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Game of Thrones: Baelor

Tyrion: “If I die, weep for me.”
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?

Bitter Peaces

• 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.”
Robb: “And?”
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?”
Shae: “Foreign.”

• 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 is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I, too, was surprised by how emotional I became at the ending. What killed me was the focus on Arya's face as it happened. As she saw the birds fly off in the moment, I came damn close to crying. Which I did not expect. Those poor girls. I hate that little [Deadwood-worthy expletive], Joffrey.

    Great episode and great write-up, Josie. And so quick this week! :)

  2. Even knowing what was coming... it was gut-wrenching! *sigh*

    No one is safe in this series... which makes it all the more interesting to watch!

    So glad Arya didn't see it though...

    great review!!! :o)

  3. Josie - What a fantastic review/recap/analysis!!

    I did not know for certain that Ned would die, but I did suspect...needless to say, I am heartbroken. I guess now I can finish the book.

    Jess - "Deadwood-worthy expletive" - HA!!

  4. I would've loved to have watched this episode with someone who'd never read the books (and avoided spoilers) just to see their reaction to that final scene.

    It was a shame to lose Sean Bean. For all his faults Ned is one of my favourite characters and Bean played him brilliantly. Zob is right, though, he is something of a walking spoiler. Unless his character's name is Richard Sharpe it's a given he's going to die at some point.

    Oh, and fellow Joffrey haters might enjoy this.

  5. I can't believe they killed Ned. (As you can probably tell, I haven't read the books.) For me he was the center of the show. Everyone else was fair game, but somehow I always thought Ned would survive. Sure, he was in a situation he was ill-equipped to deal with and of course I wasn't really expecting his old fashioned commitment to truth and honor to triumph in the end. But to have it crushed so completely, so cruelly, so senselessly... it looks like a time is coming to Westeros where honor no longer has any place, and while that might be realistic, I'm not so sure I want to watch that. I will, of course. I still want to know what happens to Tyrion and Dany and the others. But it feels like the show just lost its moral core. It definitely left a very sour taste in my mouth.

  6. As a non-reader of the books (at least, not yet), the problem I'm having with Game of Thrones is that, nine episodes in, the only character I really care about is dead. Because of the “ensemble” nature of the book, and the limited screen-time of the show, I don't feel as though were getting to know the characters as well as we might. So, although I'm enjoying it, I'm not enjoying it as much as I should be. Ned's death really didn't bother me at all (and I cry at anything... in fact....did you see that ellipsis?...*sobs*). The people who've read the books (out of my friends, at least) seem to be getting more out of the show because they already love the characters. A popular refrain is “Oh, wait until you see what such-and-such a character becomes”. But that's no good to people who haven't read the books. Maybe I'll be able to retrospectively mourn Ned's death once the show's a few seasons old, or maybe once I've read the books, but, currently, despite still enjoying it, I'm a little disappointed that we've just lost my favourite character. It was absolutely right to do it. But a bummer all the same.

    Your reviews make it worth watching, regardless. Nice work, Josie.

  7. Anonymous, that is a wonderful article!

    Here's a summary for anyone who doesn't like clicking random links:

    Sean Bean, age 52, was out for a drink in a London pub with a Playboy model, age 22, when some guys insulted the model. Sean Bean fought them, and got punched in the face and stabbed in the arm with glass.

    "Despite his wounds, Bean refused any medical attention and opted not to go to a hospital. Instead, the actor accepted a first aid kit from the bar staff, then ordered another drink."

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  9. In addition, the whole location of the execution is called the Sept of Baelor. It's the major religious site in King's Landing. Consecrated ground, I believe. Chosen so that Ned could confess his sins in the "sight of God and all those gathered" or something like that. Baelor was an important High Septon from the past, and the statue was probably a likeness of him at the "church" named for him.

    I don't recall all the specifics of the history, but I distinctly remembered the name of the location, so when I saw the episode title, I knew this was very likely the week for Ned's death.

  10. Michael, the question of a moral core to this show/book series is an interesting one. I think I can say with 72.8% confidence that we will acquire a new moral center in the second season. A different kind of morality, though. Or there might be two new moral centers. Anyway, it's not all despicable people, all the time.

