“Love is the death of duty”
So here it is. The be-Ned-ing. The culmination of a season’s worth of deception, back-stabbing and betrayal comes to a head as Lord Eddard of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, loses his. This has undoubtedly been written about to death so I’ll try to not devote too many words retreading well-covered ground but it deserves a quick note. This didn’t quite have the same emotional impact on me first time round as other deaths have had throughout the series as, despite being otherwise blissfully unaware about what the series was about, I somehow knew that Ned died. This only slightly diminishes the effect though, as seeing what seems like the only honourable man in Westeros stubbornly stick by his principles even when faced with his own mortality throughout then confess to a treason he didn’t commit in order to preserve the life of his daughters, only to then have his confession thrown back in his face is nonetheless devastating. Ned finally decides to play the game but it proves too little, too late and he dies. All of that work done to hint that Joffrey might actually be a reasonable human being worthy of sympathy is undone in an instant as he peels back the mask and unveils what a snivelling, malicious little boy he is to everyone. Even Cersei is shocked and begs her son to stop proceedings, urging him to consider the consequences of his actions. There’s nothing to quell his blood lust though and dear Eddard pays with his life. That striking image of the direwolf and the stag in the pilot is made literal here: the young stag kills the old wolf leaving his children to fend for themselves.
Part of what makes this such an poignant, tragic and wholly unexpected death is down to the casting of the show, which is exemplary across the board. Casting a big name actor in Sean Bean is a stroke of genius as along with the fact that Ned Stark appears to be one of the main characters of the show, even to the moment that Ser Illyn Payne is swinging that fuck-off-huge broad sword downwards, the audience still believes that plot armour is going to kick in at some point. I mean, surely they can’t kill off their biggest actor and one of the main characters before the first season has even finished, can they? Oh they can, and they do and they bloody well will again. It’s part of what draws me so strongly to the series: the willingness to defy convention and play with tropes and to be utterly ruthless with their own creations.
With all that said, it only really gets dealt with the the final ten minutes or so of the episode. There’s *a lot* of other really significant stuff going on here and much of it gets swept under the carpet and forgotten by the likes of me who focus on the stand out moment. First a little background though. At the minute I’m struggling to find my ‘in’ with the title as the jumping off point for a discussion aside from the most obvious reference points. The title ‘Baelor’ refers to the setting of Ned’s demise – The Great Sept of Baelor. The Septs are the seven-sided house of worship for the Faith of the Seven and the Great Sept is the centre for religious worship for Westeros and seat of the High Septon. The Great Sept itself has an interesting back story, as most things in Game of Thrones tend to. The Sept was named for King Baelor Targaryen and it is his statue that is to be found in the square in the front of the Sept. After conquering Oldtown, the High Septon of the previous centre of worship for the Seven begged Lord Hightower to bend the knee after receiving a vision. As such, Aegon and his family burned the idols of the old gods of Valyria but refused to give up their practices of incest and polygamy. When his incestuous son ascended to the throne, the Faith took arms against him in a bloody rebellion that was eventually quashed. The relations between the Targaryens and the Faith were restored during Baelor’s reign though. Baelor the Blessed and or the Beloved was the king who commissioned the building of the Great Sept and is remembered extremely fondly by the smallfolk due to his insistence on charitable giving. Others says that his devotion to piety and pacifism was just a manifestation of the Targaryen tendency towards insanity; a theory given more credit by the fact that he built the Maidenvault in the Red Keep to house his sisters to remove himself from carnal temptation.
We therefore have a setting with a background of peace and pacifism for the site of a ruthless and bloody murder. Although this isn’t touched on in the show, the Great Septon is extremely distressed at the execution as it goes against both the traditions of the Seven and the city laws to shed blood at the Great Sept – an issue which causes tensions to run high between Faith and Crown. So we have a transgression against a well-established belief/rule due to the murder of a Stark which seems to anticipate the events of the Red Wedding, to me.
‘Baelor’ also relates to the word that Eddard desperately utters to Yoren after he catches sight of his youngest daughter. He is signalling the plinth of the statue on which Arya is standing and Yoren immediately heads [sorry] towards it in an attempt to spare her the pain of watching her father die.
