There's a slight change of procedure for the recap this week. In previous weeks, I've tried to describe major incidents obliquely enough that it might be possible to read these without getting spoilers. This time, though, there's no way to get around the Big Stuff that happens in this week's episode without major, major spoilers. So there'll be a paragraph of nattering, and then we'll break. If you haven't seen the episode yet, come back later; if you have, join me after the jump, will you?
So yes, this week's episode is entitled "Baelor," which is a curious bit of misdirection--Baelor's not a character we've seen, as such. There is, however, a statue of him in King's Landing, in the outdoor scene at the end of the episode, where... and, let's see, "Shagga likes axes," that's a good line, and speaking of sharp things... and it's awfully clever of the screenwriters to get around having to show a massive battle on screen by having Tyrion unconscious for the whole thing, and speaking of blackouts... and Maester Aemon's monologue kind of kills the forward momentum of the episode, and speaking of killing, uh...
HOLY HECK: THEY JUST KILLED THE PROTAGONIST OF THIS SHOW.
Now, this is not news to anyone who's read George R.R. Martin's "A Game of Thrones." It's also not news to anybody who's spent a little while Googling various names to get the spelling right. But if you're just watching the show, Ned getting the chop has to be a big rug-being-pulled-out-from-under-you moment. (Here's a question to answer in the comments: If anyone watching the show didn't know it was coming, what was your reaction?)
Ned's death violates the basic assumption we have about watching TV serials: That the central character of a story is going to be around for the whole thing. He really has been set up as its central character--everything except the Dothraki sequences spins out of the Stark family's activities one way or another (even the king was a supporting player in Ned's story), and he's the one who got to be a detective a few episodes back, a task that's not usually assigned to a secondary player. When any character is threatened with death for a few episodes of a serial (instead of meeting it instantly), the question is usually not if they're going to survive, but how; it's structurally shocking that Ned doesn't.
The manner of Ned's death, in fact, makes a striking contrast to the first we saw of him: executing a deserter, then declaring that the man who passes sentence should carry it out. Joffrey probably couldn't even lift the headsman's sword; more to the point, he ruins a carefully arranged plea-bargain deal on the spur of the moment just because he's a jerk. Killing Ned is clearly going to have terrible repercussions, but as we saw in Joffrey's scene with his mother a few weeks ago, his understanding of realpolitik runs no deeper than "everyone's going to obey me because I'm the king."
Ned was also the one character who consistently put ethical considerations above his own personal interest. (Well, Varys claims that that's what he's doing too. But who trusts Varys?) As it turns out, in this landscape, that's fatal. With him, the moral center of "Game of Thrones" dies; Arya is the closest thing to a wholly sympathetic character we've got now (other than the way-too-saintly Catelyn), but Arya's job at the moment mostly consists of saving her own skin--she's not yet being faced with his kind of tough choices.
The lesser axis of "Game of Thrones" is the Danaerys plot, and this episode also frames her in contrast with Ned: as bleak as things look for her right now, she's actually gotten herself into most of that trouble. She's built her reputation among the Dothraki by acting in accordance with their cultural norms. Rescuing Mirri Maz Duur--which she believed, justifiably, was an ethical act--was her first major violation of those norms. But it's led to her violating them again and again, first to defend Mirri, then to protect the dying Khal Drogo. In a different way, it leads to a weird formal aspect of this episode: The big event is Ned's execution at the end, but the actual cliffhanger happens twenty minutes earlier, when Jorah carries Danaerys into the tent from which guttural sounds are emanating--and what happens next? Tune in next week!
The sex, violence and catchphrase tally:
Bare breasts: Two, courtesy of drinking-game champion Shae, who's apparently swayed by Tyrion's deep pockets rather than anything near them.
Fatalities: A horselord, a horse, a raven and (offscreen) several thousand troops. Oh, and Ned.
Catchphrases: None this time, surprisingly.
Photo: Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) rallies the troops. Credit: HBO.