The following review is from our friends at Westeros.org. Stay tuned for our podcast review and discussion of episode 9: Baelor later on!
Directed by Alan Taylor
IMDB Synopsis (by HBO Publicity)
Ned (Sean Bean) makes a fateful decision; Robb takes a prized prisoner; Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finds her reign imperiled.
The sole episode submitted by HBO for Emmy consideration in the writing category, “Baelor” delivered the high emotion, strong themes, and great performances that mark an episode very much worth a few awards. We won’t know the result of the Emmy submissions for awhile, but we do know that the show tied two top-flights shows with 4 nominations at the Television Critics Association Awards, and doubtless there’ll be more significant award considerations to come. This episode contains one of the most iconic scenes in the whole of the series, the death of Eddard Stark before a crowd of Kingslanders, brought to this fate despite agreeing to lie for the sake of his daughter. It’s a moment that no one who’s read the novels ever forgets… and it’s one that brought tears to my eyes when I watched it.
Alan Taylor—a sure go-to director for HBO, who’s helmed episodes of Rome, Deadwood, Big Love, and The Sopranos, as well as episodes of Mad Men and Lost for other networks—brings a sure, deft hand and a cinematic eye to this episode. We’ve raved about the work all four directors on the series have done, with Daniel Minahan’s episode 6, “A Golden Crown” having been our favorite up to now, but Taylor takes the prize with this episode. Wedded to such strong material and such solid performances, clearly gets all the right beats. The final scene is an emotional tour de force, although part of that—the part that started the waterworks going for me—was the clever addition of the writers to turn the smaller, more intimate scale of the scene as compared to the novel into an opportunity for Ned Stark to directly have a role in Yoren’s getting a hold of Arya before she revealed herself. A beautiful decision, focusing on Eddard’s sacrificing himself for his family, it brought home how well-acted the series has been throughout, how believable and rich Bean’s portrayal has been.
Like Bean, Peter Dinklage has earned a great deal of praise for his performance as Tyrion Lannister, and this episode has an Emmy reel showcase for him, as he finally reveals the story of his doomed first marriage. Told with emotion bubbling under the surface, the writers have turned it from an admission to Bronn into a revelation not just for Bronn, but the new woman his life, the camp follower Shae. Dinklage’s performance is helped by her casting, and that of Bronn for that matter, because both actors are proving exceptional. For many UK fans, Jerome Flynn was something of a questionable choice due to some past career choices, but he has absolutely subsumed himself into the Bronn persona. As to Shae, many fans will note some significant change to her character—older, more worldly-wise, a sharper observer of people… and foreign, to accommodate German actress Sibel Kekilli’s accent. Kikelli is an amazing coup for the production, much-lauded in Germany as one of German cinema’s finest actresses. Her interaction with Dinklage in this episode, especially when it came to the drinking game (a fine vehicle for exposition delivery), was just right, already hinting at where their relationship is going. Tyrion’s time with Shae are very important facets to the story, and with the casting and writing, it certainly seems it will remain the case for the show.
Of course, Tyrion’s scenes also lead to something that has a small but very loud segment of the fanbase in an uproar: the skimping on the Battle of the Green Fork. In the novel, Tyrion personally fights alongside the clansmen, and the battle is described in great detail, though with the narrow focus of what Tyrion himself witnesses and experiences. The show—perhaps acknowledging the fact that Peter Dinklage cannot fight as convincingly as Martin’s character can (Tyrion’s trained, and has abnormal upper body strength despite his small stature), and perhaps due to time and budget issues (the snow on the ground in Robb’s later scene suggests to us that these scenes were filmed when an incredibly cold and snowy winter hit Europe)—takes the amusing way out by having the clansmen take out the Halfman before he even draws his weapon. It’s amusing… and, yes, perhaps a little disappointing, given that HBO chose to tease this battle with the release of a photo showing Tyrion giving his rousing speech to the clan warriors. But as GRRM always remarked, he wrote his novels as an explicit chance to work with the unlimited budget of imagination, leaving Benioff and Weiss a vast challenge that they’ve largely succeeded in. After the finale, we’ll have an interview with the VFX producers of the episode who’ll provide some more insight into what they could and couldn’t do.
The introduction of the Freys—which, by the by, means some fine exterior VFX (an area that the show has excelled in)—gives us a different perspective on the conflict in Westeros, in its way. As Lord Walder says, why should he care about all these Great Houses at one another’s throat, when they’ve never done anything for him but look down on him and his? Though the old lord is insular, clannish, and almost maniacally devoted to producing offspring, he has a point: the Seven Kingdoms are being fought over by people who are very focused on their own personal goals, their own wish for vengeance or justice, not greatly caring that lesser houses and the common folk will suffer for their pride. Robb Stark, after his great victory against Ser Jaime and his army, strikes a similarly somber note: his victory is only the beginning of a war that has no clear end point, with Lord Tywin still strong in the field, with his sisters held captive… and, unbeknownst to him just yet, other claimants to the throne preparing to throw their hats into the ring. It’s an explosive confluence of opposing goals, and Robb’s relative youth does not seem so great a hindrance just yet. But for how long? He wisely refuses the Kingslayer’s offer of a single combat, not giving in to personal pride or thirst for glory, but his prowess as a tactician and the courage of the northmen have carried him pretty far in a short span. It will be interesting to see how the show approaches the events of the last episode, and then follows through to the next season.
Daenerys’s storyline bears mentioning, because of the way it, too, is coming to a head. We can’t even imagine how it will all look on screen for that final episode, but as readers know, that final scene is one of the other iconic scenes in the whole series. Emilia Clarke has been very strong in her performances up to now, but the show will demand even more from her for that last episode. We suspect she’ll manage it, however, because of her acting following the sacrifice of Drogo’s stallion. Walking out of the tent, face awash in blood, there’s something eerie about her, an unblinking glimpse into some other place beyond rational consideration. The ululuating song (using the Asshai’i language developed by David J. Peterson) and then the inhuman, demonic screams made the whole sequence suitably surreal. Well-played by all the actors involved, the seams begin to show in Daenerys’s time among the Dothraki, first hinted at in the previous episode with Mago’s challenge to Drogo.
When Daenerys begged Mirri to use magic to save her husband, Mirri responds that there is a price: “only death can pay for life.” It’s something that may slip by unnoticed, so we’ll note it here: when Daenerys asks if it’s her own life that must be given up, the novel expands this to make it plain that she’s prepared to do it, prepared to die for her husband. This is a powerful statement for such a young woman, and a mother-to-be. She truly does love Drogo, and is prepared to make that ultimate sacrifice, or at least attempts to convince herself that she can do it. Perhaps she would have balked at the end… but given all the things she’s gone through, and the things she’s about to do, we’re reminded that she’s the blood of the dragon. It’s just as well she doesn’t come to that point, because the story would have been very different indeed.
Winter has come to Westeros, with the death of Ned and the beginning of outright hostilities between the North and the Iron Throne. The season may be summer (though an unseasonably cool one, thanks to that weird winter mentioned above which left snow on the ground for some scenes), but it’s definitely a dark time for the Seven Kingdoms. The final episode, “Fire and Blood”, is also directed by Taylor, features a number of memorable moments, and has been written by Benioff & Weiss—we expect great things, possibly even the best episode of the series to date, which would be a fantastic high-point to close out on.
For more great Game of Thrones coverage head over to Westeros.org!