Last night's Game of Thrones was one of the most powerful portrayals of grief I've ever seen, on television or in any medium. And yet, the episode lasted just long enough to show that powerful things can come from grief.
And yes, "Fire and Blood" clinches it — this show is a fantastic achievement, better than we could have dared hope. There's a raw poetry to HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's books that takes the full ten hours to do its work on you. The television adaptation not only does justice to the source material, but at times actually elevates it. We've been incredibly lucky to have something of this caliber on our screens, and it's hard to imagine this summer will bring a movie this stunning.
I had worried that Game of Thrones would stumble in the later episodes, trying to bring the complexity and "cast of thousands" tapestry of Martin's work to the screen. But in the end, this show always found ways to bring the story to life. Powerfully. Spoilers ahead...
The death of Lord Eddard Stark hangs over everything in this episode, touching almost all parts of it — except for the parts which are touched by the slow, horrible death of Khal Drogo and the fact that Drogo's son has already died.
This episode features a ton of amazing performances from all of the Starks and Jon Snow, but Alan Taylor's direction is also incredibly powerful, using a bunch of visual metaphors to show how grief isolates us and shrinks the world down. The whole episode is directed like a European art film, from the opening shot of Ned Stark's sword with Ned Stark's blood still dripping from it, to the chiaroscuro framing of Yoren taking Arya through an archway from light into darkness. There are a lot of frames in this episode, and we're forced to see characters through windows and doorways, or cropped. About halfway through the episode, the shot of Daenerys smothering her husband pulls back until Daenerys is caught within a rectangular window frame — which turns into a shot of a doorway, framing Grand Maester Pycelle sitting on a bed and talking about kings.
Even after you've lost the most important person in your life, the world still expects you to go on. You still have to think of your own survival, in spite of everything. And people won't stop being cruel and unpredictable just because you're in mourning.
And yet, this episode shows brilliantly how loss can bring out greatness in people.
Take Sansa Stark, who might have been the character people most wanted to see beheaded — well apart from her fiance Joffrey, that is. Sansa has been almost infuriatingly naive and childish, with her dreams of marrying a handsome
psychopath prince. She wouldn't listen to her father when he was alive — although, to be fair, he didn't really explain anything. She seemed like she was just putty in the hands of the Queen and her family. But now, watching King Joffrey behave like a monster, and staring up at the severed heads of her father, her Septa, and all her father's men, Sansa visibly marshals her strength. And she almost pushes Joffrey off a walkway, to his death. But even if Sansa can't kill the King, she's finding a new courage and hardness inside herself, to endure whatever he decides to do to her.
(A side note: Is Joffrey in mourning for King Robert? He certainly doesn't seem upset by that singer's song about the wild boar that killed his father. Is he just slicing off that singer's tongue to show that you can't disrespect the royal family, or does he feel some sadness about the old bastard, deep down?)
Sansa's sister, meanwhile, is finding a newfound strength of her own. Arya's been rescued from the square where her father was being executed by Yoren, a "recruiter" for the Night's Watch who's taking some criminals up to the Wall to be conscripted. Yoren disguises Arya as "Arry" a little orphan boy, to smuggle her North. But it's up to "Arry" to act the part — and to defend herself from some bullies who want to steal her precious sword. Without her father to protect her, Arya needs to learn to fight for herself, or she won't last long on the road.
Neither of the Stark sisters, though, has a rise to power as literal as that of their brother, Robb. He starts out the episode totally undone — attacking a tree with his sword, like a madman, and helplessly swearing vengeance on all of the Lannisters who killed his father. And then by the end of the episode, a funny thing happens. Ned's death crystallizes something for all of the Stark bannermen, who no longer wish to serve a King who executed their beloved lord. And they see in Robb the makings of, not just a new Lord Stark, but a King — the King in the North. One by one, they draw their swords and bend the knee to Robb Stark, swearing fealty to him instead of to Joffrey. Even Theon Greyjoy, who's technically a hostage being kept as a ward by the Starks, pledges his loyalty to King Robb.
But what of the other two Stark children, Bran and Rickon? They experience a kind of terrible power as well — especially Bran. If it seemed weird before that Bran was having trippy dreams about walking around and meeting a three-eyed crow, then it's even weirder now. Bran and Rickon both dream that their father is in the crypt, long before anybody in the North knows that Ned has been executed. It's framed like a horror movie, with Bran and his new servant Osha venturing down into the crypt and confronting a beast in the darkness — which turns out to be Rickon and his pet direwolf, Shaggydog. Except that the true horror is waiting for them back up on the ground. Is Bran becoming psychic? Did he feel a disturbance in the Force?
