NED STARK: You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what? I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.
Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with ‘Baelor’. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. ‘Baelor’ confirms it.
As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.
Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.
We must take a moment to remember just how big a moment Ned’s death is, not just for Game of Thrones but for television itself. Deaths of main characters just did not happen in TV series. While Game of Thrones in truth has always been an ensemble piece, Sean Bean was still by all accounts considered ‘the star’. Readers of the books may have known Ned’s fate but the TV show has taken enough divergences from Martin’s text over the years that David Benioff & D.B. Weiss could have found another way of adapting the show with Ned still around for years to come – but they stayed faithful to the source and took his head. Try and think of another major TV show that did that in its first season. Lost flirted with it, with plans to cast Michael Keaton as the Jack protagonist and kill him halfway through the pilot, but they never went through with it. Game of Thrones went further than any TV series had gone before, very early on.
What this does is truly cement Game of Thrones as a show where all bets are off. If Ned can die, *anyone* can die. Earlier series such as Babylon-5 took main characters out of play, or The X-Files happily killed off significant supporting characters in surprise moments, but often these were for production reasons as much as narrative ones (such as with the late Michael O’Hare in Babylon-5). Game of Thrones by the end of its first season has killed the King of the entire realm, the upstart exiled challenger to the Throne, and the head of the most noble house in Westeros. This is akin to killing off Captain America halfway through Avengers Assemble. It’s the moment you never quite believe they’ll go through with until that sword slices through Ned’s neck in a haunting final shot. Even with all of the major shocks Game of Thrones subsequently pulled, Ned Stark’s execution still packs a wallop.
Martin, who of course first came up with the decision to kill Ned in A Game of Thrones, has discussed how he took a cue from his major inspiration, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:
It’s always bothered me that Gandalf comes back from the dead. When Gandalf falls — it’s a devastating moment! I didn’t see it coming at 13 years old, it just totally took me by surprise. Gandalf can’t die! And then in the next book, he shows up again, and it was six months between the American publications of those books, which seemed like a million years to me. So all that time I thought Gandalf was dead, and now he’s back and now he’s Gandalf the White. And, ehh, he’s more or less the same as always, except he’s more powerful. It always felt a little bit like a cheat to me. And as I got older and considered it more, it also seemed to me that death doesn’t make you more powerful.
What Ned’s death does cement the significant political and cultural changes that have started to begin across the Seven Kingdoms, and very much set in play events inside Martin’s second novel, A Clash of Kings, which the second season covers. It sets the game in motion. You are left to wonder just what kind of role Ned would have played in a world ruled by the illegitimate Lannister regime he had exposed, and which led to his demise. Lord Varys, upon visiting him again in disguise in the dungeon cells of the Red Keep, talks more directly about how everyone involved in Westerosi politics are putting on an act: “They taught me each man has a role to play” Varys remarks, about the group of actors he travelled with in the Free Cities before coming to court and finding his place. One wonders if this could be Izembaro and his troupe who Arya Stark will much later encounter in Braavos.
Regardless, Varys builds off what we already know of him in these conversations with Ned, in that he sees himself as a protector of the Realm in much more of a Machiavellian, philosophical sense. He screams this at Ned in frustration when Ned asks what the man wants: “I want you to serve the Realm!” and this suggests Varys is trying to get Ned to see he needs to play the game Cersei and everyone around him have drawn him back into. It’s among the most animated we ever see Varys get, the most impassioned. Varys wants Ned to look past the honour he feels, the sense of duty to justice as the embattled lawman he became as Robert’s Hand of the King, and look at the bigger picture – swear fealty to Joffrey, take the black in the Night’s Watch, and save both of his daughter and his house. Ned literally has an out in which everything can be resolved – the price is simply to allow a corrupt regime to take power.
Remember, the Lannister assumption of power is not quite set in stone at this stage. Robert’s death left a power vacuum Cersei quickly seized with Joffrey but the only real way to shore it up, especially if revelations about legitimacy come to light, is with a powerful standing army – but Robb Stark’s Northern crusade to rescue his father is keeping Tywin & Jaime Lannister and their host busy on that score. Kings Landing is precarious to some extent and Cersei knows it, hence why she needs Ned’s verbal support of Joffrey’s claim, thereby securing the stability of the North and legitimising their transition. ‘Baelor’ is where all of these pieces begin falling into place across the board, where it all on the surface begins to fall in the favour of the Lannister’s.
Symbolically, there are suggestions of this. Theon Greyjoy shoots down a crow to its death in order to retrieve a message, which foreshadows his own treachery to come. We first meet the old, craggy and vile Walder Frey (wonderfully played by David Bradley), the equivalent of a troll in fantasy fiction guarding the bridge – in this case his fief, The Twins, a pair of castles which guard the Trident river separating North and South lands. Frey will end up being much more of a Lannister chess piece than a Stark one, the seeds of which are very much sown here by writers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss. Frey, besides clearly being a paedophile given he gropes and boasts about having sex with his 15-year old wife to a repulsed Catelyn Stark, also holds a long-standing enmity for House Tully, Cat’s family by birth, which translates into no love lost for the Starks.
