Game of Thrones delivers one of the most shocking twists in TV history. Here's our take

By James Hibberd
June 13, 2011 at 03:22 AM EDT
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Wha– what? Did they just– Really?! Oh my– you gotta be fu– WHAT?!

Yes. They did. They really did it. And it was tragic and horrific and possibly unprecedented for a first-year TV show. And we’re going to get into that. We’re going to talk all about the killing in this post — why it happened, why it arguably makes Game of Thrones a better story, how it might hurt (or help?) the program’s popularity and how we want to do really evil things to a certain smirking sire.

But we must maintain order here. We have a story to recap and a ton of great stuff happened before the harrowing final act — Tyrion plays a college drinking game, Drogo is suddenly on the brink of death and only black magic can save him (!) and Catelyn sells her daughter’s virginity to pay a bridge toll (!!). We start with–

A prolonged moment in pure blackness. Like ending-of-Sopranos “did my cable just go out?” blackness. Then breath. Then flame.

“You’ve seen better days my Lord,” says Varys, who informs the imprisoned Ned Stark that his daughter Sansa begged the court for his life.

We learn a bit about Varys, how he used to be an actor. Since this is character exposition during Thrones, I half expect to see two chained prisoners having sex in the background, but no.

Varys says he wants peace in the realm. “Do you know your son is marching south with an army?” he asks, and clearly Ned doesn’t have a sarcastic bone in his body since he doesn’t point out he’s chained in a pitch-black dungeon.

Varys urges Ned to confess to treason and support Cersei and Joffrey. The idea burns inside Ned, the very outlandishness of it — “You want me to serve the woman who murdered my king, who butchered my men, who crippled my son?”

Cersie, says Varys, might allow Ned to join the Night’s Watch and reunite with his bastard son Jon on The Wall (such a cruel tease to the viewer, this prospect). “You think my life is some precious thing to me that I would trade my honor for a few more years?” Ned asks.

“What of your daughter’s life, my lord, is that a precious thing to you?” Varys asks.

And that’s the key question of this episode: What is more important, honor or family?

NEXT: Wanna cross my bridge? Gotta marry my daughter! Hyuck, hyuck

The Twins: A raven takes flight to deliver a message and– thunk, is shot down by an arrow. Was I the only one who found that oddly funny?

We are at The Twins, the home of House Frey, with a gorgeous shot of CGI enhanced scenery. Robb needs to cross the Freys’ heavily protected bridge over the Green Fork river, but needs Lord Walder Frey’s permission (the way the bridge is designed, his army couldn’t cross without taking heavy casualties from the Freys). The Freys are like a bunch of scuzzy hillbillies who built themselves a really impressive and important bridge 600 years ago so now everybody has to put up with them. By shooting down their ravens, Robb’s team is trying to keep the Freys from alerting the Lannisters.

Catelyn meets lecherous old Lord Frey, who strokes the butt of an uncomfortable 15-year-old girl he calls his “little flower.”

“And her honey’s all mine,” Frey leers, and that line just keeps making me shudder.

Frey agrees to let Robb’s army cross, and even throws in some soldiers. But he charges the Starks the highest bridge toll ever: Arya has to marry Frey’s son (“She won’t be happy about that,” Robb says, a huge understatement). And when the fighting is finished, Robb has to marry one of Frey’s daughters.

Westeros may have dragons and years-long summers, but we realize this land isn’t different from our world when the first thing out of Robb’s mouth during this life-and-death negotiation is: “Did you get a look at his daughters?”

“One was…” Catelyn starts, then trails off. Robb looks devastated: If even my mom doesn’t think she’s hot…

Robb reluctantly agrees. Frey’s demands are actually reasonable: The cost isn’t about crossing the bridge, but risking the wrath of the king and the Lannisters by helping “the rebels.” Lord Frey is placing a long odds bet the Starks will deliver an upset victory, and Frey has no reason to do that unless the payoff is worth it.

Castle Black: The Lord Commander gives Jon Snow a sword of fancy-fance Valyrian steel, and we learn that this commander is the father of Dany’s knight companion, Ser Jorah (random, but OK). The Commander also sent the jackass cannibal guy who’s always teasing Jon about being a bastard to Kings Landing on an errand.

Suddenly Jon is, for once, having a great day. He’s Mr. Popularity, got a bitchin’ new sword and his enemy is gone. But now here’s a raven to wreck his mood: Jon learns Robb is heading to war, but he can’t help because he’s sworn to guard the damn Wall. The old blind maester says the Night’s Watch are not allowed to take wives or father children because “love is the death of duty” and that Jon — just like his father — must choose between honor and family.

Also, it’s apparently Reveal Your Secret Relative Day at Castle Black because we find out the old guy is actually Aemon Targaryen, son of a former king.

