'Game of Thrones' concludes with tragic loss and a surprise birth. Plus, the best and worst moments, performances and more from season one

By James Hibberd
June 20, 2011 at 03:01 AM EDT
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In Game of Thrones, mercy is a four-letter word.

Last week, Ned Stark got beheaded thanks to “the madness of mercy” in his dealings with the Lannisters. Now Dany’s “tender heart,” trying to save poor villagers, resulted in the Khaleesi losing her unborn child’s life and likely Drogo’s as well. There’s no easy messages in Sunday’s season finale of Thrones, but there sure was plenty of high drama that set the stage for a Game-changing season two.

We’re going to recap the episode, then present our first annual Game of Thrones Awards (should I call them The Thronies? The Golden Crowns?), listing my picks for the best and worst episodes, performances, fights, sex scenes and other high and low points from the first season.

We start right back in the middle of last week’s Horror. Just when you’d about settled down from Ned Stark being killed in front of his daughters, Thrones shoves you back into the scene for a closer and way more gory look — the bloody sword, the severed head, Sansa collapsing, the decapitated body. Yoren grabs Arya, slices off her hair and calling her “boy.” “You want to live boy?” he yells, full of mock anger helpfulness.

Were some of these shots gross and disturbing? Sure. But the scene serves to reignite our emotion from last week before pushing us back into the story, as we launch into how each major character is handling Ned Stark’s death:

Winterfell: Bran is telling that Wildling woman Osha (who mercifully has her hair pulled back from her face today) that he dreamt his father was down in the family crypt. They take a stroll down there despite Osha’s reluctance (given the way the dead sometimes come back to life north of The Wall, it’s not surprising she’s not eager to hang out around dead people).

In the crypts, Rickon’s direwolf (named Shaggydog) runs out and scares the hell out of them. Once again Rickon walks all creepily into a scene; I keep expecting him to start curling his finger and saying “Redrum.” Turns out Rickon shared the same premonition as Bran.

King’s Landing: Joffrey is hard at work making lives miserable, forcing a minstrel to perform a song in front of the court. Seems the singer was overheard performing a tune mocking King Robert and Cersei in a tavern, was arrested and brought before Joffrey. American Idol would be so much more interesting if these were the stakes. The minstrel promises to never-ever perform the song again, but Joffrey wants to make certain of it.

“Tell me, which do you favor, your fingers or your tongue?” Joffrey asks, all curious. The singer makes the tough choice, saying every man needs his hands. Joffrey is pleased. “Good, tongue it is! I’m done for the day.” Yes, it’s all in a day’s work for King Joffrey.

NEXT: Joffrey reunites Sansa with her dad; Cersie keeps it in the family

Joffrey orders Sansa to walk with him and tells her they’re still going to get married. So she’s got sex with the tyrant who killed her father to look forward to. Great. To woo her further, he takes her outside and forces her to look at Ned’s head on one of the fabled spikes of King’s Landing. He says he’s going to give her a present — her brother Robb’s head on a spike too.

“Or maybe he’ll give me yours,” Sansa says, and did you cheer? At my place, there was cheering.

Joffrey notes he was told not to hit his lady, but figures out a workaround by having a member of his kingsguard slap Sansa instead — see, this guy is just an effective management problem-solver all the way around. She notices he’s standing on a platform several stories above the ground, no railing, all it would take is a single push to kill him. She starts forward–

And The Hound stops her. He acts like he’s merely wiping her bloody lip — if he actually voiced his suspicion, it would condemn her — but I think he knew exactly what what Sansa was thinking here.

In another room: We see what Cersei’s been doing — and it’s another family member! So she’s also having sex with her cousin Lancel Lannister — King Robert’s former squire, the one who gave him all that wine during the boar hunt. Is this better than her being with Jaime since it’s her cousin instead of her twin brother? Or is it worse because now we know she’s been boffing at least two family members?

In the field: We find out what Robb was attacking with his sword in last week’s finale preview: A tree! Damn you, HBO. Ah well. He’s full of rage about his father’s death. He wants to “kill them all.” Catelyn corrects him: “We have to get the girls back and then we will kill them all.” Fine, as long as killing them all is part of the plan somewhere.

Later, Robb’s men declare him King of the North, announcing their independence to separate from control of Joffrey and the Iron Throne. They were already at war with the Lannisters, but now they’re really at war.

Catelyn goes to visit Jaime, who seems intent on antagonizing and taunting her — “widowhood becomes you.” He claims he isn’t afraid of death, and maybe he’s not, but he also knows that as long as Joffrey holds Sansa, the Starks won’t likely kill him. Jaime confesses to pushing Bran out the window, but refuses to sell out his sister and Joffrey by revealing Bran caught them having sex. They have this neat exchange:

Jaime: “If your gods are real, why is the world so unjust?”

Catelyn: “Because of men like you.”

Jaime: “There are no men like me.”

Camp Lannister is also upset about Ned Stark’s death, just much-much less so. Tyrion points out any hope for making peace is ruined thanks to Joffrey executing Ned, while Tywin is furious that Robb has captured Jaime (remember, he was merely annoyed when his other son, Tyrion, was captured).

