Ned languishes in a cell underneath the Red Keep where Varys visits him. Varys informs him of Robb’s actions and while Ned is hesitant to give in to Cersei’s commands Varys reminds him that Sansa’s life depends on the course Ned takes. Meanwhile, Robb and his army are being held up by at the Twins by the Freys. Catelyn goes to the Twins to reason with Lord Frey and negotiate a price for Robb’s crossing. Frey turns out to be a cantankerous, rude old man who eventually demands a high price – various positions for his relatives and for one of his daughters to wed Robb.
At the Wall, Mormont gives Jon a family heirloom – a Valyrian steel sword called Longclaw. Later on, Jon meets Sam who reluctantly tells him of Robb’s decision to march South. Jon longs to march South with his brother and fight for their father’s freedom. Maester Aemon summons Jon and asks his assistance in feeding the ravens. They talk about their vows – specifically the parts that keep them from taking part in the matters of the realm. Aemon recounts when his own vows were tested and it is revealed that he was once Aemon Targaryen and he remembers wanting to go South to defend his family from Robert. He ends his discussion by insisting that he will not tell Jon whether to stay or go – Jon must decide for himself.
Khal Drogo’s condition is worsening and he is falling off his horse repeatedly. The Dothraki inform Dany that a Khal who cannot ride is no Khal at all. The Dothraki are rather hostile towards her since they think she is responsible for Drogo’s approaching death. Tyrion interrupts a war council where Tywin tells him that he will serve on the front lines. Bronn has brought Tyrion a whore – Shae. They arrange a business deal, a formal exchange of gold for sex. Drogo’s wound has festered and Dany asks Mirri Maz Duur to conduct a blood magic ritual to save his life. The witch warns her that only death can pay for life – she asks for a horse to be brought into the tent as she begins the ceremony. The Dothraki are deeply disturbed by the idea of the ceremony and we see why soon enough – unhuman, monstrous sounds come from the tent. One of Drogo’s bloodriders tries to stop the ceremony and pushes Dany aside. Dany falls on her belly and it seems like the birth begins. Jorah kills the bloodrider and brings Dany to Mirri Maz Duur to help with the childbirth.
The night before the battle, Tyrion, Bronn and Shae play a drinking game where they bring up their pasts. Tyrion pins Bronn down easily but is confounded by Shae. Tyrion tells his own tale – he loved a whore named Tysha once and married her until his father found out and annulled the marriage. He forced Tyrion to rape the woman and then passed her around his household guard. The next morning Tyrion is awoken by Bronn – the battle is beginning. When the battle concludes, we see that the Lannister have won the skirmish but only because Robb committed only 2000 men. Robb himself led the remaining 18000 and captured Jaime Lannister in the process.
In King’s Landing, Arya is struggling to get by on the streets without money or friends or food. She finds out that her father is being taken to the Sept of Baelor where he is to be executed. Ned sees her standing on the statue and whispers the name ‘Baelor’ to Yoren on his way to the steps. Ned confesses his treason and reaffirms Joffrey as the rightful king. For a moment it seems like Joffrey will grant him mercy but he does not – Joffrey declares that Ned will be beheaded for treason. Arya and Sansa watch separately in horror as Ned is beheaded.
I think one of the cruellest things in this episode is that its beginnings give us hope. Hope that everything can still be resolved, that there is still a happy ending in sight. Throughout this season, I’ve gone after Ned for being too naïve and too honourable for his own good. The honourable thing to do in this episode would have just been to tell the world the truth about Joffrey and declare for Stannis in public. The right thing to do, which to me is not necessarily the same as the honourable as I discussed last week, would be to do what Ned did: lie. That’s exactly why the ending seems so cruel – Ned finally turned his back on his honour once and it came back to bit him in the head, hard. This episode sort of seals Ned’s character arc but I can’t say that I find it very satisfying. He left Winterfell, his family and his entire world really to come to this foreign, hostile city looking for justice and answers and to serve his king. Look at how utterly his character has failed then; his king lies dead, killed by a boar while Ned was able to serve no justice and the few answers he did find, he had to public recant in sights of the gods and men. It is an immensely unsatisfying ending and intentionally so – the showrunners and Martin himself would have wanted to create that anger in the audience and I feel it is that anger that carries the show over into its second season.
The other storylines are more character than plot driven in this episode: Jon learns the real cost of his vows while we learn more about Tyrion and his troubled past. Beyond the acting, which was alright but not great, I think it was the show’s script that really carried this episode. Peter Vaughan as Maester Aemon had some excellent lines, especially his speech about honour and duty: “Oh, we all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honour comes easy then. Yet sooner or later in every man’s life there comes a day when it’s not easy.” One of the troubles with Kit Harrington’s performance as Jon Snow is that the actor himself is far too old to be playing a character who is little more than a petulant teen in the books. So when Jon insists that Aemon does not understand him, the line reads very differently coming from a teen from a grown up man and it changes the audience’s perception of the character. Like I’ve said before the decision to age the characters makes sense given that some of the storylines are rather dark. Take Dany’s storyline this episode – not only was the poor girl forced into a marriage at such a young age, but it seems like she will endure his first miscarriage before most other girls even experience pregnancy. For some reason though, I feel like Dany’s storyline is being held up more by her supporting cast of actors rather than by Clarke herself. I do not mean to say that Clarke is bad per se, but she has yet to make a strong impression on me one way or another. Then we have Tyrion and Peter Dinklage. Dinklage is fast becoming Tyrion in my mind because he seems to understand the way Tyrion hides behind humour and how the humour, unfortunately, hide the intelligence. Dinklage does seem a little stiff at times, but nothing that he does not make up for in other ways. The script was not particularly kind to him this week though; there was some rather awkwardly phrased scenes and I wondered what the deal was with Tyrion not being able to suss out Shae’s past. I don’t believe for a second that she is anything more than what Tyrion and Bronn believe her to be, but it is rather surprising that she is so very different from what Tyrion thinks of her. Is this a ploy by the showrunners to make us understand Tyrion’s attraction to her?
Lastly, we must bid a fond if reluctant farewell to Sean Bean. Bean’s Ned was quite possible the perfect Eddard Stark. Visually, he wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but Bean portrayed him perfectly, in my mind. Bean captured the aspect of Ned that was utterly critical – despite his numerous shortcomings, despite his frustrating naiveté, despite his short-sightedness, Ned is a good man. There’s no better way of saying it actually – he is a good man from the inside of his soul to the outside. He is faced with a cruel world that punishes him for it, but no matter what he tries his best to what it right and what is just. There are other aspect of the character that Bean captures well too – the family man, the soldier who is much better at following, instead of leading, the man with a burden on his shoulders, but to me Bean’s Ned is primarily a good, honourable man and that’s pretty much the most important thing in portraying the character of Eddard Stark, RIP.
And so, just like that, we reach the penultimate episode of the season. It’s been quite a ride hasn’t it? To think that just nine episodes ago, the uninitiated audience would not have known anything about these characters but nine hours later they know enough to mourn Ned, pity Sansa and Arya and hate Joffrey. If you think about it, that’s quite an accomplishment for a TV show which typically cannot offer character insights with the same ease as the written word.