Monday, June 13, 2011

Game of Thrones, Episode 1.09: "Baelor"

And here we are at the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, which ends with the shock all of us GRRM geeks have been waiting for. As always, I blog here with my good friend Nikki Stafford from Nik at Nite, who has not as yet read the novel’s of GRRM’s Ice and Fire series. Nikki suggested we post on this episode two days earlier than usual, as this is was a pretty devastating episode, and we’re both pretty certain that people want to jump in and talk about it.

So: give ‘er.

Chris: So, kind of a boring episode, eh? Nothing really happened, just your usual run-of-the-mill stuff. Certainly nothing to shock the n00bs. ;-)

But seriously, folks … Ned’s TOTALLY UNEXPECTED execution is the moment, in reading the novel, when you suddenly think “Holy shit, this guy plays for keeps.” And that realization sort of comes in stages, as the actual beheading is described vaguely enough that you spend much of the rest of the novel waiting for the revelation that he’s not actually dead. I’ve had several acquaintances finish A Game of Thrones and say, “OK, so this is a Gandalf thing, right? He ‘died,’ but is going to come back in the second book?” I’m pretty happy they didn’t really leave anything to the imagination in the series—now I don’t have to be all mysterious about whether or not Ned actually got it, or worry about having “Yep, he’s dead” be a total spoiler.

Yep, he’s dead. And just a word of warning for those embarking on reading the series: do NOT get too attached to any of your favourite characters. NO ONE IS SAFE.

But of course, the shocking finale of the episode threatens to eclipse everything else that happened, and, all things being equal, this was a pretty eventful episode. And also an episode that warrants another of my “what they changed” lists:

  • Shae—in the novel she is not “foreign.” I don’t know what that change bothered me, but it did a little. I kept waiting for Tyrion to guess, in their drinking game, “that accent is fake!” and have her relent and start speaking like the Westeros girl she is in the novels.
  • And yeah … that drinking game was not within ten city blocks of the novel. A nifty device to reveal stuff about Tyrion, but it totally screwed up the pacing of an otherwise gripping episode.
  • Tyrion getting accidentally conked on the head and missing the battle. That bugged me a little—in the novel, he fights; and his hillmen aren’t in the vanguard, they’re on the left flank, as Tywin assumed they would collapse in battle and entice the northerners into a charge that would leave them enveloped.
  • Also, they missed a chance to use one of my favourite of Bronn’s lines: encouraging Tyrion before the battle, he says, “A little man like you with a large shield? You’ll give the archers fits.”
  • In the novel, Robb did not sacrifice two thousand men, but sent a healthier host south to engage Tywin Lannister and then retreat, as a diversion, while they took on Jaime Lannister’s force.
  • Also, I don’t know if this gripe fits under “what they changed,” but—snow in the Riverlands? Seriously? That strikes me as a HUGE continuity error.
OK, I think that’s enough for that list. What would you like to talk about, Nikki? :-)

Nikki: OK. Breathe, Nikki… BREATHE.


OK, I think that was a rather calm response, don’t you??

I have been watching television for many years, as you all know. I have been WRITING about television and studying it for many years, as many of you know. In that time, there are certain things I know to be true: when a character pops up out of nowhere with a tiny role, but the part is played by a giant of film or television, that is going to become a recurring character (unless it’s on 30 Rock and the cameo was touted in commercials for weeks leading up to it); when a character has been built up with such a rich history surrounding him, and a clear path of right and wrong drawn before him, where you can see how he could join forces with this camp or that one, you know he will remain a focal point of the show; you do NOT kill off your lead… you don’t kill off Jack Shephard on Lost or Buffy on Buffy or Sydney Bristow on Alias because, as mentioned earlier, if much of the show’s plot and mythology has been built around that character, you don’t have much of a bloody show without him/her; when that lead is in terrible peril and you know there may be a way out, there is ALWAYS a way out, especially if people who side with that person are not immediately present in the scene… in which case they shall come swooping in at the last second, lopping off the executioner’s head and saving the day; when you have SEAN BEAN in the lead, you don’t kill him off!!!!!!!

OK, sorry… I’m kind of becoming hysterical again. I think I can say there hasn’t been an ending of an episode that has shocked me the way that did. The end of Lost’s season 5, when Jack dropped the bomb and they didn’t show what the frak happened and just ended the season there… that made every fan scream in frustration. But the events themselves weren’t a shock. I’ve seen characters get killed off, and that was upsetting, but that’s reserved for the end of the series and not near the end of the FIRST BLOODY SEASON!!!

Simply put (in case all of this maniacal ranting wasn’t clear) that ending shocked the hell out of me. My hands were tightly clasped over my mouth, my eyes were gaping open, and I screamed a crazy person’s scream (thank goodness for those hands over the mouth). My husband and I gawped at each other, and I think he may have spoken first, saying, “They killed him!”
“No!” was all I could say once I let out that breath I’d been holding in.
“I can’t believe they killed him!”
“That didn’t just happen. Back it up and let’s watch again.”
“They killed him.”
“How is… what… why would… oh my GOD.”

