Monday, July 18, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.9: "Baelor"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

1.9 “Baelor”
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor

Well, here it is. The episode that sent shockwaves through the part of the viewership that hadn’t already read the books and didn’t know this was coming. The turning point in the whole series that shows that Westeros is harsh and unforgiving and doesn’t play around, that George R.R. Martin is a cruel and capricious god.

It’s clear why the episode is titled “Baelor”—the execution occurs on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor, and it’s what Ned says to Yoren to alert him to Arya’s presence on the statue of Baelor so he’ll protect her, but there’s more going on beneath the surface for those who have read the books and are aware of the history of Westeros. Baelor I Targaryen, called “the Blessed,” was the most devout king of the Seven Kingdoms ever. In true Martin fashion, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. While he did pardon many prisoners, forge peace with Dorne, and build the Great Sept, he also kept his sisters cloistered, practiced book burning, and made it his mission to convert the entire nation to the Faith of the Seven—whether they wanted it or not. His death is a bit of a mystery; either he starved himself to death through his pious fasting or he was poisoned to prevent him from doing more damage to the kingdoms.

In short, Baelor put his love of the Seven and his own piety ahead of his duty to the realm, and he died for it (one way or another). The central theme of this episode is love vs. duty, as expressed by Maester Aemon, who tells Jon that “love is the death of duty.” When the choice comes to help your loved ones or do your duty, most often men will help their loved ones. In Aemon’s mind, this is a Bad Thing. He tells Jon that he stayed at the Wall and did his duty when his entire family was slaughtered during Robert’s Rebellion, which is how Jon finds out that Aemon is a Targaryen—with Viserys dead, he’s one of the last two in the world. Jon must decide whether to stay at the Wall and do his duty or run south to join Robb in his quest to free Ned from the Black Cells, and the episode gives several examples of what happens when one chooses love over duty.

Daenerys’ choice is between Drogo’s life and the trust and cohesion of the khalasar. The wound he took showing off in the fight with Mago has festered, and he’s at death’s door. He falls from his horse, which is a death-blow to his leadership, and the bloodriders, particulary Qotho, immediately begin jockeying for position. In order to save Drogo’s life, Dany calls on Mirri Maz Duur, the woman she saved from the bloodriders in the last episode, to use her magic—any magic, no matter how dark—to save Drogo. Qotho voices the concerns of the khalasar about trusting a maegi (witch), and even Rakharo, who has been a staunch Dany ally, resists the idea of using blood magic to save Drogo. Dany refuses to believe that Drogo is dying, refuses Jorah’s invitation to run before Drogo does die and the khalasar is no longer hers to command, and entrusts Drogo’s life to the hands of a woman who has suffered at the hands of the Dothraki. Needless to say, this is a Very Bad Idea. Mirri says that only death can pay for life and sacrifices Drogo’s horse, but Qotho also dies in service of this ritual (Jorah kills him to prevent him stopping it), and Dany goes into premature labor, causing Jorah to carry her into Drogo’s tent—where horrible noises have joined Mirri’s chanting—and darkness closes over the scene. While we don’t yet see the ultimate outcome of Dany’s decisions, the future does not look promising.

Robb is also beginning to see the price of duty. In order to go south, he has to cross the one bridge across the Trident, which is guarded by a cranky old lord of uncertain fealty (technically, he’s sworn to the Tullys, but he’s never been very faithful to his duty). In order to secure the right to cross the bridge between the Twins, Catelyn goes in to negotiate. She tries to remind Walder Frey (does David Bradley ever not play a completely awful character?) of his duty, but that’s not one of his motivations. His only motivation, really, is his own pride, so Cat has to agree to several conditions that will increase the status of House Frey, including betrothing two of her children, Robb and Arya, to Walder’s children (Robb at least gets to choose his bride). Robb is clearly unhappy with the terms, but knows it’s the only way to get south to rescue Ned without being harassed by Lannisters all the way.

Ned’s choice between love and duty bookends this episode. Varys brings him water again and tries to convince him that his duty to the realm demands that he give up his personal honor, confess to treason, join the Night’s Watch, and keep the peace. Ned is perfectly willing to sacrifice his life for his honor, but Varys reminds him that more lives than his are riding on this—Sansa’s is in an especially vulnerable position, as well. We don’t see Ned again until the end of the episode, leaving us to wonder what he will choose, love or duty, while the episode reminds us over and over that love is the death of duty. Yet Ned’s choice isn’t as black-and-white as everyone else’s. Love and duty appear to overlap, as saving Sansa’s life and keeping peace in the realm necessitate admitting to treason, while only his own ideas of honor (and his stubbornness) would prevent him from doing so. Earlier in the episode, Aemon asks Jon what Ned would do in this situation, and Jon says “he’d do the right thing. No matter what.” But the question is, what is the right thing?

Ned chooses to confess to treason, declare Joffrey Robert’s trueborn heir, and retire to the Wall. Technically, he’s lying, leaving the realm in the hands of one who has no true claim to the throne. However, as a few characters have pointed out this season, neither Aegon the Conqueror nor Robert Baratheon had a true claim to the throne, either; they took it by force. So which is more important, keeping peace in the realm, or maintaining a bloodline? With the promise that Sansa will be safe, Ned makes his choice, but it backfires. He doesn’t count on Joffrey being a monster who doesn’t have an ounce of honor in him. On some level, he probably expects being on sacred ground—the steps of the Sept of Baelor—to protect him, but again, Joffrey has no regard for the sacred. Joffrey hasn’t weighed the choice between his revenge on Ned and his own bloodthirstiness against keeping peace in the realm. Joffrey wants blood, and Joffrey orders Ned’s death. And once again:

So, to shamelessly steal a line from Mad Max: Fury Road, who broke the world? Was it Ned, for not being canny enough to recognize his allies and his moment and snatch the throne out from under Joffrey when he had the chance? Or for compromising his honor and lying (also on sacred ground)? Joffrey, for backing out on the deal Cersei had arranged with Ned through Varys? Littlefinger, for betraying Ned? Renly, for not staying to make sure Ned had faithful backup? All of the above? Things are never simple in Westeros, but this particular mess is as bad as the Wars of the Roses (oh, wait).

RIP: Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, Hand of the King and Protector of the Realm
Drogo’s horse

Lots and lots of Stark and Lannister soldiers

Next week: DRAGONS.

Images from


  1. Always a pleasure to read your posts, Shiloh.

    I wonder, do we make of Baelor the Blessed an analogue of Edward the Confessor? Some other royal of (flawed) religious sentiment?

  2. Oh, totally. I see lots of Edward the Confessor in Baelor, and I'm sure there were lots of other kings or lords who did similar things.

  3. You know, another question occurs--this one because of my more "normal" predilections: Is there a character in GoT who can be taken as roughly parallel to the presumed Malory (the one of Newbold Revel)? And, as a follow-up, does it change the milieu in any notable way to have the opposite case be true?