Every week we’ve been talking about Game of Thrones slowly building toward a climax, slowly burning itself into a wildfire of death, war and desperate sorrow for all of its characters (that’s why we love it, you see; it’s a cheery show). With “Baelor,” that time is now. In the season’s penultimate episode, very few characters get their way, and by the end most are left in a profound state of either shock or brutal determination to avoid shock. It’s a pivotal, monumental episode, and its ending will never leave you.
Warning: BIG spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.
As “Bealor” begins, Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) knows he’s a doomed man. He sits alone in a dark dungeon beneath the Red Keep, his only visitor the spymaster Varys (Conleth Hill), who brings word that his son Robb (Richard Madden) is riding south to take on the Lannister armies and fight for his father’s freedom. Varys pleads with Lord Stark to confess his treason against newly-minted Boy King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) in the hope that he will be allowed to take the black and live out his day on The Wall. The honor that crippled him, that placed him in his dungeon, still grips Lord Stark. It’s no longer about his own life. It’s about truth, and he’s left in the dark to ponder what he values most.
Across the Narrow Sea, things are growing darker for Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Her husband Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is so delirious from the wound to his chest that he can barely sit on a horse, and Dothraki custom is that when he is dead, the man to take his place will be the man who can fight his way to the top. If her husband dies, Dany has very little standing between her life, her unborn son’s life and the blades of ambitious horse lords.
If the episode has a lighter side, it’s the joy in getting our Tyrion back. After weeks either trapped in a cell or en route to his freedom, Tyrion “The Imp” Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is roaming free in Westeros once again. He’s joined his father Tywin (Charles Dance) and his army in the South as they await the arrival of Robb Stark, and he’s found a new companion in the whore Shae (Sibel Kekilli), who’s more than happy to indulge his mischievous sense of humor and his grand vision of himself as the smartest man in the room (which, after all, he might be).
And now comes the really, really spoilerish part. Seriously, if you haven’t seen it and you don’t want to know, READ NO FURTHER.
I’m too big of a nerd not to put that warning up, because the ending of “Bealor” is among the most pivotal events in the universe of this story, and that holds true nearly 15 years after the tale was first told. What’s more, it’s a prime example of why the fiction of George R. R. Martin is so powerful, and why he has a reputation as a merciless, no-holds-barred storyteller. So, moving on.
As the episode ends, Joffrey gathers his court at the sept of Baelor (sept is equivalent to church here, for those of you uninitiated) to hear Lord Eddard’s confession, and to make a decision on his punishment. Eddard does confess after all, even after all his professions of honor. He does it for the sake of his daughters, for the sake of his family and the sake of his son, who rides to war to save him. And then Joffrey has him beheaded anyway.
It’s a moment that’s so powerful and so brutal (not in terms of blood, but relentlessness) that it might even turn some casual viewers off the series forever. As his daughters look on, Eddard’s political gambles, all for the sake of honor and truth, cost him his head. It might be said that the one honest man in Westeros falls shortly after telling his first lie (that he believes Joffrey is the true king), but it’s deeper than that. To the very end, Eddard is still acting on honor, but it’s no longer his own honor. He’s now fighting to preserve the honor, the innocence, the breath of those he cares for, and in that battle at least, he hasn’t lost yet. He only appears in “Baelor” for a grand total of five minutes, but Eddard Stark’s final hours might be the performance of Sean Bean’s career, and even though it had to happen, it’s a damn shame to see him go.
Next week the first season of the biggest fantasy epic ever to hit television draws to a close. If you saw “Baelor” this week, you’ll probably still be shaking when the finale starts.