If these children live out the lessons their father taught them, they will have multiplied Lord Stark’s presence and influence six-fold all over Westeros.