Shae: “You will be dead. How will you know?”
Tyrion: “I’ll know.”
Robb: “I sent 2000 men to their graves to day.”
Theon: “Bards will sing songs of their sacrifice.”
Robb: “Aye, but the dead won’t hear them.”
I did not expect to cry at Ned’s execution. Indeed, I’d been looking forward to it with that sick gleeful voyeurism that we all share as watchers of shows where death happens so frequently. Somehow—perhaps after Buffy Season Six, maybe earlier—we got the idea that death means a willingness to take risks, to sacrifice popular characters to the “needs” of the story. We praise shows for their sanguine executions.
But this—god. I knew what was coming, and nothing was substantially changed from the books. But Sansa screaming “Daddy!” and nodding like she was so proud that her father had made the one choice that would allow him to keep being her father, and Yoren from the Night’s Watch refusing to let Arya look, and Arya seeing instead a flock of ravens who don’t bear a single message, because there’s no message you can send to the dying, and you know that is a sight she’ll remember for the rest of her life, and it’s one she truly saw and will keep seeing...
Maybe it’s that I’ve liked Sean Bean since back in his Patriot Games days. Maybe it’s that this show finally found an emotional center that even the most well written episode skirted around. Maybe it’s that my own hopeful expectancy mirrored the sick look on Joffrey’s face, and the bloodlust of the crowd at the execution—but this death doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel like a risk or a moving statement about the cost of war and the price of love. It feels horrible.
This episode was one long run-up in which numerous characters talked about death and the emptiness it brings, the gapping whole in everyone else’s lives—or worse, the way a death can happen and no one cares because they’re too busy looking for the next john or the next khal—and then one brutal decapitation. It’s so dark it might as well be Swedish. And it was so well done that I can’t really analyze how well it was done. The wound is too fresh.
George R.R. Martin has repeatedly said his career in TV inspired these books: he wanted to work in a medium in which the biggest, must budget-busting battle was a real possibility. In translating these books onto the screen, of course, some of the battles have to be lost: they would just be too costly, no matter how much the budget-trimming might let our inner voyeuristic sadist down.
Tyrion’s first battle was a dud from the beginning: knocked out by an errant mountain man’s wooden hammer, he woke up to find out 1) they’d won, and 2) they’d fought the wrong battle. More importantly, though, we found out the desperate secret Tyrion tries to hide from everyone: he is deeply vulnerable and has been wounded by his father (on purpose) and his brother (who was just trying to help out his little brother).
The deep sadness of Tyion’s revelation is all the more poignant in the context of the people to whom he revealed it: his hired bodyguard and his whore. Throughout this season, Tyrion has relied on money to get what he wants, and acted at being playboy who assumes money can buy anything. Tonight, though, we found out that Tyrion knows money will buy everything because he knows that it is the only currency that works. He doesn’t assume he can ask for real friendship, or favors, or loyalty, because the key transformative moment of his life was one of betrayal and falsity for money. He must relive that moment every time he sleeps with a hired woman. And he is reminded of his weakness whenever he has to deal with his father, who obviously wants his son to die in an appropriately “honorable” way.
That also means that, sometimes, he misses the signs of the loyalty he does command. The mountain men (and women!) cheered for him as their commander. Sure, they want booty and spoils and ears, but Tyrion gives them purpose. He can’t see that he is not as lonely as he thinks he is.
Of course, we’re all equally lonely. Death is the great loneliness, and Tyrion’s fear that no one would mourn him is a universal fear. He said he would know if Shae cried for him—what he meant was that he would know no one would, no matter how much we might know that to be untrue.
Varys presented Ned with a choice: love or justice, family or duty. Ned choose family, but ihis willingness to betray the kingdom meant nothing to Joffrey. Ned also might have been making a choice that Varys didn’t present: like Jaime Lannister and Robb, Ned knows that a war means the death of thousands. Is it worth it to have a cruel usurper on the throne, if it means thousands of lives are saved?
Ned’s death was also a beautiful moment of symmetry. When we met Ned in the first episode, his male children watched him execute an AWOL Brother of the Night’s Watch. He needed to kill the man himself, because it is a weak man who asks others to do his dirty work. He wanted Bran, Robb, and Jon to see his strict justice so they would know what kind of men to become.
Tonight, Ned was executed by a promise-breaker who asked his headsman to kill for him. That Joffrey is a lesser man than Ned is something we’ve already known. But now it’s Ned’s daughters who watched the execution, and it has taught them not how to be just adults, but to distrust power, authority, promises, and—above all—Lannisters. They must live knowing their father lied to save them and still couldn’t save himself. Christ, this is tragic.
