Phew. Now THAT was an hour of television well spent. It’s quite a relief really, to have finally made it past this point in the series, as I’ve been watching and discussing the show with many friends who aren’t familiar with the source material, and keeping the first season’s big twist (all spring it’s loomed in the background, getting closer and closer) has been a challenge at times. Yet it was this moment, this final shot of the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones’ first season, that truly reveals to people what kind of a show they’re watching.
Think about it- when have you ever watched another show that kills off its “main character” (book readers know that Ned was never the main character per se, but for the purpose of the show, I think he qualified) during the first season for creative reasons, and not because they got a DUI or talked shit about J.J. Abrams? Sean Bean as Ned was on the side of buses, on giant billboards, on the covers of the new editions of the paperback… he was quite literally the face of this show’s marketing push, yet with one swipe of Ice, he’s gone. I give HBO and the show’s producers all the credit in the world for not shying away from carrying through this aspect of the book, and it’ll be interesting to track the fallout this week and into the finale’s viewership numbers.
Everything in the final scene that built to that last terrible moment was perfect. The chaotic crowd, Ned seeing Arya and tipping Yoren (the brother of the Night’s Watch that had previously told Ned about Catelyn taking Tyrion prisoner) to her location with the single word “Baelor” (the name of the statue that Arya was crouched on), Ned’s halting confession as he sells the honor that he had always guarded so fiercely- the price to keep his daughters safe, Joffrey’s capricious, sneering, evil off-script moment, the panic on the part of the advisers, Ser Ilyn throwing on his hood and unsheathing Ned’s own sword, and finally, the silence and the serene look on Ned’s face as he lowers his head and waits for what’s coming. As Ned reminded Varys in the dungeon at the episode’s start, above all else he is a solider, and he learned how to die a long time ago.
Even without that perfect final scene, this was a very strong, very well-done episode of the show. In the credits, we’re introduced to a new location (The Twins), and it doesn’t take long for us to go there and meet Lord Walder Frey, a disgusting, lecherous old man working on around his 12th wife, with the dozens of children and grandchildren to show for it. In the book, the joke goes that Lord Walder is the only man in the Seven Kingdoms that could field an army out of his breeches, and we certainly saw that on the screen. Loved his creepy line about his fifteen year old wife “such a sweet flower… and the honey is all mine.” Blech… just writing that line again makes me feel dirty. Anyway, this dirty old man has the great fortune of controlling one of the only places possible for an army moving north or south to cross the river that bisects Westeros, and he loves exacting his toll. In this case it’s marrying his family to the Starks. Robb clearly is less than thrilled at the notion, but he has a war to win, and it seems that the price is his little sister’s virginity and he having to marry to offspring of a pedophile. Thanksgivings are probably going to be a blast.
Robb does this though, because he’s quickly proving what an adept leader he is. He makes hard choices decisively, and then clearly feels the consequences. His feint against Tywin sends 2,000 men to their death, but allows Robb’s other 18,000 to take Jaime’s army unawares, smashing his host and taking the Kingslayer captive. Unlike Joffrey, who had an expression of sadistic mirth on his face as he orders Ned’s execution, Robb seems to feel all 2,000 of these deaths. The contrast between these two young men, each rising to leadership in very different ways, should continue to prove to be an excellent dramatic foil.
If Robb is a warrior, it’s quite clear that Tyrion is nothing of the sort. Clunked in the head by the errant warhammer of one of his own tribesmen, he luckily (for both him and the HBO production budget) spends the entire battle face down in the dirt, missing the entire thing. Tyrion didn’t need to shine in a battle however to earn his accolades for this episode, as the drinking game (I’m glad that beer pong doesn’t have the bodily injury requirements of Westerosi drinking games, or else I may not have lived through college) scene was among the best work Peter Dinklage has done on this series. In the whore Shae, he finally meets someone that he can’t completely read and manipulate, and as he relates the story of losing his virginity (a well meant gesture by Jaime gone horribly, horribly wrong) we come to understand why Tyrion keeps the world at arm’s length and what a hard man his father truly is.
Even hard men can be brought low, however, as we see Drogo’s scratch from last episode has become infected and is killing him as surely as a greatsword to the back of the neck. Dany pushes all her chips in on the spell of the witch Mirri Maz Duur, as she thinks it’s the only chance she has to save the man she has come to truly love. Jorah is giving good advice here (run. run now.), as a khalasar that loses its Khal tears itself apart in the aftermath, with various khals-to-be fight for control, but Dany is either too naive or still too unfamiliar with this foreign culture to take his warning to heart. Dany may have more immediate problems however, as her baby is arriving, and with no other midwife options present, Jorah carries her into the tent that “death dances in tonight.” Magic has long been thought gone from this world, but the sounds coming out of that tent would imply that maybe it’s not as gone as everyone thinks.
If there is one person that knows firsthand how not-gone magic is, it’s mister zombie slayer himself, Jon Snow. As a reward for saving his life, Lord Commander Mormont gifts Jon a Valyrian steel sword Longclaw, which had been passed father to son in Mormont’s family, until Jorah went and got himself banished. It’s a great honor, and one that Jon’s friends are suitably excited about. Jon himself gets no time to savor this success, as he learns from Sam and Maester Aemon that Robb has gone to war to save their father. Jon wants nothing more than to leave and join his brother, but leaving at this point would be considered desertion, punishable by death. In an effort to help Jon understand the cost of duty, and why the Night’s Watch forsakes all previous family when they take their vows, Maester Aemon reveals to Jon that his last name is… (dun dun DUN) Targaryen. His brother had been king (after Aemon quietly turned down the throne to continue his life of serving as a Maester and brother of the Night’s Watch), and his brother’s son after him. The fact that said son (Aemon’s nephew) turned about to be Mad King Aerys kind of puts a damper on the whole familial pride thing, but it doesn’t change the struggle that Aemon must have felt when he heard how the last of his relatives had been snuffed out, root and branch (Aemon alludes here to something the series hasn’t gotten into really… at the end of the war, it was actually Tywin Lannister’s army that sacked King’s Landing- he threw in with Robert and Ned towards the end- and Tywin’s mad dog, Ser Gregor Clegane, stormed the tower where Aerys’ baby grandchildren were being sheltered and murdered them and their mother). You can see the pain on Jon’s face, but it is also clear that he is his father’s son. Duty and honor above all else.
One week to go… we can only hope it lives up to this next-to-last episode.
(photo credit, HBO)