The Longest Night — Game of Thrones: ‘Baelor (1x09)’
“I learned how to die a long time ago.”
Writer(s): David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Director: Alan Taylor
Plot/Events: Ned is brought before the people of King’s Landing to confess his “crimes” and join the Night’s Watch, but Joffrey demands his head instead; Catelyn negotiates with Walder Frey to secure safe passing into the south of Robb Stark’s army, with the battle against the Lannisters now imminent; In Essos, Khal Drogo’s condition worsens, and Daenerys takes huge risks to save him; Jon Snow learns the truth that Maester Aemon is an old Targaryen.
THREE-EYED-RAVEN’S WARNING: DO NOT READ THE FOLLOWING IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL SEVEN SEASONS OF HBO’S GAME OF THRONES. (Written with help from Michael Clark, you can follow him on Twitter at @Pixleh).
Game of Thrones arguably became Game of Thrones in the simple act of swinging of a sword — in a split second that had such profound implications on the series that it warned us off becoming too attached to our favourite characters. As Ned, pleading guilty to his ‘crimes’, declares Joffrey as the true king and accepts the offer to live out his days on The Wall, one could easily imagine him and Jon fighting the White Walkers and wildlings together as father and son. Ned is the hero, of course; Sean Bean is the star; he wouldn’t possibly be killed off. And he still has to have that conversation with Jon regarding his true parentage. Ned promised, remember?
But then, when it turns out that Joffrey has other plans, we dare to think that Arya, with Needle in hand, will successfully dart through the crowd and save her father by sticking them all with the pointy end. But then that scenario doesn’t play out either, as Ned, knowing she would be killed in the process, enlists Yoren to stop her. Ned knows he’s done for — in the moment, he is perhaps the only one who accepts the crushing inevitability of it all (ourselves included) — but his daughter doesn’t have to be.
Ned’s preventative measures, however, are futile, as his children and family are still going to be scattered and dumped in perilous positions after his death: Sansa is now a political prisoner in King’s Landing, with her brother Robb marching south to battle the king she’s betrothed to; before Yoren is entrusted with her survival, Arya is homeless, surviving only by attempting to trade dead pigeons for stale pies. Even outside of the Stark family, the children of this story are being forced into taking their first major steps in a dangerous world.
Across the Narrow Sea in Lhazar, Daenerys’ power is fading as Drogo’s health deteriorates. The Dothraki have made no secret of their disdain for her because of her gender, but she was protected by Drogo’s reputation. With him now in an infected stupor thanks to his wound, Jorah realises she is at risk as her khalasar begin to lose patience. They’ll soon abandon her, but Daenerys desperately clings on. And waiting for Robb’s army in the south of Westeros is Tyrion Lannister, who’s been dragged into the War of the Five Kings against his will, and forced onto the front lines of its first battle by his father.
‘Baelor’ teaches us, without sugar coating it, that the children of this story are completely powerless and, to be blunt, completely fucked. It’s a world run by vicious tyrants, who play their games and push their children into situations where life suddenly flashes before their eyes. The shock of Ned’s death is an appropriate warning that anybody can be taken out of this story at a moment’s notice if they investigate the secrets of these dangerous tyrants, but he was at least an adult.
As Varys succinctly states in season six, as he interrogates Vala about the Sons of the Harpy, “the children are blameless.” They’re innocent, and should be living the lives they had in the pilot: carefree, looking forward to lives of children and castles and benevolent princes. Now they’re political prisoners, homeless, and they’re soon to be orphans before they understand the world that took their innocence away. It’s perhaps more tragic to watch Robb Stark, still a boy (even if Richard Madden was significantly aged up for the role), willingly throw himself into this world under the dangerously false notions of honour and glory.
His army has arrived at the Twins, the home of House Frey, the eventual site of his murder and near destruction of his house, to win Lord Walder Frey’s favour. The Twins is a strategic position in the south, guarding the only major crossing point on Green Fork river. There’s no going over it, there’s no way round it, but Catelyn believes she can get her son’s army through it. Walder, though, has a hideously vindictive nature, and turns the negotiation into a chance to retaliate against years of perceived patronising from the Northern houses.
Robb considers the demands only briefly, before charging head on into a war, not understanding the consequences of the oaths he’s agreed to. As he waits for him further south, Tywin Lannister describes Robb to a tee: “The boy may lack experience and sense, but he does have a certain mindless provincial courage.” It’s that provincial courage which will leave him dead in front of Lord Frey in twenty episodes’ time.
Waiting in the wings of this story, and in the wings of the episode, to leap forward into the action and light the torch paper, is Joffrey Baratheon. In an episode packed to the gills with innocent children being thrown into uncertain futures, it’s the evil child of the bunch whose character best suits conflict. He doesn’t exactly have a keen military mind, and he’s a coward when confronted, but he’s bloodthirsty and ruthless. He’s been somewhat sidelined in this opening season, seen here and there, commanding his subjects on one occasion, but snivelling in another, then making plans to crush the North in one scene, but showering Sansa with trinkets and gifts in the next. It’s not that he’s hard to read — he’s a conniving little shit with a mouth that moves quicker than his mind — it’s just that his destiny has been primarily orchestrated by his mother up to this point.
But even Cersei is surprised to hear Joffrey’s command to execute Ned for treason. Her plan was to banish Ned, to put a thousand leagues between him and her dark secrets, but Joffrey wants to stamp his authority down onto Ned’s neck. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” might well have defined every aspect of Ned Stark’s existence, but the words don’t save him when he’s this far out of his comfort zone. With the events of ‘Baelor’ now concluded, Game of Thrones is fully underway, and there’s no stopping it.
— Up at Castle Black, Maester Aemon delivers one of the finest monologues of the first season, and arguably the show has a whole. (“What is honour compared to a woman’s love? And what is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms?”). During the same scene, he reveals to Jon that he’s Aemon Targaryen, and reveals the importance of dedication to the Night’s Watch. That when families are torn apart, that when all you want to do is run, staying at Castle Black becomes more important than ever. When he’s given Longclaw by Lord Commander Mormont, his relationship with the boys at Castle Black is suddenly shown to be a developing one. Now that he has a band of real brothers with him, staying in this frozen wasteland might not be so hard after all.
— Okay, fair enough, their storyline in season seven is poorly plotted (and poorly performed, to be honest, we’ll eventually get to that next year), but Arya was at least slightly justified in her unusually aggressive behaviour towards Sansa this past season. She couldn’t see Sansa’s pain and anguish as Ned was beheaded because she was trapped in a crowd by Yoren and told to look away. It’s such a minor loophole that doesn’t exactly excuse how baffling their Winterfell B-plot was, but it’s something of an explanation with continuity that stands up.
— When Robb Stark passes through The Twins, we’re shown his entire army. Boy, the show really used to care about the size of armies, didn’t it? When did it stop caring? Probably when Daenerys went to Dragonstone as opposed to Dorne at the end of season 6. It works dramatically, bringing Daenerys back to her ancestral home, and there are brief references to the size of the ports in Dragonstone, but how they managed to keep thousands of Dothraki and Unsullied on that island remains a mystery that the show will never explain.
— Shae delivers a line in this episode that’s particularly upsetting, even if she delivers it during a game she plays with Tyrion. As the candle wax drips onto their arms, Shae beats Tyrion in the game of perseverance. Tyrion asks, “Ah! Damn you, woman. Are you immune to pain?” to which she responds, “Just used to it.”