If the day should ever come when your lord father was forced to choose between honor on the one hand and those he loves on the other, what would he do?
Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by: Alan Taylor
We have arrived, folks. "Baelor", the ninth episode of Game of Thrones' first season, is the episode where Game of Thrones truly becomes Game of Thrones: the show where someone will die when you least expect it, the show that breaks your heart time and time again, and the show that shatters all of your hopes and dreams of a happy ever after. Most of what I am saying applies to the episode's tragic finale, and much of this review will be dedicated to discussing the finale, but I won't totally ignore everything that precedes the episode's final few minutes, because this is a very busy episode, one where enough happens to make you wonder how in the world this is not the season finale. Game of Thrones has a reputation for its penultimate episode being the most intense in a given season, which I suppose is somewhat of a blessing to viewers, because they would only have to wait a week to find out what happens next, as opposed to a full nine, ten months. The only downside to having the penultimate episodes being the most intense and eventful is that the season finales end up being a bit anticlimactic (not always, thankfully).
Before I start biting into this gourmet steak of an episode, I want to get it out right away that "Baelor" is the first masterpiece episode of Game of Thrones and is without question the best episode of season one. This is the episode that proved to us that Game of Thrones was not your typical fantasy drama, that the series was willing to take risks that other shows wouldn't even dream of, and that you were watching something incredibly special. What is it exactly that happens in the finale that makes this episode so heartbreaking, and thus, elevated Game of Thrones into the show that spawned an endless stream of speculation, theories, and fan discussion, the likes of which have been unmatched by any other television show released in the past decade? If by some chance you have stumbled upon this review and have not seen "Baelor" in its entirety, then close whatever tab you have this review on RIGHT NOW.
Ned Stark, believed by many to be the main character of the show, dies.
Maybe it was obvious right away that Ned Stark was going to die at some point. In the series finale, perhaps? The moment you see Sean Bean in "Winter is Coming" ought to have been enough to convince you that Ned Stark would get the axe at some point, because there is no limit to how many characters Sean Bean portrays who end up getting killed. The shock here with Ned Stark is that no one (except the book readers) could have imagined him dying this early. A character who shows nobility the way Ned Stark does has to end up in a good spot at the end of the day, or at least die for a good cause. Good things always happen to good people....right?
I'm jumping the gun a little bit, so we'll continue the discussion of Ned Stark at the end. In the meantime, there is plenty happening elsewhere, such as the revelation that Khal Drogo is dying. It turns out that the wound he suffered is infected, and now he does not have much longer to live (guess it wasn't just a flesh wound). Daenerys refuses to let her husband die, and this is a moment that makes me question what people are seeing when they claim Emilia Clarke is a bad actress. Clarke shows a wide range of emotions in this episode, and she handles her scenes extremely well. Daenerys' desperation creates for an emotionally charged sequence in which Daenerys tries to use blood magic to save Drogo's life, which quickly spirals out of control. The scene ends with Daenerys going into premature labor, and we're left with a heck of a cliffhanger about the fates of Daenerys and Drogo.
Meanwhile, the conflict escalates between the Starks and the Lannisters, though the show continues to tease us by having its big battles take place off screen (this will change soon, thankfully). There is no way that D&D, prior to making the show, could have believed that they could get away with never showing us any Braveheart-style fighting. With a war between two of the primary Houses of Westeros being a central plot line of the first few seasons, we would expect a giant fight somewhere down the line, and not ever showing said fights will start to detract from the drama and our view of certain characters. We understand that HBO wasn't going to always supply D&D with an infinite budget, but for the sake of making the show even better down the line, you gotta pay the price. So anyway, it's the Starks who actually score the first victory of the war, as Robb Stark sacrifices a small fraction of his army in order to capture Jaime Lannister. This triumphant moment is bittersweet, however, as Robb reminds his men that the war is far from over. Robb is right. Why should this success be a happy moment when Ned is imprisoned and both Sansa and Arya are in danger?