There’s a little more to Varys’ backstory at the start of this episode as he says that, before he was castrated, he travelled through the Free Cities with a company of actors. This is to be taken with a pinch of salt due to the Spider’s propensity for lying. He reveals that they taught him that “every man has a role to play” and that the same can be said of being at court. He attempts to convince Ned to confess his treason in order to enable peace and take Cersei’s secret to the grave as “Cersei is no fool. She knows a tame wolf is more use than a dead one.” The Queen Regent is worried about Stannis as he has the best claim and Ned remains steadfast in his backing of his deceased friend’s brother as he is the rightful heir. On the suggestion that if he confesses he would be allowed to take the Black as he is a man of honour, Eddard Stark provides a telling response:
“You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my honour for a few more years of… what? You grew up with actors. Learnt their craft and you learnt it well. But I grew up with soldiers… I learned how to die a long time ago”
First off, that’s a big kick in the face to Jon and Benjen and the valiant Watchers on the Wall. But more importantly, this exchange in the dungeons elucidates what has been a growing thematic concern of the first season of Game of Thrones: that of actors vs soldiers. I’m thinking specifically back to the brothel scene with Petyr Baelish where he talks about the role he is playing whilst explaining the role playing that Ros must do to please her customers – “I’m not going to fight them, I’m going to fuck them” and also to Cersei Lannister’s pithy quip: “When you *play* the game of thrones; you win or you die.” It has become increasingly more clear that the value that Ned places on honour and his military upbringing distinguish him from the rest of the players at court in King’s Landing, and not always in a positive way. He is a man who does not belong in the world and is not long meant for it.The actors vs soldiers theme of the minor power grabbers that surround the crown is also intimately tied to the question of leadership that is central to the show: what constitutes a rightful claim to the throne and what makes a good king? And this question over kingship has been shown to be almost paradoxical in its nature: the qualities that make you a good king don’t get you onto the throne and the qualities that get you onto the throne don’t translate into a good king. This has been best embodied in Robert Baratheon – the definition of a great war-time king who was useless when faced with peace, and it is a question that hangs over each of the candidates in the War of the Five Kings.
Aaaah, all of this Walder Frey stuff is really difficult to watch given everything that happens later on. In this case hindsight is not such a wonderful thing. It is a thing that makes me want to scream “OPEN YOUR EYES”. This is Baelish telling Ned that distrusting him was the wisest thing, all over again. Basically, they spell it out that Frey is not to be trusted and does not place much value on oaths. It also turns out that Greatjon Umber is not just adept at delivering the funnies as he drops a serious wisdom bomb as the Northmen loiter at the Twins: “Expect nothing of Walder Frey and you’ll never be surprised”. Theon then says that Frey would “throw him in the dungeon. Or slit your throat” to Robb before Catelyn dismisses them all by saying that she’s “known Lord Walder since I was a little girl. He’d never harm me.” To which Lord Umber retorts: “Unless there was a profit in it.”
Nobody should have been surprised by the Red Wedding. They’re all laying it on thick about what a bloody turncoat he is. What I will say is that he is characterised wonderfully. All of the nay-saying and foreshadowing is mitigated by how funny Walder is. His no-nonsense approach to the niceties of receiving noble guests is refreshing: “Oh, spare me” whilst highlighting the notion that Walder cares not for socially accepted and expected courtesy [Guest Right, anyone?]. He also gets some cracking lines. He cruelly cuts down his bastard son: “Your mother would still be a milkmaid if I hadn’t squirted you into her belly”; he’s delightfully slimey: “See that? 15, she is… And the honey’s all mine” and is belligerently to-the-point: “Your family have always pissed on mine. Don’t deny it”.
Despite all of the masking of character and intentions that goes on in the sequence in the Twins, Ser Walder Frey virtually tells us himself that he is not to be trusted. The great big triple-underlined exchange in the whole scene occurs right at the end though:
Cat: “You swore an oath to my father”
Walder: “Ah yes. I said some words. And I swore oaths to the crown too if I remember right. Joffrey’s king now which makes your boy and his corpses-to-be nothing more than rebels to me.”
Essentially it’s been made clear as day that Walder is an oath breaker. I’m actually a little shocked at how evident all of this has been in the text. This show is fantastic at laying the dramatic foundations for later events, although this is usually done far less obliquely than our scene with dear Walder. There’s plenty here for the show to say “Don’t say we didn’t tell you so”.
Jeor Mormont handing over Longclaw to Jon is a real-passing of the torch moment cements their relationship as a sort of surrogate father-son one. The Great Bear hands the blade, which had been in the Mormont family for five centuries and was meant for Jorah before he brought dishonour on their house, down to Jon. Changing the pommel to the white wolf instead of a bear is touching, as is his assertion that the sword’s name “works as well for a wolf as a bear I think.” I think so too, big man. Also of significance is that it is made of Valyrian steel. Valyrian steel swords are like golddust due to the fact that the techniques used by the smiths that used them were completely lost during the Valyrian Doom. As such weaponry made from the incredibly sharp and durable material are extremely rare. Apparently at one point Tywin Lannister tried to buy all of the known ones in existence with little luck. My theory on this [full disclosure – this could well be utter shit] is that it will turn out that the blades were forged with dragon fire and that’s why they’re so strong. I also have an inkling that it will turn out that Valyrian steel is super effective [for want of a better term] against the White Walkers, much like the dragon glass daggers Samwell uses in Season 3. We’ll see if I’m right or not.
