If you watched Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones, you're probably still reeling from shock. If you haven't, go and watch it now ... or certainly before you read our spoiler-filled discussion below. Just know that HBO's defiance of convention is gutsy, inspiring and every bit as cold as the world of Westeros that calls the channel home.
TVGuide.com's Hanh Nguyen is an avid scripted-TV watcher, a horror-avoider and someone who's read George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series, on which HBO's Game of Thrones is based. Colleague Rich Juzwiak rarely watches scripted TV, is a gorehound and became alerted to Martin's existence just recently, as he started researching this new swords-and-sandals (well, boots) series. He knows nothing of these sorcerers (if that is indeed what they are), while Hanh is something of an expert (read: fantasy/sci-fi nerd). Each week, he'll try to make sense of this crazy new show by enlisting Hanh's expertise. It may turn out to be a test of tolerance: in this case, the Games begin after the TV is off.
Hanh: So things, ahem, came to a head last night [with the execution of de facto protagonist Ned Stark (Sean Bean)]. I was really shocked — enough that even reading the scene in the book, I had to flip back a few pages and make sure I read it correctly.
Rich: I love it. I've been hot and cold about this show throughout, but after that, it has my eternal respect.
Hanh: And strangely enough, even though I knew what was going to happen, I was still really emotionally wrecked watching it happen. I thought it was brilliantly done.
Rich: It was so well done. Up until the sword rose, I was sure Ned would get out in a Batman/Bond-esque machination.
Hanh: Exactly. I wonder if this is what audiences watching Psycho felt when their protagonist was killed.
Hanh: With Ned, you are so invested in his character as the heart of all that's good and proper.
Rich: And he's on the poster! Bean's name is atop everything! It's really just so courageous to kill him, and not alter the book's story line to serve sentimental viewers.
Hanh: True. I don't love Martin's writing style all the time, but I think as a storyteller, he sees things in such an epic, merciless way that I give him props.
Rich: We're constantly condescended to in pop culture via PG-13 or happy endings or whatever. I understand why (MONEY!) and so I understand the risk involved in this decision and it's just amazing.
Hanh: Exactly. After the death of Viserys (Harry Lloyd), I knew they wouldn't change Ned's, in essence, but I was wondering if they'd make it less dramatic. If anything, I think they captured how horrifying and shocking it was.
Rich: And then, so as not to be completely spiteful, focusing on the emotional weight of it vis-a-vis Arya (Maisie Williams) was just fantastic.
Hanh: Yes. That was sad that she knew what was going to happen to her dad. But Sansa (Sophie Turner) actually watched (I assume) and was distraught. I would be a wreck afterward.
Rich: Cersei (Lena Headey) even seemed horrified.
Hanh: Yes, you can tell by the way Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) introduced Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) that everyone expected him to grant Ned mercy. It was the wisest thing to do. Joffrey is such a punk. That speech about how women are weak and that's why he was going to kill Ned ... ugh.
Rich: Just when you thought you couldn't hate him more ...
Hanh: Ha! Jack Gleeson is inspirational. I wonder what fans say if they recognize him on the street. He killed Ned!
Rich: That whole being-held-responsible-for-what-your-character-does phenomenon must be a nightmare. I don't envy actors who plan villains. Hopefully, he has so much fun being bad on screen that it's worth it.
Hanh: I have to give the Game of Thrones fans credit, though. They seem to really appreciate that Sophie Turner is doing a great job of making Sansa unlikeable. Although ... now she's definitely in a more sympathetic position.
Rich: As truly satisfying as that death scene was, the unresolved "blood magic" scene was unsatisfying. I just want to know what Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) has gotten herself into! And why all of these life changes are happening at once! Talk about family issues! She is a one-woman dysfunctional family!
Hanh: You'll see in the next episode what's up with that. Daenerys has a huge part in the finale. It's crazy to think her character in the books was younger. When I was 13 I could barely deal with acne and school.
Hanh: Not much funny stuff in this episode, but I did like Varys' (Conleth Hill) line: "When I was a boy, before they cut my balls off with a hot knife ..."
Rich: Yes. I'm used to the modern eunuch who's elected to be that way, so that was a nice reminder of his being condemned basically.