NEXT: Sexposition with Grand Maester Pycell; Dany made a bad deal

Tywin reconsiders Tyrion. “I always thought you were a stunted fool, perhaps I was wrong,” he says, and appoints him to go to King’s Landing with an order: “Rule.” This is quite a promotion — from brothel and boozing black sheep to running the whole kingdom. Tyrion is to become Hand of the King and get Joffrey and Cersei in line, no easy task that, but it’s a very fun prospect for next season. Tyrion is stunned that his father would have so much trust him. “You’re my son,” Tywin says simply.

Except there’s just one caveat: Tyrion cannot take his new prostitute friend, Shae. He decides to take her anyway.

Across the Narrow Sea: Here’s one character not reacting to Ned’s death, Dany’s got her own mortal crisis to deal with. Turns out that deal she made with that healer she saved wasn’t a very good one. She finds out her baby is dead, that he was born “monstrous and twisted … full of grave worms.” She demands to see Drogo, the life she saved with her sacrifice. But he’s catatonic. At least most of the Dothraki tribe has moved on and are not about to butcher her.

Dany has a calm conversation with the witch, who explains why she betrayed her trust even though Dany rescued her: “Three of those riders had already raped me,” the witch says, “I saw my god’s house burn … [now your son] will burn no cities.”

Again, it’s tough to find the moral lesson here. “Don’t save people from being raped because they may have already been raped a few times and will hold it against you”? See, doesn’t work. Dany and Ned Stark, both hosed by mercy.

Dany lays with Drogo and tries to get a sign of life out of him, but he’s gone — the world’s greatest warrior brought down by an infected cut.  She gets the pillow and smothers him.

Castle Black: Jon’s once again conflicted about staying with the Night’s Watch or taking off to help Robb. He leaves in the night but is brought back by his Night’s Watch brothers. The Lord Commander makes a good point, asking him if Robb’s war is really more important to the realm than their war with the Wildings and White Walkers. Jon agrees and we learn they’re saddling up to take a group of Night’s Watch beyond The Wall to do battle with whatever they find — and look for Jon’s uncle Benjen too.

King’s Landing: Before we close the season, we get one last glowing example of sexposition: Grand Maester Pycell and Ros! OK, this wasn’t on anybody’s wish list, but wow, what a couple these two make. Grand Maester P rambles his glowing praise of kings great and terrible while Ros washes her lady parts. What’s clever in this scene is we see Pycell stand and stretch and show us he’s perfect capable of walking erect (and playing with Ros … there’s a joke there somewhere), but then before he exits the room he hunches himself over and walks slowly. Like Varys, it seems Pycell is also playing a role, and apparently appearing feeble and daft is helpful when living in a viper pit.

NEXT: Beauty and the breast — Dany hatches dragons!; The Golden Crown AwardsMeanwhile, Arya is thrown into a group of punks being taken to The Wall who try to bully her. She shows she can stand up for herself and threatens to kill a fat boy with Needle. She’s helped by Gendry — remember him from midseason? King Robert’s bastard that Ned found. The blacksmith kicked him out, presumably because with Robert dead, any secret payments dried up.

Across the Narrow Sea: And now, the scene many fans of the books were the most anxious about producers pulling off. Game of Thrones has teased viewers with the idea of dragons all season long. But what good is having a fantasy world where dragons used to exist but do no longer? By waiting until now, the show has earned its biggest high-fantasy element.

Dany and her remaining followers have built a funeral pyre for Drogo. She places the priceless dragon eggs next to him and has Ser Jorah tie the witch to the pyre. The witch says she won’t scream, but she does once the whole structure goes up in flames. Ignoring Ser Jorah’s pleas, she walks straight into blazing fire.

The next morning the followers wake up to the smoldering embers and we see Dany among the remains — nude, shell shocked, unharmed (her hair, you’d think, would be burnt off but … OK). She’s got blood of her dragon ancestors after all. And she’s got something green in her lap. And then … and I love how this was revealed … a small red dragon crawls over her shoulder, a very impressive bit of CGI for a TV show. Put in the intense fires of the funeral pyre, the Targaryen princess has hatched her eggs. She stands, and Ser Jorah and her followers drop to their knees in worship. Dany lost her husband, she lost her child. But dragons, as we’ve been told, are the most powerful things in this world. And now she has three of them.

And that’s it. For nearly a year. We’ll have to wait until next spring to find out what happens next (unless, of course, you pick up a copy of the books). Here’s what’s coming in the meantime: The finale ratings on Tuesday, season two castings, the team’s Comic-Con appearance next month and … the Emmy Awards? Perhaps.

But for now, let’s forget about the Emmys. Here’s my picks for the best and worst from season one:

Best Episode: I’d have to say Episode 9. Not just for the climatic Ned Stark execution, the entire hour was very strong. Runner ups: Episode six and eight were close. Worst: Episode 3 — no deaths, no sex, no wolves, just chat-chat-chat. It was also the only episode to conclude without any kind of cliffhanger.

