Game of Thrones: “Baelor”

What Matters


Game of Thrones

HBO, Sundays, 9 PM

Written by Daniel Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Directed by Alan Taylor

“If the day ever came when your father was forced to choose between honor on the one hand, and those he loves on the other, what would he do?” – Blind Master Aemon

The most fascinating thing about this episode of Game of Thrones was learning how far some people will go to prop up their self-delusions. Even those who think honor lies in honesty are revealed as self-deluded, hypocritical, even vain. I don’t know what story George R. R. Martin, the writer of the novels on which this series is based, was trying to tell with Ned Stark. On the surface, it’s supposed to be the story of a good man surrounded by bad men, a man who has to make honorable decisions in dishonorable circumstances. That’s normally the framework for a hero story, a framework that goes back probably to Gilgamesh. The trouble is, the sort of behavior Ned and Catelyn Stark indulge in is appropriate for the heroic, independent warrior who risks nothing but his own life. Put into the context of a family of young children, a land of quarreling kingdoms with a populace weary of war, and a history of corruption and madness in the ruling class, and what is supposed to come off as heroism can appear as stupidity, blindness and pride.

“I want you to serve the realm.” – Lord Varys

We begin with some interviews in the dark; Lord Varys visits Ned in the dungeon, bringing him news and a plea. He asks Ned to accede to Joffrey, proclaim him king, completely capitulate. He asks this not because of his own pride or ambition, but because he wants peace. Of all the players in this drama, only Varys seems to be honestly concerned for the welfare of the kingdoms, only Varys seems to put the best interests of other people above his own. Varys has nothing to gain from peace except what everyone gains: no bloodshed. He is the Master of Whisperers, a spy whose talents would be valuable to whoever sat on the Iron Throne, so he’s in no personal danger no matter how matters fall out. And he is remarkably clear-sighted; knowing that Lord Stark is already a dead man, he allows himself some candid conversation, a dialogue considerably more honest than anyone but Tyrion Lannister can manage. In his quiet way, Varys tries to save what he can of the wreck Robert Baratheon left behind him, of the wreck Ned himself has made of the government. Clearly Joffrey is unfit to rule, but one might consider that his putative father was no prize, either. Robert Baratheon, first of his name, did nothing but wine and wench his way through his reign, and somehow managed to hold the peace together through his own blunt diplomacy and the clever exploitation of the self-interest of others. These are not dramatic or chest-thumping achievements, but at least they don’t result in burned towns and dead villagers. A more thoughtful man than Eddard Stark might have considered manipulating this untried boy, his vicious mother, rather than bulling his way through the political china shop. Ned’s way – pushing into the light the illegitimacy of Joffrey’s claim and heritage – will lead to years, perhaps decades, of internecine war. Thousands will die, the land will be devastated, all kingdoms weakened as armies burn their way across the land. But Ned is fine with all of that, because Right will triumph. And that’s what matters, right?

“What of your daughter’s life?” – Lord Varys

Lord Stark still clings to his self-delusions. Ned would never criticize his wife to another, but he has to be thinking that if his idiot wife had held onto Tyrion Lannister, he’d stand a better chance of getting out of that dungeon alive. As long as Catelyn had a hostage, she could hold off the Lannisters who held Ned hostage. But how can Ned condemn an action born out of their shared code of honor? So he gives up, resigns himself to death secure in the knowledge that he will die a good man in his own eyes. And that’s what matters, right? Varys short-circuits all this heroic ideology with a quiet question: what about Ned’s children? Ned’s naiveté does not extend to thinking Joffrey will spare the House of Stark any more than the House of Stark spared the House of Targaryen. He knows Cersei is using his daughter against him, but in this kind of fight he is helpless. Although Sansa has done nothing but defy her father, renounce his values, and cleave to his enemies, Ned finally sacrifices the only thing he cares about as much as his children: his honor. He accedes to Joffrey’s demands, kneeling in public to recant all his accusations, proclaiming Joffrey the rightful heir. According to Ned’s lights, this should at least buy him Sansa’s safety, if not his own life. But even Ned should have known that when you strike a bargain with the devil, the devil does not feel bound to keep it. That’s why he’s the devil. Joffrey, with no more sense of honor than his mother, seals Ned’s support of him by ordering Ned’s execution.

“I learned how to die a long time ago.” – Ned Stark

Ned’s final scene is absolutely stolen by young Maisie Williams as Arya. Watching from the crowd, she sees the people howling for her father’s blood. Throughout this series, Maisie Williams has shown quite a bit of talent, holding her own in scenes against seasoned actors who might be expected to upstage her. In this moment, you can see in Arya’s eyes the instant when she changes from trusting little girl to bitter and ironic young woman. Ned is blind-sided by Joffrey’s betrayal (possibly the only member of this drama to be surprised by it) and goes to his death without even managing any last words, no heroic last challenge to his enemies, no comforting words of ringing triumph over evil. He looks downright puzzled as he is forced to his knees, and the sword comes down. And of course, we know that he has not, in the end, bought anything with his life – not Sansa’s safety, not the safety of his family, not the safety of the realm. By the time he lets go of his egotistical attachment to his lofty code, it’s too late to rescue anything from the ruins. What a pitiful end for a good man.

“Love is the death of duty.” – Blind Master Aemon

On the Wall, Ned’s bastard son (hey Ned? what code of “honor” involves siring bastards?) learns of his father’s imprisonment. Despite his acceptance by the brotherhood, despite his status as savior of the Lord Commander from a zombie, and despite Mormont gifting him with his own family’s sword, Jon Snow’s immediate response is to rush to the side of his father. Raised with Ned’s code of honor, situated among men who take that word and that concept lightly, Jon shows real nobility: he refuses to abandon those who raised him, loved him, made him part of the family. The Night Watch has its code, corrupted over time, but still as high-minded, idealistic and, in the end, irrelevant as Ned’s. If Jon were convinced that danger from beyond the Wall threatened his family, nothing would call him away from his duty. But right now, the danger he sees is the danger the House of Stark faces, and his honor – a more personal, realistic, and compassionate code than Ned’s – calls him away from this artificial society and back into the real society of his family and kingdom. In deciding to break his oath, young Jon shows more honor than Ned ever did. And that’s what matters.

“I happen to be a great judge of character.” – Tyrion Lannister

The Lannister code of honor may be a little looser than Lord Stark’s but it is no less highly touted. Even as Tywin Lannister plots to put his own son in the front lines with his hillbillies, Tyrion doesn’t even think of trying to get out of it. He passes the night with an appealing wench named Shae (Sibel Kekilli, Die Manner der Emden) playing Truth or Dare and revealing his painful past. He can be under no illusions as to whether he will survive actual combat, but he puts on his armor anyway, gives his “men” the most rousing speech he can manage with a hangover, and gamely wobbles into combat. He is immediately knocked out by an accidental thunk on the head, which allows the producers to get us from the beginning of a battle to its aftermath without the mess and expense of actually showing it. He rouses just in time to learn that the entire battle was a feint; while Lannister’s vast army went out to obliterate 2,000 Stark bannermen, Robb Stark sneaked in and captured Jaime Lannister. Now there’s a hostage who could save Ned’s life, if it weren’t too late. With Jaimie in hand, Robb can demand Joffrey’s abdication and Cersei will make it happen. With Jaimie in hand, Robb can demand his family’s security and get it. I look forward to the next episode, where Robb will probably salve his conscience over the sacrifice of his 2,000 men by trading Jaime, the most valuable prize he could take, for a handful of magic beans. Honorably, of course, because that’s what matters, isn’t it?

“We’re not doing it your way.” – Robb Stark

On the other hand, a supposed heroine of this piece lost all my respect in this episode. Catelyn Stark, finding her army blocked by a bridge, goes to negotiate with Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2), owner of the bridge. Frey is a repulsive troglodyte, a lech who openly fondles his fifteen-year old eighth wife while the puritanical Catelyn looks on without comment. Apparently, honor does not require her to protest against public indecency when such protest might interfere with her bargaining. In the end, she sells her children. The bargain she strikes with Walder Frey, without consulting Robb, is to agree to Robb’s marriage with a Frey daughter (one of Walder Frey’s 100 children) and to Arya’s marriage to a Frey son (ditto). I have nothing but contempt for a woman willing to barter away her children’s future in this manner, for a momentary battle advantage. Twenty years from now, as Arya bears her twelfth child in the cold keep of a Frey son, will she appreciate the fact that her own mother sacrificed her on the altar of military strategy? God keep us all from such mother love. I never liked the proud and haughty Catelyn Stark, and at this point I am actively rooting for her downfall, if only to free her children from slavery. But it’s honorable slavery, within the Stark code, and that’s all that matters to Catelyn.

“I have never been nothing. I am the blood of the dragon.” – Daenerys

Meanwhile, Khal Drogo is dying and his men are grumbling among themselves. None of them seem to be enamored of the idea of being ruled over by an unborn heir, whose mother is an arrogant foreigner. The tribe is already starting to fracture, but all Daenerys seems to care about at this point is her lord. And not, apparently, because he holds the key to her survival, but because she seems to genuinely love him. I remain queasy with the idea of the rape victim who falls in love with her rapist, so pardon me if her sudden affection for Drogo smacks more of desperation than desire. She seems to have convinced herself that she loves him, however, to the extent that she casts aside any considerations of politics and demands the intervention of a witch. In a world where dead men can come to life and attack a Lord Commander of the Night Watch, this is not such a far-fetched idea. The tribe grumbles louder at this, and fighting breaks out. Ser Jorah Mormont defends Daenerys, but she goes into early labor. Desperate to save her, Mormont breaks the witch’s commands and carries her into the tent where she is sacrificing horses. I didn’t need the ominous music to tell me that no good can come of this. I will say this for Daenerys; she has come quite a long road from being the hapless pawn she was presented to us in the first episodes. I like this character development, and accept her growing self-confidence as springing from her own inner resources. A victim who learns to stand on her own feet will always have my admiration.

“Let’s play a new game.” –Tyrion Lannister

If I sound down on this series, it may be the setting. Medieval fantasy is fun, until you start to miss things like democracy, freedom, and consent of the governed. If Games of Thrones has any long-term message at all, it  demonstrates the folly of aristocracy, the stupidity of putting a nation’s future in the hands of someone whose only claim to power is an accident of birth. We are told that the House of Targaryen ended in madness and blood; certainly Viserys was no argument for aristocratic privilege. House Baratheon ended in self-pity, whoring, and weakness; Robert was no argument for rule by conquest. Now we get Joffrey Baratheon (Lannister) on the throne, no argument at all for fitness to rule. Why, pray tell me, should I continue to be interested in this “game” of thrones? The stakes in this game are the (admittedly imaginary) lives of thousands of innocents, who will be forced to play a game not of their making, where they stand to lose everything and gain nothing, where the “rules” are the construct of an arrogant caste of warrior elite. If the government of the realm is nothing but a “game” to these characters, I see no reason to root for those playing the game. More and more, my interest is held not by the “big” players, the ones who will general the armies and rule the kingdoms; my interest is held by a young girl with a Needle, a cynical dwarf hiding a broken heart, and a young nameless member of the Night’s Watch who loves his father more than his father loved him. It will be their stories, not those of the powerful or armorial, which will keep me coming back for the season finale next Sunday, and the season after that. Because it is their lives, and not some dusty code of honor, that really matter.