To say that “Game of Thrones” is a unique television series feels like a gross understatement. I’ve been a fan of the books for several years now, so the first episode didn’t shock me. I was reminded while reading through some initial reactions around the web, though, of what it was like to read “A Song of Ice and Fire” for the very first time. George R.R. Martin, the series’ author, has a way of unsettling even the most stalwart fantasy reader, subjecting his characters to the very worst that Westeros can give them. HBO’s interpretation of the series has faithfully committed itself to the same standard. Nothing proved the network’s dedication to Martin’s vision as well as last week’s episode, “Baelor.”
A caveat: This article contains spoilers. If you wish to avoid them, stop reading now.
Despite the fact that it was airing opposite the Tony awards and the NBA Finals, episode 9 of “Game of Thrones” still managed to pull 3.4 million viewers on Sunday evening, drawing all of them close for one of the most shocking moments in TV history. Ned Stark’s death wasn’t unprecedented - we’ve seen major characters killed off in other shows - but the reaction to it certainly seems to be. In the wake of the beheading, the internet lit up with protestations and pledges to boycott HBO. The clamor was loud enough that HBO actually stepped up to defend the decision to keep Ned Stark’s death as a part of the story.
HBO programming president Sue Naegle told Entertainment Weekly she “loved” the twist. “The book series was filled with unexpected twists and turns,” said Naegle. I loved this idea we’d bring together the group of characters, then once you started to believe all the tropes of heroes, you pull the rug out from under them. It’s the opposite of feeling manipulated.”
I think Naegle said it beautifully, though many would probably argue that they were manipulated into caring for a character that would eventually be killed off. This raises some interesting questions about the nature of a story, and what we, as viewers, expect from a TV show. As I mentioned before, I had read the books, so seeing Sunday’s episode wasn’t a total shock for me. I don’t think it’s a stretch to see it coming though, which is part of what makes the writing for both the television and print series so strong.
Ned Stark has been at odds with the world since the very first episode. We see him as a ponderous and contemplative man, living out a marriage that is his only because of his duty to his brother. He is humble where every other Lord we meet is proud and arrogant. He accepts his call to King’s Landing despite his distaste for court, again, out of a sense of duty. He is possibly the lone honorable man in a world we understand as vast and corrupt, a world so twisted that one man couldn’t possibly save it. In fact, he looked incredibly unhappy for the majority of the series, a part Sean Bean plays to perfection. In some ways, Ned Stark’s death is almost a mercy.
That’s not to say his death was not sad. It was. It still is. There is a small pit in the part of my heart that loves a righteous character, but the shows that have given me such a visceral response are few and far between. I’m actually grateful to HBO for committing to a world that I can both love and fear and characters that I can both love and fear for. Ned Stark isn’t the only one to whom I would be sad to say goodbye. Arya, Jon, Robb, Drogo (despite his few lines), and even Jaime are all compelling enough that I want to keep them around. People are already calling down an Emmy for Peter Dinklage and his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister.
If I can take anything away from last week’s episode of “Game of Thrones,” it’s that more of television should be so gripping. If you were shocked, keep watching. If the death bummed you out, keep watching. If you’re upset, keep watching. Enjoy those feelings. Let them tie you to the rest of the characters. You won't get the chance to experience a story like this very often.