Game of Thrones: “Baelor”
Posted by therebelprince on March 12, 2012
As the first season heads toward its climax, Game of Thrones powers through a breathtaking instalment.
“Stark, Tully, Lannister, Baratheon… Give me one good reason why I should waste a thought on any of you.”
– Walder Frey
Season one of Game of Thrones has already been a collection of scattered plots, and – for budgetary and narrative reasons – focused primarily on the moments before and after battles, instead of the fighting itself. Season two is assumedly going to accelerate that war, but if anyone has concerns about how it’ll be handled, I think Baelor should allay those. We spend equal amounts of time this week in both the Lannister and Stark camps, as they battle one another on different fronts.
At The Twins – stronghold of the Frey family – Catelyn and Robb continue their move to being one of the most awesome pairings in Westeros. Cat heads inside the Twins (which are added to the opening credits this week) to negotiate with starchy patriarch Walder Frey (David Bradley). Bradley and Michelle Fairley are perfectly matched here. Frey is the kind of man who has his life and his power (what with owning the land which is crucial for anyone making a large crossing between North and South); why should he care about petty disputes for the Iron Throne? Cat has a small amount of family leverage over him, meaning that we get to see the Catelyn Tully who was raised as part of a great family of Westeros, but Walder is still the one calling the shots. She is ultimately forced to return to Robb and explain that both he and Arya will be marrying Freys if they survive the war. Of course, most of the existing couples on the show were put together by negotiation and not love, but we’ve come to know the Stark kids enough that it’s a powerful moment for Robb. As Catelyn is gradually realising, he’s had to grow overnight from a teenager to a man. Now, Robb himself has to accept that he’s given up all hope of a regular life in favour of becoming a leader. Fairley does a sterling job of portraying Cat’s heartbreak as she realises her children aren’t going to have the peaceful existence she’d hoped for. As Robb, Richard Madden is kind of gorgeous, and – more to the point – a very strong performer. Robb is coming to the realisation that all these men, women, children dying are dying because of him; he’s commanding and earnest, yet still a kid in some ways. Most fans I know are going weak at the knees for Jon Snow, but I’d take Madden over Harington (as both a looker and an actor) any day.
At the same time, it’s odd how we get two battles at once (Robb deliberately splits his men into two, to ambush the Lannisters). The episode deliberately aligns us with the Lannisters in the lead-up to the battle, so we’re as surprised as they are about Robb’s strategies, but I’m not sure it’s entirely clear to the viewer. Either way, for an episode that – aside from the opening and closing sequences – is not set in King’s Landing, things feel very cohesive.
Over in the Lannister contingent, we meet our last major player of the season in Tyrion’s new prostitute pal Shae (Sibel Kekilli). The trio of Shae, Bronn, and Tyrion have such great chemistry, and all three of the actors are at their best in this episode. Peter Dinklage is by turns earthy and forlorn, strategising and broken. Shae is so far from what I expected from the books: I assumed she’d be more like Deadwood‘s Trixie, both in style and speech. She’s also much prettier than I thought, but I’m not one to complain. Kekilli is very grounded as the character, and the writing indicates that she’ll be an intellectual equal to Tyrion in future episodes. It’s another story I’ll have to refrain from commenting on until season two, but there ya go.
A friend of mine just completed season one without reading the books. He commented that it was still easy for him to tell which scenes had been added by the series’ writers. I’m sure he wasn’t wrong, but I was very happy for the drinking games sequence. It’s such an honest, down-to-earth moment, particularly given most of our characters are prone to haughty speeches and actions. Just to see three characters from different backgrounds having a quiet, drunken night, was perfectly done. Shae hints at an interesting background I’m sure we’ll explore, which – as I’ve said before – is one of the joys of this adaptation. Whereas the book gives us a select handful of points-of-view (meaning all other characters can only ever be vaguely defined), Game of Thrones is undoubtedly going to add more texture to characters like Shae and Tywin Lannister next year. And we get our first mention of Tysha, Tyrion’s former wife, who turned out to be a prostitute, and thus separated Tyrion from his father (and, to an extent, Jaime) forever. It’s a vastly important moment for Tyrion’s psyche, and I’d entirely forgotten it was revealed this season. He doesn’t get much to do next week, so let’s all just praise Dinklage and the character of Tyrion once again. By the time he has risen up to leader of an army of crazed mountain rednecks chanting “half man! Half man!”, we know we’re in for something special.
Perhaps the reason things feel more cohesive is because we’re down to the climaxes of just a few stories now. It’s not exactly original, but the Dothraki storyline looks stunning this week, as a badly injured and infected Khal Drogo collapses in front of his doubtful followers. Jorah Mormont brings up the fact that Dany will be worth nothing if Drogo dies; this isn’t the Seven Kingdoms, where blood means something. It’s a simple yet surprising fact for Dany, but she’s determined to stand by the father of her unborn son (and the only chance she currently has to invade the Kingdoms). It’s worth pointing out what a simple force the Dothraki are though. Strong in battle, sure, but they’re a much more barbaric force. Qotho is already rearing to take over. In some ways, I think Drogo’s death is for the best. If he hadn’t died, Dany would merely have been the leader of a tribe of horse-lords. Losing him, she becomes the mother of dragons, and a determined heir presumptive.
So, Dany turns to the witch Mirri Maaz Dur whom she saved from rape and abuse last week. The entire sequence is a hair’s breath away from exploding in campiness, with Dany given an artful splatter of horse’s blood, sudden sword-fights and people going into labour, and chants from lost tribal cultures. Along with Jon Snow’s storyline, Dany’s is the closest to the typical fantasy genre, but it’s buoyed by fantastic characters and a real sense of the discovery of other cultures. Iain Glen et al are suitably underplaying the sequences, so I think they work. This sequence is hugely important because it’s Dany’s last moment: she can flee to Asshai and abandon her destiny, or she can take control. The swordfight between Qotho and Jorah is brilliantly choreographed and directed, although the scene feels a bit odd since Dany goes into labour, even though Emilia Clarke has never for one second looked like she’s pregnant. (And, again, the whole timeline thing confuses me… the earliest she could have got pregnant was the end of the pilot, so this season has taken a long time! Most storylines, such as the Wall and the battles, support this notion, but it just hasn’t been well telegraphed.)
Sansa’s Judas moment back in The Kingsroad was a necessary character contrivance that was always going to be tough to pull off. In a remarkably contrivance-free season, the weirdest offender is probably Jorah’s decision to take Dany into the tent, just because Mirri Maz Duur is there. I mean, I get that he wants her to have the best doctors, but – some serious shit is going on inside that tent, man! I don’t imagine the Dothraki are short on people who know how to help a birth happen by the side of the road.
Moving on, and back at the Wall, Jon gets given a sword by Mormont. Well, that’s nice. Look, perhaps I’m being too harsh on the Wallies’ storyline, but it just feel so superficial. Like Sansa, we didn’t get to spend so much time with Jon, but every one of Sansa’s scenes gave us either character or plot development, both personally, and in light of others. I feel as if we’ve just been fed the headlines of Jon’s storyline: “Bastard! A Wall! Fat kid! Mean teacher! Zombie! Respect!” and been asked to put the pieces together ourselves. I understand Jon Snow, I really do. Rast and Ser Alliser Thorne have their reasons for being angry and harsh, and I understand Jon – a child of relative privilege who has effectively “chosen” the Wall, unlike some who hate having their lives consigned to this frozen wasteland – is not gonna be a popular choice. And I’m still optimistic that this will all pay off in future seasons. But for now, Jon’s scenes are too little, too late. When he whines that he should be there with Robb on the battlefield, it doesn’t convey the complexity of his feelings at all.
What does work is Peter Vaughan as Maester Aemon, who gets this episode’s speech-of-the-week as he reveals that he is one of the Targaryens, forced to choose his oath over the destruction of everyone he ever loved. Does Aemon know about his sole remaining relative across the Narrow Sea? If so, he gives no indication. Either way, this ties into Jon’s latest moral decision: to stay, or to go? He’s right that Ned is one in ten thousand: the men who would do what was right. Can Jon be the first truly honourable man since Ned Stark? (Okay, sure, Robb is perhaps the only other fully honourable character at this point, but he’s become a Commander, so we know he’s going to face some serious moral dilemmas sooner or later.)
The emotional core of the episode is contained in just two sequences: the fate of poor, honourable Ned Stark. It’s nice how Sean Bean doesn’t get some kind of ridiculous star exit. Instead, his penultimate scene is really owned by Varys, who convinces Ned to do the right thing for the sake of his children and family. (And, if you’ve never seen Conleth Hill in anything else, do: it’ll show you just how damn brilliant he is as the eunuch.)
Arya, meanwhile, is reduced to killing pigeons in the streets, and begging for food. (I hope Maisie Williams never grows up, because she’s so affecting as this tiny girl.) The final minutes of Baelor are incredibly affecting, as Arya follows the bloodthirsty crowd to the Sept of Baelor, where Ned is led out to admit his crimes in front of the populace. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like for a newbie to watch this, and whether they expected Ned to be saved at the last minute. It’s heartbreaking to watch Ned forced to disgrace himself and his family by lying about Joffrey’s parentage. Alongside Sansa’s deposition last week, this is the closest we get to a point-of-view shot all season. Many of our familiar characters – Cersei, Littlefinger, Pycelle – appear only as background characters in Ned’s grand finale. Jack Gleeson, meanwhile, is just excellent as Joffrey, really bringing that Mark Anthony level to his performance, showing such regal caring right before he shocks everyone – including, it seems, his mother – by ordering Ned’s head to be cut off. It’s a visceral shock, and the direction of the episode manages to convey this rather beautifully. I don’t know we needed the contrived moment of Ned telling Yoren about Arya, but it gave him a bit of agency in his final scene, so I guess that’s okay. More to the point, it leads to the episode’s powerful final seconds, as Arya is forced to avert her eyes from her father’s beheading, instead seeing an uncaring sky filled with fluttering birds.
Baelor in many ways feels like a fitting finale to season one, full of shocks and repercussions that won’t be equalled in the real finale, Fire and Blood. It’s one of the strongest episodes from the show’s first season, and we can only hope that the multitude of staggering moments in the following books will be treated with equal care.
* Is Grey Wind not with Robb throughout the entire battle sequence? I’m usually supportive of limited wolf time, but this seems odd.
* Alfie Allen barely has a single word in Baelor, but he does some great dialogue-free work as Theon. It’s further proof that all those episodes he spent boring us with exposition were nonsense.
* It struck me during the big Dany sequence that they’ve let the dragon eggs recede into the background, even more than the book did. I really appreciate that, because they were too much of a focus for the first few weeks, really taking away from the power of next week’s climax.
* And we learn that Commander Mormont, of the Wall, is Jorah Mormont’s dad. I wonder if he and Maester Aemon ever get together and chat about their respective relatives, having a crazy time over there outside Vaes Dothrak?
Next week: Tyrion gets promoted, Arya gets a sex change, and Dany becomes a mother. Well, sort of.