A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I play a game that has the potential for losing fingers...

"But I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago." -Ned

"The Wire" was often referred to as "a novel for television," and its seasons tended to be structured the same way many great novels are: slow going in the early chapters as you get to know all the players and stakes, but by the time you get towards the end, all you want to do is keep turning the pages (or turning on new episodes) faster and faster. (It's why I generally tell "Wire" novices not to sample the series unless they have three or four hours in a row available to sample a bunch of episodes at once.)

"Game of Thrones" is even more literally a novel for television, and these last few episodes have reminded me very much of late-season "Wire" outings. I liked the early episodes a lot, but they had to shoulder a heavy burden of introducing us to this world, these people and all their conflicts and history. We're largely past all that now (though one of the best scenes in "Baelor" involves yet another history lesson), and now the story can just hurtle forwards, with the tension building and building as we witness one major event after another.

And events in this series so far don't get any bigger than the execution of Ned Stark.

Wow.

I believe George R.R. Martin has said that he wanted readers to never consider any character to be particularly safe. But, of course, lots of writers say that and then mainly kill off people on the fringes. (Even Robert's death a couple of weeks ago would qualify, as he was someone who was usually talked about more than he was seen.) But Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, and the closest thing this sprawling saga had to a central character in its early days?

And "Baelor," written by Benioff and Weiss and masterfully directed by HBO veteran Alan Taylor, treated the death - and the build-up to it - with the appropriate level of gravity. Even though at this point even many of us who hadn't read the books imagined something like this was coming, it's still such a foundation-shaking event that it's not something to be tossed off. This is big, and it felt big.

It helped that this episode managed to give Ned back a bit of the dignity he'd lost in the last few episodes, where he'd seemed so incredibly naive that there was a LOLCats-style internet meme called Stupid Ned Stark. And it's not that all his previous decisions suddenly seemed brilliant, but rather that Sean Bean's great performance and the work of the creative team helped remind us of the nobility and decency of this man, whose insistence on doing things the right way - and foolish but good-hearted belief that others would do the same - led him to that moment where his neck was at the mercy of petulant boy king Joffrey.

That final scene was so gorgeously shot, and the weariness of Bean's performance and the horror of Maisie Williams' so perfectly conveyed the emotions of it, even as things seemed so chaotic. In an earlier scene at the Wall, blind old Eamonn tells Jon Snow that the men of the Nights Watch aren't allowed to have families, because what man could choose family over duty? Jon replies that his father could, but in the end, it seems that even Ned couldn't entirely. He might have made his bogus confession because of what Varys said about ending the war peacefully, but the way the scene was staged and edited suggests at least part of his motivation was to spare his beloved Arya from seeing him murdered. Whatever his motivation, though, it doesn't work, because Ned has once again foolishly expected less noble men (or, in this case, boys) to keep their word. He dies anyway, the war continues, and he doesn't even get the opportunity to publicly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the new king - a king who, unlike his victim here, doesn't believe that the man who delivers the death sentence should be the one to carry it out.

Ned's confession accomplishes little. Arya is spared the sight itself by the recruiter from the Nights Watch, but Ned dies, the war continues, and now the best Robb can do with Jaime is to trade him for his sisters.

As you know, I haven't read the books (and will likely hold off on even sampling the first one until whenever the TV series is done), but I suspect next week's finale is going to have a lot of ground to cover, even if it leaves many things open for future books/seasons. But Robert's dead. Ned is dead. Drogo is dying, though the witch could save him. At this point, no one seems the least bit safe, from the characters we love to the ones we despise.

I cannot wait to see how the season ends.