NEXT: Horse lord unhorsed; Dany goes into labor

Across the Narrow Sea: Drogo’s wound from last week is infected. He’s feverish and delirious and falls out of his saddle. To the Dothraki, this is a big deal.

“A Khal who cannot ride is no Khal,” says one Drogo’s lieutenants, and that creepy village healer that Dany rescued last week says Drogo is dying.

Ser Jorah urges Dany to run away — for her sake, and for her unborn son. He says the other men will kill her child if Drogo dies. It seems being the Khaleesi is all foot baths and shopping until your husband catches a sniffle.

The healer offers to use black magic to save Drogo, but with a steep price — “a life for a life,” though she doesn’t specify which life will be taken, and doesn’t that seem like something you’d want to ask a follow-up question about? Drogo’s lieutenants resist the idea, but Dany uses every ounce of her rapidly waning authority to push them into allowing sorcerous surgery.

The witch makes a request: She wants to be left alone in the tent with Dany’s husband and a horse … um, okay. Who knows what kind of freaky s–t is about to go down in there, but anything that saves Drogo is fine with Dany.

Ser Jorah suddenly has to face off against one of Drogo’s ambitious underlings and shows there’s a damn good reason knights wear that heavy armor — it really works. During the fight, Dany gets pushed, falls and says the baby is coming. Guess it’s a pretty good deal to carry a baby to term and never once look pregnant (is Bethenny Frankel a Targaryen too?). Meanwhile, the witch is performing her ceremony in the tent that involves, it sounds like, angry lions and—

Hold it, stop. Stop.

Did all this really happen in just a few minutes? We’ve gone from impervious Drogo leading the army last week to Drogo half dead, a witch slicing open his horse, Dany in labor and Ser Jorah fighting for their lives. We’re really feeling Thrones compressing the novel’s home stretch in this episode and these events feel rushed. Not to be the Pacing Police here, but is this really the same show that gave us King Robert monologuing for 20 minutes about his first kill back in Episode 3?

Lannister Tent City: Tyrion is in another testy meeting with his father, who hopes the mountain tribes led by Shagga will give them an edge against the Starks. Tywin orders Tyrion to lead the vanguard.  

“Surely there are ways to get me killed that will be less detrimental to the war effort,” Tyrion says, and looks super pissed. His father, it seems, is the one person who can really get under his skin, partly because he’s the only person Tyrion is completely unable to manipulate.

NEXT: Westeros drinking games; Tyrion goes to war

His father notes he paid a steep cost for the mountain men, pointing out their leader, Shagga, demanded two battle axes.

“Shagga likes axes,” Tyrion says.

I immediately pause my DVR and post a message on Craigslist: Two guitarists and drummer wanted to join my new Game of Thrones tribute band Shagga Likes Axes.

In Tyrion’s tent: Bronn has secured a prostitute for his boss. We meet Shae, who’s fetching and quick-witted enough to keep pace with Tyrion. They play the always popular “Who can hold a lit candle the longest” game, which Tyrion loses.

“No fire games! No knife games!” Tyrion says, wanting to play a new game with Bronn and Shae. While the trio debate what to do next, for a moment I’m terrified this scene is going to turn into a threesome.

Thankfully, instead of slipping into an ice-breaking round of Spin the Goblet or Seven Minutes in Highgarden, they opt for a variation on “I Never.” Tyrion quickly learns Bronn is the abused brute you might expect, but Tyrion is completely unable to pin down Shae after she denies her story follows any prostitute cliches.

Next we come to some exposition that I’ve been really looking forward to seeing Peter Dinklage deliver — Tyrion’s tragic first love. In sum: When they were young, Tyrion and Jaime rescued a girl in distress. She fell in love with Tyrion and they got secretly married. Then his father found out and made Jaime confess the truth: She was actually a prostitute, their chance meeting was actually arranged by Jaime, who was trying to do something nice for his unloved little brother. His father ordered the poor girl to be raped by his guards while Tyrion watched. While many scenes in HBO’s version have played stronger than in the book (including the big event that’s coming in a moment), this party game exchange was disappointing compared to the powerful campfire tale Tyrion told Bronn in the novel.

The next morning, Tyrion discovers the Robb’s army has apparently arrived.

Tyrion walks out in his armor and almost immediately gets trampled. He starts the charge and gets smacked in the head with a mallet. Later, we see a shot of Tyrion floating over the ground as he hangs off the back of a cart (a nice lift from Gladiator). We learn Stark only sent 2,000 men to fight Tywin. The other 18,000 went to sneak attack Jaime’s army.