Best actor: Peter Dinklage: The obvious fan-favorite choice, sure, and Tyrion gets all the fun lines to play with. But you can’t take your eyes off him. Some of these episodes I watched like five times to write a recap, and Dinklage takes even the most expository bits of throwaway dialog and does something interesting with them.

Runner-up: Sean Bean. Until the last couple episodes, I would have picked maybe Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger) or Mark Addy (King Robert). I thought Bean’s performance was stiff, but that’s sort of how Eddard Stark is. Once his life began to fall apart, Bean started layering in vulnerability while still maintaining his core strength and the result was fascinating to watch.

NEXT: Best actress; Best fight; Best sexposition

Best actress: Maisie Williams: And some of you thought I didn’t like Arya. In a show full of strong child actor performances, Williams was heartbreaking and pitch perfect.

Runner-up: Like Bean, Lena Headey’s performance wasn’t very flashy, but that’s also aligned with her character — Cersei always maintains a poker face. But check out her scene discussing her hate-marriage in Episode 5 with King Robert.

Best Fight: Bronn vs. Eryie Knight. We didn’t particularly care about either of these people at the time, but with Bronn standing in for Tyrion it put the life of one of our favorite characters at risk. Their fight was unconventional, suspenseful and was staged differently than any sword fight I’ve seen — plus the whole Moon Door trap gave the set a sci-fi Star Wars quality to it. Runner-up: Jaime vs. Ned.

Hottest Sex Scene: Drogo and Dany (the non-rape one). Tough to choose a sex scene from Thrones without sounding like a freak because there’s something taboo in nearly all of them. But Dany showing Drogo her newfound girl-on-top skills in Episode 2 (my favorite to recap) wins out.

Best Change From the Books: There was a lot of smart moves. In the book, Arya sees Ned getting executed from a distance and Yoren finds her on his own. The producers added a connection between them in the scene which amplifies its power tremendously. Runner-up: Drogo’s tongue-ripping fight scene. Now we understand why he’s the toughest guy in the tribe.

Most missed scene from books: Tyrion marching into battle in Episode 9. There’s two schools of thought on this subject: We didn’t see much in the books either, or that HBO needs to pony up more money. I don’t agree with the first  —  TV is a visual medium and if a viewer feels disappointed by not showing a fight then their feelings are valid whether the scene was in the books or not. But I also don’t know how anybody can describe Thrones as cheap. So I don’t fault producers for not shooting this, I’m just bummed it wasn’t there. Now, if they don’t show anything from a certain battle next season, that’s a whole other story. Runner-up: The Stark and Lannister kids sparring in the yard at Winterfell during King Robert’s visit.

Most WFT Nude Scene: Hodor! First runner-up: Lysa breastfeeding her pre-adolescent son. Second runner-up: Ros flashing her cooter on turnip cart.

Best Sexposition: I loved Viserys talking about dragons in the bathtub with the curious prostitute. The actor really brought a lot to this tale remembering his youth in Kings Landing, especially since his memories weren’t dramatic — it was all in the mood and delivery of this scene. The kicker at the end (“What am I paying you for? To make me sad?”) was one of the biggest laughs in the show. This gave sexposition a good name.

Worst Sexposition: Littlefinger’s speech about vying for Catelyn’s affection while judging Ros auditioning for Brothel Idol. It was sort of funny, but I didn’t believe this scene for a second.

NEXT: Best joke, Most gruesome death, Dumbest controversy

Best Advice: “There is only one god. His name is death. And there is only one thing we say to death: Not today” — Syrio Forel.

Worst Monologue: No surprise to regular readers, King Robert’s speech about his first kill, a dull speech in a throwaway scene.

Best Joke: “You wouldn’t know him,” Bronn, when Tyrion sets him up to recite his parentage to Tywin. (OK, you sort of had to be there).

Most Gruesome Death: Viserys getting “crowned.” I tried to reassure myself that his death was over relatively quickly, that he stopped screaming so abruptly because, I’m assuming, the molten gold flowed into his eye sockets and reached his brain. That I’m reassuring myself by thinking this makes me all the more creeped out.

Dumbest Controversy: Jon’s direwolf Ghost barks in show but not in books? Blasphemy!

Most Powerful Scene: Ned Stark’s execution. Everybody involved with the show knew this scene had to rock. Gorgeous, horrific, suspenseful. The most tense artistry for a character death since Adriana was driven out to the woods in The Sopranos.

For more, check out my interview with Game of Thrones producers talking about the finale and a bit about season two. And here’s the first photo of Dany’s dragons. Plus here’s an interview with Drogo actor Jason Momoa (his reaction to the novel’s ending: “Holy s–t! F–k I’m dead!”). Follow on Twitter here.

And, like Joffrey, I’m done here. Until James the Blogger’s next recap project (still working out which) I’m writing for Inside TV covering the latest programming news and more. Thanks for reading. I’ve had a blast covering Thrones and deeply appreciate all your feedback, support and thoughts. It is known.

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