    Paul, I hate to sound like that awful friend who hassles you about why you haven't read her favorite book...but, why not read the books? They're awesome! All the cool kids like them.

    Sooze,you might want to wait to finish the book until next Sunday. The game ain't over.

  11. Josie- Sound advice....except that I am supposed to be traveling on business for the next two weeks (!) and will miss the final episode (!!!) Was that crap timing on the part of my boss or what? ACK! So, I doubt very much that I will be able to refrain from reading the rest. I'll pick up the finale upon my return via on-demand...and I'll read your review and all the comments then...boo.

    And, Paul, although I have not gotten all the way through book 1 (it sits there staring at me and I have so many other things I NEED to be doing!!)...I agree with some of what you were saying. I am not sure if I'd be as attached to the characters had I not also picked up the book and started to read...although when I read I am picturing them as they are on screen...not necessarily from GRRM's descriptions and my imagination - so that is something different. But reading the book has given me a little more insight and background on the characters and I do think that has helped with some of the attachments. As much as I loved Ned (and Mr. Bean), I am equally attached to Robb, Jon, Arya, Tyrion and Bronn (I like him!). I also think that there are some events that feel just as "rushed" in the books as they did on-screen. For example, for me, when Viserys was killed on-screen, I felt that I hadn't "known" him long enough as the cruel brother to truly cheer his death. I actually felt the same way in the book - even though we got to know his cruelty through Dany more on the page, I still didn't feel as though I witnessed enough of it myself to feel glad that he was gone. I don't know, perhaps on-screen it was just that I was sad to see Harry Lloyd go...Others surely disagree, just my opinion. Certainly other events and people could have used more time on-screen to develop, but overall (again, as far as I have gotten) the pacing has been OK.
    I keep going back and forth with myself...to read book 2?...to wait until after next season?...Do I want to know what happens? And I think I am going to pick up the book and read it - one, because I most likely won't be able to help myself, and two, because I did like knowing the details, background etc. while watching the show. Who knows...had I known about Ned's death that scene certainly wouldn't have had the same impact.

  12. Paul's comment reflects exactly my point of view. As I said before, a good example was Syrio. The Readers seem to love him to bits, and for all I saw of him on screen, he's pretty lovable. But we had only three freakin' scenes with him and the he was gone. As a Non-Reader, I felt like Ben Linus in the S04 finale: my reaction to his death was "So?".

    I didn't feel bad about Ned's death per se, I was more repulsed by Joffrey and pitying Arya and Sansa. Seeing your father be brutally executed is something nobody should be subjected to.

    Josie, if you ask me why don't read the books, too, I have a very reasonable answer: I've just finished The Drawing of the Three. I'll read two more non-Dark Tower books, and then proceed to The Waste Land. I won't start a saga before finishing the other.

  13. Damn it, Gustavo. That's one argument even a crazed book-pusher like myself cannot refute.

    Did you hear that King is coming out with an 8th Dark Tower book?

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  15. Josie,

    I did, but since there are thousands of pages and at least 2 years ahead of me before I get to the end of the 7th book, and also the comic books, which I intend to read as well, I didn't jump in excitement. I just said "cool" in a very Castiel-like deadpan manner.

    I try not to read two books of the same author on after the other in onder not to get tired of their style. And I got tired of The Stand in the last 100 pages or so, so I'm extra careful about Mr. King.

  16. God, so many typos!

    I try not to read two books of the same author one after the other in order not to get tired of their style.

  17. Funny you should say that, Gus, but I do the same. I have this horrible habit of, if I like a particular book, buying up the author's entire back catalogue... and then getting bored about 4 books in. Mind you, saying that, I've just read four of Jo Nesbo's books back to back and I'm more than a little pissed off that there isn't another till later on this year. But, you're right, styles can become tedious. I'm also reading CJ Sansom's "Shardlake" series and his style and method is completely transparent. It's difficult not to fall over it.