The show will do more with political marriages down the line when the Tyrell’s hover much more into the picture, but Frey serves as a reminder just how important marital unions are to the entire power structure of the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei would never have married Robert had the Baratheon’s not needed Lannister money and power in the wake of the Rebellion to shore up the Iron Throne, and Stark hegemony in the North was always backed by the Tully’s thanks to Cat marrying a Stark boy. Frey has always felt left out of this power broking, considered the runt of the highborn litter due to terrible breeding and a generally grubby, Medieval disposition; Frey holdings and family members already look a great deal more unwashed and common than the redolent, attractive highborn families such as the Starks, Lannister’s or Tyrell’s.
Frey visibly enjoys the opportunity to squeeze the Starks for some of this respect and power given Robb needs their support to cross the Trident and go after Ned. Cat, much like her husband, still believes in oaths and honour, but they mean nothing to men like Frey. “Oh yes, I said some words…” he remarks off hand, in a throwaway fashion, when Cat reminds him of the oath he previously placed to Stark power. Ultimately, Frey is almost as nihilistic as Tywin, if much less intelligent and poised; he considers all the other houses much of a similar muchness, doesn’t particularly care who sits on the Iron Throne, and has a pointed disdain for his children he openly shows. Frey just wants the respect nobody has ever given him. We’ll talk more later about what Cat has to do to get it, but Frey is already established as a significant future problem for the Stark cause.
In terms of respect, at Castle Black, Jon Snow begins to finally start to achieve some of what he too believed he deserved due to his birth and status, when Lord Commander Mormont gives him his sword Longclaw as a thank you for saving him from the undead Wights Jon fought off, but also as a potential way of keeping Jon close to his orbit. There are numerous aspects to this – Mormont looking for a proxy son after Jorah dishonoured him and left in exile, and it very early on cues up the nice moment in Season 7 when Jon meets Jorah and discusses his father with him, under very different circumstances. Mormont is also acutely aware that despite taking his Watch vows, he is not yet one hundred percent divorced from his life as a Stark, even a bastard one. “That’s a man sword, it’ll take a man to wield it”.
There are clear similarities here between Jon and Robb, which will be drawn across the entire show, even after Robb is no longer in the picture. Ned fears that Robb is “just a boy”, as Cat herself had feared, in terms of Robb leading men into battle, while Jon is still acting with youthful impetuousness when he rides off to help his family once Sam breaks the news about the impending battle between Stark and Lannister. Both are boys playing at being men, and both this season will find their place amongst those around them; Robb as the first King in the North the show will see, and Jon as a devoted member of the Watch. Mormont even sends Alliser Thorne, Jon’s greatest Watch nemesis, to Kings Landing in order to try and give Jon another reason to stay.
Other undercurrents persist which apply to bigger narrative in play. Longclaw is termed to be Valyrian steel, which again is notable for being mentioned and will factor in much more strongly as the series progresses. Thorne’s mission in Kings Landing is to warn the new King Joffrey about the threat from beyond the Wall, of the undead, and it serves as an early indication of how the North understand darker forces threaten the realm of men, and how they too are doing what Varys considers himself to be doing – working for the good of the Realm. Game of Thrones still hasn’t heavily embraced its fantasy trappings, and won’t really do so for a couple more seasons with any regularity, but these aspects are rippling beneath and add context and depth to the world building steadily being unfurled.
While we’re talking about Jon, we get a signature conversation with the wizened old Maester Aemon and the young Stark which unloads some fascinating backstory and hints strongly at the deeper, core revelations at the heart of the series to come. ‘Baelor’, and indeed much of the first season, concerns the choices made by men to choose duty and sacrifice over honour and love. Jon struggles to see past the latter – the honour and respect he seeks as more than just a bastard, as a brave warrior to live up to his father, and the love of his family. In that sense, while he isn’t Ned’s biological son, he is very much like the father he grew up with. Ned retains that sense of honour right up until the point it kills him. Aemon makes the point that the entire point of the Watch is that they sacrifice these aspects and put duty first.
“Love is the death of piety” the old man claims, before revealing a startling fact: he is a Targaryen, one of the few still alive. Game of Thrones as a series slightly skips over a generation in terms of Aemon’s place in history (it effectively writes out his nephew King Jaehaerys II from the books) but it reveals the man to be, if you connect the family tree dots, the great uncle of Daenerys (and as it turns out, biologically, the great great uncle of Jon himself) and the brother of King Aegon V, aka ‘Egg’ from George R.R. Martin’s charming ‘Dunk and Egg’ prequel short stories, which are set roughly a century before the events of Game of Thrones and paint a much more traditional, light-hearted, medieval adventure view of Westeros in the age Aemon would have been a young man. Aemon would have been King instead of Egg had he not given up the throne.