Jon Snow, despite being at the Wall, does learn of everything going on with his family, and this puts him a state of mental tug-of-war: stay at the Wall and fulfill his duties as a brother of the Night's Watch or abandon his new family and leave to go and help the Starks. I think that it was inevitable for Jon to start feeling this way; his old family that he had been with his entire life is fighting a war, while he's spending his days walking around a giant wall of ice with a bunch of people that he hardly knows. Jon meets with Maester Aemon, with Aemon telling Jon about how he went through almost the exact same situation years ago, when the Targaryen dynasty was overthrown. Now revealed to be a member of House Targaryen, Aemon leaves Jon by telling him he must either choose his duty to the Night's Watch or the love of his family.
And now, we come to the heart and soul of this review: the execution of Ned Stark. It's not just that his death scene is shocking because it's the death of the supposed main character. The way that Alan Taylor directs the scene, specifically his choice of certain shot compositions, makes this moment truly heartbreaking. Ned stands before a massive crowd, and, in a seriously disheartening moment, he declares Joffrey to be the rightful king, and confesses to committing treason. It's all that Ned has left at this point: betraying himself, in hopes that Joffrey would show mercy and allow him to go into exile. Ned is not desperate to find a way to escape; he is doing what he believes is necessary to save the lives of his daughters. It hurts to see him submit to the treacherous villainy that controls the throne, but for someone in his predicament, it's the only thing to do.
But it's not enough to stop Joffrey from demanding Ned to be beheaded. The crowd roars, Sansa screams for Joffrey to stop, even Cersei tells Joffrey what he's doing is madness (and when freaking Cersei tells you what you're doing is madness, you know you screwed up). Arya is stopped by the Night's Watch recruiter Yoren (Francis Magee) from witnessing her father be killed. Alan Taylor leaves subtle hints in several shots that I think expose some of the characters present for who they really are. You can see Lord Varys run over to Joffrey with a spooked look on his face, knowing what Ned's death would mean for the Realm. Petyr Baelish stands and watches the execution with a sly grin on his face. Joffrey simply gives a proud smile, thinking what he has done is very king-like. In his final moments, Ned looks on at the statue of Baelor, noticing that Arya is no longer there. It is unclear if Ned thinks Arya was disgusted by his confessions or thinks Yoren was able to bring her to safety. All of the sound drains out, and Alan Taylor strings us along long enough to think maybe, just maybe, something will happen that will save Ned. But there is nothing. No miracles or answered prayers. Ned puts his head down and closes his eyes, as the sword comes flying down.
The shot of Ned's beheading cuts away just as the sword makes contact, but there is no point in holding on to any modicum of hope as the end credits roll. Game of Thrones did it. They really freaking did it. They killed the man who was the most honorable in all of Westeros, and the man who was best suited for sitting on the Iron Throne. The first season strung first-time viewers along with the impression that Ned Stark would be the man to conquer all evil, and if he was to die, it would be in an epic fashion somewhere on a battlefield or in some great act of self-sacrifice for his family. Even during his final moments, we were thinking someone or something would step in and rescue Ned, because...they can't kill this man. George R.R. Martin/D&D can't kill the man that exemplifies everything we see in a hero, the man that deserves to be given as many titles and honors as possible. They can't kill Ned Stark. But they did.
Everything that happens before the finale is not worth summing up, because nothing we would see in the first 50 minutes would compare to the shock we would be left with following the final 5 minutes. The finale of "Baelor" is one of the boldest and most tragic finales to be shown on television in the 21st century. Alan Taylor leaves nothing to chance. Every shot and every bit of acting is carefully managed to deliver a gut-wrenching blow you would never expect to happen this early on. Game of Thrones did more than just kill off Ned Stark, who has been the main character of season one. Game of Thrones showed us the hard way what its world is like and how the world of Westeros mirrors that of the real world, where good does not always triumph over evil. The death of Ned Stark is the finest example thus far of how George R.R. Martin's fantasy world is not limited to what we have seen in other fictional worlds, worlds where we can pray and hope that everything will turn out okay. We have learned in the most heartbreaking fashion that things will not turn out alright in Westeros.
The game has officially begun. No one is safe.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: