Game of Thrones Revisited: 1.09 Baelor
Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And in 2019, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world; this time Ned meets his maker in the show's biggest twist to date.
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
And so we come to the first 'episode nine' of Game of Thrones, a term synonymous with the major event of each season. Compared to later episode nines, it doesn't feel as dramatic as the likes of Blackwater, The Rains of Castamere or Battle of the Bastards; in fact it's virtually tame by those standards, but it is still a significant episode. Fans of the books might have been waiting for the death of Ned Stark but for many, this was a huge shock and a game changer for the show as much as it was the books. Up to this point, Sean Bean's Stark had been the central character; killing him off was something unprecedented.
Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor makes his Game of Thrones debut here and he certainly adds a sense of grandeur to the direction of these scenes even if the obvious lack of budget precludes the audience from actually witnessing the two battles between the Lannister and Northern forces. Compared to the visual treats of later seasons, it feels a waste to not get a glimpse of Bronn and the tribesmen in action or Robb's forces gaining their sweeping victory of Jamie Lannister, but the real success of this episode is in the quieter character moments.
The scene where Tyrion tells the sad tale of his first wife Tysa to Bronn and Shae (Sibel Kekilli making her debut) is incredibly heartfelt, adding to the tragedy of Tyrion's journey and cementing Tywin as a true villain, It's nice to see the continued evolution of Tyrion and Bronn's friendship and Kekilli plays well off Peter Dinklage and Jerome Flynn.
John Bradley also makes his debut as Walder Frey and he is as odious and cruel as we all remember. His scene with Catelyn as she petitions him to let her son's army pass through the Twins (making their landmark debut in the title sequence) is enough to make your skin crawl. Her promise to have Robb marry one of Frey's daughters will also set up the catastrophic episode nine of season three.
And talking of villainy, we get another fantastic scene between Varys and Ned in the cells as the Spider manipulates the Stark Lord into admitting treason to save his daughters. There is also an intriguing moment between Maester Aemon and Jon Snow at the Wall as the Maester reveals his Targaryen heritage as a way to convince Jon not to break his vows and run off to join Robb in his crusade.
The desperation of Daenerys to save Drogo, after he falls deathly ill from the wound inflicted upon him last episode, reaches new heights here, signalling what is the end of her initial rise to power over the course of the season. Her development almost feels like it is moving at breakneck speed, compared to later seasons but it is also engaging to watch, thanks in no small part to the conviction of Emilia Clarke's performance. But that pace also feels like the story's undoing; in the space of just three episodes, Drogo has gone from proclaiming his desire to win Westeros for his Khalessi to dying in what still comes across as a random power struggle amongst his people.
Given the slow but steady build up of everything else happening this season, it feels like David Benioff and D.B. Weiss decided to throw a couple of season's worth of storyline into Daenerys' story just to keep the audience interested in an arc relatively removed from the rest of the events happening in Westeros. Of course this is what happened in the books, fans might argue, but the showrunners have proven that they weren't afraid to stray from the books when needed - perhaps in hindsight, moving Viserys' death to the end of season one and Drogo's demise into the second season may have maintained the pace over years one and two.
Regardless of this fast pace, the scenes in Drogo's camp as Mirri Maz Duur used to black magic to try and save him was incredibly tense and atmospheric. The witch slitting the horse's throat over Drogo's withering body was nasty staff and the ungodly wails coming from the tent were certainly unnerving. Jorah taking on the Dothraki usurper led to a spectacular sword fight, culminates in the chilling cliffhanger as he carries a collapsed Daenerys into the tent, setting up the greater tragedy that will unfold in the finale.
But the scene Baelor - and indeed season one - is most remember for is the climax on the steps of the temple as judgement is passed on Ned Stark while the crowds boo and jeer and Arya looks on helplessly from the statue. It really plays a curveball; up to the very end it doesn't seem possible that Ned will die this day. Further imprisonment or exile to the Wall are both logical conclusions that even scheming Cersei fails to predict what her son Joffrey will do. We've already had hints about what the boy king's cruelty and impulsiveness will do, but ordering Ilyn Payne to take Ned's head is shocking move that cements him as a villain in his own right.
With the war between the Starks and Lannisters reaching a surprise twist, Daenerys' rise to power coming crashing around her and Ned Stark - the show's most pivotal character - executed before the season has even ended, the stakes were raised higher than ever for the finale. This was the game changer that proved Game of Thrones will never go the way you expect...