In the end, Ned Stark looks confused. Why wouldn’t he? Everyone around him, save Joffrey and Ilyn Payne, is confused. Sansa is screaming. Cersei is desperately raving at her son. Varys dashes across the platform to plead Ned’s case. And Ned himself just looks stunned. “This can’t be happening.”
He’s right. It couldn’t be happening. Those were the rules. That’s not how stories were supposed to work. That’s not how TV stars were supposed to be treated. Season 1 of Game of Thrones was Sean Bean’s story. There he was, Boromir made older and wiser, a family man, defining a new fantasy franchise. There Ned Stark was, the center of almost every character’s storyline to some extent or another, connected even to Dany by his defense of her life.
And then one swing of the sword, one ka-thunk sound effect, one capricious changing of the mind later, that’s gone. And it’s great!
It’s one thing for Game of Thrones to break the rules of television. Every so often, a show’s going to do that. But twists and surprises, on their own, aren’t sustainably great television. In order for them to work, the entire story has to work with them. That’s what happens with the big twist in “Baelor”–it’s not just that there’s a surprise at the end, and it’s not just that it betrays audience expectations. It’s that the show works to align audience expectations with the character’s expectations. Ned’s surprise is our surprise.
The chief reason for this is that throughout “Baelor” characters are told that they’ll be rewarded if they play a role properly. Varys has said as much to Ned during his visits. He’s the Spider, not a hero. Tyrion surrounds himself with people he’s paid to play the role of his friends. (Bronn may even believe it, and during that drinking game, Shae plays the part as well. “I happen to be a great judge of character.” “This sounds like a boring game.”) Tyrion himself plays the role of the warleader for his tribesman allies, helping them succeed in battle.
Heading back to “The Pointy End” reveals a few more of those acts. Catelyn Stark works with her son Robb to portray him as an effective warleader for his men, and an impetuous boy for Tywin Lannister—which helps them win a shock battle over Lannister forces (“He does have a certain mindless courage.”). Sansa plays the part of the loyal daughter, pleading for her father’s life. And Joffrey plays the part of the magnanimous king, accepting Sansa’s pleas, looking merciful, cementing his betrothal, and wisely ending the war.
And then Joffrey breaks the role. King Joffrey, in the full bloom of his power, drops his mask and starts acting as himself. He is decisive and authentic, acting of his own power and free will. Everybody has to play their roles—except the king. The king can be himself, and if that self is cruel, capricious, foolish, and sadistic, it doesn’t matter. The king speaks, and reality bends. Watching it again, the thing that stands out to me the most is that Joffrey is still playing a role—Jack Gleeson’s condescending smugness as he looks at Sansa, making his case for harsh justice is just incredible.
The reality being bent just happens to be Eddard Stark’s neck. And he knows it. The confusion gives way to resignation, and relief, when he notices he’s saved Arya. Ned knows, as well as anyone, that there are no rules when there’s a mad king on the throne. King Joffrey announces that there are no rules in Westeros—and Game of Thrones announces that there are no rules in its story.
And even given how quickly the whole thing happens, there’s still a good chance that, somewhere in all the reactions, there’s one to match every viewer. Varys has worried pragmatism, Sansa has helpless disbelief, Cersei has sudden realization, Yoren has empathic practicality, Ned has his resignation, and Joffrey has his gleeful cruelty. In short, everything in “Baelor” exists to align audience perceptions to those of the characters of the show. It’s not just a twist for its own sake, it’s the story itself.
Rule-breaking is another theme that carries through “Baelor”, although it’s not always immediate. Jon Snow, for example, is rewarded for his rule-breaking, having broken his house arrest to save the Lord Commander. Yet his potential rebellion is the real focus of his part of the episode—his desire to join Robb leads to a firm monologue from Aemon Targaryen.
There’s also the two-seasons-in-the-making rule-breaking of Robb’s story. Almost everything in “Baelor” that involves the Freys is a direct premonition of the Red Wedding, right down to Catelyn saying “I have known Lord Walder since I was a girl. He would never harm me.” Cat, Robb, and Walder all agree to a set of rules. It’s done quite well, to be honest. Given that the Freys almost entirely disappear for a season and a half after this, their betrayal still stings, largely because the negotiation is done so simply and so well here.
Dany’s breaking of rules is one of the most important in the entire series, as she lays the foundation for her dragons’ birth by breaking the traditions and laws of the Dothraki in a desperate attempt to save her husband. In the novels, this is one of my favorite scenes; a bloody night brawl of previously aligned warriors against a backdrop of barely-hidden demonic magic previously unheard-of for the story. On the show, it’s uncomfortable (especially when Drogo’s horse is killed) but never really rises to the level of the page, probably because the only Dothraki to have been given any screen time were Drogo and Rakharo.
It’s still dramatic, but it can’t compete with the shocking events at King’s Landing. Then again, what could? When it was printed, Ned Stark’s execution sent ripples throughout the entire fantasy genre. On the screen, it was a tidal wave launched at all of television.
Notes and quotes:
- “I want you to serve the realm!” Varys makes a case for stability.
- “I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.”
- “Stark. Tully. Lannister. Baratheon. Give me one good reason why I should spare a thought for any of you.” David Bradley is so good at being Walder Frey.
- “Did you get a look at his daughters?” “Yes.” “And?” “One was….” Love that smirk from Theon.
- “We all do our duty when there’s no cost to it.”
- “What sort of accent is that?” “Foreign.”
- “I would have killed the man who did that to me.” Foreshadowing to almost match that of Catelyn and the Freys.
- “If we do it your way, Kingslayer, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way.”
- The directorial choices also help position Ned’s death as comprehensible. The scene starts with Arya swiftly and easily snapping a pigeon’s neck. It ends with the release of a bunch of birds from the Sept of Baelor, a seemingly deliberate reminder that life is fleeting.
- “Half-man! Half-man!”