Aemon’s place in history has all been forgotten given the many decades he has lived in exile as Maester of Castle Black, but he makes the point to Jon that when his family were slaughtered in the Rebellion, he made a choice to keep his vows rather than run off to help them on a quest for vengeance (in all likelihood, as a guy well into his 80’s, he probably wouldn’t have been much help anyway). Jon is one of the few people Aemon ever reveals this to and you wonder if he didn’t sense some level of Targaryen’s kinship in him given revelations to come, some aspect of the mythologied ‘Dragon’, but it neatly serves as a way to further explore the fascinating Targaryen history Martin has developed (arguably the most detailed and interesting in the franchise’s fictional legend) while hinting of connections to Jon while playing into his character development.
If Jon is one Targaryen (if unknown to him yet) earning greater respect amongst his peers, Daenerys Targaryen is facing opposite difficulties. While she may be Khaleesi in name, given Drogo is dying from the wound he suffered defeating Mago, the Dothraki horse lords refuse to recognise her as they show no interest in the ailing Khal. “The Dothraki do not honour blood, only strength” Jorah reminds Dany when she suggests the Dothraki should respect them given her unborn son will by Khal. This is her, perhaps wilfully, ignoring the social structures of the Dothraki and attempting to place them inside a feudal, Westerosi paradigm; blood and lineage may denote power and rule in the Seven Kingdoms but across the Narrow Sea, the strongest rise to the top and lead.
In many ways, though they are considered ‘savages’ by accepted civilisation, the Dothraki means of leadership and succession cleve much closer to evolutionary scientific aspects of natural selection, that the strong will naturally overcome the weak. Ned’s exposure of Joffrey’s illegitimacy shows the inherent, destructive political and social flaw in the notion that bloodlines and family trees should denote the transference of power over an entire society – how often in Westeros did false bloodlines, by that accord, and ‘unjust’ figures take control of the lives of millions? Though they may rape and pillage, and are technically lacking a civilised sensibility, the Dothraki may oddly be more honest and progressive about how they exist as a society; Drogo himself made the point they have no word for ‘throne’. The Seven Kingdoms are defined by it, in contrast.
The irony about Drogo’s impending death is that it could well have been avoided, were the Dothraki more inclined to live in a traditional, civilised manner. Westeros may be corrupt but, on the whole, the wives of deceased Kings aren’t likely to have unborn children ripped out of them to prevent challenges – they’re more likely, like Robert’s bastards, to be hidden away. That being said, the Lannister’s committed infanticide against the Martell’s & Targaryen’s during the Rebellion, so again Game of Thrones blurs the line between what civilisation truly is in a feudal, undemocratic world. Dany ultimately is still clinging to notions voiced by Viserys, claiming she is ‘the Dragon’, but whereas Viserys bullishly believed it until the end, Dany sounds feeble in response to being told “she is nothing” when Drogo dies.
The question of quite what leads to Daenerys’ rebirth in the season finale to come deserves deeper probing into her psychology, which we will explore in greater detail next time, but ignoring good advice not to dabble in ‘blood magic’ feels as much like something Viserys would have resorted to in order to maintain a level of power and control. For Dany, it’s more about preserving Drogo’s life, given how she still believes he is her salvation, both physically and psychologically. She will never completely let the man go, so radicalised she was by him and his culture. Even Jorah, however, believes allowing Miri Maz Dhurr the space to invoke ritual spells to save Dany is a bad idea. This is a reminder of how he comes from a culture who have all but abandoned belief in magic and any sense of the supernatural world which will play a bigger role in Game of Thrones to come.
The choice fits with Daenerys, however. She has been surrounded by a level of mysticism all her life, be it growing up in Braavos where legends percolate much more than in the Seven Kingdoms with its rather cynical, hard-nosed brutality. She believed her unborn child would be a prophesied leader for the Dothraki. She has even come to believe she is immune to fire, and may well be right. There is a sense of manifest destiny Daenerys will increasingly come to accept and allow to drive her, so her embracing dark magic to save her the ‘moon of her life’ makes sense. The fact Jorah fights Qotho with his Westerosi armour on, even in the blazing heat of the Dothraki plains, underscores just how alien the man and his culture are to those who consider Dany the Khaleesi. There’s a sweet irony in that his armour is what helps his win the battle.
