In the season's penultimate episode, characters contemplate the end of life—and the audience sees the most shocking casualty yet
"You think my life is some precious thing to me? That I would trade my life for a few years? ...I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago."
Game of Thrones is nearing its Season One endgame, and as the Starks and the Lannisters continue their violent feud, the bodies are beginning to pile up. "Baelor," this week's penultimate episode, ups the stakes considerably, with a number of game-changing plot developments—and the series' most shocking casualty to date.
As the Dothraki continue their wild-card quest toward Westeros, Khal Drogo collapses due to a wound he incurred in last week's episode. In theory, the fight that caused his injury is exactly the type of moment that gets immortalized in Dothraki legend: the courageous khal, stabbed by a brash young rival, deliberately leans into the traitor's blade before easily besting him in battle. It's not hard to imagine young Dothraki boys gathering around the campfire to hear the story of the courageous Khal Drogo.
But unfortunately for Khal Drogo, the story doesn't end there. As it turns out, the mighty Khal Drogo wasn't felled by a powerful enemy during a glorious battle; he was defeated slowly, by a small, infected wound. There's no glory in Khal Drogo's impending death, and in Dothraki culture, that's unforgivable. In desperation, Daenerys turns to "blood magic" to revive her dying husband, but it's unclear whether he'll return as the same man—or whether the Dothraki will have any interest in continuing to follow a man who's shown such weakness.
Back in Westeros, the first major battle between the Lannisters and the Starks ends with the capture of Jaime Lannister. It's a major victory for Robb Stark, but to its credit, Game of Thrones doesn't allow him—or its audience—to forget that there are 2,000 deaths going largely unmourned; Robb's gambit is successful, but the feud between the Starks and the Lannisters has vast consequences for the rest of Westeros, and there's a lot more blood left to be shed before the war is over.
As Robb—a newly-minted warlord in his own right—reflects on the lives he chose to sacrifice for victory, Theon consoles him by reminding him that the fallen soldiers will be immortalized in songs. Robb replies, "Aye. But the dead won't hear them." On the other side of the battle lines, as Tyrion Lannister prepares to fight in his own first war, he asks his new lover Shae to weep for him if he's killed in the battle. She responds, "You will be dead. How will you know?"
It's no accident that these extremely similar exchanges are happening on both sides of the Stark-Lannister war. Up to this point, Game of Thrones' plot has largely been wrapped up in bloodlines, alliances, and succession. But when the battle begins, both the Starks and the Lannisters are made of flesh and blood, and no lineage or legacy can save you from the sword.
And, as always, the winners are writing the history books. Though the Starks and the Lannisters are now at war, they were allies 17 years earlier, when the "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen was killed and Robert Baratheon assumed the throne. We've heard that the Mad King was responsible for the death of Ned's father and brother, and that he was finally slain, out of sheer necessity, by Jaime Lannister.
But back at the Wall, Master Aemon—who turns out to be Aemon Targaryen—tells Jon Snow a different part of the story. Aemon recalls the murder of not just a vicious and dangerous king, but of the Targaryen women and children, slaughtered in their beds. Though 17 years have passed, the Baratheon family's capacity for violence hasn't; it's the same fate that the late King Robert and his council planned for Daenerys and her unborn son. As Robert once memorably remarked, "they don't put that part in the songs."