I always assume readers of a blog review expect spoilers, so I don’t give it much thought. But this is a slightly different case. If you haven’t seen the episode and plan to, don’t read this review yet. Because boy, there’s gonna be a hell of a spoiler in it.
This is an instance where I’m glad I started the books after the TV series, because the sheer impact of the ending of this episode – one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever seen on television – would have been lost on me if I’d known it was coming. I should have realized long ago that there were no sacred cows (and certainly no sacred horses – this show is really rough on equines) in GoT. But knowing that intellectually wasn’t the same as being prepared emotionally as a viewer for just how far George R.R. Martin is willing to take that rule. I may be surprised by what happens in future episodes, but after the death of Eddard Stark I sure as hell won’t be shocked.
I was already incredibly depressed by the goings on here. I knew as soon as Varys dropped the line about the worth of his daughters lives to him, Ned would eventually cave and dishonor himself by admitting loyalty to Joffrey and confessing his crimes. Coming as it did right after Ned’s memorable
“You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my life for a few years? …I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.”
That was a doubly tragic prospect. For all the anger I felt as Ned for letting his honor drive him to stupid decisions, I couldn’t help but feel genuine respect for his steadfast nature – and what a diamond in the rough he was. Ned never asked to be plucked away from Winterfell and tossed into the pit of vipers that is King’s Landing – but he accepted, out of loyalty to his friend and duty he felt to the realm. The fact that he was hopelessly out of place wasn’t his fault – he was who he was.
The final indignity, of course, is that Martin is so ruthless that Ned didn’t even get to die with his honor intact. No, he dishonored himself and spoke lies before Baelor and his two daughters, swearing false loyalty to a false king and admitting crimes he never committed. His daughters were forced to see him dishonor himself, and to watch him die – though at least fate allowed him to spot Arya in the crowd a lucky encounter with one of his surviving guardsmen allowed him to save her.
One can really see in GoT the difference between flawed and pure, flat-out evil. Tyrion and Robert, for example, are flawed men – weak of character in many ways, slaves to their baser appetites and guilty of a score of the sins of the morally weak. But Joffrey is pure evil – vile, vindictive, an inbred adolescent psychotic loosed on the world by his cretinous mother. Ceresi is no slouch in the evil department herself, having orchestrated all the events leading up to the farce of Ned’s confession – but even she was taken aback that Joffrey would renege on the deal Varys had worked out to send Ned to The Wall for the rest of his days.
That everything else in the episode should have been overshadowed by those terrible events was hardly surprising, but there was an awful lot going on and much of it gripping and terribly important. Tyrion remains the most interesting character for me – and one, I suspect, who will turn on his father in the end. Fitting that Tywin was introduced in the act of gutting a carcass, because the depth of his ruthlessness in becoming clearer all the time. But his attempt to get Tyrion killed in battle failed, as the little man was knocked unconscious by one of his own half-wild soldiers before the battle even began. His reflective night of debauchery with Bronn and his new lady friend was one of the most interesting scenes of the series so far, and a chance for Tyrion to finally tell the tale of his brief marriage – a tale that sheds great light on Tywin’s character, and why Tyrion ended up the caustic, acid man he is.
No one escapes the stain of darkness in this world, it seems. Robb proves himself more capable of subterfuge than his father (surely he got that from Catelyn) in devising a successful plan to capture Jaime Lannister – but only at the cost of 2000 of his men. Their death will haunt him forever, and he takes no comfort in Theon Greyjoy (who is proving himself a young man with an insatiable lust for violence) telling him that their honor will be recalled in songs. “They won’t hear them”, he tells Theon – in contrast to Tyrion’s assertion that he’ll hear his woman’s songs to him if he dies in battle.
On the remote reaches of the story, North and East, events are fast flowing as well. Jon receives a lesson in the hard choices honor forces on men – from old Master Aemon, who turns out to be none other than Aemon Targeryn, brother of the Mad King. He tells a different side to the story of Robert’s ascension to the throne, and the choice it forced on him. So the most important men at The Wall are the brother of the Mad King, the father of the traitor and double-agent Jorah Mormont, and the bastard son of the executed King’s Hand. Gives you an idea of the sort of place it is. And in the East, Khal Drogo is dying from the wound he received – a wound his blood riders think was caused to fester by the witch Danerys believes is the only one who can cure it, with forbidden blood magic. A death by sickness carries no weight with the Dothraki, who already scheme to depose Danerys and eliminate her son after Drogo is dead. As the witch performs her forbidden ritual, Danerys goes into labor as Jorah defends her from Drogo’s would-be successors.
The momentum of this series is like a freight train, building from a relatively modest start to a the juggernaut it is now. That nine-month wait between seasons is going to feel as long as a Westeros winter. But as great as I’m sure this show is going to continue to be, it’ll be hard to top the demise of Ned Stark for sheer shock value – and weight of tragedy. RIP, Eddard – you were a good man, and you met a good man’s fate.