Even The Sopranos never dared to pull this kind of sneak attack. HBO’s Game of Thrones blindsided viewers last week by delivering one of the most shocking twists in TV history: killing a main character after a mere nine episodes. Sean Bean’s noble, battle-weary patriarch, Eddard Stark, was falsely accused of being a traitor and then executed by a newly crowned teenage king. That Stark was unexpectedly beheaded before a crowd that included his two young daughters, Sansa and Arya, made the scene all the more horrifying.
”From your training in seeing so many movies and reading books, you know your hero is going to be saved,” says executive producer David Benioff. ”Is Arya going to [rescue him]? Does the queen have some trick up her sleeve? Someone has a plan, because they’re not really going to chop off his head.”
But they did. And the move flew against decades of TV tradition. Networks don’t just cast a star like Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), spend millions promoting him in ads, then get rid of the actor in the first season. When the producers of Lost had the similar notion of killing Matthew Fox’s Jack Shephard during the show’s two-hour pilot, ABC executives balked at the idea.
Yes, Ned does lose his head in the George R.R. Martin novel upon which the show is based (a fact that the book’s fans have been remarkably disciplined about not spoiling for viewers). But even that doesn’t guarantee that the network would be willing to follow through with the execution. After all, HBO’s True Blood decided to keep the popular Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) alive, even though he croaks in the second book of Charlaine Harris’ series.
”I love the character,” Bean — who will return to TV next season on ABC’s Ashley Judd drama Missing — says of the dearly departed warrior. ”He’s a principled man who tries to hold things together. Ultimately his loyalty causes his downfall. [Killing him] was a very courageous move for a television company.”
Courageous and risky. The lavishly produced Thrones has been a solid success for the network, averaging 8.3 million cumulative viewers per episode and climbing in the ratings. But now that the show’s best-known actor is off the series, will viewers show up for season 2? Particularly since (brace yourselves!) Ned isn’t the only likable Thrones character who won’t come back next spring. As one outraged viewer posted on EW.com, ”If you kill off Ned Stark, you have just taken the best character out of the series…. It is a big loss and I don’t believe the series can recover.”
HBO Entertainment president Sue Naegle — who says she was excited by the idea of a show that ”pulls the rug out” from under the audience — is confident that fans will come to embrace the latest plot twist. ”Ned is the hero of the first season, but he’s not the hero of the show,” she says. ”There’s definitely a group of fans who love Sean Bean, but the gift of the show is the show itself. There’s so much world in this show; it’s not just one hero’s journey.”
Moreover, producers argue that Ned’s demise makes Thrones even more suspenseful moving forward. Benioff notes, ”Now you truly have no idea what is going to happen or who is going to survive.”
With Bean out of the picture, will the network need to recruit more star power? Season 2 will introduce several new key characters, leaving open the possibility that a few more big names could be riding around Westeros next year. But given what we’ve seen so far, whoever lands those roles shouldn’t get too comfortable in the saddle.