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The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones' first season didn't have a lot of Eddard Stark in it, besides the opening and closing scenes, which did a great job of reminding the audience of who this man is one last time before his unexpected and pitiable death. I was quite surprised by this event when reading the book, and I imagine most people who were new to the story were as well when they saw those last couple minutes. It just seems like an obvious move to banish Ned to the Wall with his son and set up some story threads that way, and it does make sense for Cersei to keep him alive for political reasons, and you just forget that Joffrey is actually the king at this point, doesn't really understand what he's doing, and would love to see a couple heads roll in his honor. It's a gut punch to have a major character put aside his honor and duty to protect his family and then lose everything anyway, and establishes once and for all that this isn't your standard fantasy plot, and if there are any safe characters, it's hard to tell who they are.
You might even think for a minute that the show just killed off its protagonist, before you remember how many other strong characters there are with storylines that are basically completely separate from Ned's. Jon's at the wall, Tyrion is leading his tribes into battle, Daenerys is doing anything she can to save her husband's life. As the show goes on some characters will die, others will take their place, and we'll realize that Ned was just a part of the whole thing. But for right now, it's a pretty brutal way to end an episode. It's also a moment that I thought worked better on the screen than on the page, both in how the way it was shot enhanced the emotional impact of the event, and also how it was more clear what was happening to Arya, when in the book Yoren grabbing her distracted from what was going on. From the opening fade from black on Ned sitting in the darkness to the elegantly visualized death blow itself, the end of Ned's journey was brilliantly captured.
Big things were happening elsewhere, too. After a lot of maneuvering last week, the Starks and Lannisters clashed in open battle, but not quite where the latter were expecting. After letting the scout warn Tywin of his approach and sending a number of men to back it up, the bulk of Robb's forces actually hit Jaime's army, and managed to capture the Kingslayer. Robb paid a heavy price for the victory, giving up 2000 lives in the feint and having to agree to marriages for Arya and himself to get across the creepy old Lord Frey's bridge with his men in the first place. Jaime is a good prize, but Robb is aware of how much has been sacrificed for it, and how much more will still have to be sacrificed if a victory is possible. And it might all be for nothing as a kid with a crown decides to cut his dad's head off miles away. His brother Jon wants to join him in battle, but he is held back by Maester Aemon, who gives him a speech about weighing duty versus family, and admits that he is actually a Targaryen who gave up his claim to the throne, and had to sit as a blind old man at the Wall when his family was getting deposed and murdered in the rebellion. Jon has yet to make a final decision, and it's a question that ends up being interesting.
Tyrion gets perhaps his most screen time yet, as he prepares for his first real battle by drinking with Bronn and taking the foreign and enticing Shae as his concubine. There's a lot of interesting character stuff for him here, and he and Bronn bouncing off each other continues to be among the show's most entertaining wells to draw from. He also tells the sad story of his first marriage, which illustrates both partly how he became such a skeptic and how messed up his family can be sometimes. He then gives a pep talk to his men the next day before he is accidentally knocked out and misses the battle. I really liked the way the aftermath was shot, too. Obviously the show is on a budget and a real battle would have been hard, but I would have liked to have seen a little bit of it before it was over. Still, the remains of the scuffle were enough to convince me that something big had happened, and I really liked some of the shots here, especially with the field panning by upside down and Tyrion appearing to be floating along the ground before it's revealed he's riding in a cart.
Daenerys' last scene ends with almost twenty minutes left in the episode, which was a slightly unfortunate bit of editing since what's going on there is so exciting and I would have liked another look, but they did pick a good moment to cut it off. Drogo's flesh wound has gotten worse, in spite of (or because of) the healing woman's treatments. He falls off his horse, and Daenerys is desperate to get him well again, knowing that when he dies, she loses her authority over the other Dothraki. She convinces the healer to use dark magic to try to revive him, a spell that requires the sacrifice of his horse and everyone to leave the tent as some unholy, unsettling noises come from within. Jorah kills a man to protect Dany, but she falls to the ground, which causes her to go into labor. Jorah carries her into the tent, and that's all we get to see. It's a good scene, with a nice little scuffle in a remarkably action-free episode for one with a couple battles taking place, and good work on selling the horrible things the healer must be doing in that tend. Despite the zombie last week it's sort of easy to forget that this is a fantasy series, and the noises coming from inside are a great reminder. Magic exists in this world, but it's poorly understood and trusted even less, and the fact that it causes people to freak out whenever it's around is very effective at selling its potency and danger. It's not a story where wizards stand on towers flinging fireballs at each other, and the way it handles the actual "fantasy" part of it is among its greatest strengths. One episode left, and there's still a lot of stuff that needs to happen, so I'm definitely ready for Sunday to get here.