A brutal, earth-shattering plot development came swiftly and mercilessly at the end of “Baelor,” the ninth episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones last Sunday night, and it set off an internet wave of outcry (whining) from viewers of the series who haven’t read George R. R. Martin’s novels, and thus never saw it coming. There’s even a sect of viewers now threatening to stop watching the show, and beyond that, a handful who proclaimed that the book shouldn’t have been adapted so faithfully, that it never should have happened, that the TV version of Martin’s world should be treated differently for the sake of loyal viewers (Can you believe that? Some people are actually proclaiming the movie to be better than the book for once, so to speak.). Loyal viewer or not, anyone who thinks what happened Sunday night shouldn’t have happened, or that it’s a reason to stop watching the series, probably should never have walked in Westeros in the first place.
WARNING: The rest of this babble will contain spoilers. If you’re still not aware of the events that took place in “Baelor,” you might want to avoid scrolling further.
I first read George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones in 2005, during a wave of epic fantasy consumption. I devoured that book like I’ve devoured few other books in my life, and much of what hooked me was in the towering, stern figure of Ned Stark. Ned was like no other fantasy protagonist I’d encountered. He was uncompromising without being preachy, clever without being condescending and driven without being blind to the realities of the world he lived in. I loved the other characters too (Tyrion the Imp being particularly enthralling), but Ned was the one I kept reading for. I wanted to see how he would outsmart the Lannisters, how he would resolve the crisis of the Kingdom, how he would save Westeros.
The Ned Stark that made it to television was almost, but not quite, the same guy. Sean Bean’s incarnation of the character was a bit more bound by his code of honor that the book version, a little more brash, perhaps a little colder. But it was still Ned Stark, and it was Ned Stark portrayed by one of the coolest actors on the planet, so I was still along for the ride, still cheering him on, even though I knew what I’d hoped for in the book would still not come to pass.
Both versions of Ned Stark meet their end under Ser Ilyn Payne’s sword at the command of the snotty Boy King Joffrey Baratheon, and as someone who’s now watched it take place on paper multiple times, I can tell you it was no easier to watch on television, even though I knew it was coming from the moment I saw Ned walk into frame in the series’ very first episode. It was just as horrific, just as infuriating and just as heartbreaking as I’d imagined it the first time I read the words six years ago.
Watching Ned die Sunday night, watching his daughter Sansa scream and his daughter Arya struggle, watching Joffrey make his pompous declarations, I remembered what it felt like to finish that chapter in Martin’s book. It was almost enough to keep me from reading on. The novel’s protagonist, its driving force, in many ways its soul, was dead. How could it go on? How would Martin keep me caring? I took a deep breath and kept reading.
I finished A Game of Thrones and then immediately picked up the second volume, A Clash of Kings. And when that was done I went on to the third and then the fourth, and when that was done I read them again. Because for all his captivating presence, Ned Stark is not the star of the show. This is a world, and a collection of characters, with so much more to offer than one man who ends up a casualty of his own code.
But of course, Sean Bean is a star. Many viewers have called him the drawing point for the show, the thing that sucked them in and kept them watching. They hadn’t read the books, they just wanted to see Sean Bean pick up a sword again. He enthralled them, made them root for him, and then he lost his head. Now they’re pissed. They’re ready to abandon Game of Thrones, maybe find something to watch on basic cable that’s a little less brutal and a little less willing to kill off their golden boy.
Now comes the part where I have to show some tough love. It’s great that so many people have watched the show up to now. It’s great that Sean Bean fans got sucked in. It’s great that you have strong opinions about his character’s fate. But I have to say, as a loyal fan of the story, a loyal fan of Sean Bean and someone who knows what it’s like to feel enraged by the loss of a beloved character: Game of Thrones is not your bitch.
You’re entitled to stop watching. Of course you are. You’re entitled to call up the customer service reps at Home Box Office Inc. right now and tell them you’re cancelling your subscription, and that Showtime or Starz or even Netflix will now be getting the money you were giving them. You’re entitled to get angry, write blogs, Tweet and otherwise find ways to complain about what happened to poor Ned Stark on Sunday. You’re more than welcome to do all of that, but as you do, ask yourself this: Aren’t you feeling what the story wants you to feel?
You’re angry. You’ve been betrayed. Your favorite character is dead and some chicken ass teenager killed him. That’s shit. Of course it’s shit. But even if you didn’t expect to see a major character die, you had to be able to tell from the almost nine episodes you’d watched in full up to that point that Westeros wasn’t Candy Land. George R. R. Martin has long been open about the fact that none of his characters are safe from a bloody end (by the way, if you think one major character death is bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet), and it’s more than just a gimmick to draw readers into his brutal landscape. A Song of Ice and Fire, and by extension Game of Thrones, are stories about human aggression and greed, about violence and what it does to us, about power and how it shapes us, and yes, about how death changes our world. Ned Stark’s death will change Westeros forever, just like deaths in the Harry Potter Saga, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Dark Tower and The Wire changed their respective universes forever. What happened at the end of “Baelor” shocked you, angered you, made you sick? Good; that’s what it was supposed to do.
And I know, I know, Bean was the only major star on that stage, but believe me when I tell you that sticking around Westeros for a while longer is a good idea. Apart from a host of other damn fine actors (Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, Richard Madden and Lena Headey, to name a few), what’s coming is nothing compared to what’s transpired, and if the books are any indication, by the middle of the second season you’ll have forgotten all about Sean Bean.
Of course, if you just can’t handle it, no one would blame you. Winter is coming, after all, and it’s not for everyone.