The fourth son of Eddard Stark, Jon Snow, feels even more helpless than his half-brothers. Not only is he unable to take revenge on evil King Joffrey, but he's also sworn to stay at the Wall for the rest of his life, defending civilization against zombies and monsters, not to mention the outlaws in the wilderness. But all Jon Snow wants to do is ride South, join his brother Robb, and kick some Lannister butt. So Jon actually tries to take off in the middle of the night, except that Samwell and their friends, whom Jon has trained and helped and lifted up, won't let him go. They remind him of the vows he swore — and more importantly, that he's made real friends at the Wall, whom he owes a responsibility to.
Jon has to learn to live with the grief over his father's death, instead of doing something about it — and this leads to the thing Jon's always wanted: a glorious expedition beyond the Wall, to go fight the monsters and discover the truth about what's going on. Jon finds himself at the vanguard of an army of the black brothers, venturing into the wilderness.
Does Lady Catelyn Stark get any kind of new magic or added greatness from her own bereavement over her husband's death? If she does, it's hard to see. She has the same responsibility she's always had: to keep her family safe. Only it's harder now, with Ned gone and (she thinks) both of her daughters in the hands of the King and his family. She goes to see the prisoner, Jaime Lannister, and he taunts her mercilessly. He also confesses that he threw Bran off that tower, hoping Bran would die. And Lady Catelyn just looks at him, at the man who started all of this misery for her, and drops the rock she meant to bash his brains out with. Because they need Jaime alive, if they're to get Catelyn's daughters back in one piece.
The motif of grief and loss leading to power gets made literal and real at the end of the episode, in an absolutely gorgeous scene where Khal Drogo's funeral pyre turns into a fiery sacrifice for the witch Mirri Maz Duur — and three dragons hatch from the flames, along with a naked, unscathed Daenerys. The dragons look more splendid and amazing than I'd hoped they could. The scene, coming after Daenerys has spent the entire episode mourning for her stillborn son — who turned into a kind of dragon himself before dying — and reconciling herself to the death of Drogo, is amazingly radiant. The dragons fluttering around her naked body, the look of absolute self-possession on Daenerys' face, a new day dawning over the ashes... it's an absolutely fantastic final image for the end of the season.
(And yes, we find out that Mirri Maz Duur didn't really want to save Khal Drogo, and that she knew that she was trading Daenerys' unborn son for Drogo's life (but not his vitality.) Because the prophecy might have come true, otherwise, and Daenerys' son might have been the "Stallion that Mounts the World," burning cities and killing countless children. And now, he won't get the chance to do any of that. Instead — Daenerys gets to have awesome dragons!
Of course, not all of the episode deals directly with the deaths of Ned Stark and Drogo, even though they affect everything indirectly. Life does go on — Queen Cersei is shacking up with her cousin Lancel Lannister, the beautiful young page who gave King Robert too much wine and caused him to die at the tusks of that wild boar. Littlefinger and Lord Varys are still trading barbs and comparing their febrile, scheming brains. And now that Ned is dead, the Lannisters have lost their last chance to make peace with the Starks — so Tyrion gets sent down to King's Landing to become the new Hand of the King and try to get that insane boy King under control. Will there be more Joffrey-slapping in our future? Probably not, but we can dream.
And I kind of loved the long scene where Grand Maester Pycelle lectures a naked Ros about the nature of kings — it should have seemed gratuitous and extraneous, but somehow it was the perfect little coda to the story. This deluded old man, who thinks that Joffrey will make a fine sovereign, and claims to understand all about kings but actually hasn't learned a damned thing in his 67 years of service — it's sort of a beautiful illustration of how the people who keep everything working have to turn a blind eye to the realities of life. (Update: Various people in comments have suggested an alternate interpretation of this scene — that we're seeing how Pycelle puts on a doddering act because he knows Ros will report back to Littlefinger.)
So all in all, this was a stunning conclusion to a first season that's vastly exceeded our hopes. It's one of the strongest depictions of loss, and what it takes to carry on after someone you love has been cruelly taken away, that we've ever witnessed. And in the end, it offers a message of dark, twisted hope — you may lose the one you love, but you'll emerge from it a king, a zombie-slayer, a mother of dragons.
Can we have season two now, please?