|Sean Bean as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Photo courtesy of mamapop.com.|
Warning: SPOILERS for those who haven't yet seen "Baelor." Serious spoilers. Absolutely DO NOT read this if you haven't watched the episode.
Well, I don't think many people saw that coming.
I have known for quite a while that Sean Bean's Ned Stark would not survive the first season of Game of Thrones, because a certain person spoiled it for me before the series even began. (You know who you are.) However, even though I knew what was coming, I found myself with my heart in my throat, pleading with the TV gods to spare this man and cursing that awful little shit Joffrey with every breath. I watched the show with my dad, who did not know what was coming, and he was completely shocked by Ned's death.
Various reviewers are discussing the shocking twist at the end of episode, particularly the audaciousness required to kill the main character before the end of the first season. EW.com's recapper, James Hibberd, describes Ned Stark's death as "tragic and horrific and possibly unprecedented for a first-year show," while the AV Club's David Sims argues that the move is less audacious - largely because the show is based on a series of books - but still "a conclusion sure to blow the minds (and break the hearts) of all us non-initiated fans."
Killing Ned is an audacious move - albeit one that already happened in George R.R. Martin's novels - for two reasons. One, it establishes that literally no character on this show is safe. Other shows have tried to intimate that any character could die at any time, but despite Teri Bauer's death in 24's first season, everyone knew that Jack Bauer was going to survive, at least until the finale. The second season finale of The Vampire Diaries, as great as it was, also brought home this truth; the suspense wasn't about whether Ian Somerhalder's Damon was actually going to die, it was about the lengths to which Stefan and Elena would have to go in order to save him. With Ned's death, it has become clear that absolutely everyone is fair game, which puts all of our favorite characters in jeopardy.
Ned's death, however, is audacious for another reason, one that I find more compelling than the first. By killing Ned Stark, one of the few truly noble, honest characters on the show, Game of Thrones has demonstrated that this is no traditional fantasy epic. The noble characters will not survive because of their strength of character; rather, the more noble a character is, the more likely they are to lose the fight against manipulators like the Lannisters and Petyr Baelish. Robb may have won a battle and captured Jaime Lannister, but his father's death presents a bleak future for the rest of the noble Starks.
Ned's death scene was powerful because it was daring and shocking, but also because it was well shot and beautifully acted. The look on Joffrey's (Jack Gleeson's) face when he ordered Ned beheaded was truly disturbing, a malicious smile that contrasted beautifully with the grief, fear and horror present on Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya's (Maisie Williams) faces. Even Varys, who is always difficult to pin down, tried to save Ned at the end, but Joffrey's blood lust would not be slaked. To me, however, the most interesting reaction was not that of Joffrey, Sansa or Arya, even though all three young actors - particularly Williams and Gleeson - did an excellent job in that scene. I was instead fascinated by watching Lena Headey's Cersei, the woman who schemed to turn her son into what he is only to realize that even she can no longer control him. Cersei's look implied a realization that she had created an ungovernable monster, and there was fear in her eyes.
Lots of other great stuff happened in this episode - it appears that Khal Drogo is dying and Daenerys is losing her influence, and Tyrion had some wonderful scenes - but I can't really process it right now. I'm still reeling from Ned's death. I'll be back with more thoughts after next week's season finale, but right now all I can think about is that this is the beginning of the end, and that it doesn't look good. Robb is fighting a battle that he may not be able to win, Bran is alone in Winterfell, Arya is on the run, Jon is kept at the Wall and Sansa is trapped by Cersei and Joffrey. Things are certainly looking bleak for the Starks. Winter is coming.