TV Review: Game of Thrones – S01E09 – Baelor

Show: Game of Thrones
Channel: HBO
Episode: S01E09 – Baelor
Original Air Date: 12 June 2011
Spoiler Warning: In effect for both books and series — and this episode has the big-daddy spoiler of the first book/season, so reader beware

Arya BaelorThis episode is the moment when all of us who have read the books got to watch all the newcomers discover just what kind of a story GRRM is writing. And I must confess to a somewhat sadistic thrill from it, as I watched Twitter explode last Sunday night. Anyone who hadn’t already picked up on the message knows it now: no-one, but no-one, is safe here.

The opening scene is familiar, Varys visiting Ned in the black cell, making another try. I’m still disappointed by the lack of fever dreams, but I was sort of ready for that, since we hadn’t had anything of that kind up till now. I love Varys’s performance here even more than in the last episode, because he’s all of a sudden so fierce. He’s genuinely disturbed by the spiral into violence and chaos, and he’s so earnest when he tells Ned to stop being an idiot, to serve the realm rather than letting his honour fling him into his grave. Telling Ned to save himself isn’t working, but plucking on the thread of his daughters’ safety gets him farther.

In the Riverlands, we finally meet the Late Lord Frey, who is as creepy and curmudgeonly as could be hoped. The scene definitely gives the sense of decay and corruption in his hall. All of his brood, from his grown sons to the herd of daughters to his awkward fifteen-year-old wife, are cowed and grey, thoroughly under the control of a petty tyrant. It’s hard, knowing what happens later on, not to cringe at the entire negotiation between him and Cat. Frey strikes a hard bargain, knowing he’s got Robb over a barrel – Robb and Arya are both promised in marriage to Freys. (I’ve got a suggestion for the next ruler of Westeros: build a bridge that isn’t controlled by a local lord. Seriously, whose idea was that? Just asking for trouble).

The Lannisters take the field against the Stark forces – only to discover that Robb deliberately misled them, letting them think he was taking all 20,000 of his men down one side of the river, not knowing he’d split his forces. He sacrificed 2,000 men so that 18,000 could have victory – and quite a victory he gets, capturing Jaime Lannister in the process. I feel thoroughly cheated, though, out of not seeing the Whispering Wood. Robb shows a lot of maturity and judgment, refusing to fight Jaime one-on-one to settle the dispute (because, as he notes, “If we do it your way, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way”), and then reminding his bannermen that one victory does not a won war make.

Up at the Wall, Jorah Mormont is making plans and putting a lot of faith in Jon Snow – who is once again feeling his loyalties tested. Just when he’s feeling a bit sorry for himself, Maester Aemon turns up to snark some sense into him. He starts off speaking in the abstract, telling Jon that “love is the death of duty.” But when Jon’s still being sullen and insisting that no one knows how he feels, Aemon reveals that he is, in fact, Aemon Targaryen, son and brother and uncle to kings, who had to sit and watch as his family’s dynasty fell to pieces. Sorry, Jon; for familial drama, no one out-crazies the Targs.

Across the sea, Khal Drogo’s strength fails him; the wound he incurred defending Dany’s preferences last week has festered (and kudos to the makeup team for the detail there – you can really see the streaking red lines which indicate certain death, the point of no return). Desperate to save him, Dany turns to blood magic wielded by Mirri Maaz Duur, one of the slaves Dany redeemed in the last episode. No one’s happy about this – not Jorah, who wants to get Dany the heck out of dodge as fast as possible, not Irri and Doreah, who are frightened to bits, not Rakharo, even though he defends Dany and stays admirably loyal to her, not the other Dothraki, who consider blood magic cursed and evil. One of Drogo’s bloodriders challenges her, Jorah defends, and we see an interesting reversal of the Bronn-Vardis fight. This time, armor defeats speed; the curved Dothraki sword isn’t a match for plate and chain mail. Unfortunately, Dany starts going into labour, none of the Dothraki women will tend her, and Jorah carries her into the tent, hoping for the maegi’s help.

I was actually a little let-down by this episode, not going to lie. Overall, I wanted more action. I know that battles are expensive, but it would’ve been nice to see something, and, sorry, I don’t feel like Tyrion, Shae, and Bronn playing Never-Have-I-Ever made up for it (and I’m not quite sure about foreign, savvy Shae, for another thing). I’m also annoyed they took Tyrion out of the battle, because that’s such a proving moment for him in the books. It’s one of the few changes so far that’s really rubbed me the wrong way. And dammit, I wanted to see Grey Wind eat some Lannisters. I also didn’t think the Mirri Maaz Duur stuff was as creepy as it could’ve been – the business in the tent isn’t nearly as scary in daylight, without the dancing shadows — and Jorah was just an idiot. “Hi, I’ve just killed a guy to keep him from going in there, but I think maybe I’ll just stroll on in with the princess.” Poor judgment, there. Something about this whole episode just didn’t ring right for me. Except for Varys and Aemon, who were magnificent, and Arya and Sansa’s reactions during Ned’s execution.

I also had trouble finding a theme for this episode, which I don’t think would have bothered me if I was viewing more casually, but since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been really impressed by how cohesive each episode’s been, to some central idea. This episode lacked that a bit, and I found that I missed it.

There’s no way to deny the power of the last scene, though – even though I was too busy not feeling sorry for Ned to appreciate it as much as I should have the first time around. I really do feel less pity for him each time around, book or show, because of how much he brings it all down on himself. But it’s beautifully shot. First we follow Arya, scruffier than ever, through the streets as the bells peal in the background. She climbs atop a statue of Baelor the Blessed to watch as her father is dragged through a jeering mob – though you get the sense they’re not quite sure why they’re jeering, they just feel as though it’s expected for the afternoon’s entertainment. Ned looks to Sansa before he confesses, confirming for everyone that, yes, it’s concern for her that’s made him do something detestable to him. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, because Cersei’s created a monster – Joffrey, with a smarmy, self-satisfied smile, exercises his newfound power and decides to have Ned executed rather than sent to the Wall. Sansa, Arya, and Cersei all react beautifully here – Sansa in hysterics, Arya looking near-numb with shock and almost disbelieving at the angry reaction of the mob, and Cersei appearing rather alarmed at things not going according to her plan. Pycelle and Varys, too, look quite taken aback – and did anyone else notice Littlefinger smiling? You have to look real damn close, because the camera’s not focusing on him, at about 54:21, but he definitely doesn’t look as distressed as anyone else on the scene. I do enjoy the change that Ned sees her, and knows she’s there – and he looks for her right at the end. He doesn’t see her, though, as she’s no longer on the statue. Fortunately, Yoren’s got her by then – Ned told him as he passed, with the single word “Baelor”, the title of the episode.

And with that, I am primed and ready for tonight’s episode. Here’s hoping HBOGO picks up faster than it did last week – I don’t like being twenty minutes behind on the Twitter feeds. I am made of excitement, though.

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