Because of the critical nature of the events in tonight’s Game of Thrones, I’m sticking the whole discussion below the jump. If you’re going to spoil beyond the events of “Baelor,” though I imagine this one will keep us pretty busy, please label your comments as such.
It’s fitting that the death in this episode is paralleled with two mournful engagements of a sort. Ned’s execution signals the beginning of a rotten new order under King Joffrey. But Robb Stark’s promise to marry a daughter of the irascible lord who controls a powerful river crossing is merely a tactical maneuver, a long-term commitment that’s necessary to obtain a short-term, if critical, advantage. And Shae accepts Tyrion’s proposal only when he adds a promise of gold—and it leads to a Westeros-style game of Never Have I Ever (which turns out to be a very nice way to imply more of Bronn’s backstory), and the world’s most depressing story of an ill-advised early marriage. This is the episode—and for readers who first encountered this story in print, the moment in the books—when you realize that in Westeros, nothing is what it seems. And it’s always, always worse. Cat’s relief at her son’s survival, Sansa’s belief she’s saved her father, they all come to grief.
I think the thing that’s emotionally difficult about this series is realizing that this is the beginning, that this is one-seventh of what we’re getting. This isn’t the first season of The Wire, which begins with one dead witness and ends with some justice, even if it’s incomplete, and at a cost, or True Blood, with its gleeful body count. Ned’s death would be the equivalent of McNulty dying in season one, if McNulty was in any way the center of things, and not himself the thing that results when the center cannot hold. It would be Tony Soprano getting whacked eight hours into the series that bears his family name, if the affairs of the Sopranos were more than the violent infighting of a dying business mode. Ned’s death cuts the cord around the fasces, leaving us to follow the rods that will scatter over the seven kingdoms and beyond. His execution’s evidence of George R.R. Martin’s narrative audacity in stripping us of our most important point of view character and a fundamental darkness at the heart of this story—he makes Joss Whedon’s taste for blood look like a kitten’s for a rat.
Part of what makes the HBO presentation of that final scene so brilliant is all the assumptions that characters make before that one, the grievous confidence that Ned will survive. Martin, having picked the first withered apple, is already sowing more bitter fruit. There’s something delightfully macabre in the Lord Commander grimly guessing that a zombie hand will get his new king’s attention, little guessing that his sovereign may have a taste for warmer blood. It’s disconcerting to see Tyrion declare “I happen to be a great judge of character,” to Shae, before failing miserably to guess her secrets. And (SPOILER FOR FUTURE BOOKS/SEASONS) it’s awful to hear Cat declare “I have known Lord Walder since I was a girl,” as she goes off to bargain with Walder Frey at the Twins. “He would never harm me.” “Unless there was a profit in it,” one of her men hurries to correct her. (END SPOILER)
I’m curious to know what first-timers feel about this, how much dread you think you can handle. In Westeros, things go bump in the night, but it’s the men in knight’s armor who will restrain you for your father’s murder in the light of day.