This episode not only felt more compressed, but we saw the limitations of a TV budget. Thrones has looked remarkably cinematic throughout its run, which is amazing given how ambitious this story is. But it’s one thing to use CGI to show a big ice wall or a field of tents, it’s another to try and show a massive number of realistically rendered soldiers fighting a battle. So both fights occurred off screen.

Wish we could have seen Jaime being captured, though. Aided by his ruse, Robb won his battle against the kingslayer’s army and took Jaime as a prize.

NEXT: Arya finds her father

Jaime offers to duel: “Choose your weapon and let’s end this here and now.”

Robb is smart enough not to risk the kingdom on a fight with the best swordsman in the realm. Plus, he knows that either outcome would result in the Lannisters executing his father.

“If we do it your way, kingslayer, you’d win,” Robb says. “We’re not doing it your way.”

King’s Landing: The time has come. Even knowing what’s going to happen here, I found myself twisted in knots watching this. This sequence was staged perfectly. It kept giving the viewers ways of thinking that things might go differently for Ned Stark.

We start with Arya on the streets. Chasing cats has made her quick enough to snag a pigeon. She’s trying to trade a pigeon for bread. That swap doesn’t work in Westeros any better than it would here.

One purpose of this beat is to put us into Arya’s perspective. We haven’t seen Ned since the opening scene of this episode, we’re not even thinking about him. We have no expectation something devastating is about to occur. There has been no ramp up, no obligatory shot of Ned being taken from his cell. We know the episode is almost over and it seems the ending might be something about Arya. Heck, if we’re worried about anybody’s fate its not Ned at all — it’s Drogo or Tyrion, both of which the writers spent more time laying groundwork in this hour for something potentially fatal to happen. All of this serves to make the ending more shocking.

So when Ayra is told the Hand of the King is being taken to the Great Sept of Baelor, we don’t know what that means. She comes around the corner to find a large crowd gathered in front of the city’s largest center of religious worship. We don’t know what is happening any more than Arya does. She climbs up the statue of Baelor the Blessed under a gorgeous sky for a better view just as the crowd starts to roar as her father makes his entrance.

Ned, brought out in chains, sees Arya. Director Alan Taylor (Sopranos, Rome) does an awesome slow zoom over the crowd to her stunned, uncomprehending face while clinging to the statue. Just wow wow wow. Some readers complained about the media overusing the word “epic” to describe Thrones. The show earns it, and this episode (despite a couple minor gripes) earns it fully.

Does seeing Arya change Ned’s mind about confessing? Or was he planning to do it anyway for Sansa’s sake?

Ned sees a friend in the crowd — Yoren, a member of the Night’s Watch who a few episodes back warned Ned that Cateyln had captured Tyrion (I didn’t recognize him either, had to look him up). Ned says one word to him — “Baelor” — the episode’s title and the statue Arya is perched on.

NEXT: Ned Stark makes a speech; Joffrey’s verdict

Ned takes the platform alongside Cersei, Joffrey and his advisors. He looks to Sansa, who nods at him, encouraging. And Ned confesses. He confesses to all of it — plotting to murder Joffrey and wanting to seize the throne for himself. All lies.

“Joffrey Baratheon is the one true heir to the Iron Throne,” Ned says, and Joffrey looks like he just opened a present.

We don’t think Ned is going to die here. For all we know, the Lannisters have learned Robb has captured Jaime, which makes Ned’s life very valuable as a bargaining chip. They haven’t, though. But even not knowing about Jaime, things are supposed to go differently for Ned. Grand Maester Pycell gives a speech that introduces the theme of mercy and he hands things to Joffrey.

“My mother wishes me to let Lord Eddard join the Nights Watch, stripped of all lands and titles and serve the realm in permanent exile,” Joffrey says. “And my Lady Sansa has begged mercy for her father.”

And Sansa smiles at him … for the last time, one expects.

“But they have the soft hearts of women,” Joffrey says. “So long as I am your king, treason shall never go unpunished.”

Joffrey’s face twists into a victorious sneer. “Ser llyn, bring me his head!

What happens next occurs with horrific and sickening momentum. The crowd roars its approval. The queen hisses frantically at her son. Sansa screams at the queen to stop him. Even Varys, who claimed he’s no hero, rushes over to try and intervene.

But Joffrey is the king. He gave a direct order before a large crowd and there is no stopping this.

Arya jumps down, hand on her sword and rushes toward the platform on a hopeless mission to save her father. She’s grabbed and restrained by Yoren, who holds her tight. “Don’t look!”

The Royal Executioner, Ser llyn, puts on a hood, pulls out an obscenely massive broadsword (it’s actually Ned’s own executioner’s sword from the first episode, Ice, which was confiscated). Sansa struggles against the kingsguard holding her. Cersei stands frozen, head bowed, not wanting to watch — she’s selfish and evil, sure, but did not want this. Joffrey, though …

Joffrey, the little s–t, is having a great time, feeling like a rock star, he’s giving the crowd what they want. We hate him.