Honestly I don’t know how I’m going to get through the rest of this week’s post. So much for analysis. I’m just rambling on and on with my reaction. I’ll turn it back over to Chris while I continue to try to get my head around this, because I still have SO much more to say but I’m bogarting the action with my shock and awe. (And by the way, for the record, I think it was a BRILLIANT move on the part of the writers, not a mistake, because I will never, ever forget that moment of television watching…)

Chris: Hee.

I think I speak for all (or most) GRRM fans when I say just how cathartic that moment of television was. Everyone I know who has read the novels invariably says something along the lines of “I can’t wait to see people’s reactions when they kill Ned.” Because it really is something of a game-changing moment—as I said above, it’s the moment when you realize GRRM ain’t your grandma’s fantasy writer. It is akin to the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd when you discover that the murderer is SPOILER (yeah, not going to give that one away here)—a brilliant moment of generic rule-breaking.

And as long as we’re on the topic, can I gush for a moment over how well that scene was done? It was handled perfectly, from Arya’s arrival to the emergence of Ned, to Joffrey’s sickeningly self-satisfied grin when Ned calls him the true king, to Cersei’s look of horror when she realizes what Joffrey is doing … and finally to that heartbreakingly long moment of muffled silence as Ned realizes that he is about to die. It was all more or less exactly as it is described in the novel, except for two things: Ned spotting Arya crouching at the base of the statue, and telling Yoren that she is there. (For those who didn’t understand the communication, the statue is of Baelor the Blessed, the holiest of the Targaryen kings—Ned shouts “Baelor!” at Yoren, who then spots and rescues Arya). I must say, I loved this little change: it gives Arya and Ned one last moment of connection, and reinforces for Ned just why he’s agreeing to this travesty of his honor. It plays as a beautiful foil to Maester Aemon’s little lecture to Jon Snow on honor versus love; in the end, Ned chooses love, love of his children. Jon’s stipulation that his father would “Do whatever is right, no matter what” then becomes an interesting philosophical question—did Ned do the right thing? Was it right to choose his daughters over his honor?

Whatever the answer, it was for naught, and Joffrey shows his autocratic, capricious ways. He will come to plague his family with his willfulness as the books proceed. I hope everyone has a stomach for his repulsiveness—it finds way more outlets for expression in book two.

Assuming, Nikki, that you’ve caught your breath by now, what did you think of the episode’s other shocking moments? Which, admittedly, seem only mildly surprising next to Ned’s decapitation.

Nikki: I think it will be several days before I’ve caught my breath. I think I need to watch it again, just to see the end part. (On a completely random side note, my daughter watches the excruciatingly awful “Suite Life on Deck” on Family, and the other day it had the first funny line I’ve seen, where one guy tells this group of environmentalists that the captain has capitulated to their demands, to which ditzy London — who always misunderstands big words — exclaims, “Oh my GOD, they cut off his head?!” Heh.) Anyway, what I found in this episode, now thinking back on it, was that many of the scenes were there to help bolster up the very expectation I was suggesting they tore asunder with Ned’s death. Khal Drogo appears close to death, and I do NOT want him to die, and said to my husband, “They CAN’T kill him off, not after everything we’ve gone through with him and Dany”… and they seem to have found a way around that. Tyrion is knocked unconscious in battle, and the next thing you see is him appearing to be floating above the battlefield, tricking the viewer momentarily into thinking he’s dead and having an out-of-body experience… one I didn’t fall for simply because he’s Tyrion, and you simply can’t kill HIM off. We see Catelyn ride into the Walder (sp?) fortress, and we know she’s probably not in any grave danger because, well, she’s Catelyn, and they won’t kill her, right?

Now I’ll never rest easy. I’m thinking Drogo and Tyrion and Sam and Arya will be in a massive battle to the death next week at this rate. Cripes.

So that is perhaps why they added in the Tyrion scene. But as you say, I would have much rather seen him do battle, especially since we’ve seen him bludgeon a guy to death with a shield. :::shudder:::

But back to Ned (see, I just can’t let it go… Lost has taught me nothing), aside from the shock that ending gave me, I’m really saddened by that final, terrible, beautiful few moments of his life, which at the time I didn’t realize were his final ones. He sees Arya crouching on that statue (and THANK YOU for explaining the name of the statue, because my big question of the week was, why was the episode called Baelor? Is there any tie, by the way, to Baelish?). There’s a look of pain and shame on her face, and of course, anger that her father is spouting such blatant lies. I kind of hated Sansa in this scene, who, on the one hand, is trying desperately to save her father’s life, but on the other, is allowing him to compromise his very soul with those final words. Joffrey made his pronouncement, and Arya made her move. As she was weaving her way toward the stage, I began yelling, “Come on, Arya! Show us what those dancing lessons taught you!! Arya for the WIN!” I was so convinced she would be his savior. Silly me. But now, with a clearer head, I know she would have walked to her own death, and her father’s and possibly Sansa’s, too. Stopping her was the only thing that could have been done in this scene.

