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Ned’s dead: The TV moment of the decade

  • One episode in the first season of 'Game Of Thrones' changed the way we watch television
  • What makes Ned Stark’s death so substantial was the creative risk involved

Ned Stark’s execution in ‘Game Of Thrones’ transformed TV
Ned Stark’s execution in ‘Game Of Thrones’ transformed TV

Serialized television has always existed on a foundation of familiarity. We are meant to see the same characters at the same time, on the same night of the week. Sitcoms came with reset buttons built into the climaxes so that regardless of sweepstakes or catastrophes, characters would end up right where they were at the start of the episode. Television soaps had relentlessly consequential twists and turns, but the character-driven conflicts would stay the same. In contrast to movies telling self-contained stories, the principal concept behind the successful, endlessly running television show is to give audiences the ice-cream flavour they want—however plain or phenomenal that individual flavour may be.

On 12 June 2011, that concept died. The ice cream had hot sauce in it. The ninth episode of the first season of Game Of Thrones (available in India on Hotstar Premium) is called Baelor, and it single-swordedly changed the way we watch television. In hindsight, its audacity appears straightforward enough: The show decided to kill off its leading man. That has happened before and will again, except that in this mammoth saga built from George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire novels, that leading man was the only moral compass, a singular flag-bearer of honour in a world peopled by back-stabbers. To me, this death has been the single most impactful television moment of the decade.

Eddard “Ned" Stark was the only one we could all root for. He was also the only actor most of us knew. It made sense that Sean Bean, former James Bond villain and Lord Of The Rings alumnus, was the “star" driving this massively budgeted HBO show. His character may have been too much of a straight-shooter to get the snappiest lines of dialogue—he certainly seemed dim during plotting and palace intrigue—but he stood upright in a sea of amorality. As sinister methods and motives were exposed, Ned Stark stayed principled. Even if impish drunks and incestuous warriors had more style, we the audience discovered that we needed Ned to cling to, Ned to root for.

Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss used the moment perfectly. That first season was immediately compelling, but the Baelor episode made us believe Ned Stark—even the morally flawless Ned Stark—had listened to reason, and compromised in an attempt to save himself. Rousingly directed by Alan Taylor (who had also directed the superlative Kennedy And Heidi episode from the sixth season of The Sopranos), the last 7 minutes of this episode are a journey.

It begins with a girl emerging from a crowd and clambering up a statue, clutching its boot so she can stay above the masses to see what’s going on. A prisoner is being led through the crowd and she’s shocked as they make eye contact. She looks on with horror as Ned Stark urgently tells one of his faithfuls where she is. Standing above her father, his elder daughter looks at him with relieved understanding as he falsely confesses to treason, plotting to kill the king’s son, and his desire to seize the throne for himself. A rock is thrown at the prisoner’s head, and as he staggers, his elder daughter gasps and his younger one prepares to draw her little sword.

Stark declares the young man wearing the crown true heir to the kingdom, these lies catching in his throat. Asked Stark’s fate, that sneering young king speaks of permanent exile and mercy before outrageously demanding Stark’s head. There is uproar. Even the young king’s mother calls this madness. Stark’s man catches up with the young daughter and forces her to look at him, not at the execution. The elder daughter wails. The executioner readies his mighty blade. The prisoner looks up, through the crowd, at the empty boot of the statue, and lowers his head. The sword goes through with a sickening squelch as the little girl watches birds fly portentously through the air. The screen is black. TV will never be the same again.

No popular writer has killed their darlings quite like George R.R. Martin, and instances like this decapitation of a beloved hero became nearly commonplace as we watched and read on. What makes Stark’s death so substantial, however, was the creative risk involved: the fact that viewers at the time felt so outraged and let down they swore never to watch the show again, and the fact that the showrunners stuck to it strongly, despite that predictable audience reaction. A show is not a book, and creative changes are made—characters who die early in the books become fan favourites on TV and go on to live extra seasons—and, honestly, keeping Sean Bean’s Stark around a while longer would have been an understandable decision.

Yet we all know Stark was too good to be true. Had he been around, we may have tired of his earnestness and moral fortitude, his unyielding honourableness. Martin’s masterstroke of martyring this impossibly good character is what makes Ned Stark plausible and unimpeachable, an unsullied figurehead whom audiences and other characters on the show can long for and look up to at the same time. Martin, and these brave showrunners, gave him death before dishonour.

The 2010s have been an astonishing time for television. BoJack Horseman, Fargo, Fleabag, The Good Place, The Americans, Archer, Succession, Breaking Bad, Louie, Better Call Saul, The Deuce, Twin Peaks: The Return, Enlightened, Barry, Sherlock, Catastrophe. The decade’s most brilliant shows have been significantly aided by the way Game Of Thrones defied the trust we used to place in television. We now know darlings can, and will, and should, die. We know all could be lost in an instant. We also know the story goes on.

Today, our leaders are not heroes. Over the last 10 years, as demagogues, dictators and dolts have officially taken the helm of most countries, we long for someone worthy we can throw our weight behind, without irony or caveats. This may be why, in stories set in other worlds, we look for those too good for us, those not around on our voting ballots. This is why we all loved Ned. This is why that episode from eight years ago forced television to grow up. This is why Ned Stark is the ultimate champion—and no wonder he didn’t last. Predictability is dead, long live television.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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