Winter is coming, but not soon enough. So to help pass the time until season seven of Game of Thrones, we’re doing a weekly re-watch of the series, episode-by-episode, with the knowledge of what’s to come and, therefore, with more information about the unrevealed rich history of events that took place long before the story began. Be warned, though: that means this series is full of spoilers for every season, even beyond the episode itself. So if you haven’t watched all of the show yet immediately get on that and then come back and join us for Game of Thrones Re-Throned.
Because the next best thing to watching new episodes is re-watching old ones.
Season 1, Episode 9: “Baelor”
Original Air Date: June 12th, 2011
Director: Alan Taylor
Written by: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
This might be the most important episode in Game of Throne‘s history—at least from a television stand point. What other show kills off its main character like this, in season one no less? If we thought anything could happen on this show when Jaime pushed Bran out of that window, we didn’t truly comprehend that literally anything was possible until the moment Ser Ilyn beheaded Lord Eddard Stark. That HBO elected to adapt source material that defied every expectation of television storytelling is a testament to their innovation.
During this re-watch I found myself tearing up at Ned’s execution—hauntingly filmed, both beautiful and horrible—in a way I never have before, and I’ve watched it more times than I can count. Maybe it was the added weight of knowing for sure the promise he made to his dying sister, the one he took with him to his grave, made this viewing even worse. Whatever it was, Ned’s death remains as poignant and important to the story as ever, a tragic tale about the costs of honor and duty in a world that doesn’t have enough of it.
But it’s a different scene from “Baelor” that stands out all these years later as ever more relevant to the future of Westeros. Jon, still young and completely sure that no one in the world could possibly know his troubles and pain, finds out that Robb is heading south with an army. He has taken his vows as a brother of the Night’s Watch, and now his sworn duty is at odds with his desire to fight beside his brother.
Jon goes to see Maester Aemon. (HBO makes it so clips from the show can’t be embedded, so we’ll use the script to break down this scene and why it’s so important going forward.)
Jon: Sam said you wanted to see me?
Maester Aemon: I did indeed. Perhaps you would be kind enough to assist me. Tell me, did you ever wonder why the men of the Night’s Watch take no wives and father no children?
Maester Aemon: So they will not love. Love is the death of duty. If the day should ever come when your lord father was forced to choose between honor on the one hand and those he loves on the other, what would he do?
Jon: He would do whatever was right, no matter what.
“Love is the death of duty.” Maester Aemon presciently asks Jon what Ned would do if he had to choose between duty and love, the very decision Ned makes this episode when he sacrifices his honor to protect Sansa. Ned says to Varys in the opening scene, “You think my life is some precious thing to me? That l would trade my honor for a few more years of—of what?” but then he does just that, trading his honor and duty (by saying he lied about Joffrey, and therefore he is a traitor to both his friend Robert and the realm) all for his daughter.
Maester Aemon: Then Lord Stark is one man in 10,000. Most of us are not so strong. What is honor compared to a woman’s love? And what is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms? Or a brother’s smile?
Jon: Sam told you.
Maester Aemon: We’re all human. Oh, we all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honor comes easy then. Yet sooner or later in every man’s life there comes a day when it is not easy. A day when he must choose.
This is a lesson Jon has learned many times since this scene. In the next episode he will attempt to join Robb only to be stopped by his fellow brothers in the Watch who remind him of his duty, bringing him back to Castle Black. He will follow orders and slay Qhorin Halfhand to gain the wildlings trust, and then betray Ygritte, Mance Rayder, and the rest, all in the name of duty. He will turn down the chance to be Lord Jon Stark of Winterfell when Stannis offers it to him, and anger the rest of his brothers when he lets the wildlings pass through the gates. Jon will come to learn that what we want (which is usually what is easy) and what we should do are the hardest decisions a leader will face, one that can save lives but at great personal cost.
In the scene Jon accuses the maester of not knowing what he is going through, and that’s when Maester Aemon lets him know just how well he understands.
Maester Aemon: My father was Maekar, the first of his name. My brother Aegon reigned after him when I had refused the throne. And he was followed by his son Aerys whom they called the Mad King.
Jon: You’re Aemon Targaryen.
How many more lives would have ended if a Targaryen had tried to march on Robert after he took the Iron Throne? How many good men of the Night’s Watch would have suffered without the guidance and wisdom of Maester Aemon? On a personal level, what kind of guilt and pain must Maester Aemon have lived with all these years for not standing for his family’s name, all in the name of duty?
Here Ned had to make a choice between duty and love, and it cost him both his honor and his life. Robb swore an oath to Walder Frey in this episode, but he will break it in the name of love, a decision that will lead not only to the death of him and his mother, but to the slaughter of thousands of innocent men as well. Across the Narrow Sea Daenerys is learning that love can lead us to dark paths, as she unwittingly trades her unborn child’s life to save Drago’s via blood magic.
It was here, at The Wall, where Jon first learned what it means to choose honor over love, duty over what we want. With an army of the dead marching, it will require leaders that understand that choice, and are strong enough to do what is right, to fight against them, but those decisions will require lots of people to decide between what they want and what they know is right.
Will Jaime be able to choose duty over love if he is the only one that can stop Cersei? Can Sansa cast aside her own aspirations in the name of honor? Will Daenerys be able to cast aside her dreams for the Iron Throne if the fight against the Long Night calls her north? Will Bran, so long separated from his family, be able to choose between saving them or saving everyone if it comes to that?
“Baelor” will always be the episode where Ned died, but it’s also where Maester Aemon explained the true cost of honor, and possibly explained to us the difficult choice many characters will face at the end, the one that might determine if the light overcomes the darkness.
What do you think of this episode? Who else might have to answer the call Maester Aemon put forth here? Talk about it with us in the comments below.
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