'Game of Thrones': Death Be Not Proud

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In the season's penultimate episode, characters contemplate the end of life—and the audience sees the most shocking casualty yet

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HBO


"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."

Ned Stark

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."

By and large, the major character deaths in Game of Thrones have been almost completely inglorious. Jory, Ned's personal guard, was dispatched in the streets of King's Landing by Jaime Lannister's men. Viserys Targaryen was burned to death with melted gold, in darkly ironic twist on his obsession with wearing the crown. King Robert—fat, drunk, and nearly two decades past his glory days on the battlefield—was unceremoniously gutted by a wild boar. Only Syrio, Arya's (presumably) deceased fencing instructor, died with anything resembling glory. But "Baelor" surpasses all of these losses with the sudden, gruesome death of series protagonist Ned Stark.

Ned's death is horrific in its indignity. He's dragged in front of a jeering crowd, where he confesses to a crime he didn't commit, and praises the rightness of the false king Joffrey. Duly chastened, Ned is initially sentenced to be stripped of his title and sent to the Wall, to spend his remaining days in obscurity as a member of the Night's Watch.

Until Joffrey decides to exercise the full powers of his office. Disregarding the wishes of Queen Cersei—who's orchestrated her son's every move up to this point—Joffrey orders that Ned be executed for treason. As the crowd roars in anticipation, Ned is shoved to his hands and knees, and beheaded in service of the "king's justice." His young daughters, Sansa and Arya, can only look on in horror.

It's an absolutely nightmarish scene. Cersei may be cold and manipulative, but Joffrey is evil: a sociopathic teenager who's just beginning to realize that he now possesses a staggering amount of power. There's no justice to be found in Ned's actual death—only cruelty and petty vengeance.

Ned has always been a man of honor. But his honor has always been misapplied—first to an unfit king, and then to a moral code that would have killed him out stubbornness, not courage. As Ned says at the beginning of "Baelor," he's not afraid to die—it's something he's been prepared for since the day he became a soldier. So why, in the end, does Ned decide to confess to treason?

At the Wall, Master Aemon warns Jon Snow that every man eventually reaches the day "when it is not easy. When he must choose." Jon Snow has sworn, on his honor, to keep his post. But the day is fast approaching when Jon Snow will have to decide between his sense of honor and his obligation to his family.

When faced with the same choice, Ned has always chosen honor. Against the wishes of his wife, he became the King's Hand, and moved his daughters to King's Landing. His sense of honor motivated him to warn Cersei of his plan before he had ensured that he and his family would be protected. But in his final moments in "Baelor," Ned makes a different choice: He gives up his honor for the safety of his daughters.

Ned's death is unjustifiable, but in a way, he was already signing his life away when he agreed to confess. In the end, it didn't matter whether Ned was executed in King's Landing or sentenced to rot away on the Wall. The result would be the same: Ned's own life—and everything he always stood for—sacrificed in a last-ditch attempt to ensure the safety of his family. For a truly honorable man, there could be no more difficult choice. And for all of Ned's previous talk of duty and honor, his final sacrifice is his most courageous act.

Read all of The Atlantic's Game of Thrones coverage.

Note: For the sake of viewers who are experiencing the Game of Thrones story for the first time, we request that those who have read the Song of Ice and Fire series avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section below.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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