Ned did something he never thought he would do — he sold his honor. He did it for the love of his family. And now he realizes it didn’t buy him anything. Screwed over, once again, and for the last time. He looks to the statue of Baelor and Arya is no longer there — the smallest of consolations.

His lips are moving in some sort of prayer as we see the blade come down.

NEXT: Why Ned had to die; The real star of Thrones; How this changes things

In a way, the big twist here isn’t that Ned Stark dies, but who the true protagonists of Game of Thrones are. During the first few episodes, we’re tricked into thinking noble Ned Stark is our hero, he’s got all these kids to teach and protect, and Robert is his buddy king, and they are the central decision makers. That’s not the focus. With a couple of major exceptions like Tyrion, the kids are the real stars of Thrones, not the adults. This story is about Arya and Robb and Sansa and Jon and Joffrey — the new generation of Westeros leadership, and how they both fight and, sometimes partner with, a supporting cast of adult players in a struggle for survival and power. Same story across the Narrow Sea, where we’ve seen Dany rise from being submissive girl in the shadow of her older brother to becoming a strong queen.

Ned Stark doesn’t die in vain. He dies for the same reason Obi Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore and Gandalf had to die (OK, so Gandalf didn’t die, but LOTR would have been a stronger story if he stayed dead after falling in the Mines of Moria, if you really think about it): It takes the Stark kids — who are all too young to face these responsibilities — and thrusts them into a struggle where they’re forced to quickly grow as characters. Martin busts many cliches in his writing, but this move is traditional Heroes Journey stuff if you consider the kids to be the true protagonists of this story — only by sacrificing the fatherly mentor figure can our heroes come into their own.

Let’s run them down: Inexperienced Robb has to lead an army against the Lannisters, Sansa has has to lose her naivety fast and match wits with master of manipulation Cersei to survive in King’s Landing, Arya is suddenly on her own and wanted for capture, Joffrey — he’s a villain sure, but he has challenges too — now he has to lead a kingdom, Dany has to help Drogo raise an invasion army. And Jon has to wrestle with duty vs. family, along with a growing mysterious threat from the northern wasteland.

Will killing Ned Stark alienate viewers?

As we discuss in our producers interview (link below), this is probably the first time a U.S. drama series has ever killed off its main character in the first season as part of its master creative plan. Yes, sure, if the actor is terrible or quits or dies-for-real, a character can get removed early. Otherwise it’s just … not done. You don’t cast a star, put him on bus stops and magazine ads marketing the show, get viewers all invested in his story, and then dump him nine episodes later just because it arguably makes the story a bit more interesting.

As the producers point out, the move lays down a dramatic precedent for the show: Nobody is safe. Other shows have tried to make that claim, but we always knew in the back of our minds that Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Jack Shepard were coming back next week.

NEXT: A reader favorite returns

But here’s the thing: Rules are rules for a reason. Though the Thrones ensemble of characters and actors is fantastic, many doubtless first tuned into this show because of Sean Bean. Book readers love a great story, well told. TV is much more intensely about characters. Viewers get heavily invested in characters and the actors who play them, and eliminating a major character is always risky. Will this move backfire next season? I think there will be some viewer turnover. Thrones will lose some Sean Bean/Ned Stark fans, but will gain others, hopefully more, who are excited by a show that makes moves like this. HBO would be wise to release the DVDs before the next holiday season instead of waiting for the eve of the second season like usual and give this series a chance to grow an off-network audience. Thrones is not for everybody, but those who do love it, really-really love it.

And now there’s burning questions for next week’s season finale: Will the witch save Drogo? Will Dany have her baby? How will the Stark family react to the news of their father’s death? What will Robb do with Jaime? What happens to Arya and, oh yeah, Sansa? Will Shagga Likes Axes get a record deal?

Non-book fans now know the biggest reason for my “no spoilers!” plea for the comment board at the end of each recap. Frankly, I’m astounded that only a couple times amid thousands of comments on these recaps did anybody try to spoil this huge twist and I thank you for that. Yet there’s still more surprises to come in the finale next week so let’s continue keeping spoilers under wraps. After all, there’s plenty to talk about without them. Non-book fans, what did you think of tonight’s twist? And for fans of the novel, did Episode 9 live up to your expectations?

Further reading: The producers of Thrones have some insightful thoughts about Ned Stark’s death in the Inside TV blog here. Sean Bean gives a brief interview on the same subject here. HBO defends the episode here.

(“And her honey’s all mine…” — arrrrg! Make it stop!).

P.S. In light of tonight’s events, this therapeutic gif deserves an encore, yes?

HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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