The kingdoms of Nunziata, Miller and Rappe show up for the execution.

Josh: Hey guys. I missed the last 30 seconds of Thrones this week because of a DVR fuck up. I didn’t miss anything right? It just ended with a cliffhanger, with Ned about to be decapitated? He’ll obviously be saved by someone at the beginning of the next episode… right?

So episode nine, “Baelor,” (the name of the man whose statue Arya is cowering on at the end, and the word Ned tells that Night Watch man to let him know she’s there) concluded with the cut-to-black/chopping sound surely heard around the fantasy TV world. HBO just pulled a Psycho on unsuspecting fans, considering that Thrones was heavily advertised with Sean Bean — before the series started I had a friend refer to Thrones as “that new Boromir show.” People were shocked when Wild Bill got shot on Deadwood in the first season (unless they were familiar with history). That death was comparable to King Robert dying suddenly here. Just imagine of Seth Bullock had also been murdered a few episodes later! This is an emotionally devastating loss.

Yet so much else also happened in this episode. Khal Drogo slipped from his “throne,” and that “throne” had its throat slit and sprayed blood everywhere. Rob Stark sacrificed 2,000 of his men, but captured The Kingslayer. Catelyn Stark arranged some unhappy marriages for her children with the custodian from the Harry Potter movies. The most human character on the show, Tyrion ‘the Imp’ Lannister, was humanized even further. We learned that old ass Maester Aemon is a Targaryen and was once in line to rule the Seven Kingdoms before taking the black. And Jon Snow was given a sweet sword originally intended for the disgraced but totally badass Jorah Mormont; who jammed his own sword into a Dothraki chump’s face this week.

But the newly headless Ned Stark is obviously the elephant in the room here. So guys, what were the reactions to the final moments of “Baelor” in Denver and Atlanta?

Elisabeth: I’ve been waiting on the edge of my seat for this episode, choking back a sniffle any time I saw the promo art — “You won’t last the season, Ned Stark!” — and it didn’t disappoint.  Ned Stark’s exit was handled with the right amount of horror, emotion, and shock value that undoubtedly unnerved a lot of people. In my house, there were a lot of jokes of “I bet Ned bites it because Sean Bean never lasts to a sequel!”, but once it happened, I saw a lot of wide eyes and murmured “No — no, they CAN’T have done that!”

I really liked that he and Arya got one tiny farewell exchange. It’s a little bittersweet — she’s out in the midst of screaming, howling mob — but the show seems so determined to keep these characters away from one another that it was kind of a relief for me to see these two share a glance, even if it was in the most dire and doomed of circumstances.  And I’m glad she didn’t have to see, as opposed to Sansa, who has now seen two beloved heads go under the Lannister sword.

It’s funny, but while “Winter is coming” is the sort of catchall, summary theme of the series, I think Jaime Lannister’s declaration of “The things I do for love!” sums up every damn character in the season much, much better.  Jaime and Cersei, Sansa and Joffrey, Catelyn and Ned for Bran, Robert, and the realm, Robb for his father, Danerys for Drogo, Tyrion for Tysha … it’s just sort of this twisted, bitter mess of what people will do and say, in the end, for those things that are closest to them. Honor and duty suddenly fall by the wayside, and in those last moments of life, you’ll forswear yourself and your name if you can just save someone else. It’s a theme I don’t think I ever picked up on in the books, and that’s something the show’s brisk editing has really aided and abetted. The themes get tightened, and the somber words of Master Aemon come back to echo over poor Ned. For it’s tendency to lose its way up a whore’s skirt, it can deliver the emotional beats when it needs to, and that’s something that I’m VERY glad to be wrong about.

Nick: If there was ever a doubt that Joffrey was the biggest dick since dicks were invented this episode sealed it. I read and discovered that Mr. Stark’s head wasn’t long for this world and if I have one gripe about the way it was handled it was that I wasn’t happy with the final moments we had with Sean Bean. The guy carries so much weight and is so easy to love it’d had been nice for them to give the actor a last hurrah before the end. The moment where he looks for his daughter and she’s gone from the statue of Baelor is heartbreaking and cool at the same time. One one hand, he doesn’t get to leave the world while seeing something he loves. On the other, she’s been whisked away towards safety, which he had to sense. Still, to end the way they did was perfect. And it sucked. I knew it was coming and it sucked.

