Note: This article contains spoilers for Season 1 of Game of Thrones. If you have not watched it yet and want to, I suggest you go do it now.
Late last year the natural order of television entertainment was upset, turned over, rolled. For in the natural order, there is the hero who struggles against all the bad things in his world, suffers setbacks and battles difficulties, and eventually triumphs.
Then Ned Stark lost his head.
A collective gasp rose from the audience, both within the world of the show and watching at home. Ned was the epitome of a fantasy hero: strong, honourable, dedicated. And he was Sean Bean, a much-loved actor and “man’s man”, the kind men wanted to be mates with and women wanted to be with. HBO rightly put him front and center of all their Game of Thrones marketing. Here was a star that the audience would follow.
You don’t kill your star at the end of the first season.
But this is Game of Thrones, based upon the novel series by George R. R. Martin called “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Martin takes many of the fantasy tropes readers are trained to expect and take for granted and turns them on their head. Instead he brings us an epic that feels grounded in reality, dirty and sweaty and horrible and magnificent. Good guys are undone by their want to do what’s right. Bad guys often come out on top. Good and bad are shades of grey. What is truth is often a point of view. People make decisions and live with the consequences, for good or ill. And sometimes the people we love die.
The first season of Game of Thrones played right up to what the audience expected. Those who had not read the book – the viewing majority – had no idea of the turn the series was to take. In Hollywood, the hero is saved at the last minute. The moments up to Ned’s execution were spent wondering how we was going to get out of it, even when no escape seemed possible. Would Queen Cersei over rule her son? Would Arya leap up the steps and using her swordplay skills rescue her father? Would mysterious Night’s Watchman Yoren save him instead? None of this happened and we the audience could only watch as Ned accepted his fate and the swordsman took his life.
Ned’s death however was the spark that lit the fire of the rest of the story. In death, he inspired his son Robb to rise up against the Iron Throne and become a King himself; his daguther Arya he inspired to escape and vow revenge on all who wronged her and her family; his wife Caetlyn he inspired to vow to rescue her daughters and then “kill them all”. Without Ned’s death, Stannis Baratheon may have accepted the boy King Joffrey and being such a stickler for the rule of law joined his House to Lannister against his brother Renly. With his father gone to the Wall and his sisters returned, Robb may have given up his crusade and gone home to take on his father’s duties as Lord of Winterfell. Even Danerys, across the Narrow Sea, may do things differently when she learned that the Seven Kingdoms remained united.
So the first season of Game of Thrones is one epic long prologue. Which makes it all the more awesome, as seen in that light we realise that Game of Thrones the TV series is one long story, already planned (even if some of it is still in Martin’s head). That makes it all the more exciting. And now that television had crossed the line of character safety, where in the words of young Arya “anyone can be killed”, the doors of plot possibilities are open wide. As more big names flock to television for the high standard of writing and excellent production values, we can expect many more epic things to come. Ned’s death was not in vain; his influence will be felt far beyond the Game of Thrones.