State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Direwolves of the Twins: Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark
The Lions, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister,
Dragons of the Dothraki Sea: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of the Dothraki Sea: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Kraken of the Twins: Theon Greyjoy
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
The episode is in eleven parts. The first runs four minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The first shot is a very slow fade in on Ned Stark’s face in the darkness.
The second runs five minutes and is set at the Twins. The transition is by image, from the flickering torchlit frame of Ned Stark’s cell to a window, and by family, from Ned to Robb and Catelyn.
The third runs four minutes and is set on the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Walder Frey to the elevator crank at Castle Black.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set at the Twins. The transition is by family and dialogue, from Jon Snow talking about his brother to Robb.
The fifth runs four minutes and is set on the Wall. The transition is by family, from Robb Stark to Jon Snow.
The sixth runs two minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by family and dialogue, from Jon Snow and Maester Aemon talking about his family to Daenerys Targaryen.
The seventh runs four minutes and is set in the Lannister camp. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys leaning over Khal Drogo to an establishing shot of the camp.
The eighth runs eight minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by image, from Tyrion’s tent in the Lannister camp to an establishing shot of the Dothraki camp. It features the death of Qotho, who has his throat slit in combat by Jorah.
The ninth runs eleven minutes and is set in the Lannister camp. The transition is by image, from the door to Khal Drogo’s tent to the interior of Tyrion’s.
The tenth runs three minutes and is set in the Stark camp. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Tywin talking about Robb and his men to Robb and his men, and by family, from Tyrion and Tywin to Jaime.
The last runs five minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family and dialogue, from Robb talking about how they have not yet freed his sisters or his father to Arya and her father’s judgment. The scene features the death of Lord Eddard Stark, decapitated by Ser Illyn Payne on the orders of Joffrey Baratheon. The final shot is of Arya as she realizes her father has gone to Mornington Crescent.
In more ways than one, this is what the entire first season has been building towards. Nevertheless, there is one way that is clearly more significant than any other, which is the death of Ned Stark. It is both the books and television series’ claims to fame – a legendarily shocking twist. And deservedly so. While there may be no end of debate over the top slot, there is surely no credible list of the ten best deaths in television history that doesn’t include Ned Stark’s execution.
While an elaborate general theory of television deaths is outside the scope of this treatise, a succinct one is possible: the best ones are at once shocking and bracingly inevitable, and are less ends than game changers. And Ned Stark’s embodies this. Its balance of shock and inevitability is precise. The show has been laying the groundwork for it methodically since “Winter is Coming,” first teaching the audience how to go about watching Game of Thrones, then slowly evolving a theory of how the layout of the board can change dramatically and rapidly, first with Tyrion’s framing of “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” then with “The Wolf and the Lion”’s peculiar blend of a tight focus on the conspiracy thriller and a weird mid-episode turning point in which characters who aren’t even in the episode suddenly reshape everything via the presence of a minor character and a giant skull, then in the demonstration that this is the sort of show where character death is a routine plot twist, then in Tywin’s introduction and Ned Stark’s tragedy-in-miniature, and finally in a pair of episodes that simply demonstrate what gameplay without Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell looks like by dint of barely having him be in them.
And yet for all of this, it is such an unusual move. Everything about the underlying narrative tropes suggests that Ned Stark the sort of noble patriarchal figure whose virtues underlie the basic ethics of heroic fantasy. It is not that such characters are unkillable, but rather that their deaths tend to be beginnings (as a means of passing an inheritance to a young figure for a coming of age story, as with Jon Snow and Rhaegar Targaryen) or endings (as a story of the last great victory of a dying king). To have such a character’s death come in the blobby middle of a narrative, well after the rhythm of events has been established and well before any point of resolution, as an event that is more interesting for how it affects all of the other characters in the story than as something that happens to the nominal protagonist is structurally unexpected, but nevertheless compelling. It is the sort of move that we watch such games in the hopes of seeing – the sort of thing that one plays games in the hopes of getting to do. It is the wonder goal, the daring sacrifice, the dazzling use of Huguenot’s Gambit to move to Old Kent Road en route to Mornington Crescent. It is what makes life worth living.