Josh: Maester’s Aemon’s speech to Jon was great, great writing (with a great performance by Time Bandits‘ Peter Vaughan), and pretty fantastic thematic exposition. As we’ve talked about before, Ned is honorable to a selfish T. He would have sent the entire kingdom plunging head over heels into lengthy bloody war rather the dishonor himself. He views The Spider as a disgusting amoral wretch, when objectively The Spider may be the most truly morally respectable adult character on the show (he is unconcerned with personal bullshit like honor or bloodlines; he wants peace above all). But even the great immovable stone, Ned Strack, was undone by love in the end. I like what you say, Rappe, about “The things I do for love.” Quite true. George RR Martin has given us a very cruel, tragically real world where acting on love does not automatically lead to Hollywood happy endings. Compassion is not oft rewarded on Thrones. In a sense, Martin’s world is the anti-Tolkien.The fact that Bilbo spared Golum’s life ultimately helped destroy the ring. One suspects that had Martin written LOTR, sparing Gollum’s life would prove a fatal mistake. Joffrey is indeed the dick to end all dicks. Ned should have sent a raven to King Robert’s hunting party and let Robert brain the little creep against a stone wall. I pity Jack Gleeson. He’s doing a bang-up job with the character, but I swear if I ever see that kid in real-life, and I’m not stone sober, he’s getting bitch slapped.

Unlike Lost or even The Sopranos, I think that Thrones has quite definitively established that NO CHARACTER is safe in the long-run here. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest which characters the audience takes a fancy to. Martin’s series will be five books deep next month. Many tombstones have already been chiseled out.

Nick: I don’t understand why people would be so blown away by the changing of the guard as it were. Sean Bean’s history notwithstanding, you WANT a show that offers unpredictability. So many shows have tense moments and twists and cliffhangers but the status quo really isn’t all that different. This is a game (of thrones) changer. The tapestry of the show is drastically different. The “good guys” had a moral face and effective warrior at the front. Now they have scattered young men who mean well but brashness can’t match experience. It simply makes for better television.

Elisabeth: Speaking of those brash warriors, I was really let down by Robb’s big battle. The series had a save in the fact that Tyrion managed to get knocked out saved them having to film one, but…they really couldn’t pull out any of those Eyrie soldiers or King’s Landing guards that they’ve got on staff to have a proper battle or charge?  I kept thinking that the penny pinching was really going to pay off in these final episodes where the swords actually come out. But we got the old “Hey, the battle was pretty crazy, huh? We won!”  I didn’t think the sheer skill and daring of Robb’s victory came through very well.  Couldn’t they at least have given us a bloodstained Grey Wind trotting alongside Robb? I think we’ve seen more horses bite it than people. Did all the money go for horse corpses?  I mentioned this elsewhere and took a lot of flak for it, so I fully expect to here, but Starz and Showtime have manage to pull off some impressive battle sequences with tiny budgets. I’m really surprised they didn’t get a little more bang for their buck here.

Josh: Knowing what I know about how budgeting works on a TV series, I never bought the idea (that some had proposed) that Thrones had skimped early in the season so they could use all that money for giant battles at the end of the season. So, honestly, I wasn’t that surprised that we didn’t see any epic clashing of armies here. Though, I was surprise by one thing — before the series ever started, my friend and I were trying to figure out what elements HBO would change for the series; namely what things they would show us on the series that weren’t “shown” to us in the book. We both agreed that surely they would show how Jaime Lannister was defeated. It really surprised me that they didn’t. I don’t think it diminishes the plot point of him being captured at all, but purely from an exciting-TV perspective it seems an odd decision. And I don’t think budget had anything to do with it. It can’t have been very expensive to stage a single fight, especially one that could have been played off as happening away from the main deluge of carnage. Clearly David Benioff and D. B. Weiss thought this made things more, I guess, surprising? Though certainly less suspenseful. The books really played up the idea that Jaime Lannister is the greatest swordsman in the Seven Kingdoms, and is basically unbeatable. The show hasn’t done that as much — he seems like a badass among many badasses. So I suppose non-reader viewers won’t have the same nagging “but how?!?!” feeling I did while reading the book. And as you said, Rappe, the device of Tyrion being knocked out deftly smoothed things over nicely.

