And thus passes the glory and goodness that was Ned Stark from this world.
We’ve come to the episode that readers of the book have been dreading, and the one that irrevocably yanks the carpet out from under non-readers feet. Yes, this is the kind of story that can do away with a “main” character as ruthlessly and thoughtlessly as this. I hate to tell you this, but Ned is only the first of many. There is not a single character that’s safe, and it’s safe to say George RR Martin takes a perverse delight in smearing out the good, the kind, and the noble. I still remember when I hit this point in the book and had been utterly confident Ned would take the black, reunite with Jon, and somehow be the key to Westeros’ salvation.
Unfortunately, “A Song of Ice and Fire” isn’t that kind of story. I’m not even sure what kind of story it will be when all is penned and done, but I know it’s not going to be a happy one.
But that’s the book, and we’re discussing the show, which didn’t dare to stray from this deadly and depressing chapter. There was only one tiny deviation that I could see, and that was Ned spying Arya clutching the tower, a bit of hard comfort as he faced his doom. As he sold the only thing he ever valued – his name and reputation – Ned became more human than he’s been all season, bowing his head for that great and terrible emotion: Love.
The show has emphasized the horror of love in a way I only dimly glimpsed in Martin’s series. Martin relishes making his characters suffer, and yet only now do I realize it’s usually because they’ve left their heart exposed. Catelyn rashly acted out of love for Bran. Robb marched on the south out of love for his father. Cersei and Jaime, as despicable as they are, act out of love for one another and Cersei suggests that if Robert had just loved her, all would have been well. Littlefinger, by his own admission, does everything out of love for Catelyn. Sansa sold out her family for her love of Joffrey, such as it is. Robert’s love for Ned’s sister led him to victory all those ages ago, and undid any kingly ability he may have had. Tyrion has become a bitter, broken jester because of love. And under that stolid exterior, Ned may have been the biggest romantic of all. He did everything out of love – a love for Robert, a love for his family, and a deep and abiding love in the goodness of his world.
Love is also what has led Daenerys to throw herself on the mercy of some dark and terrible magic. Khal Drogo lies dying. Instead of saving herself, she has risked her position, her safety, and her child in order to reclaim his life. Her life teeters on a knife’s edge, a far cry from the triumphant night Drogo promised to march on Westeros for her.
If it hadn’t been for Tyrion, this might have been unwatchable. He may have been run roughshod by Tysha, but he can still deliver a string of wit that’s sorely needed in an emotional and physical bloodbath like “Thrones.” Every moment we spent with him was a relief, wasn’t it?
Such character work has, thankfully, been the show’s strong suit. When it began, I was concerned that we’d get to the last gasp of episodes and not care a bit for Ned, Daenerys, Tyrion, or any of their ilk. I’m happy those fears proved unfounded, and as I watch the reactions pour across my social media, it’s clear that it succeeded whether the viewer knew the source or not.
However, the show has continued to fail in two key areas: Action and scope. I had assumed that bets and budgets were being hedged because of the two big battles that loomed at the end of the book. HBO gets lucky in the one – Tyrion suffers a wound early on and misses it – but the Battle of the Whispering Wood is an event that ripples for a good two books after this. Characters who were there never stop referring to it. The kingdom talks about it. It’s a shining moment for the Starks. It’s a bit of bitter comfort for them and the reader. Ned may have been being dragged to execution, but the Starks were chopping bits out of the Lannisters, so ha ha, sometimes the good guys do win.
And then we get to The Episode and…wow, really? We’ve skimped on the tourney, Khal’s khalsar, King’s Landing, Cersei’s dresses, Jon’s battle with a wight, and so on, so the characters could stand around and tell us what the battle was like? I understand the limitations of television, but even “The Tudors,” “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” and “Camelot” have pulled off some battle sequences. The show has been admirable in its restraint of CG extras, but now would have been the time to use them, at least in glimpses, particularly since the battle is told through non-participant eyes. (Catelyn’s) which would have helped them cheat the stunts and scope quite a bit.
This leads me genuinely concerned for further seasons, since it’s all clashing armor, burning ships, and leveled towns from here on in. (That’s not a spoiler. Robb told you!) I suppose we can only hope that ratings will boost the budget considerably, and that the creative team has become aware of their limitations, and brings in some help that will enable them to stretch every penny. William Shakespeare may have gotten away with “That was some battle!” but even he described men sword-fighting off the stage … and he wasn’t dealing with a story that sprawls the way this one does, or one that made “Hamlet” look cheerful in comparison. Audiences are going to get bored and tune out if every week brings death, but no cathartic destruction. We already know that love is doomed in this world. Can’t we at least have violence?