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EP109: Baelor

Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
IMDB

Ned (Sean Bean) makes a fateful decision; Robb takes a prized prisoner; Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finds her reign imperiled.

Index

Analysis

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.

[Inside the Episode with executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, as well as director Alan Taylor.]

Book to Screen

This episode covers the following chapters of the novel:  Eddard XV (the previous episode used only a brief segment of it), Catelyn IX, Jon VIII, Tyrion VIII, Catelyn X, Daenerys VIII, and Arya V. The episode also includes a significant part of Tyrion VI.

Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:

  • Eddard XV: In the original novel, Ned Stark is delirious from illness due to his shattered leg having gone untreated in the filthy, dank cell, and thinks back on the great tourney at Harrenhal in the year of the false spring, the tourney where Prince Rhaegar won the prize… and named Ned’s sister Lyanna, rather than his wife Elia of Dorne, as the Queen of Love and Beauty. This is an important dream, for thematic reasons and possibly plot reasons. But… there’s no evidence of this dream, a choice of the producers, we think, part of a general trend away from topics touching on the romanticism of the past. Ned doesn’t seem very ill or delirious, either, so perhaps the scene makes less sense. Also of note, in the novel Eddard broaches the topic of Varys smuggling a letter out for him, a letter which Varys says he may or may not send, depending on the contents; this letter is not mentioned in the scene. Finally, Varys’s discussion of the current state of affairs is quite compressed, omitting references to the Martells still brooding over the murders of Elia and her children, Renly, and the murder of young Princess Rhaenys at Lord Tywin’s command, among other things.
  • Jon VIII: The full tale of the wights is revealed in this chapter in the novels, including the fact that the reanimated wight made from Jafer Flowers’s corpse killed five men, including the First Ranger, Ser Jaremy Rykker, and the burning of the Lord Commander’s Tower which burned up Mormont’s beard and left Jon with a hand that he has to regularly exercise by opening and closing it. These details are barely touched on on the television show, instead zeroing in on the presentation of Longclaw to Jon, and presentation of the news that but very little of that is mentioned here. Instead, Mormont quickly presents Longclaw to Jon—noting the name works just fine for a wolf, whereas in the novel it’s Jon who makes the point, which pleases the lord commander—and settles the matter of Alliser Thorne’s enmity towards Jon very much as he does in the novel. The fact that everyone is aware of the fact that Mormont intended to give the sword to Jon is also from the books, due to the fact that the carving and adornment of the wolf’s head pommel involved some of the younger members of the Watch.

    Samwell informing Jon of the news that Robb was marching is from the novel, though only referred to after the fact rather than directly stated. This then sets up Maester Aemon calling Jon to him, because in the novel, Samwell admits to him that he betrayed the confidence of the missives to inform Jon of the latest news. Aemon’s scene is very much as in the novels, leading Jon to the realization that he is Aemon Targaryen. In the novel, Maester Aemon notes that the gods tested him three times—once when he was half a boy, once as a grown man, and once when he was old and frail; the show refers to only one such test. Most notably for us is the fact that King Jaeherys II appears to have been entirely cut out. In the novels, Aegon V is father of Prince Duncan the Small and Prince Jaehaerys, the latter of whom succeeds him, and he in turn is succeeded by his own son King Aerys II, the Mad King. On the show, Aerys is the son of Aegon V directly, apparently. Why they made the change is rather beyond us. Also, Aemon makes no reference to the fact that his grandfather (Daeron II the Good) named him for his uncle (or possibly father, depending on who you believed) Prince Aemon the Dragonknight.
  • Catelyn IX: Some of the Freys named in this chapter are omitted, particularly Ser Stafford Frey, Lord Walder’s eldest son and heir. The details of the chapter are quite similar to the novel, though again, rather compressed. The head gear the Freys (besides Lord Walder) are wearing is not from the novels, but seems to be a design choice by the production; it suggests that the Freys are rather insular and clannish, holding to their own fashions, so that’s an interesting approach. Some of Lord Walder’s banter is omitted, as is his propensity for a dry “Heh” to show amusement. Perhaps the most significant omission is part of what seems to be a storyline entirely dropped from the novel. In the novels, Lord Jon had planned to send his heir away from King’s Landing to keep him safe as his investigations progressed. Lord Walder proposed that Lord Arryn take two of his grandsons as wards while little Robert Arryn (Robin in the show) would be fostered at the Crossing, but Lord Arryn rejected it, stating that he was sending his son to Lord Stannis. It’s an important detail in the books, one that comes up on several occasions, but the executive producers seem to have excised that whole subplot.

