I came a little late to Game of Thrones. Two seasons had already lapsed, and then before the third, HBO did one of those free-trial weekends and they marathoned the first couple seasons before the premiere of the third. I decided to watch it, but fantasy is very hit and miss with me. I don’t love all fantasy equally. I didn’t really get into Thrones for most of the first season. I liked Arya, and Cersei was a villain I would clearly love to hate (JUSTICE FOR LADY), but a lot of the characters were boring. Jon Snow, Robb Stark, Theon Greyjoy—none of them interested me. (Theon was clearly a worm and I don’t invest in worms.) Sansa was a total pill, and Catelyn was a little interesting, but I wasn’t sold on the Stark family yet. Daenerys had potential but her season one storyline was a little rocky, and I wasn’t into the weird sexual politics of the show (honestly, that never really got better). I was kind of “eh” on Thrones going into the season one penultimate episode, “Baelor”. 

But then “Baelor” happened, and I. WAS. IN. This is the episode I recommend to Thrones newbies because it’s the one that best exemplifies the emotional roller coaster of watching this show, and if you watch “Baelor” and are okay with it, then you’re going to be okay with the rest of the show. Obviously, book readers knew what was coming, but for non-book readers, the first season seems to set up a scenario in which Ned Stark is pitted against Cersei Lannister. In a way, that is what happened, Stark vs. Lannister, but Ned was not the hero, he was not the protagonist we were committing to follow for the next however many seasons. Because he got his f-cking head cut off!

It was looking grim for Ned in the episodes leading up to “Baelor”, and it was immediately clear that telling Cersei he knew the truth about her illegitimate incest-children was a HUGE mistake, but really think back to how that first season operated, and how central Ned was to everything. It was obviously an ensemble, but there are always anchors, and Ned seemed like a key anchor to the whole story. So when he got his f-cking head cut off, I leapt off my couch and shouted, “OH SH-T!” It was like watching Lord of the Rings, and Gandalf dies, but then he DOESN’T COME BACK. Fantasy isn’t my favorite genre, but I’ve read/seen enough to know that there is usually an eleventh-hour reprieve, often some magic bullsh-t that happens to save the hero at the last second, so I was shocked when Ned Stark, the once and future protagonist, f-cking CORKED IT nine episodes in! 

And then the story just went into freefall. Suddenly, no one was safe, because this was a story where the presumed lead character can actually die! There was no guarantee that Arya would be safe as she attempted to flee King’s Landing—I fully expected her to die next, on her way out of town—and Sansa suddenly became a prime target. I thought FOR SURE Sansa would die multiple times in seasons two and three. After Ned died, I became totally absorbed in Thrones. I had been happy, in the eight hours leading up to that, to watch with only half my attention, to do other things, like fold laundry, while episodes played. But after Ned died, I sat my ass down and watched, transfixed. Because I didn’t know what would happen next. The common tropes and typical rules were out the window. This was a world where literally anything could happen. 

By the time the Red Wedding rolled around, I wasn’t shocked. It was not my leap-off-the-couch moment, because I already had that with “Baelor”. The Red Wedding is gut-wrenching to watch, and a masterclass in foreshadowing and tension, but by that point, I just assumed any character could die at any moment and as soon as the music turned ominous, I figured heads would start rolling. The fact that noble, heroic Robb Stark got murdered at a party made total sense when you remember how his noble, heroic dad got his f-cking head cut off. The whittling away of the Stark family seemed like Ned’s true legacy. And, speaking of the Red Wedding, “Baelor” is also the episode where that plot is set in motion, as Catelyn makes a deal on Robb’s behalf which Robb will not uphold. 

“Baleor” is the best litmus test for whether or not you can stomach this series, but it is also the moment when so many stories truly begin. “Baelor” is when Arya begins her journey that ends with A Girl and her list of names, it’s Sansa’s first real lesson in playing the game of thrones, it’s the first step toward Robb Stark’s downfall, it sets the stage for the Battle of the Blackwater; Jon Snow receives Longclaw, and Daenerys makes a choice that alters her path forever. This one episode sets the stage for the Red Wedding, the Mother of Dragons, Lord Commander Jon Snow, and it puts House Stark on a collision course with House Lannister, a conflict that is still ongoing. “Baelor” isn’t the heart of Game of Thrones, it’s the engine that drives the whole story.