Some other thoughts:

• When I interviewed George R.R. Martin before the season, he said one of the things he'd be curious to see in the adapation was how Benioff, Weiss and company wound up depicting the battle scenes. This week, at least, the answer was "by skipping over them entirely." In the case of the battle where Robb takes Jaime prisoner, Martin made it sound like the book didn't really show it, either, but depicted it via Catelyn up on the bluff trying to make things out through the night sky. But it sounds like the earlier battle went on quite a bit longer in the book before Tyrion got knocked out. Ideally, we'd get a few epic, "Braveheart"-level battle scenes at some point, but I also respect the demands of time and budget here. Those kinds of sequences cost a fortune, and they eat up a lot of screen time, and I think ultimately I'd have rather had the time, say, that we spent in Tyrion's tent the night before the battle, with the mortifying story of his ex-wife, and then whatever it cost to make the execution sequence look as good as it did, than for the episode to have given us one or two long fight scenes.

• Also, the most exciting part of the war stuff in general was the aftermath of the first battle, when Tywin realized he had been tricked by Robb - who had a very good reason for letting the scout go free - and that the majority of the northern bannermen were causing trouble someplace else. Where Ned was, it turned out, best-suited as a follower, his son may just have the necessary fire and brains to be a fine leader.

• Skipping over the battles also gave us time for an extended visit to the Dothraki camp, to show just how ill Drogo is, and how vulnerable Dany has become as a result, even with the very capable Jorah Mormont at her side. And the depiction of the witch's magic at work - from the blood raining on Drogo and Dany as the horse's throat is cut to those horrible sounds emanating from the tent - made the long-dormant magic of this world seem very, very real.

• I tend to view casting news as a gray area when it comes to my no-spoiler rules, but I have to admit that I got a big honking clue that Ned wouldn't survive the season when I learned before the "Game" premiere that Sean Bean had already been cast in ABC's mid-season drama "Missing." Sometimes, actors who already have regular series roles will take another job in what's called "second position," where they only stay with that job if the original show gets canceled. It's a way for performers to hedge their bets if they're not sure of their current job's future. But none of the Bean/"Missing" stories mentioned it being in second position, and... here we are. Still, by the time we got to this episode, it was pretty clear Ned wasn't long for Westeros, even before Joffrey got all capricious at the end.  

• I don't know if this was intentional, but our brief glimpse of House Frey when Catelyn went to petition for the army to cross the Twins made that family look a bit like an elderly funhouse mirror version of House Stark, complete with a bastard son sitting around being yelled at.

• Speaking of the Twins, the main titles expanded to include them this week, meanwhile skipping over our visit to the Eyrie. Interestingly, though, the credits have always featured the Wall and the Dothraki homeland, even in episodes that didn't feature Jon Snow and/or Dany. So it seems that certain locations are always going to be constants, while other corners of Westeros will be ported in and out depending on where the story is.

• Is this the first explicit mention of the Castle Black commander being Jorah Mormont's father? I figured it out from extra-curricular research back when I was first watching the series, but I can't remember if he's ever been referred to on the show as a Mormont, or if the link was clearly drawn in some other way.

• The news that Eamonn is also a Targaryen was fascinating for a few reasons. First, it means Dany's not the only survivor of the family out there. Second, it suggests that either Robert forgot there was a relative of the Mad King left to kill, or that being in the Night's Watch really is treated like a form of safe exile - and that Ned might have done okay up there were it not for Joffrey wanting to beat his chest in front of the crowd.

• Bronn is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters. He's just completely unimpressed by everyone, and/or so confident in his own combat skills that he doesn't worry about offending people with his unapolgetic lack of refinement.

• Interesting how several scenes this week feature characters talking about what the dead do and don't hear, with Tyrion insisting that he'd know if Shae wept for him if he were to fall in battle, while Robb dismisses Theon's talk of songs being sung for the 2000 fallen bannermen because "the dead won't hear them."

For the next-to-last time this season, let me remind you that we are here to discuss the show AS A TV SHOW, and not just as an endless series of compare/contrasts with the books. If you want to bring up events from the books that have already been depicted on the show, that's fine to a degree, but anything - plot, backstory, motivation, what have you - that has yet to be revealed on the show itself is absolutely off-limits. Any comment containing anything I find even remotely questionable will be deleted. Period.

What did everybody else think?