Game of Thrones: When Heads Roll and Games Change


**WARNING: The below post contains plot spoilers from the most recent episode of
Game of Thrones. If you have not watched episode 9 – titled “Baelor” – and still want to be surprised by its ending, read no further.**

When I first learned that the Song of Ice and Fire book series was being adapted for television, this is the singular moment I was waiting for. Ned’s execution was the moment that convinced me I was reading a wholly unique story and made me commit for the long haul.

Ned’s death is significant both in a literary and meta sense. It increases the drama and tension within the story itself and puts several plotlines in motion that run for the entire series. But it also is a message to the audience that no character is safe and that anyone can and will die if it serves the story.

Ned is essentially the only “good” adult character in the first book of the series. He is honorable, straightforward and honest, and has been a loving father and husband. But it is those very traits that first get him into trouble, and then ultimately lead to him publicly shaming himself just before his death.

His death is not merely a plot device or intended for shock value. It makes sense in the story and was the culmination of several weeks of buildup. Most viewers just didn’t catch the signs because they assumed the character couldn’t possibly die.

Killing such a character is a risky move, and one that new viewers are mistakenly attributing to HBO. They had nothing to do with the plot itself; that honor goes to author George R.R. Martin alone. But the network’s risky move came long ago, before the Game of Thrones TV series began.

As soon as HBO’s press releases, tours and advertisements about the show began, they elected to put all their focus on Ned. Actor Sean Bean was the biggest name in a talented cast and he was the bankable star.

The image of Bean sitting on the Iron Throne was plastered on everything HBO ran relating to the show. Billboards featuring him hang throughout the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if that same image is the cover art for the DVD once it is released.

All of that advertisement framed Game of Thrones as “the Sean Bean story.” His previous headlining role came as Boromir in the Lord of the Rings films, so he seemed perfectly suited to being the leading man in a fantasy TV show.

But HBO did all that knowing full well that Bean’s character would not make it out of the first season. They knew they would have to replace all their billboard images after only one year, but did it anyway.

They hoped to attract people with name recognition and then keep them because of the quality of the story. For the most part, the show has been so excellent I think the plan has worked.

However, fans who did not read the books cried out in anger after the final scene of Sunday’s episode. That was supposed to be their reaction. They were supposed to be furious that an evil brat of a king managed to kill the supposed hero of the story.

Videos (like the funny one below) came out across YouTube depicting viewers’ visceral reactions to Ned’s death. Some included crying, but most just featured streams of obscenities.

On one hand, such reactions are a good sign. It means the show has been so well done and has developed such a connection with people that they feel genuine emotion based on what happens in the story.

But other people have taken those reactions one step too far. Immediately following Sunday’s final scene, Twitter exploded with people proclaiming that they were abandoning the show. “How can you kill the main character?!” they said. “He was good and righteous, how could he die? I can’t watch a show where the good guys die.”

But that is exactly the point. With most TV shows that feature significant conflict, the only question you ask yourself is “How can they get out of this one?” Things never get any deeper.

That is probably the same question people were asking about Ned when he first was captured. “Everything seems to be going against him. How can he get out of it?” Well, the short answer is, “He can’t.”

With one swing of a headsman’s sword, Game of Thrones changed the entire mentality of its audience. When characters ride into battle or a swordfight ensues, viewers subconsciously will stop asking “I wonder how the good guys will win?” and start asking “I wonder IF the good guys will win?”

Every scene and every conflict ends up being exponentially more interesting and dramatic because you genuinely don’t know how things will play out. When your favorite character is embroiled in a conflict, you sit on the edge of your seat hoping and praying they make it to the next episode.

That is what made the books so enthralling. You found yourself not being able to predict what would happen next and you just had to flip the next page to make sure a character was still safe. Then you looked up, saw it was dark outside and discovered you had kept “just flipping the next page” 200 times.

Viewers whose instant reaction was to boycott the show need to rethink their stance. Realize that if a show inspired such an outpouring of emotion from you, it means it has impacted you in ways that are rare for the small screen.

Wait and see how the story progresses from here, don’t just dismiss it out of hand because it gave you something you weren’t expecting. Isn’t that what we want from television and film? To surprise us, shock us and occasionally break our hearts? If you could always predict what happens next, what would be the point of watching?

Other fans are quick to dismiss the boycotters and tell them not to continue watching if they are going to become so upset about one death. But that isn’t the right mentality either.

As a fan of the show and the books, I want as many people as possible to experience this story. It is possibly the greatest I have ever read and has spawned one of the best TV shows in recent memory. Sunday’s episode is probably the best hour of television I have seen in the last year, and Ned’s death scene was so good my jaw hit the floor. And I knew what was coming.

So don’t bail on the show simply because something unexpected happens, but don’t send people away for overreacting either. Ned’s death is just the first of many such unexpected plot twists, and I want the show to maintain enough viewers that it gets to tell all those stories.

We may be nine episodes into the story already, but this basically has just been a prologue. From here, we get vastly different views of certain characters, while hardships inextricably change others. It becomes an exceptional story with several interwoven plotlines, and it all begins with Ned’s death.

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