In a way, the big twist here isn’t that Ned Stark dies, but who the true protagonists of Game of Thrones are. During the first few episodes, we’re tricked into thinking noble Ned Stark is our hero, he’s got all these kids to teach and protect, and Robert is his buddy king, and they are the central decision makers. That’s not the focus. With a couple of major exceptions like Tyrion, the kids are the real stars of Thrones, not the adults. This story is about Arya and Robb and Sansa and Jon and Joffrey — the new generation of Westeros leadership, and how they both fight and, sometimes partner with, a supporting cast of adult players in a struggle for survival and power. Same story across the Narrow Sea, where we’ve seen Dany rise from being submissive girl in the shadow of her older brother to becoming a strong queen.
Ned Stark doesn’t die in vain. He dies for the same reason Obi Wan Kenobi, Dumbledore and Gandalf had to die (OK, so Gandalf didn’t die, but LOTR would have been a stronger story if he stayed dead after falling in the Mines of Moria, if you really think about it): It takes the Stark kids — who are all too young to face these responsibilities — and thrusts them into a struggle where they’re forced to quickly grow as characters. Martin busts many cliches in his writing, but this move is traditional Heroes Journey stuff if you consider the kids to be the true protagonists of this story — only by sacrificing the fatherly mentor figure can our heroes come into their own.
Let’s run them down: Inexperienced Robb has to lead an army against the Lannisters, Sansa has has to lose her naivety fast and match wits with master of manipulation Cersei to survive in King’s Landing, Arya is suddenly on her own and wanted for capture, Joffrey — he’s a villain sure, but he has challenges too — now he has to lead a kingdom, Dany has to help Drogo raise an invasion army. And Jon has to wrestle with duty vs. family, along with a growing mysterious threat from the northern wasteland.
Will killing Ned Stark alienate viewers?
As we discuss in our producers interview (link below), this is probably the first time a U.S. drama series has ever killed off its main character in the first season as part of its master creative plan. Yes, sure, if the actor is terrible or quits or dies-for-real, a character can get removed early. Otherwise it’s just … not done. You don’t cast a star, put him on bus stops and magazine ads marketing the show, get viewers all invested in his story, and then dump him nine episodes later just because it arguably makes the story a bit more interesting.
As the producers point out, the move lays down a dramatic precedent for the show: Nobody is safe. Other shows have tried to make that claim, but we always knew in the back of our minds that Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Jack Shepard were coming back next week.
NEXT: A reader favorite returns