This week on Game of Thrones, Tyrion invents a drinking game, Robb Stark goes up against Jaime Lannister in a Battle of the Prettiest Soldiers, and holy shit what the fuck just happened are you fucking kidding me. Major episode spoilers ahead.
It’s somewhat disingenuous to sum up events like that, since of course, having read A Game of Thrones, I knew exactly what was coming. I remember, though, how shocked I was, and I remember thinking, once I’d calmed down a bit: this is a game-changer, right here. But more on that later.
Varys has come to see Ned in the dungeons, and to tell him that Sansa has pled for his life. “She knows a tame wolf is more use to them than a dead one,” he says in his slimy way. Varys delivers the offer: if Ned is willing to confess to treason and proclaim Joffrey the rightful king, he’ll be allowed to take the black and join Jon and Benjen on the Wall.
Robb and his army need to pass the Twins, which belong to Lord Walder Frey, who isn’t famous for being tractable. Catelyn volunteers to be the one who goes to negotiate with him, since he’s known her since she was a girl. He’s not especially pleased to see her even so, and kvetches (after yelling at his many children and groping his young new wife) that her father didn’t attend his last few weddings, or help him marry off any of his children. You can see the wheels in Cat’s head turning even as her eyes are rolling.
Sure enough, she comes out shortly after with the conditions of the crossing: his young son Olyvar will become Robb’s squire. Arya will marry another of his sons. “And?” Robb asks nervously. And Robb will marry one of Walder’s daughters, whichever he prefers. “He has a number he thinks will be… suitable,” Catelyn tries to reassure Robb. We get the impression that Robb and Walder Frey might have different ideas of “suitable,” but Robb agrees.
On the Wall, we’re learning about the families the men of the Night Watch have left behind, which makes some news Jon receives even more poignant. First, Lord Commander Mormont gives Jon a sword that was made for his son, Jorah. (Yes, that Jorah.) Then Aemon mulls on the choice between honor and love, because he knows Jon’s heard that Robb is marching south, and thinks he should be with him. Aemon wonders what Jon thinks Ned, the most honorable man in Westeros, would do when faced with that choice. “He would do what was right,” Jon insists stubbornly.
Aemon tells him about when his family was destroyed, even the children murdered in their beds, and he wished he could have done something. You can see realization slowly dwelling on Jon’s face: this is Aemon Targaryen, and Mad King Aerys was his grandnephew. In the end, Aemon doesn’t forbid Jon to leave, despite his vow. Jon has to make the choice himself, “and live with it for the rest of your days,” Aemon says. “As I have.”
Across the Narrow Sea, Drogo’s wounds have gotten worse to the point where he can no longer ride his horse. Dany has to deal with some somewhat less than enlightened opinions among the bloodriders: “A Khal who cannot ride is no Khal,” one of them tells her, and they won’t listen to any woman. She convinces them to camp through sheer Targaryenness, but as soon as Jorah gets a look at the wound, he tells her Drogo is going to die that night, and she should flee to Asshai. No one will care about her son’s claim among the Dothraki, where they rule by strength, not by blood.
Desperate, Dany summons Mirri Maz Duur and asks her if there is some magic that will save him. There is a way, Mirri admits, but it won’t come free: “Only death pays for life.” Dany wonders if it is her own death the maegi means, but Mirri tells them to bring Drogo’s horse and neatly dodges the question. Everyone has to leave the tent, even Dany, and must not enter for the whole night.
The bloodriders are appalled that Dany’s enlisted the help of a witch. One is about to stalk right into the tent until Jorah, wearing his just-in-case armor, challenges him. He defeats him, but bigger problems are waiting for them: Dany’s gone into labor. None of the women will tend her because of the witch. Jorah, wearing the best “How the hell did I end up in this position?” face ever, carries her into the tent, from which no one will emerge until next week.
This is a grim episode, but it’s not without its moments of humor, mostly (of course) courtesy of Tyrion. Bronn has procured a whore named Shae for Tyrion, having taken her from someone a few tents down. “And he didn’t have anything to say about it?” Tyrion wonders. “He said something,” Bronn says rather earnestly. Later on, Tyrion, Shae, and Bronn camp out in Tyrion’s tent playing drinking games, and I’m pretty sure Tyrion just invented Never Have I Ever here. I loved this scene.
We also learn about Tyrion’s sad romantic past: he and Jaime rescued an orphan named Tysha, and Tyrion married her. It’s a rare glimpse into the vulnerability underneath Tyrion’s shield of sarcasm and arrogance. When he was with Tysha, he admits, “I forgot how afraid I was around girls, how I was always waiting for them to laugh at me, look away embarrassed, or ask me about my tall, handsome brother.” Not long after, Jaime told him Tysha was a prostitute hired by their father, and Tyrion has never forgiven Tywin.
The next morning they go into battle against Robb’s army. Tyrion gets knocked out almost immediately, and wakes up when the fighting is all over and his tribesmen are thoroughly killing off any survivors. (Did I hear a Wilhelm scream in the background?) They won, but there were only 2,000 men against them, not the 20,000 they’d been expecting. Tyrion wonders where Robb was, and Tywin tells him bitterly, “With his other 18,000 men.”
And working hard, because when we see Robb shortly after, he’s captured Jaime Lannister. Jaime wants to settle this all with a duel between him and Robb, and they pout prettily at each other. Fortunately, Robb’s too smart for that; “If we did it your way, Kingslayer,” he says with a smirk, “you’d win. We’re not doing it your way.”
By this point of the episode, I was glancing at my clock nervously, counting down the minutes to what I knew had to happen. I’ll be honest: even though I knew what to expect, my stomach was clenching up and my eyes were tearing up. The last few minutes of this episode may be one of my favorite sequences of the show so far, despite… well.
Arya’s chasing pigeons in King’s Landing when everyone starts rushing towards the Sept of Baelor. Some passing boys tell her they’re taking the Hand there. She climbs up on a statue to get a better view, and Ned sees her; he runs into Yoren in the crowd and sends him after her. The crowd is clawing at him, yelling insults, and someone throws a rock at his head. Poor innocent Sansa, dressed up for the occasion, is smiling as they bring Ned forward.
Earlier in the episode, Aemon and Jon discussed the conflicts between honor and family. Though Jon said Ned would always do the right thing, here we see him putting his family’s safety first. It turns out to be his last act, and as such, it’s appropriate. To ensure, he thinks, his safety and that of his children, he confesses to treason. He pulls out all the stops, too: “Before [Robert’s] blood was cold, I plotted to murder his son and seize the throne for myself,” he says, and he declares Joffrey the true king. Grand Maester Pycelle makes a nice little speech about the gods being just but merciful.
But “just but merciful” is not a phrase anyone will apply to King Joffrey Baratheon’s reign. With a smug expression, he tells the crowd what his mother and Sansa asked him to do. “But they have the soft hearts of women,” he concludes. “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head.”
Sansa freaks out. The crowd cheers. Cersei is clearly asking Joffrey, “What the fuck, dude?” Yoren grabs for Arya and tells her not to look. For a moment, it’s chaos everywhere, and then we’re in Ned’s head as all the sounds fade to a whisper. He looks out over the crowd that’s calling for his blood. He searches for Arya, but can’t find her. Ser Ilyn pulls out his blade, and swings it.
And everyone falls silent.
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Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9pm ET/PT on HBO.
Ellen B. Wright lives in New York, where she works in publishing and takes an excessive number of pictures.