But my heart broke when Ned looked out to that statue one last time and she was gone. The one person who seemed to share his soul was gone, and he would never look at her again. Heartbreaking.

You remember what happened to Viserys a couple of episodes back? That’s child’s play compared to what I want to happen to Joffrey, that sniveling little toad excrement.

So… once word gets over to Ned’s son and his army of bannermen, I’m wondering how long Jaime Lannister is for this world…

Chris: Speaking of that bit where Tyrion seems to be floating over the ground, can I call foul on the director for totally ripping that whole thing off of Gladiator?

I loved all the Drogo/Daenerys parts of this episode, just as I did in the novel. It’s such a harrowing sequence as we realize that however powerful Dany has become, however much she has come into her own, her power as far as the Dothraki are concerned is entirely dependent on Drogo. Jorah’s urgent entreaty for them to flee at first seems cowardly until he explains what is at stake: the khalasar is held together solely by Drogo’s strength—once that strength ebbs, the whole house of cards threatens to come down. And yet Dany hangs on, desperate, willing even to trust to blood magic. And … well, we’ll see how that works out next Sunday.

We also finally get to see Jorah’s own skill with a sword, and he proves himself not as nimble as his Dothraki foe, but tougher—delivering the killing blow while his enemy’s blade is literally stuck in his hip. It’s an interesting little preview of what a war between the Dothraki and Westeros might look like.

But to return to Tyrion, what did you think of his confession during the drinking game? I reiterate my annoyance with the drinking game sequence, but it was really there to reveal one of the defining moments of Tyrion’s life, and the root of his antipathy to his father: his short-lived marriage, and the horrifyingly cruel way in which Tywin ended it. Again, though I disliked the scene the story was embedded in, I thought Dinklage’s retelling of it was heartbreaking.

(Also, now that Shae has made her appearance I can say without fear of spoilage that I had wondered if perhaps the ubiquitous Roz was going to show up as the whore whom Tyrion takes on in the field. But no—she stays in King’s Landing, which means there’s a more likely role for her in season two).

Nikki: Yes, that Dany/Drogo scene was rather disheartening. She’d come so far, and I’ve said in past weeks that she’s gone from being this character who is the object of the story’s misogyny, whether from her brother or husband, to one of extreme feminine toughness, rising above her outsiderness and becoming one of the Dothraki. The scene of her eating the heart was the peak of her power among them, and is the moment when Viserys noticed it and realized she has power because she is loved and respected, and he doesn’t have what she does. But he was wrong. She’s only powerful, as you say, as Drogo’s wife. Nothing more. She means absolutely nothing without him, Dragon or no. I admired her strength in refusing to let the Dothraki rape and pillage, but by taking that away from them, they are certainly questioning their Khaleesi. I hope we see the Dragon emerge next week. ;)

I also want to say on a sidenote that I really enjoy listening to the way the Dothraki language is delivered. Dany says it with some ease, but with a very different accent than the Dothraki use. Drogo speaks it so quickly it’s as if it was the actor’s native language, and the man who challenged her in the episode over and over again (I can’t remember his name) spoke it less gutterally, but with the same accent as Drogo. The way he said “Khaleesi” was entirely different from the way Dany says it, or the way that slave girl said it who worked for her (and who was English-speaking). What a nice, subtle touch.

While there are moments where Dinklage’s English accent doesn’t quite work for me (he seems to say so many of the words with an affectation and a sneer, but in a way that works for his character), I thought his retelling of that story was, as you say, heartbreaking. One wonders if Tyrion is such a sexual character – it’s how we were first introduced to him, after all – because of the way he was treated when he was 16. Perhaps with that woman, his “wife,” he felt like a whole man for the first time in his life, and he’s been attempting to recreate that by cavorting with other whores. Or, could it be some sort of self-punishment, sleeping with so many whores because he’s resigned himself to the belief that he will never find a woman who is not a whore who will actually love him? I just love this character, and that story added a much deeper layer to him this week.

Incidentally, I was reading this week’s Rolling Stone magazine (a book I’d been editing for the past year was reviewed positively in it!) and there was a brief interview with Dinklage. My favourite part of the article was where they talked to Lena Headey, who plays Cersei, who said she’d been very aware of Dinklage’s other roles, and when he walked in the room she was prepared to meet a man who was small. What she wasn’t prepared for, she said, “Was that he would be THAT hot.” Hahaha!