Rich: I thought she was a whore of depth. She spouts feminine insight ("A girl who was almost raped doesn't invite another man into her bed two hours later") and possesses not your typical whore story (or so she says).
Hanh: She's very different from the books' Shae. Yes, they gave her way more depth, wisdom and chutzpah in this HBO version. The one in the books is rather younger, seemingly innocent and more about pleasing Tyrion. Not challenging or threating to cut out his eyes in any way.
Rich: Ah, interesting. Another example of the show being consciously woman-sensitive. I think it's better that way, anyway. Less predictable is a good way to be if you're a whore. Varies the market.
Hanh: Well, what I'm assuming here is that the writers are taking information from the author and what they know about future events to create a character who is more consistent with what is to come. It's kind of like Renly (Gethin Anthony) being gay. It's never really overtly referred to in the books, but it was hinted at. And George must have confirmed it to the writers, who decided to make a scene of it. Here's something odd: Tyrion actually got a few blows in and had some personal success in battle in the books. I'm wondering why the show decided to take away any prowess by knocking him out first thing.
Rich: Tyrion's very down and out this episode. Pun intended, obviously.
Hanh: Yeah. Oh, and how funny and cosy is it that Tyrion has game night with his whore and Bronn (Jerome Flynn)? Jenga, anyone?
Rich: They played "I never!"
Rich: I thought he was going to freeze her bra or put Bronn's hand in a bowl of water to make him pee himself.
Hanh: That's what we didn't see. Probably another night.
Rich: Another part of the original text has been excised, obviously! Oh, another thing: I was trying to wrap my head around the Frey association. The Freys run the land that the Starks were trying to pass? Are they a house technically?
Hanh: Yes, Walder Frey (David Bradley) is the head of House Frey. He owns the Twins (these two castles) and the bridge that goes between them. So they needed to cross in order to make their brilliant military move. Historically, House Frey was loyal to House Tully (Catelyn's peeps) but Lord Frey is so old and he has so many children, he kind of does what he wants. He's just very well situated. So that's why the only thing Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) could bribe him with were political marriages. Theon (Alfie Allen) is such a jerk, snickering about Robb's (Richard Madden) rather unattractive prospects for marriage in the Frey household. Even the boys in Game of Thrones have to subject themselves to such things.
Rich: Ha-ha, yes. Although that made me laugh, too, just the absurdity of arranged marriage.
Hanh: Oh yes! And of course I know arranged marriages still happen today, but I loved how it was all "confessed" to Robb. "And?"
Rich: Poor Arya, though. I just hope that her luck is better than Sansa's when it comes to being forced into marriage.
Hanh: Yes. I really feel for Arya. I'd love it if she just moved to Braavos and worked her way up to being a "dancing master." I guess the only thing left for discussing is Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his discussion with blind Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan).
Rich: My favorite line in the episode came from that exchange: "Love is the death of duty."
Hanh: Yeah. I remember reading it from the book and wondering if duty is all that it's cracked up to be.
Rich: Right. It also seems really ominous for Jon. Ned faced similar warning with similarly poetic and vague prose. Poetry is an omen!
Hanh: Ha! Those who use words elegantly in the series are the ones to watch out for. But let's say the ones who choose duty or ambition over love/loyalty. Are they happy? Or do they choose those things because it's safer in that you don't risk disappointment?
Rich: I think maybe that choice keeps you too occupied to really ponder happiness. Especially when your hands are literally full from the nature of your combat. It's kind of a way of circumventing human emotion.
Hanh: As fun as it is to watch, living in a Game of Thrones world would suck. I would not do well at all. I'd probably die young.
Rich: And, you know, happiness is elusive in general in Westeros, not just those who are wrapped up in duty and ambition. Is any character on this show actually happy?
Hanh: They have some happiness when it comes to their relationships I think. It's elusive, but it's there. I think that's why even though it's said to be a detriment at the Wall, I think Jon having had a relatively happy upbringing makes him stronger. Stronger than Samwell (John Bradley) at least, who was rejected since childhood and threatened by his own dad. Samwell being accepted into the black brotherhood is a kind of happiness for him I think.
Rich: What bleak happiness!
Hanh: Hey, you take what you can get!