Game of Thrones, Ep. 1.09: Sometimes you gotta lose

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Game of Thrones, Episode 9: ‘Baelor’
Written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor

When Cersei warned weeks ago that “you win or you die,” she wasn’t kidding. The tragedy of Ned Stark’s existence comes to the fore this week as the man who knows only honor gives up that quality to save his daughters – and hey, possibly himself – and winds up on the literal chopping block anyway, thanks to the cruel whim of an illegitimate preteen.

Luckily, this week’s distressing climax is only one highlight in what might be the strongest episode yet – continuing its recent streak of progressively better installments. It’s also – perhaps not coincidentally – the week we truly get to know Tyrion Lannister, and why he’s such a beloved character amongst devotees of the novels. Sure, we’ve spent plenty of time with him in the past and gotten to admire his roguish ways, but this week afforded him some genuine depth. When his father Tywin assigns him and his newly acquired allies, the mountain men, to the very front of the front lines, he takes it as a death sentence by other means, and begins to quite reasonably think he’ll be facing death’s door the following morning. That sense of imminent demise leads to a surprisingly intimate conversation with Shae (Sibel Kekilli), yet another of the show’s talky whores who may or may not wind up as a figure of any importance. (Memo to Thrones writers: we don’t need quite so many of those next season.)

Typical of the contrarian nature of Thrones, just as we get a (more) tragic dimension to Tyrion through the stories of his inglorious past, we don’t get the expected course of redemption. Instead, as he bravely leads his phalanx of brutes into battle after a rousing speech, we gets literally trampled over and knocked unconscious, out cold for the entirety of the battle. Yes, he survives (much to his father’s doubtless disappointment), which may be enough for him, but it’s not exactly the glorious moment we might come to expect.

Speaking of missing the battle, Thrones had to pull off something tricky this week: get through not one but two major battles apparently involving tens of thousands of men – without showing us even a second’s worth of combat. The density of actual plot this week – Catelyn’s diplomacy, Jon dealing with the news of his father’s arrest and his brother’s war; Ned, Tyrion, and of course the gloomy affairs going down somewhere in Essos – helped, but sooner or later they may have to convincingly show us, y’know, a war. (Though it must be said the sight of Jaime Lannister in shackles is a fine one.)

Ultimately, though, ‘Baelor’ will go down as The One Where Ned Dies – and rightfully so. TV veteran and occasional filmmaker Alan Taylor does a brilliant job with the sequence leading up to and including Ned’s beheading. With both Sansa and Arya present (though the latter, who’s been hiding out in the streets since Joffrey took over, is spared the actual sight), an unbearable six-minutes is taken up with the deliberation over Ned’s fate, and the insufferable Joffrey unilaterally decides against both Sansa and his mother: “Bring me his head!” And with some nauseating POV shots from Ned’s perspective as his life is about to end, the bitter irony of the moment sets in: despite finally abandoning his own principles as a hail-mary, Ned still has to die. But for those upset by the loss (which there are apparently surprisingly many – sorry, Sean Bean fans / Sharpe devotees), we can also take comfort in that no deed – good or bad – seems to go unpunished in the Seven Kingdoms. If the finale can keep up the upward trajectory, it might be too much to take.

Simon Howell

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