    The terms fo the agreement appear to be similar to those in the novels, except those grandsons—Big Walder and Little Walder, in the novel—are not mentioned at all, and the boy meant to marry Arya has been renamed from Elmar to Waldryn, presumably to highlight the tendency (noted by Lord Walder) for members of his family to curry favor by naming their children for him. However, although the terms are similar, the way Robb deals with them is subtly different: in the novel, he never even bothers asking what the daughters look like, only asking if he can refuse. When informed that refusal means he won’t cross, Robb consents, no more. Theon’s laughter is not in the novel, either, but nicely illustrates some of his more flippant attitudes. In the novel, some additional details are spent discussing the Frey garrison, including Catelyn advising that Robb place a few hundred northmen at the Twins, ostensibly to strengthen Lord Frey’s garrison, but they do not appear here.

    Finally, it seems clear that Robb’s army is splitting into two, the way the scene is shot ... but we’re confused by the fact that the army seems to be splitting up after having crossed. In the novel, one part stays on the east side of the Trident, to march down the kingsroad to meet Tywin, while another part crosses the river to strike out west towards Riverrun. Of course, in the novel, Robb actually takes the smallest portion of the host—9/10ths of his cavalry—west, leaving the bulk of his forces under Lord Roose Bolton to lure Tywin into battle and obscure Robb’s own movements. On the show, as we’ll soon learn, Robb has taken the bulk of his strength west, leaving a very small force to go southwards. We’re not quite sure why Tywin is supposed to be on the west side of the Trident, instead of the east, as in the novel.
  • Daenerys VIII: In the novel, Drogo’s wound has become infested by parasitic flies, bloodflies, after it has festered. Drogo also seems to have brought about the festering of his wound by ignoring Mirri’s instructions to keep the uncomfortable poultice on. The scene otherwise plays out as in the book, with Daenerys insisting a camp be made and Mirri be summoned, over the objections of Drogo’s bloodriders. Of course, in the novel, Drogo has three bloodriders, much as Daenerys is supposed to have four khas, but the show has compressed each of these into one role, it seems. When Daenerys asks if she must die for Drogo to live, that question is from the novel… although she also thinks to herself that her brother Rhaegar died for the woman he loved, as well, a detail not mentioned in the scene.

    The khalasar reacts much more violently to Daenerys’s use of Mirri Maz Duur, throwing rocks at her in the novel. The fight between the khas and bloodriders is swift and brutal, but has been reduced to one elbow to the face, basically. The fight with Jorah plays out rather differently as well—Qotho has the advantage in the fight in the show, but in the novel he is phenomenal and much, much better than Jorah; only Jorah’s armor and toughness saved him there. The specific means of his survival—the arakh digging into his thigh bone and very briefly being stuck in his flesh—has been changed somewhat, with Ser Jorah using the advantage of armor more actively. Daenerys being carried into the tent—despite Mirri’s orders—as labor begins early is very much as in the novel.
  • Tyrion VIII: Some of the dialog has been compressed, particularly anecdotes related to the tribes. Tyrion does not mention his wondering if the Stone Crows had planned to get the eaten sausage back by cutting the Moon Brother’s throat, nor Shagga preferring to kill with either hand follow by Shagga beng of the opinion that three axes is better than two. Gunthor son of Gurn appears to be Shagga’s second on the show, whereas it’s the handsome Conn son of Corat who is said to join Shagga in refusing to pay blood money. When Tywin brings up the vanguard, it does not seem like a command but more of an idea, one that Tyrion ultimately accepts. However, in the novel, it’s noted Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain that Rides (last seen in episode 5, and referred to in episode 6), will lead the vanguard, to Tyrion’s annoyance, as his rank should have given him the command.

