Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: The Unkindest Cut

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, sit down with your awkwardly uncomfortable fifteen-year-old bride and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.

Well, damn.

I mean, if you read this blog regularly, you know I’ve read the books Game of Thrones is based on. I knew that the ending of last night’s episode was coming this season. And I knew–from recollection of the first book and the episode title, “Baelor”–that it was coming last night.

But still. DAMN.

One thing you know about George R. R. Martin’s books, if you know even a little about them, is that characters die in them. Big ones. The execution of Eddard Stark is crucial to the story and its themes and everything that follows, but it’s also a meta-message to the reader: don’t take anything for granted here. We usually watch TV series, even dark dramas, with some assurance that certain major characters will survive, because it’s too soon, they’re too major or because it would be too terrible. Not so here.

When HBO bought the series I wondered how it would handle the death of what appears to be, when you’re first brought into the story, its protagonist.* And I have to give them credit for going all in. Even their promotion and marketing—whose main image was Sean Bean perched wearily on the Iron Throne—said: “This guy is the star of our show, the Ian McShane, the James Gandolfini. You’ll be with him for the duration.”

*(Update: Again, I’ve read the books, in which Ned is not “the protagonist” in a strict literary sense but one of several characters from whom the point-of-view shifts from chapter to chapter. I’m talking here about how the series was likely to be seen and received by viewers entirely new to the story.)

Of course, many of us watching “Baelor” knew how that ended, and there are plenty of spoilers out there. (Even if you avoid GoT fan sites, you may have know that Sean Bean was long ago cast in another TV show.) If this episode were truly successful, the finale minutes had to have impact even if you knew what was coming.

And gods, did they. The series hasn’t handled every transition from book to screen flawlessly, but the direction of Ned’s final moments gave the scene renewed visual power. Ned has been a frustrating character–you may have found him honorable, or you may have found him an obtuse naif, or both. But the season has created an attachment to him, if not in and of himself, than through his attachment to his children, especially Arya. Seeing Maisie Williams’ tomboy toughness crack as her father was sentenced to death was tough; seeing Ned’s POV shot as he scanned Baelor’s statue for one last glimpse of his little girl–and did not find her–absolutely crushed me.

Beyond the emotion–underscored nicely by the cut to silence in the last seconds before his death–the scene also telegraphically conveyed that Joffrey’s snippy decision was not just cruel but rash. We know Cersei is a figure of no great kindness and yet we see her horror at realizing that she was wrong to allow her son this one gesture of autonomy and assume he would do her bidding. She knows Robb has raised an army, and even if her father’s forces are greater, she’s consolidated power; peace is much better for her than civil war. (Even without the capture of her brother/lover, which I assume she is unaware of at this point.)

It’s game over for Ned: he sacrifices his good name, for nothing, seconds before he loses his head. But with this one stroke, has the game for the Iron Throne just been thrown into chaos?

So: we are now watching a series with no “protagonist.” And yet, the rest of “Baelor”  demonstrated that, while Ned was getting himself ensnared in King’s Landing, the rest of the ensemble has developed characters we can be as much or more invested in. Tyrion, for instance, who is further humanized in, yes, another scene involving exposition with a whore–but this time, one that doesn’t even involve having sex with her!

Tyrion’s story of his early, humiliating “marriage” continues complicating our picture not only of him but of his relationship with his father, whom he nonetheless is still trying to please. But maybe more important–in a series with so many examples of how women are sexually subjugated in this culture–is a scene in which we have a woman who is a sexual object but who is not *presented* as a sexual object in the scene. Shae, rather, proves to be a mystery and a challenge to Tyrion, whose ability to read people–which has literally saved his life–falls short when he tries to figure out what makes her tick.

Tyrion is saved from honoring Tywin with his death in battle by an errant Hill Tribes war hammer–which also saves Game of Thrones from having to depict a battle in the field between thousands of armored men. The move may be obvious–the budget is big but not that big–but it also focuses the drama of the battle on the mental, tactical game between Robb and Tywin.

In the process, we see how quickly Robb has risen to take his father’s place, as a lord of Winterfell and as a focal character in the show. We never saw what kind of warrior Ned was in the field, but in King’s Landing, he fought a straight-ahead battle, telegraphing his moves, and died for it. Robb, seeing the Lannisters’ numbers, shows himself capable of feints and deceptions–albeit at the cost of 2,000 men and the guilt of having sent them on a suicide mission.

Dany, meanwhile, has grown a lot from the wide-eyed terrified bargaining chip we met her as. But just as she’s grown comfortable with her power as a character, her husband–and her source of temporal power with the khalessar–is on the verge of death. Even as she defies Drogo’s already-rebelling captains, Emilia Clarke shows the fear behind her imperiousness; the khal’s fading heartbeat is the only thing that stands between her and her child and their likely death at the hands of Drogo’s resentful heirs. And her hope is Mirri Maz Duur, the maegi, or witch, she rescued from the pillage of her home. Game of Thrones’ world has been described as “low-magic,” which is–as we’ve seen at The Wall–is not the same as no magic. And as yet another horse whinnies its last for the uses of humans, the unearthly roars inside the tent indicate the presence of something scarier than sharpened steel.

It’s all a thrilling setup for what feels like a too-soon finale next week. The protagonist of Game of Thrones is dead, but there are many to replace him. And they all, it seems, have at least as hard a job ahead of them as Ned did.

Now for the hail of arrows:

* My favorite line from the Tyrion-Shae drinking game: “You should have known she was a whore… A girl who is almost raped does not let another man into her bed two hours later.” Yes, there’s been a lot of sexual subjugation and rape in Game of Thrones because that’s what this world is, but the series is not unaware of their significance, and their effects.

* We left Lysa Arryn and her thirsty son Robin, and now it’s on to Lord Walder Frey: “A little flower. And her honey’s all mine.” Catelyn seems to be taking the David Lynch Tour of Westeros.

* “If we did it your way, Lannister, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way.” Yet another way Robb is not his father.

* As usual, I don’t want to get into book spoilers, so this is a tricky thing to discuss. But I wonder how other readers–using as general terms as you can–feel about the producers’ decision not to physically introduce Stannis any sooner than the books do. We’re meant to feel Cersei’s fear of him, other characters’ contempt or respect for him, but this is a lot to lay on a character we know entirely through dialogue.

* I’ve been enjoying Kit Harington a lot as Jon Snow, but his storyline did feel more removed than usual from the rest of the action from this episode. His scenes did show his conflict between vows and family–and introduced the tidbit about Maester Aemon being a Targaryen–but it didn’t seem enough to show him as deeply torn. (As opposed to when he wrestled with the decision to go through with his vows.)

* “Stay low.” “Stay low?”

The usual request for others who have read the books: no discussing plot points or revelations that have not yet occurred in the series. Thanks.