Speaking of Tyrion. How fucking amazing was that drinking game scene?! Jebus christus, I loved that scene. “It’s fun. Look at the fun we’re having.” I’ve never seen Sibel Kekilli – who plays Tyrion’s prostitute Shae – before, but I am in love. Shae was an okay character in the book, but thus far here she is exceeding Martin’s presentation of her. While the idea that a whore would be so cavalier with a powerful john like Tyrion, especially in front of his buddy/servant, isn’t super realistic, I didn’t give a shit. Great scenework is great scenework. And Bron is proving an utterly delightful comic relief. Jerome Flynn is starting to give Dinklage a run for his money when it comes to facial acting — Flynn is doing wonders with the little smirks and shrugs he gives Bron.

Nick: Your last paragraph: YES. I fell in love with her too. I also think Bron is incredible. He and Tyrion are an amazing tandem and they bring so much energy and vitality to the Lannister side. In a lot of ways Bron is the most compelling character on the show. Boba Fett with Dengar’s face.

Josh: Totally Boba Fett. And Jorah Mormont continues his slow ascension of awesomeness as well. These two characters have become major scene stealers.

Elisabeth: I…I haven’t fallen in love with anyone. 🙁 Although I have to say, after Roslyn the Waxer, I was really worried about how Shae was going to be presented.  I was expecting to be like “Yeah yeah, HBO, get over it” but she was quite classy and seductive.

I’m also quite fond of Bronn and Ser Jorah.  The scenes really crackle when they show up.  It’s the reverse of the book, where I just couldn’t get a clear picture of either character. The standout for me was Sandor Clegane, and I fully expected people to be buzzing about this snarly, burned badass. I’m still not sure why they’ve reduced him to a piece of set decoration, as he was here during Ned’s execution.

Josh: I guess, for whatever reason, Benioff and Weiss just weren’t that taken with The Hound. Or at least didn’t see him as useful or necessary for the needs of the show, as they only use him when the plot absolutely requires. Conversely, Jorah Mormont didn’t feel that relevant or interesting in the book to me, but B&W realized how he could be extremely relevant on the series — he’s the bridge back to the Seven Kingdoms for the Dothraki storyline and a necessary tool for exposition.

I love the politics, or rather lack thereof, with the Dothraki. After over a half-season of blah episodes, the Daenerys thread has quickly become extremely exciting. For a fantasy show Thrones has been fairly unfantastical, so I wondered how it would feel when magic entered the picture. But it felt very natural. We know magic is happening, but its the Old World gypsy style of magic. It seems plausible. I don’t know that I could have accepted wands and staffs and lightning bolts coming from people’s fingers. But horse-slaying spells work for me.

Elisabeth: It helps that we’re finally seeing more than two Dothraki! It’s too bad they didn’t throw out a little of this during the Vaes Dothrak scene (where you got some dim glimpse of their religion and organization) or one of their battles.

You bring up a good point about the magic, and the trouble with introducing it.  Martin’s book always seemed so torn on the topic — he himself insists its a world where magic once existed, and there’s remnants of it, but the characters have all hit this “I don’t know, it was probably all smoke and mirrors” phase of skepticism.   The show has gently worked a lot of that out. Beyond the dragon skeletons  and whatever lies beyond the Wall, we haven’t really had characters mention magic or spells in any appreciable way.   And now you have a gypsy conjuring up the dead like it’s no big deal.  I’m curious how that went over with non-readers.  Did a portion of the audience stand up, annoyed, and say “I was told there would be no magic on this show! BAH!”

Nick: Charles Dance, Dinklage, Bron, horse damage… I don’t know what the hell else we need in a show. Oh, and I did a search on Google for Sibel Kekilli. So it turns out she’s a German/Turkish porn star. The rest of my day is a blur.

Josh: Whaaaaaaaaaaa? [goes off to confirm for himself] Well, well. What a world.

I can’t believe we only have one episode left. As taken as I was with Thrones from the beginning, the show didn’t quite hit its stride until episode 6 (“The Golden Crown”). It is all coming to a close too soon. I want more dammit! Mooooore!