    Shae, played by award-winning Turkish-German actress Sibel Kekilli, is a fair bit older than the character in the novel. Shae is a native Westerosi in the books, but to accommodate Kekilli’s accent, it seems they have opted to make her foreign. The greater age and the exoticness of her seems to have fed into making her rather different from Shae in the novel, more expressly jaded and worldly-wise. The story of Tysha, however, is taken from Tyrion VI (where Tyrion repeated it to Bronn on the high road before the clansmen appeared). Shae’s presence (and instigation of the story) is a very interesting choice. One notable detail is omitted from the tale, however: in the novel, after the garrison is done with Tysha, Tywin forces Tyrion to use Tysha as well, paying her a golden dragon as a Lannister is worth more than a common soldier.

    It seems Tyrion has no squire, whereas in the novels we are introduced to Podrick Payne, a distant relation to Ser Ilyn, and nearly as silent due to a stammer and severe shyness. The speech and Tyrion getting knocked unconscious, apparently missing the battle in its entirety? A complete change from the novel, where Tyrion personally leads the wildlings into battle, and manages to survive through luck and a modicum of skill; in general, the Tyrion of the novels is depicted as having a relatively powerful upper body, and with notable strength in his arms, such that he can swing an axe quite effectively. Tyrion survives by the skin of his teeth, perhaps, but he really did fight. As to the revelation that Robb sent just 2,000 men down to face Tywin, in the novel he sends the bulk of his strength south to do that, under the command of Roose Bolton, while personally leading the smaller portion of the force to go west against Ser Jaime.
  • Catelyn X: In the novel, this event is known as the Battle of the Whispering Wood, where Robb and the northmen lure Ser Jaime into detaching a small part of his host besieging Riverrun to chase after isolated forces whom he believes may be riverlords chipping away at his foragers and supplies. A night ambush, the Starks cavalry—joined by isolated riverlords who joined them as they swept towards Riverrun—outnumbers, outflanks, and simply surprises the opposition, capturing scores of notable men with little in the way of casualties on their side.  On the show, however, it seems implied that what actually happened was a much larger battle—a surprise attack still, but one accommodating some ~18,000 men on the Stark side—and so we’re guessing that the siege of Riverrun is also broken in this novel. The dialog is much as in the novel, although the Kingslayer killing ten men is more than he’s accounted to have killed in the novel, whereas at the same time there’s no reference to the fact that he was calling out for Robb as he made a desperate attempt to cut his way through to him. Among those Jaime kills are Robb’s personal bodyguard, including two of Lord Karstark’s sons, but these are not referenced. Robb’s post-battle speech is new, but keeps the focus on the continuing effort to fight the war in a way that suits the character.

    The Whispering Wood scene is interesting in the novel, because it is night and Catelyn only hears the battle, and then sees part of the aftermath. The choice to have the battle off-scren seems to be a nod to that. Finally, the Kingslayer’s offer to fight a single combat with Robb is not from the novel.
  • Arya V: As noted in the last episode, on the show Arya escapes the Red Keep with only the clothes on her back and Needle on the show, whereas in the novel she adds some clothing and a few valuables, plus has her wooden fighting stick. The scene opens very much as in the novel, though details of life as a street urchin in Flea Bottom are omitted. Arya going to the square and climbing onto the statue is as in the novel… but the square is much bigger and much more crowded in the novel. This is important, because the writers took advantage of the smaller scale to allow Ned to actually see Arya ... and to have him basically act to save her life. Beautiful and powerful, that particular moment. Otherwise, the scene plays out very much as in the novel, although Grand Maester Pycelle takes the lines of the High Septon from the novel.

Added scenes:

  • Tyrion playing games with Shae and Bronn: Quite new, but rather fun, as the scene ends up illuminating all three characters. Even Shae reveals something of herself: she’s extremely good at controlling what she reveals to others.

Extras

We join Tom and Daniel of MTV Geek in a brief podcast series, discussing each week’s episode after it airs. You can download it directly, or listen to it below:

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