Aemon reveal to Jon: “Love is the death of duty.”/ “We all do our duty when there is no cost to it. Honour comes easy then.”/ “It hurts boy. I know.”/ “You do not know!” Seems noteworthy that this scene occurs after we have seen Robb agree to marry Walder Frey’s daughter when the fighting is finished. Maester Aemon’s assertion seems to apply to Jon at present but also as a warning for Robb Stark. After all, it is love that causes him to renege on his promise of marriage. It could also be seen to apply to Ned. Eddard’s love for his daughters is what causes him to betray his own sense of honour and duty. Even his confession cannot save him. Love does appear to be the death of duty in Westeros.
Robb Stark’s continued arc from boy to man continues apace. Our little boy is growing up fast. Robb’s decision to allow the Lannister spy to live pays dividends as, in a stroke of tactical genius, the Kingslayer caught. Jaime urges him to end the war now and fight him one and one but Robbs tells him in no uncertain terms that “we’re not doing it your way”. Robb shows a level-headedness by not getting carried away by his maiden victory [“One victory does not make us conquerors”], shows a tactical awareness that leads to military success but also struggles to come to terms with the costs of war as he sent two thousand men to their deaths. He’s a leader with a conscious and it makes it all the more sad that we never see him fulfil his potential. =[.
Thoughts that wander into my mind like stray dogs:
- “The boy may lack experience and sense but he does have a certain..mindless…provincial courage”. Damning with faint praise from Tywin. Start of a growing respect though.
- “Ferocious? Last night a Moonbrother stabbed a Stonecrow over a sausage.” Oh, Tyrion. The Lannisters provide the comic relief in an otherwise sombre episode. This coupled with “Surely their are ways to have me killed that would be less detrimental to the war effort?” Being two of the highlights. Tywin’s growing respect for Robb Stark is not to be found where his youngest son is concerned.
- Jorah takes the top spot of profound insights once again though: “This isn’t Westeros where men honour blood. Here, men honour strength”. There’s a good argument to be made that that isn’t strictly true.
- Can’t help but enjoy Theon’s giggling as Robb comes to the realisation that he’s going to have to marry one of Frey’s daughters. Alfie Allen adds some really great humour and/or subtlety to scenes throughout this season with little interjections like this. Catelyn gives the looks of the Frey girls a less than ringing endorsement…
- “I think you should wear your armour tonight, Ser.”/ “I think you’re right”. – More gold from Jorah.
- While not strictly love being the death of duty, Daenerys’ love for her husband drives to such an extreme that she steps out side of mortality. This gives us our first introduction to magic in the show. Does not end well, to say the least. Mirri Maz Duur says something interesting though that you should bear in mind as we move in to Season Two: “Only death pays for life”.
- Tyrion/ Shea/ Bron’s drinking game is interesting. Tyrion goes some way to explaining the reason for why all of his relationships seem to be defined in monetary terms – he tells the story of Jaime paying a whore to act as a damsel in distress for Tyrion to save. Tyrion falls in love and marries her before Tywin handed her over to his guards and paid her for every man she had. As Tyrion mournfully recalls his father made him watch and by the end “she had so much silver the coins were slipping through her fingers and rolling onto the floor”. Scarring. This is potentially rooted in Tywin’s own daddy issues as his father, Tytos, who took a whore after his wife [Tywin’s mother] died. She was so influential that it was said that any man who wanted Tytos should kneel before her, as his ears were between her legs. Upon his father’s death, Tywin cast this woman out onto the streets naked.
- [WILD SPECULATION KLAXON]: Bron was a member of the Night’s Watch who deserted? He says that work was the reason he was beyond the Wall during their little drinking game…
- “…And your son has no fur to keep his balls warm.” Another great Walder Frey line I couldn’t find room for above. Everyone is loving the fur imagery when it comes to our Young Wolf.
- I just enjoyed this shot. Robb turns Lannister expectation turned as upside down as Tyrion’s perspective here:
This was a little bit of a mongrel of a piece but I’ll endeavour to neaten things up for the coming episodes…