I should take a minute to acknowledge that I totally thought there were 12-13 episodes in a season and it turns out…this is the second-to-last episode. Do what you must to prepare yourselves. ALSO THERE ARE SPOILERS. SO MANY SPOILERS HERE.
Obligatory Recap: Varys does his best “All the World’s a Stage” paraphrase in Ned’s dungeon cell, Ned goes all John Proctor on us, we meet four and twenty Walder Freys, Robb is all scruffy and swoonworthy, Catelyn steps up to the plate Secretary Clinton style, Jon gets a lupine-styled Mormont sword, Maester Aemon comes from exalted stock, Khal Drogo (though hot) ain’t doing so hot, Dany has learned how to be pissed off and give orders in Dothraki, Tyrion has some morale issues but at least now he has Shae, blood magic is super-messy, battles occur offscreen, Jaime Lannister reappears a battle-damaged man, Arya’s bartering with dead pigeons, and Joffrey is a total utter shit.
Love the photography in the darkness and light of this episode – Varys’ torch disappearing, the raven going into the light, the different brightness and textures of each geographical location/climate. Kudos to the cinematography and DP team.
For me the big takeaways of this episode are the backstory illuminations – why the Night’s Watch is celibate, why Tyrion is, relatively speaking, such a mensch – and three major leaps forward: Danaerys playing with fire, Robb’s first battle, and Ned…. well, we’ll get to Ned in a minute.
“Love is the death of duty” – Maester Aemon schools Jon on why the men and boys of the Night’s Watch don’t marry or have kids. The knights of the Kingsguard also don’t marry. Being a eunuch or a knight or a brother of the watch is supposed to keep men in service of the realm. Like enforcing celibacy for the priesthood, it’s not going super great. When I read the book the first time it was jawdropping that there were other Targaryans alive and well, that this Mad King Era was not that long ago, that the Night’s Watch really does play for keeps. I kept thinking “but eventually Jon will get reunited with everyone else in the whole rest of the story, right? Right?”
“Only death pays for life” – Next time someone makes this deal to you when you are trying to save your sun-and-stars’ life, read the fine print, ok? And should you be coming at this from a knight’s perspective, never carry a laboring pregnant woman into a tent where a horse has been slaughtered, yes? I feel like that’s hygiene even the Middle Ages could grok. Dany and this whole mess with the maegi woman and the Drogo’s diced-up pectoral is about to get so much gnarlier, you don’t even know. Unless you do know, in which case omigawd right?!
Meanwhile back at Lannister Summer Camp For The Incurably Violent, Tyrion turns down a drink for the first time in his life and we meet Shae. Ah Shae…. everyone’s favorite camp follower. First let’s agree that his …proposal… to her, though a transaction consisting of money for (physical) love and attention, is basically respectful. Practical, even. Consent-obtaining! And a little hot. Shae’s different from her description/my mental image of her – long fair and lean instead of small, round and darker. I loved her facial expressions in the Who Had A Worse Life drinking game with Tyrion and Bronn – roll those eyes, Shae, roll them for every feminist who would also like to swing an axe at Bronn. If I knew how to make gifs, I would make one of that reaction shot.
GRRM’s backstory for Tyrion, that as a teenager he fell in love with and married a woman who turned out to be a prostitute hired by his brother Jamie, abetted by his father, is one of the best things about this series, in my opinion. It lays the foundation for Tyrion’s empathy, his shrewdness, and his detachment through sarcasm; it’s a tender spot I didn’t see coming during my first read in light of Tyrion’s general promiscuity and lackadaisicalness, and it’s so outside the realm of lordly living that the rest of the courtly types are doing. And then of course the subsequent treatment of that woman, Tysha, by Tywin Lannister is one of the worst things about this series – in order to give one character empathy and sketch out another (Tywin) as a monster, a (fictional, I grant you) woman has to be brutalized and gang-raped in public. How very Woman In A Refrigerator of you, GRRM.
As though it hadn’t before, HBO’s adaptation won my heart forever when it had Shae listen to this tale of (legit) woe, sit up and point out “. . . a woman who is almost raped does not invite another man into her bed two hours later.” It seems super harsh to puncture Tyrion’s self-pity parade float, but given the suffering that Tysha and every other woman in this series has endured… It seemed fair. I also loved her pragmatism when Tyrion asked her to weep for him if he is killed, and she nonchalantly responds “You’ll be dead. How would you know?” setting our Mr. Dinklage up for a dear and forlorn “…I’ll know.” Was I the only one hoping he’d break into song there? No? Yes? Hmph.
“The Gods are just, but they are also merciful.” And now for Ned. When I first read this turn of events I was shocked and grieved and are you KIDDING me, book?!? We should make a list of all the people that are now dead because of Ned’s mercy, because at a point not too far in the future you can just turn to the genealogy in the back of any of the books and start drawing lines through people’s names. And you can start with Ned’s. I love that in the adaptation he gets to see Arya for one last minute – and though Sansa is who Varys was likely alluding to when he said “Is your daughter’s life not precious?” it is Arya, crouching and filthy at the feet of Baelor the Blessed, who likely changes Stark’s mind.
In the few pages between when the crowd scene begins and when Ilyn Payne swings Ice over his head, I’d started to fashion a whole Father-Brother-and-Bastard-Son Adventure On The Wall in my head that was all dashed to pieces with a flick of Joffrey Baratheon’s obnoxious lily-white hand.
And maybe that’s the best thing about GRRM’s writing in this series – whatever twists you think the narrative is going to take seem plausible, and something you really want to read. As someone who grew up reading mostly Good Guys Generally Win sorts of fantasy, this high stakes gameplay where the people who make the types of decisions I relate to (i.e. the Good Guys) generally lose, and lose hard, is a shock to the senses.
In the words of handsome, handsome Robb, “One victory does not make us conquerors.” And one tragedy does not defeat us.
So chins up, Ned Stark Fans. The King in the North has a pretty lengthy to-do list and it’s not getting any shorter.