Editor’s note: This is part of a series of essays revisiting our favorite scenes in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Read the previous installments here.
There really is something spooky about the sound pigeons’ wings make. A person could be forgiven for ascribing some kind of metaphysical meaning to it.
People who tuned in to Game of Thrones as fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were perhaps prepared for it. Or at least they knew to expect it. For those of us who went into the TV series cold, it was the first conclusive proof that we weren’t going to be able to count on any of the usual narrative conventions. Especially the one where the moral center/main character survives because at some level it’s his story. I didn’t believe Ned Stark was going to lose his head. Not really. How could they do that? Without him, there was no story. Right?
It’s not the goriest death in Game of Thrones by a long mile, but it’s probably still the most shocking. Arya, hiding in the streets of King’s Landing, captures a pigeon and tries to trade it to a baker for food. A commotion erupts and someone tells her the Hand of the King is being taken to the Sept of Baelor. She races to the plaza and climbs the pedestal of the statue of Baelor to get a clear view. From that vantage point, she sees him—and he sees her, in a gut-wrenching zoom, empty sky behind her, milling throngs below. He yells for Yoren, the Night’s Watch brother, to go to the statue. Sansa looks relieved that he’s going to make his false confession of treason. Petyr Baelish watches with a smug inscrutability. For the sake of his daughters, Ned makes a bogus confession that would kill someone so constitutionally honest and just almost as surely as a sword would. It hurts just listening to it. And then… that sadistic little bastard Joffrey breaks his part of the bargain and orders Ned’s execution anyway. We cut to Arya and the camera begins to swirl around the statue, making it look as if she herself is rotating in space. Yoren finds her in the crowd and holds her against his chest so she can’t see what’s happening.
And the unthinkable happens. Right there, on the steps of the cathedral with the whole city watching, her father is beheaded with his own sword. Arya looks up and sees pigeons flying away. A person could be forgiven for thinking of souls leaving bodies, or embodied prayers, or the slipping away of anything, really: hope, dreams, faith, peace, mercy.
It’s shattering as a story point, but it’s also edited so beautifully you could watch it 10 times and notice something new every time. The way the music swells as Ned realizes he’s confessed for nothing, followed by the roar of the mob and Sansa screaming. Then it all becomes muted, and the sound of Ned’s breathing gets louder and louder. The prayer he mutters under his breath. The drawn-out moments between Joffrey screaming for Ned’s head and the sword actually falling. The terrible unreality of it. And the laser precision of the cut that happens just as the sword meets his flesh, where we go back to Arya, pressing her face against Yoren’s shirt, looking up at the sky, watching the birds fly away.
Everything changes in an instant. The characters’ lives. The political landscape. Our expectations, which are replaced with a new expectation: Beware penultimate episodes! As viewers we become supremely aware that these characters, however central, however sympathetic, however much we love them—indeed, often in direct proportion to how much we love them—are chess pieces the unseen hands of the players will strike from the board at any time, in service to whatever longer-range goal (Shah mat, valar morghulis, long live the king). It’s cruel, and it’s cruel because it’s real. Everyone we love will die. That’s a cold fact. Why is it so utterly shocking that a TV show pointed it out? But it is. Thousands of deaths later, it’s still shocking. Several seasons from this moment, Jaqen H’gar will level a look at Arya for noting that the actress she has agreed to assassinate seems like a good actress and perhaps a good person.
“Does death only come for the wicked and leave the decent behind?”
And she’ll say “No.” And we’ll be able to see from her expression that she’s thinking about this moment.
Read our complete coverage of Game of Thrones’ final season here.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.