Contributor: Gregg Wright
Remember how I mentioned back in my review of “A Golden Crown”, that after watching the episode I accidentally stumbled on a major character spoiler? This was it. From that point on, I watched Ned’s actions in “Game of Thrones” with dread, seeing how each and every decision was bringing him ever closer to his demise. But unlike readers of the books, my information about Ned’s death was fairly limited. All I knew was that he would be beheaded, at some point.
I won’t lie, I was disappointed when I heard that Ned would die. The prospect of seeing Sean Bean in a medieval fantasy setting again was probably the biggest reason I started watching the show. (Boromir lives!) And considering how the show was marketed, a non-reader of the books couldn’t be blamed for assuming that he was the main character. And to a certain extent, the show seems to purposefully play on that assumption, right up to the end. Previous comments on this blog seem to suggest this was even the case in the original book. So it’s not surprising to me that so many viewers are so upset by Ned’s death that they’d give up on the show altogether. Though I do think that it’s a major mistake, stemming from a complete misunderstanding of what “Game of Thrones” is trying to accomplish.
Despite being fairly certain of the knowledge of what was coming, this didn’t stop Ned’s death from being the most shocking scene in the show so far. Ned’s death was undeniably tragic, but it wasn’t so much the sadness I felt as I did the numbing horror of what was unfolding. Arya and Sansa’s reactions perfectly captured this feeling. Even Cersei is shocked at Joffrey’s decision. Part of me kept hoping that the spoiler was wrong, and that Ned would be saved somehow at the last second. But it was not to be. Yes, it’s an extremely upsetting and depressing scene, but I think it’s also the scene that cemented “Game of Thrones’” in history as one of the finest pieces of television storytelling ever made (with equal respect due to the source material, of course).
I’ve mentioned frequently throughout this season how impressed I have been at how many great characters are on this show, of which Tyrion may be the most popular. It’s interesting to compare and contrast my attitude from before the show began with what it is now. I expected Sean Bean to virtually carry the show on his own, and was completely surprised at how quickly he was (arguably) overshadowed by so many of the other players. Ned did remain a key figure, and a highly sympathetic one at that, but eventually it became hard to see him as the main character, especially knowing of his impending death. The truth of “Game of Thrones” is that there are many main characters. I think the only real constant one can hope for in this show is conflict and death in Westeros.
Death is presented as a major theme of the episode, which I suppose could be said for the entire show. Tyrion fears his possible death in the upcoming battle. Robb sacrifices 2000 men to gain a tactical advantage, and refers to the dead as being unable to appreciate the songs sang in their honor. Khal Drogo sits on death’s doorstep, and a horse is sacrificed in order to possibly save him from death. And then there’s Ned’s death. “Game of Thrones” takes a very uncompromising, honest approach to life and death. In another show, Ned would be rewarded for his actions. But not in “Game of Thrones”. For me, this is what puts the show ahead of almost everything else out there on TV. The world may not work the way Ned expected it to, but it damn well should. In an ideal world, Ned would be rewarded for sticking to his code of honor and sense of morality; for trying to do the right thing, and for expecting everyone else in King’s Landing to do the same.
Ned’s death parallels the execution of the ranger in the pilot episode. The ranger is beheaded for desertion, which is tantamount to treason. Ned is beheaded for committing treason by the same sword he used to behead the ranger. Both men were unjustly killed. One could see it as poetic justice, but I don’t. The key difference between the two executions is that Ned understood the value of carrying out his own sentence; in not allowing himself to become disconnected from the life he was taking. Ned wanted Brann to understand that taking a life was no small thing, and was not to be done on a whim, which is exactly what Joffrey is guilty of.
In a previous review, I mentioned how Varys’s motives remained ambiguous. A commenter reminded me of a scene from an earlier episode that I’d strangely completely forgotten about. Back in “The Wolf and the Lion”, Arya secretly overhears Varys talking with a shadowy figure. At the time, the full significance of the conversation escaped me, in part because I failed to identify the other man. Upon re-watching the scene, I could clearly see that the commenter was right. The man is Illyrio Mopatis, wealthy magister of the city of Pentos, and the Targaryens’ host and adviser. He’s the bearded man seen in the pilot who seemed to be aiding Viserys in facilitating the marriage between Dany and Drogo.
I’d wondered what had happened to this man after the pilot, and now it seems that I have my answer. He’d traveled across the sea to Westeros to meet with Varys so he could discuss their plans. In their conversation it’s plainly stated that they want House Stark and House Lannister to go to war with each other, and that they have an interest in Khal Drogo going to war against Westeros. It’s mentioned that Ned could not be killed as easily as the last hand. I’d already guessed that someone wanted the two houses to fight each other, for some reason, but I overlooked Varys completely and guessed that Littlefinger must be the primary manipulator behind the events. Going back to re-watch those scenes, it all seems rather obvious now. Yet again, a lesson to me that I need to pay closer attention to “Game of Thrones”.
I was wowed by Littlefinger and Varys’s epic conversation in “The Wolf and the Lion”, but I should’ve been thinking more about the actual content of that conversation. What is said there is much more important than I originally thought. Varys threatens to tell the Queen that Littlefinger gave the Starksk the idea that the Lannisters were the ones that had tried to kill Brann. Littlefinger then counters by saying that he knows about Varys’s conversation with “a certain foreign dignitary”. Varys is loyal to House Targaryen, and seems to want them back in power. He seems to have been the one in contact with Jorah, purposefully supplying Robert and the council with the information about Dany’s pregnancy, so they would attempt an assassination.