    And, Josie, I've had a copy of GoT on the shelf for about ten years now, but the writings' so ridiculously small it's like reading the bible. (With considerably more knobbing.) There's nothing wrong with my eyes, I just hate reading books with really small text. I recently bought a HBO tie in edition (as the texts much bigger), but can't seem to get into it whilst the show's running. It feels too much like reading a recap... plus, I know everything that's going to happen. So I'm going to wait until the season's over and then try again. And if all the cool kids like it, well, I guess I'll have to read it. I want to be cool, too.

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  19. I know exactly what you mean, Paul. I read Great Expectations and loved it, so I bought 5 other Dickens's novels. I read David Copperfield too, it took me a looooong time, and I probably won't touch Dickens again this year. I'm also on a break from Saramago.

    And zob, you're right. There are 1200 pages, and I liked the first 1100.

  20. Robb choosing not to fight one on one with Jaime shows his difference from his father. It would have been the noble thing to do, to fight your great enemy alone. Ned would have done, and did do, the same thing (and look where that got him). But Robb knew he could not beat Jaime and chose winning the war over pride, honesty, nobility and all those good, but debilitating, traits that got his father killed.

  21. This was a fascinating exchange of comments. There certainly are two camps -- the readers and the non-readers of the books.

    Like Gus and Paul, I have not read the books. And, like them, I was surprisingly unmoved by Ned's death. The man has made so many bad, very bad, decisions that it seemed inevitable to me. Perhaps that is why I never invested in him so much as a character. I am much more invested in the second generation -- both of the Lannisters and the Starks.

    I bought the book, but decided to wait until the series ended to read it. I will be interested to see how my views change when I finish it.

  22. Different non-reader here.

    I had no idea Ned would die and it hit me really hard. It´s true that the show has a gazillion of characters but opposed to several posters here I´ve connected deeply with most of them, so the ensemble structure is not a problem but a plus to me.

    "Games of Thrones" is probably my new favourite show since "Lost", and that´s saying something. I especially love that with very few exceptions (Joffrey!) none of the main characters are downright evil. Even the Lannisters have good reasons for what they do from their own perspectives, even if their actions seem cruel.

    Can´t wait for season two but unfortunately I´ll have to wait for quite some time here in Austria. :-(

  23. Non-reader here, and I was moved by Ned's death. I knew he was going to die(since I am so late to the game here), but the way the scene played out was heartbreaking. I hated seeing Ned compromise his values (although it is what any good father would do) and I hated seeing Arya and Sansa watch it happen. In particular, Arya's face and the birds. Ug. The very worst part was seeing Ned searching the crowd for Arya(who I think he loved the best), hoping to see her one last time, and not seeing her.

    I must say, the reason Ned's death is hard for me is because I love Arya so much. I am fascinated by Dany, and Tyrion is imminently entertaining, so I still feel invested despite the fact that Ned is gone.

  24. *emminently. Perhaps also imminently, since I'm about to watch the next episode! :)

  25. I'm rewatching just after reading the book and it's still a very powerful episode. A quick note - I believe when Ned says "Baelor" to Yoren, this isn't about religion or loyalty - he means for him to find Arya sitting on the Baelor statue and keep her safe, and that's what Yoren does.

  26. I just watched the first season--I started watching partway through season 3 when it was on. Since I had read the books, I had no trouble joining in midstream, but going back and watching the beginning was interesting. I'd forgotten Visaerys stuck around that long.

    Ned's death was thematically necessary. I personally approached the novel as the story of the Stark's rather than Ned, but it's certainly viable to think of it as the tragedy of Ned. Ned's tragic flaw was his moral rigidity. The title of the first book is game of thrones for a reason. As Cersei says, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. It's not an accident that she says that just after Ned tells her he knows the truth about Joffrey. It's a fatal error that he simply can't afford. Time and time again as the series moves on we will see good characters and bad alike die because of making fatal errors in the game.

    One thing that's interesting in the series as opposed to the book is all the Varys/Baelish interaction which we don't have because neither is ever used as a point of view character. In the novels, we have very little sense of their motivations. I viewed Varys and Baelish as similar, but in the series, Baelish acts purely from self-interest, whereas Varys may actually believe he is acting for the realm.


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