Game Of Thrones
Credit: HBO

Warning: The following story discusses a major plot point from tonight’s Game of Thrones

It’s a big deal. If you haven’t watched the episode yet, you should do that and come back. This story will still be here, I promise. Sure, the spoiler was in the novel and has been on the Internet forever, but if you’re only watching the TV show, you probably won’t see this coming, and we don’t want to ruin it for you.

It might be unprecedented in the history of television: Killing off the main character in TV series during the show’s first season as part of a creative master plan. Has there ever been a more shocking twist, a more risky play, than in this week’s Game of Thrones?

Eddard Stark met his demise in Episode 9 on Sunday. Sean Bean’s character is not only the closest thing to a central figure and traditional hero in the show’s sprawling cast, he’s also the man on the show’s posters and billboards, the best-known actor in the series and probably one of the biggest reasons newcomers to the Thrones tale first checked out the show.

Yet from the very start, HBO, producers and cast knew they were launching a big budget fantasy epic that loses its hero. The idea of pulling a Psycho has been kicked around before — the producers of Lost wanted to kill off Jack Shephard at the end of their pilot, but ABC convinced them to keep him around. And sure, shows have shaken up their casts during the first season before, notes TV historian Tim Brooks, but it’s because there was an unexpected problem. Based on the George R.R. Martin’s series of books that delights in overturning fantasy cliches, noble Ned was doomed from the outset. Below, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss talk about the move, their reactions to the twist and why it was necessary to the story. Later, we’ll post a recap with our take (I’m writing it as fast as I can!) and an interview with Sean Bean:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When reading Game of Thrones, what was your reaction to George killing off Ned?

DAVID BENIOFF: I was in shock. From your training in seeing so many movies and reading books, you know your hero is going to be saved. Is Arya going to pull this off? Does the queen have some trick up her sleeve? Someone has something planned, because they’re not really going to chop off his head — right up until the moment when they chopped off his head. I was shocked, and then admiring of George’s ruthlessness. It’s a tough thing to build up a character and make somebody as memorable and impressive as Ned and then get rid of him. But at the same time it leads to a story that is so much more suspenseful because you truly have no idea what is going to happen and who is going to survive. In stories, you usually have an idea who’s going to make it out. Watching The Town, which was a really excellent movie from last year, you knew who was going to survive and who will die within the first 10 minutes. This was something completely different. And I said, “Wow George, there’s a reason you have such devoted followers because it makes such great reading and panicked reading because you turn the page not knowing who’s going to get what next.”

When pitching the project, what was HBO’s reaction when you told them the main character dies?

D.B. WEISS: It was a selling point for them. They’ve [killed off characters] in some of their most successful series. In The Sopranos, even Tony I wasn’t completely sure was safe, it wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility [he would be killed off]. It completely ups the ante for any moment when a character is in a dire situation if you know another character didn’t make survive a similar situation.

The scenes with Ned and Arya have been great, and with all that Maisie Williams is bringing to that part, I have a feeling this scene is going to upset viewers far more than it did readers of the book, in which the chapter was surprisingly casual and underwritten.

DB: It was a good choice by George to kind of underwrite it. Not to throw too many pretentious references around, but there’s a short story by Anton Chekhov where the lead character dies in the middle of a sentence — he didn’t even get his own sentence. That always left a real impression on me because it was so offhand that it made you think that this is a brutal life for these Russian sailors on these ships in the 19th century. It was very effective. Here you’re kind of watching from afar and the bluntness of George’s prose made it even more brutal, there was nothing sentimental and saccharin about it. It was just, there he is up there, and [the sword] Ice is coming down on his neck and that’s it. It’s faithful in the way it’s translated to the screen, but it’s still a very different thing because you have real live actors and little Maisie Williams watching and Ramin Djawadi’s beautiful score. There were lots of things that made us nervous this season, but we knew with episodes nine and ten we were ending on a strong note.

Since he is the best-known actor and such a central figure, does losing Sean bring about any concern whether viewers will stick around for season two?

DBW: In addition to his character, you’re setting up other characters that goes forward. The idea is this show gets its hooks into people enough so you’re going to want to know what happens to Tyrion and Arya. So even though we lose key characters, we’re still invested in a lot of characters so you’ll want to know what happens next.

Does Sean leaving the show open up the possibility of hiring another star for characters who are introduced in season two?

DB: There are a bunch of names up for discussion, so it’s quite possible. Certainly there hasn’t been any kind of mandate that we need to cast big names, but there are some well known actors who would be great for certain roles.


Episode Recaps

Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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