Game of Thrones, HBO’s fantastic television adaptation of the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, finished up its first season last Sunday, and boy, was it a doozy. The last couple of episodes were all doozies, come to think of it; if there’s one thing you don’t generally expect when it comes to television shows, it’s that so many main characters end up dying. Naturally, there were some pretty violent reactions to some of these deaths– one in particular– and yes, I see where you’re all coming from. Here’s the thing, though: Sometimes characters, even the ones you love, need to die. And here’s why.
[P.S: Here there be SPOILERS, in case you haven't already figured that out.]
Lord Eddard Stark, known informally as Ned, was the poster child for the first season of Game of Thrones (literally). He was also arguably the “main character,” if this expansive series can be said to have a main character. It may seem a little odd, then, that he got killed off at the end of the first season. However, when you stop to think about it, it actually makes a certain amount of sense. We’ll get to what that sense is in a moment, but first, let’s take a look at how audiences reacted to Ned’s death. When Ned got the axe (or rather, the sword) in the second to last episode of the season, there were two types of reactions among the fan community, and those reactions were divided among the two different types of fans: Those who had read the books, and those who hadn’t. I fall into the former category, and naturally, we’re the ones who knew what was coming and therefore weren’t surprised by it when it happened. That doesn’t mean we weren’t affected by it, though; on the contrary, I would argue that it hit home even more, purely because we DID know it was going to happen. As Rob Bricken over at Topless Robot put it:
“As a guy who loves the books, I guess it’s not much of a surprise that I loved the show, but what did surprise me is how into the show I got, despite knowing everything that was going to happen. I was tense, I was moved, I was emotional — and while that’s surely a credit to the story, making me feel it all over again is certainly a testament to the show’s direction, as well as the terrific actors they hired. When the final episode finished last night, I was desperate for season 2 to start — and I know what happens in that, too. Obviously, someone is doing something very right.”
The other reaction– the one from those who weren’t familiar with the books– was perhaps not unexpected, but certainly surprising in its force: Ned lost his head, and people got PISSED. OFF. And I mean SERIOUSLY ticked.
To an extent, I can understand why. Ned was one of the few decent people in that world, and to lose him was like having Westeros’ only moral compass get squashed to bits. But at the same time, I’m a little confused by this reaction. Early on, the show had demonstrated that no one, not even major characters, were safe from death; Robert Baratheon and Viserys Targaryen were two of the first to go, and they had been rather important up til that point. They also became more important AFTER their deaths, though, which is interesting. Subsequently, I feel like the show did a pretty good job of preparing its audiences for the fact that bad things can happen. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to make the connection that not only can bad things happen, but moreover, they can happen to good people. In the real world, nice guys finish last, and if in the game of thrones, you win or you die, well… you get the picture.
One of the many things HBO did right with this series was in keeping the adaptation faithful to the books. This tactic doesn’t always work– it depends on the story, the original storytelling medium, the medium it’s getting adapted to, and so and so forth– but in this case, the story and structure of the books adapted very well to television. Furthermore, the story of the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series is so intricate that to change one detail is to change the entire rest of the story– which, ultimately, you don’t really want to do, because everything could spiral so far out of control that you’d probably end up with something that barely even resembles its original source material. This, naturally, very rarely works. For this reason, changing whether Ned lives or dies would have MAJOR repercussions on the entire series. I’m paraphrasing a little here, but once upon a time, Joss Whedon said in response to his tendency to kill off beloved characters, “What we WANT to happen in a story isn’t necessarily what NEEDS to happen.” And he’s absolutely right. You can get as pissed off as you want over Ned’s death, but the bottom line is that if Ned had stayed alive, we wouldn’t have a show, because that death is the catalyst for everything that is to come. And yes, I can say this with the knowledge of what happens in the books; but if you stop and think for a minute, you can arrive at that same conclusion even without the insider knowledge. What would have happened if Ned had stayed alive? Robb Stark would have no reason to go to war against the Lannisters, the Seven Kingdoms wouldn’t be splintering as much as they are, and odds are we would have ended up with cheap “happily ever after” ending. But the beauty of A Song of Ice and Fire is that there IS no happily ever after. It’s a fantasy series, yes; but it’s not about magic and boy wizards and faeries and all of that. It’s about the harsh realities of a world at war, and the grit and mess and ickiness is what makes it fascinating.
If you were one of the many to get super angry about Ned’s death, brace yourselves, because there are a lot more deaths coming, and many of them will be of characters you adore (there’s one in particular that I’m thinking of here– it’s in the third book, A Storm of Swords, though I won’t tell you what happens so as not to spoil anything). But it’s a good thing that you’re getting angry about them; it shows that you care, and that means that the creative team behind is doing their job and then some. Know, too, that every death happens for a reason, and that without each and every one of them, odds are the story would just stop right then and there. If you want more of that story, roll with the deaths, because they’re one of prime movers that enable it to happen. So find something to grab. Hang on tight. And enjoy the ride.