Warning: Contains spoilers for episodes that have aired to date, but none from the books.
The things we do for love.
A few weeks ago, in my review of Episode 7, "You Win or You Die," I argued that one of the themes of Game of Thrones is that all politics is personal. Kingdoms fall, armies war, allegiances are formed and shattered, and thousands of people die, all for personal reasons. More than honor, more than justice, more than strategy, what shapes and reshapes the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is emotion.
But is this a bad thing? Would we want it any other way? Given a choice between love and honor, wouldn't we pick love every time? And, by that logic, can something be dishonorable and still be right?
"Love is the death of duty."—Maester Aemon
How Jon (Kit Harington) will reconcile his duty to the Night's Watch with his love for his imperiled family remains to be seen, especially since the choice is not so simple: he loves his family, but he also loves his brothers at the Wall, and he is basically adopted this week by Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), who gives him the sword that should have gone to his disgraced son Jorah (Iain Glen).
It is Maester Aemon (veteran character actor Peter Vaughan) who poses the question most clearly, explaining to Jon why the men of the Night's Watch vow to surrender all personal ties and family obligations. "Love is the death of duty," he tells Jon. "What is honor compared to a woman's love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms? Or a brother's smile?" Aemon—revealing for the first time that he is a Targaryan, and stood to his duty while his family was slaughtered—asks the most important question of the episode: "If the day should ever come when your Lord father was forced to choose between honor on the one hand, and those he loves on the other, what would he do?"
Jon's answer, interestingly, rejects the premise of the question, and provides a third alternative. "He would do what was right," Jon says, expressing belief in the synthesis of love and honor that he learned at his father's feet.
"What of your daughter's life, my lord? Is that a precious thing to you?"—Varys
Meanwhile, for Jon's father, the day Aemon speaks of is fast approaching. Varys the Spider (Conleth Hill) is still visiting Ned (Sean Bean) in his cell beneath the Red Keep, and still pleading with him to play the game he needs to play to stay alive. Last week the Spider said that he serves the realm, and this week he confesses that his only goal is peace, at any cost. But Ned—who was willing to throw the realm into war rather than betray his friend Robert's memory—is not persuaded. "You think my life is some precious thing to me?" Ned asks him. "I grew up with soldiers: I learned how to die a long time ago." But Varys is able to put it in terms Ned will understand: his children are at risk. Robb is marching to war, and Sansa (though she doesn't realize it) is little more than a hostage. Ned is willing to die for the truth—and for his own name—but it will mean that his sons will have to fight, and his daughter's life is probably forfeit, and the entire realm will be plunged into war anyway. It might be honorable, but could it possibly be right?
"Only death pays for life."—Mirri Maz Duur
What Dany (Emilia Clarke) is willing to do for love turns out to be a bit terrifying. Her act of mercy last week—sparing the women of the Lamb Tribe from being raped—has come back to haunt her: the injury Drogo (Jason Momoa) received defending that decision has festered, and the Khal is on the brink of death. (It's worth noting that Drogo received this wound not in combat but in pride, standing before his enemy and proudly allowing himself to be sliced open: it was a wound received out of honor, not out of accident or necessity. But it was also the weakness of love, his feelings for Dany causing him to disregard the traditions of his people.)
Now, to save the life of her husband, Dany calls upon Mirri Maz Duur (Mia Soteriou), the witch-woman of the Lamb Tribe. (I keep wondering: is it really wise to put a survivor of the tribe you just vanquished in charge of the vanquisher's health?) The witch tells Dany that there is a spell of "blood magic" that will save the Khal's life, but blood magic is forbidden among the Dothraki, and even Mirri tells her that "death is cleaner." One sacrificial horse-slaughter later, and the Khal's tent is booming with demonic sounds, just as Dany goes into labor. This should go well.
"It's a birthday message to his grand-niece."—Robb Stark
With the Harry Potter movies drawing to a close, Game of Thrones is a timely boon to older British actors: this week we see Argus Filch himself, David Bradley, turn up as Walder Frey, who controls a bridge the Stark army needs to cross. What's important to Frey is made clear from the raven that Theon (Alfie Allen) shoots down outside Frey's castle: the Starks think it might be carrying military communiques to the Lannisters, but it turns out to be delivering a birthday card to Frey's niece. Walder Frey doesn't give a damn about any of the war and intrigue going on in the Seven Kingdoms: all he cares about is family, of which he is overburdened. (Though if he would stop marrying 15-year old girls he might have fewer sons and daughters hanging about.)
Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) reminds him that he swore an oath to her father—he is a Tully bannerman—but Frey could give a toss. "Oh yes, I said some words," he says dismissively, before pointing out that he also seems to recall swearing an oath to the Crown. So much swearing of fealty, so little meaning: though he doesn't seem to be a particularly loving father, what Frey wants is to take care of his family, and so the price he demands from the Starks is a son (Robb) and a daughter (Arya) to marry his children. (Robb—if he survives—may follow through on this promise. As far as Arya's wedding is concerned, I wouldn't start shopping for stemware.)
"Surely there are ways to have me killed that would be less detrimental to the war effort."—Tyrion Lannister
If this week is all about love—and the love of fathers in particular—then surely Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) is the dark end of the spectrum. He orders Tyrion to lead the hill tribes into battle at the vanguard of the attack, which Tywin knows will almost certainly get Tyrion killed. (Only a lucky blow to the head in camp spares the Imp.) However, for a fuller understanding of Tywin's philosophy of child-rearing, we need to look to the story Tyrion tells Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and his enigmatic new concubine Shae (Sibel Kekilli).