I am so happy, though, that Ned died knowing Arya was alive. It’s the smallest of all possible consolations.
Ned’s death came out of nowhere, as sudden for him as for us. Khal Drogo’s illness was equally sudden: the small cut from last week’s fight—that he got defending his wife’s request for clemency—has festered to the point of death. Is the witch to blame? The man who cut him? Does it matter? Death happens, and the Dothraki have a tried-and-true method for dealing with it that might be pulled right out of The Golden Bough: when the king dies, his men must fight for command of the horde, with no respect for blood.
Dany is unwilling to lose the power she has derived from being married to Drogo. That power is both the command of the Dothraki and the inner strength she has gained in her transition from abused sister to wife and consort. The witch asked Dany if she would pay the price, and Emilia Clarke played the ambiguity of Dany’s answer perfectly: would she have sacrificed herself for her husband?
Luckily for us, although not perhaps for Dany, that sacrifice was not necessary. The witch implied that a horse was all that was needed, but that magic was rather hardcore—and now Dany is in the tent, giving birth, with a lot of horse-blood, a dying khal, a crazed slave-witch, and some creepy sound effects. I do not think that will end well.
Jon received Commander Mormont’s sword, forged of the highly-prized Valyrian steel that can’t be made anymore: it was the sword the Commander had given to his son Jorah, whom we know from Vaes Dothrak. He was, in this way, adopted into the Mormont family, such as it is, but he was also bound by ties beyond those of his oath to the Night’s Watch.
Mormont and Aemon, who know that Robb is going to war but obviously do not know that Ned will die, worked together to keep Jon where he is most needed, at the Wall. Aemon’s revelation that he is a Targaryen shows the price of an oath, for some. But it also raises a question: did Aemon do the right thing? If he had assumed the throne at some point, perhaps all of this chaos could have been avoided. He would have been a better king than Aerys, and probably a better king than Robert. That question is raised only obliquely here, and doesn’t arise in the books, perhaps because there is no such thing as a good king in this universe. Only ones that are less bad.
Robb’s bait-and-switch was good strategy and better metaphor for what the writers were doing to us and Joffrey was doing to Ned. Robb sent 2000 men to distract the bulk of the Lannister forces, and sent 18,000 men against Jaime Lannister. He had to do it, to get his sisters and his father back, to avenge the attempted murder on his brother, and to even the scales somewhat. But he’s well aware of the sacrifice required: he sent men to their deaths, and he could stop all the death if he agreed to be defeated by Jaime in hand-to-hand combat. Robb chose justice, sort of—it depends on which cause you see as more just. Is Stark autonomy and pride worth 2000 dead men? Is Ned’s life worth that many?
• The credits changed again to include the Towers that span the Trident river, which basically divides Westeros in two.
• Tyrion’s accent may be ambiguously British, but it has been more or less consistently ambiguous (to my American ears) until tonight, when he got quite American speaking to his father and rousing his mountain men. It’s hard to yell in an accent that is not your own. Try it.
• Ned: “I learned how to die a long time ago.”
• Robb: “Did you get a look at his daughters?”
Catelyn: “I did.”
Catelyn: “One was…”
• Aemon: “What is honor compared to a woman’s love? What is duty to the feel of a newborn son in your hands…We all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honor comes easy, then. Sooner or later, in every man’s life, there comes a day when it is not easy. When he has to choose.”
• Tyrion: “What sort of accent is that?”
• Tyrion: “Try to penetrate the enigma that is me.”
• Tyrion: “Get my squire!”
• Bronn: “You don’t have a squire.”
• Bronn: “Stay low.”
Tyrion: “Stay low?
Bronn: “If you’re lucky, no one will notice you.”
Tyrion: “I was born lucky.”
• Tyrion: “It’s nice to see them getting along.”
• Let’s take a minute to praise Ned, for commanding loyalty even after death, and Yoren of the Night’s Watch, for hearing the one word—“Baelor”—that he knew was a call to his own implicit loyalty to the Warden of the North and Arya Stark.
• List of the dead: one horse, one good man, 2000+ faceless corpses.
Ned, Jon, Robb, and Dany all had to face choices that demanded sacrifices, and their various paths emphasizes the values of this society: family, honor, loyalty. Had they made other choices, though, I could say the same thing—honor isn’t a fixed term or a universal truth. It means something different to different people and in various circumstances. Dishonor is less ambiguous. Joffrey murdered Ned. He mistook justice for female “weakness.” Tywin dishonored his son by rubbing his nose in his youthful mistake.
This episode was incredible. Mind-blowingly incredible. There’s much, much more I could say, but I think I’ve already said enough.
Four out of four honorable men. Sob.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)
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