Its dramatic satisfaction comes in no small part from the fact that it is a successful payoff to an episode that is unrelenting in its succession of climaxes. Remember, Ned Stark is actually not in the show very much after “You Win or You Die.” So this is an episode where the most important thing only takes up nine minutes of its nearly hour runtime. It sets up the episode and provides the emphatic exclamation point at its end, but the bulk of the episode is other things. Indeed, even when Ned Stark is on screen he is put at something of a remove in the final scene, which ultimately tells the story of his death in terms of Arya (who is the viewpoint character for the equivalent chapter in the books, meaning that the detail of Ned seeing her and tipping Yoren off to her location, and of his looking up and seeing that she’s gone from the statue are original to the series).
In terms of plots for which Ned Stark is entirely absent, however, the most obvious one is Daenerys’s plot, which takes an extremely unexpected turn here, abruptly going from a story where everything that has appeared to stand in her way has abruptly cleared to one in which she is in extreme peril due to the rapid erosion of her power. The sudden and precipitous decline of Khal Drogo comes out of left field and causes an equally sudden and precipitous upping of the stakes. The show does a neat bit of smoothing of this plot as well. The books suggest that Drogo’s wound festers because he refuses to follow Mirri Maz Duur’s plan of treatment. Here, however, there is something more like suspense – a lingering sense that Daenerys might be behaving profoundly unwisely with regards to Mirri, and that she is deliberately murdering Drogo and actively working against Daenerys.
Meanwhile, the mounting war between Robb and Tywin escalates satisfyingly here. Robb’s clever trick and capture of Jaime is a satisfying moment of triumph – one that sets up a mood of triumphant climax for the North that is ultimately put in brutal contrast to events in King’s Landing. There’s a second and richer element of structure here in terms of the long game as well, in the form of the strange emphasis placed upon the Twins. Within the episode, the Twins form a minor plot point – essentially seven minutes at the start of the episode that are, in the larger structure of the episode, mostly there so that the exposition about the forthcoming Stark/Lannister battle. Given that the show has not really done military engagement before, it mostly comes across as a necessary bit of education as to how it intends to depict battles. Given that, ultimately, this one is played as a bit of a joke for Robb to score his satisfying triumph through, and to further the portrayal of Tyrion as a ridiculous but deeply endearing rogue, it would be particularly easy to overlook the significance of the scene at the Twins. Although the fact that Robb Stark is betrothed to the daughter of a clearly odious man is clearly significant, given the ways in which Robb is downplayed the weight of it is easily overlooked. And yet by putting the Twins in the opening credits, the show highlights its importance, creating an odd point of unease. Fittingly, then, the eventual resolution of the Twins plot point will occupy a structurally similar position to events of this episode within the third season.
Finally, of course, there is the Wall – a plot that moves in an oddly opposite direction from most of the rest. After opening at the Wall and putting tremendous emphasis on Jon Snow as a heroic character, the show has pointedly given him very little to do, emphasizing the point that he is very early on his heroic journey. (An interesting contrast with his adoptive brother.) The attack of the Wights that occupied the previous two episodes (following two episodes where the Wall plot was entirely omitted) is expressly a slightly less terrifying version of what was seen at the start of “Winter is Coming,” giving the story a sense of anticlimax. This is not accidental – rather it is a case of this plot, much like Bran’s plot, receding into the background after an early emphasis, just as Ned Stark has, in order to make room for plots like Daenerys’s as they move to increasing domination within the narrative.
In this regard, the revelation that Maester Aemon is a Targaryen, creating a second link between the two ends of the board to compliment the Mormonts (a point remarked upon last episode when Jon Snow was given his heroic sword). This structural feature is particularly worth keeping in mind when moving on to consider the culmination of this overall round of play.