If I had the time, I could write an entire essay about this fantastic scene alone, which begins with Tyrion, Shae, and Bronn playing a "game." Though he masks it in competition, and his usual claims of intellectual superiority, the game is really just Tyrion's convoluted way of achieving intimacy. (It struck me for the first time here that Tyrion just badly wants friends; he seemed to find one in Jon when they traveled together to the Wall, and perhaps he has now found some more in Bronn and Shae?) The exchange of confidences leads quickly to Tyrion opening up about his first love: as he warns them, "It's not a pleasant story."
I was sixteen. My brother Jaimie and I were riding when we heard a scream. She ran out onto the road, clothes half torn off, with two men on her heels. Jaimie scared the men away easily enough while I wrapped her in my cloak. She was too scared to send off on her own, so, while Jaimie hunted down the rapers, I took her to the nearest inn and fed her. Her name was Tysha. She was a wheelwright's orphan, and she was hungry. Together we finished off three chickens and a flagon of wine. Impossible as it seems, there was a time when I was unaccustomed to wine. I forgot how frail I was around girls. I was always waiting for them to laugh at me, or look away embarrassed, or ask me about my tall handsome brother. I forgot about everything but Tysha, and somehow I found myself in her bed…
Didn't last long: I didn't know what the hell I was doing. But she was good to me. She kissed me afterwards, and sang me a song, and by morning I was deep enough in love to ask for her hand. A few lies, a few gold coins, and one drunken septon, and there you have it: man and wife. For a fortnight anyway, until the septon sobered up and told my father…
First my father had Jaimie tell me the truth: the girl was a whore, you see. Jaimie had arranged the whole thing: the road, the rapers, all of it. He thought it was time I had a woman. After my brother confessed, my father brought in my wife and gave her to his guards. He paid her well, a silver for each of them. How many whores command that kind of price? He brought me into the barracks and made me watch. By the end she had so much silver that the coins were slipping through her fingers and rolling on the floor.
It is no wonder Jaimie and Cersei cling to each other for warmth and trust, and it truly is a wonder that Tyrion has turned out as well as he has. Apart from being deeply fucked up, this story is evidence of a father who not only doesn't love his children, but one who wants to systematically destroy their very capacity for love, their faith in love, their confidence in their ability to be loved. As we discussed two weeks ago, Tywin Lannister cares only about his honor, and the honor of his house; the lives of his children—and their happiness—mean nothing to him. Tywin's philosophy is, strangely, not unlike the men of the Wall: there is no room for love.
"I come before you to confess my treason in the sights of gods and men."—Lord Eddard Stark
Ned Stark has been moving towards this outcome since the beginning of Game of Thrones. We see now that his death was foreshadowed from the very first episode, when a dire wolf was found dead with the antler of a stag in her throat: the Stark wolf outlived the Baratheon stag, but not by much, and Ned's fate was sealed the moment he accepted Robert's commission. Ned never belonged in King's Landing, and he has made poor decisions nearly every step of the way, but everything he has done has been for love: for love of Robert, for love of Catelyn, for love of his children.
Is it a dishonor that his final act is to lie, to proclaim Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) the true king, and to denounce himself as a traitor? Certainly it is a departure from what we expect of a hero: a hero is supposed to die for honor and truth, refusing to surrender his dignity, refusing to compromise his integrity to the end. Ned has been our hero in Game of Thrones: does it diminish him in our eyes because he attempts to sell his honor, and his good name, to barter for the lives of his family?
It does not. It should not, at least. Ned chooses to do the harder thing, the thing Tywin Lannister would never do: he surrenders his name and his pride out of simple love. If Ned is our moral compass—as he has been all along—his last act is to tell us that love trumps pride, and that there exists a different kind of honor, a different way to be right. He dies for his family, who will never doubt that he loved them: he dies a hero. He had a choice to make between love and honor, and—just as Jon said he would—Ned did the right thing in the end.
Random Observations, Speculations, and Favorite Bits
- Joffrey, too, acts out of emotion when he denies Ned's clemency: clearly his mother knows what a tactical mistake this is, and it is my dear hope that Joffrey figures it out himself one of these days. (Actually, my dearest hope is that the faux sword fight he and Arya had in Episode Two was mere foreshadowing, and that Joffrey has an appointment with the pointy end of Needle.)
- Arya (Maisie Williams) had little to do this episode, but she did the hell out of it. Her scene on the statue was heartbreaking, and, if I didn't love her before, the moment when she started to remove Needle from its sheath to fight five hundred people for her father's life would have done me in.
- The title of this episode may have some larger mythological meaning—I haven't read the books, and don't know who "Baelor the Blessed" is—but it also works as a simple summation of Ned's decision. He sees Arya on Baelor's statue, and says that one word to Yoren (Francis McGee) as a plea to protect her.
- I know Ned's death has sent shock waves throughout the fans—or at least those who hadn't read the book—and I wish I could join in. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of ordering the second book a couple of weeks ago; I wasn't going to read it until the series was over, but I accidentally glanced at the synopsis on Amazon's page and spoiled myself about Ned's execution. My own fault, but damn.
- In retrospect, my one complaint about these past two episodes is that Ned was largely off-stage, but I raise a virtual glass to Sean Bean, who gave a fantastic performance throughout. Lord Stark could have been a very simplistic role, but Bean brought incredible decency and depth to the character, often with no more than a weary facial expression, or by putting decades of hardship in Ned's eyes. I think much of the shock about Ned's death has been of the Oh my god, I thought he was our hero variety. It's to George R. R. Martin's credit that such formulaic distinctions are worthless; there are few clear-cut heroes and villains here, and absolutely no guarantees of survival or justice. But I maintain that HBO made no mistake in making Ned the face of Game of Thrones: alive or dead, Bean's portrayal will keep him fresh in our memories, and Eddard Stark will remain our hero.