While it doesn’t compare to the shock of the ending, I must say the other gasp moment in this episode was finding out the old blind man (notice how I don’t use names because I simply can’t keep track of them all) at the Wall was, in fact, a Targaryen! Another fascinating backstory! Did that match the scene in the book?

And while I’m firing questions at you, with only one episode left to go, does it feel to you, a reader of the book and someone who’s aware of what is still left to cover, that they are rushing things at all? While the pace is much quicker than it was earlier, and while I do believe there are a lot of things they may still have left to cover, I’m really enjoying the pace, but I wonder if fans of the books feel differently?

Chris: No, I actually think they’ve done an admirable job in pacing the story. When I first heard it would be ten episodes, I was a little concerned that it would be rushed … but I’ve never felt that it has been. I would in fact go so far as to hold up GoT as an example of how to adapt a novel to the screen—with the exception of one or two missteps (which, frankly, might just be me being cranky), the realization of GRRM’s narrative in televisual format has been exceptionally well done. And really, the proof is in the pudding—the fact that so many people I know who haven’t read the novels (like your own lovely self) are absolutely LOVING the series.

I will say nothing about what is in store for Dany next week, aside from saying—don’t worry. All her growth and strength has not been for naught, and the sense that she relies absolutely on Drogo for her power is … well, again, I’ll wait for next week. Suffice to say: the Daenerys we met in episode one would have fled with Jorah. The Daenerys we have now is an entirely different woman.

I agree with you entirely on how smart the writers have been with the Dothraki language. I can’t recall if this has come up before, but they hired a linguistics professor to invent the language. A lot of GRRM’s uber-fans—the type who teach themselves Klingon or Sindarin—asked him for Dothraki grammar and vocabularies so they could learn the language. To which he had to reply, with chagrin, that he had invented all of about seven words. So the achievement with the language in the series is astounding, and Jason Momoa in particular has been particularly impressive with how fluent he sounds. Not just a piece of beefcake, that fellow. It almost makes me want to go see Conan the Barbarian.

So … one more episode left. I am so going to miss this series when it is done, and will have to rewatch it from the start several times just to fill the hole it’s going to leave (that the Seven for PVRs). I’ve been thinking through several article ideas that will give me an excuse to go back and rewatch it under the guise of “research” … there is, I think, certainly something to be done comparing this series to The Wire.

Any final thoughts, Nikki?

Nikki: Only that while waiting for your final missive to come back to me, I was doing an image search for pictures of this episode (they always seem to pop up a few days later, so the pickins were slim) but when I search for “Ned Stark execution” there was a photo of Ned holding the sword in that first episode, and I realized that’s the parallel scene to this one. In that opening episode, the man runs into camp and claims to have seen the white walkers and the wights. Ned doesn’t believe him, and in his black-and-white world, says the man must be executed if he’s suspected as a traitor. Here the sword comes back around, taking Ned’s head because he was too honest and told Cersei what he had discovered, and didn’t act when he should have. Oh Ned…

I, too, will miss this show… I can’t believe we have to wait another year for the next season! I will also miss our discussions; this has been a lot of fun!

I cannot wait for next week’s episode, because I want to know what will happen to Dany… to Sansa… to Ned’s son and his army… to Cersei… to Jaime… to Drogo… and to Jon Snow. So many people revolved around Ned, so I’m interested to see what happens when the centre is gone.


Chadwise said...

Good catch...I was wondering if viewers of the show who were not readers would pick up on the fact that the executioner uses Ned's own sword

MLBurt said...

I have been waiting for this scene for so long ... my non-reader friend still hasn't seen it. There's still fun to be had.

One thing I did love in particular was the music. The way they held it back during the actual execution, then had this really heartbreaking track playing over the credits was really well done. I already knew what was coming and I was sort of sitting in stunned silence. I can only imagine how it was for someone who didn't know what was coming.

Zach said...

Got to say that scene I have been waiting for the reaction to and it did not disappoint, other than maybe hearing some over the top backlash of canceling HBO immediately because that scene which makes me sad, because they won't get to see the beauty that is the rest of this story.

The one thing that I missed was any battle scene's in this episode. I even got my hopes peaked when they skipped Tyrion battle which of course was shown in the book and that we were going to see the fight in the whispering wood. I wanted to see Jaime cut through 12 men before finally being taken. But why oh why at least when Rob was riding back with to see his Mother why wasn't Grey Wind with him with a bloody muzzle showing that the wolf was involved in this bloody fight....but really just minor quibble's on an adaption that has been better then almost anything I could have hope for.

Zach said...

I am getting ancy to hear your and Nikki's plus this communities response to the season finale as check your's and Nikki's blog like every 2 hours it seems hoping that this one would go up early like last weeks....

Chris in NF said...

Patience, Zach ... our co-blogs will go live tomorrow at 6:30pm Toronto time.