What Dany doesn’t do in making these choices is consider the consequences, and this is a major thematic idea which plays out in ‘Baelor’ not just with her, but also Jon and indeed Robb. He agrees to Cat’s enforced demand by Walder Frey that he will marry one of the man’s ugly daughters, thereby cementing a powerful alliance with the Wardens of the North, without considering he may have the youthful vigour to break it, which he will do in Seasons 2 and 3. Robb’s agreement is the first step towards the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ in ‘The Rains of Castamere’ (yet another penultimate jaw dropping season outing for Game of Thrones), which will directly be triggered by his refusal to take Frey and his attempt to gain power and respect seriously. ‘Baelor’ establishes consequences which will mark and haunt many central characters for years to come.
The same can also be said for Tyrion Lannister, and indeed this could well be the episode where Peter Dinklage really comes into his own as the character. ‘Baelor’, quite unusually, allows for an extended, relaxed conversation scene between Tyrion and his new friend Bronn, and eventual long-term paramour Shae, in which he monologues about a devastating chapter from his past, a chapter which explains a lot about the dwarf’s psychology. “It’s not a pleasant story” he warns, and he’s right. The story of how Tywin made Jaime set up a whore named Tysha to sleep with a young Tyrion, who he then fell in love with, before learning the truth and being made to watch as Lannister guards gang rape her, is incredibly disturbing. “I would have killed the man who did that to me” Bronn remarks, foreshadowing Tyrion’s eventual murder of Tywin, partly thanks to these historical cruelties.
The show hasn’t yet explored the reasons for Tywin’s deep loathing for Tyrion, despite his genetic deformities, but the fact Game of Thrones makes room in order for a scene such as this to get into Tyrion’s own psychology regarding women and his family is a terrific move – indeed one which happened by accident, as a scene only added in because the first season was produced slightly under the necessary running time. It explains why Tyrion seeks solace in whores, and why indeed he falls so deeply in love with Shae over the coming seasons. One also has to wonder if Bronn planted Shae too, given the ultimate revelations she is also a pawn of Tywin – does Bronn truly find her in the tent of “Ser… I dunno, ginger cunt”? Or is he working to Tywin’s orders? Probably the former but the latter is possible.
Shae even calls Tyrion on his continued naivety, how he should have seen through those lies perpetrated on him, and indeed the lies staring him still in the face: “you are still young and stupid” she claims, when Tyrion casts off his youthful manipulation as just that. He is, nonetheless, brave, given how he faces Tywin’s edict that he ride into battle on the front lines with the Vale tribal clans he collected and promised glory. It is unfortunate we never get the Battle of the Green Fork, which served as a major climactic beat in Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and there is a sense Benioff & Weiss also ended up disappointed by the budgetary constraints which meant they used Tyrion as a POV character in order to get them through the conflict without showing it:
In the first season, there was a battle that we would have loved to have had where Tyrion was going to be behind the Mountain and you would only see the battle from Tyrion’s perspective with the Mountain blocking eighty percent of his field of vision for most of the fight. It would have been great — Alan Taylor had a shooting plan for it that would have made for a great sequence. And at the end of the day we got to those days were coming up and we said those are three shooting days we can’t afford. So we and Alan sat down together and figured out a different way to approach that battle. It was a tough choice but we’ve learned how to be very economical about the shots that we’re getting and the way we’re shooting sequences.
Thankfully in future penultimate episodes, starting indeed with Season 2’s ‘Blackwater’, we will start to have the kind of large scale conflicts Martin wrote in his books realised on screen. It is perhaps one of the few examples where Game of Thrones cheats to a degree in its storytelling, especially given we never also get to see just how Robb manages to capture Jaime, as you suspect it would be hard fought for the ‘young wolf’. Robb at least by this point understands that playing the game the Lannister way isn’t a good idea, when Jaime suggests they fight to decide his fate: “If we do it your way, Lannister, you’d win”. He also feels the weight of the two thousand soldiers slaughtered at the Green Fork, which in the end is little more than trickery in order to grab Jaime, a bigger prize they need. “This war is far from over” he astutely observes.
The aforementioned climax of the episode, Ned’s execution, seals it. This is the action which triggers the War of Five Kings and it comes out of more childish impetuousness, this time from Joffrey. It’s telling that even Cersei looks horrified at the idea Ned will be executed even despite the fact he confessed to crimes they all know are false, because she’s aware of the political fallout of killing a noble, decent man like Ned. He becomes a martyr and rallying cry for an entire section of their country, which is precisely what happens in the next episode. Ned’s death is the complication born from the actions of a childish despot, a result of illegitimate political plotting, and it will cast a grave shadow of the future of Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms.
‘Baelor’, therefore, is both the shocking climactic element to Game of Thrones’ first season and proof the show is continuing to define itself in the landscape of modern television. Taking out its central character, the spine of the show as defined by the show-runners across the first season, is bold and game changing.
It is, very definitely, Game of Thrones’ first point of no return.
Check out other reviews of the first season of Game of Thrones: