For a summation of the plot without much spoiling, head over to Susan Arendt’s recap, but if you’re a fan of the books and want more in-depth, spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in “Baelor,” read on, my friends!
In case that’s not crystal clear, there are spoilers in here for both the rest of the TV show and the book series so please, tread carefully if you don’t want to know the future events of either.
So, finally, Ned Stark gets killed. He is a man of honor, as we are told throughout the entire series by virtually every character including himself. But in the end, Ned chooses the life of his daughter, or so he thinks, by confessing to the trumped up charge that he conspired with Stannis and Renly Baratheon to take the Iron Throne from Joffrey. Stark fails so spectacularly, even at this, that it underlined something that Alex Macris said to me about A Song of Ice and Fire in the office one day in The Escapist offices. George R. R. Martin doesn’t just kill characters off at a much higher rate than other fantasy authors, he makes sure to destroy the one thing that character cares about most before ending their life forever.
In the case of Eddard Stark, he prided himself on his honor. In the political machinations of the court of King’s Landing, he was a wolf out of snow because he refused to do anything even remotely dishonorable. Through the visits of Varys the Spider to his cell beneath the Red Keep, we learn that Ned is perfectly fine with dying. His father and brother were killed by a King, and so was his sister Lyanna, so in some ways it is fitting for Ned to meet the same fate. He will die, but the Stark name will be remembered with honor still, and his children will uphold those same values.
But then Varys plants a seed in Eddard’s thirst-addled mind. “What of your daughter? Is her life worth anything to you?” Poor Ned is manipulated even here in the dungeons, for Varys makes a big show about serving the realm and wanting peace but he is conspiring with the man from Pentos to put the Targaryens back on the Iron Throne. It’s not clear what Varys’ motivation is for wanting Ned Stark to confess and to convince his son Robb to bend the knee, but at this point no one should trust anything that comes out of Varys’ mouth.
Unfortunately, Ned Stark did not learn that. When he is brought to the Sept of Baelor, he is ready to proclaim the lie of his crime so that Sansa will live and his family won’t go to war. Stark will forfeit his honor, removing the trait that has defined his life, just so his House will survive. He believes he will live, but the Ned Stark that might have survived on the Wall would have been a shell of a man.
Joffrey is right son of a bitch, though isn’t he? I don’t know where he got his views about women being soft or whatever, but he certainly chose a crappy time to assert his authority as King. The whole court erupts in a tizzy trying to stop him – including Varys, I might add, but now it’s hard to tell if he’s acting or not – but there are enough people ready to do the young King’s bidding that the execution goes forward.
Poor, poor Ned Stark. Not only will he die, but he will die without the honor that he holds most dear. Ser Ilyn Payne swings the sword, and Ned Stark is no more.
Martin rips away Stark’s duty and honor, and kills him off anyway. This scene is what sets Martin’s story apart from all the fantasy that has come before. Sure, Gandalf dies, but he comes back again. Snape kills Dumbledore, but that’s kinda what he wanted. None of these compare to the pathos behind the death of Ned Stark.
When I read the story way back in 1996, I couldn’t believe the words my eyes were seeing. Martin expertly sets up how Stark might survive the ordeal, and, being familiar with fantasy tropes, I assumed that he would make it out of the book alive. But all of that hope leaked out onto the steps of the Sept of Baelor when Ned’s head. I had to reread the scene several times before I said to myself, “Holy shit. He’s dead.”
That shock was mirrored for those watching the HBO adaptation without reading the books. My wife predictably fell asleep when we were watching the episode together, but then an hour two later she stormed into my room when I was playing Infamous 2 and said, “What the fuck? They cut off his head?” Through the wonders of DVR, she had watched the end of the episode alone.
My mother in law, who thankfully is back in her home in Florida, ordered HBO specifically so she could finish watching Game of Thrones. She called me at 10:30pm on Sunday night and echoed my wife. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she lamented.
Of course, these ladies have a bunch of predictions for the rest of the series will go. “I bet you that young girl Arya will kill the blond king with that special sword. I bet you that’s what happens.” “Tyrion is going to be killed off soon, right?” “I think Jon Snow will break his vows and be King.” “That pretty queen with the horse people, she’s going to rule, isn’t she?”
Some of those predictions are wrong, some of them might yet come true. But because George Martin has created a world where no character is safe, any of these scenarios is a possibility. And that makes watching them unfold so exciting.
(PS. How great was the scene with the Late Lord Frey? That dirty old man is exactly how I pictured him.)