But obviously, Varys doesn’t actually want Dany dead before her son is even born. He needs her alive, and he also needs to give the Dothraki a reason to invade. This is where Jorah comes in. It seemed pretty clear that Jorah knew that the assassination attempt was coming. At the time, I assumed that he was ordered to let it happen. But now I think that Varys must have ordered him to avert the assassination. I wish the former were true, because I like the idea of Jorah going against orders for love or loyalty or whatever it is he feels for Dany. But there’s no way Varys would just let the assassination happen. It runs completely counter to his plans.
Varys’s motives may be clear, but I’m still a bit confused about Littlefinger. Right now, the best I can figure is that he really did want to help the Starks at first, due to his loyalty to Catelyn. But when Ned refused to work with him, he betrayed him, possibly out of a desire to get rid of him so he could have Catelyn for himself. But there’s still the matter of the dagger. It was once Littlefinger’s, and ended up being used to pin the assassination attempt of Brann on Tyrion. Were the Lannisters responsible? Or was it Littlefinger? Perhaps Littlefinger was telling the truth, and Varys simply wanted the Starks to end up going after one of the Lannisters, not caring which one.
And what about Ned’s death? How do Varys and Littlefinger factor into it? Varys is seen rushing over to stand next to Littlefinger just before Ned is beheaded, but he is then seen standing calmly next to Littlefinger, and not attempting to convince Joffrey to stop what he is doing. Personally, I think Varys wanted Joffrey to order Ned’s execution. He told Ned before that he wanted peace, but I think he only wants the peace that results from House Targaryen being in power again. Ned’s death is going to have major, major ramifications on the war, which can only work in Varys’s favor. Whoever wins will be weakened.
Let’s take a break from speculating for a moment and talk about the climactic scene with the Dothraki. In the beginning, the scenes involving Dany and the Dothraki, though good, were the least interesting of the show for me. That gradually changed, and I’d now say that they’re just as interesting as every other thread on the show. In fact, I was probably more into this episode’s coverage of that thread more than any other. Without Drogo dying, Dany’s power over the Dothraki is rapidly disappearing. I don’t see how Varys’s plan can work if Drogo dies, unless Jorah becomes the new Khal, which admittedly, would be awesome.
I’d like to make special mention of the ritual scene. It’s easily one of the most epic and cinematic that I’ve seen on the show so far. Jorah’s fight with Qotho made me an even bigger fan of the character. And I liked that he remained loyal to Dany, even when it looked like any hope of the Dothraki invading Westeros was lost. He was ready to escape with her, but he respected her wishes and stayed to protect her.
The scenes involving Tyrion, Bronn, and Shae, leading up to the battle, felt a bit slow compared to everything else that was occurring. But I enjoyed them as much as I enjoy any scene with Tyrion and Bronn. And they weren’t just comic relief either. Tyrion’s story adds depth to an extremely likable character. Shae isn’t terribly interesting so far, but she may become more so with time.
One small disappointment with the episode is that it avoided showing the battle scene. I was looking forward to seeing Tyrion and Bronn in battle with the Stonecrows. I can understand why they did it, and having Tyrion knocked unconscious is a clever enough way of doing it. It worked better than it should have. But I wish that it hadn’t been necessary. There was a lot of build-up to that scene, and it ended up feeling a little anti-climactic.
There seems to be a recurring theme in “Game of Thrones” of the youth overlooking their elders and failing to recognize their significance. Most of the oldest characters normally do little to draw attention to themselves. I tend to underestimate them, and expect them to be treated the way most of modern entertainment treats them: as useless, irrelevant old people. But “Game of Thrones” is one of the exceptions to the unfortunate rule (and there are a few more exceptions). Every once in a while, the older characters will speak up and surprise the hell out of me with how sharp they are. I mentioned the old woman telling Brann the story about the White Walkers. The now dead Septa deserves a mention as well for her handling of Sansa. Maester Luwin has also been an interesting presence back at Winterfell. And now, there’s Maester Aemon of the Night’s Watch.
I think it’s intentional that we’d start to see the character as “that one old guy”. Jon Snow seems to see him the same way: as an annoying old man who knows nothing of importance. Maester Aemon is, in fact, Aemon Targaryen: the only surviving Targaryen besides Daenerys, and uncle to Aerys Targaryen, “The Mad King”. I love it when a movie or show doesn’t treat elderly characters as useless or insignificant. “Game of Thrones” earns a lot of respect from me for this scene.
I think that one could make the argument that this was “Game of Thrones’” finest hour. It wasn’t a perfect episode, but the greatness in it is apparent enough that I’d have a hard time disagreeing. Ned’s death is a landmark moment in the series, and possibly for television in general. A decade ago, I’m not sure if “Game of Thrones” could have been made. But the success of ambitious, serialized genre shows (often aimed at adults) has paved the way for “Game of Thrones”. The trend of killing off characters for shock value has become an over-used trope in modern television, often touting themselves as being willing to kill off any character, when this is seldom true. But in “Game of Thrones”, it actually is true. And the purpose of Ned’s death is not merely for shock value, as with many shows. It’s a narratively significant, pre-planned part of the overall story. And its impact will likely be felt for as long as the story continues.
I really hope that the majority of viewers will respect the showrunners as much as I do for sticking to the book and letting Ned die. It was a bold move, and I think it will ultimately pay off for “Game of Thrones”. After the season ends, I’ll probably feel mildly tempted to read ahead so I can find out what happens next. But I need to remind myself of how enjoyable the first season has been, not knowing what to expect (save Ned’s death, which might have had more impact if I wasn’t expecting it), and have patience until the next season.