Eddard Stark is dead. He was a soldier, a father, a husband and the best friend of a dying king. He was also a main character on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Eddard (also known as ‘Ned’) loses his head because he discovers a scandalous secret and plans to install the king’s brother on the throne. He is eventually captured but agrees to falsely confess to treason so his daughters will be spared and he will be banished instead of executed. Humiliated and broken, Ned is brought in front of a crowd and admits to being a traitor only to be betrayed as the blade swiftly comes down on his neck.
Cries of “Noooooooo!” erupted on Twitter. Fans flooded social media with angry threats to boycott the show and HBO forever. How dare the series kill off its best-known actor and a major, beloved character? In. The. First. Season!
While I’m not ready to abandon Game of Thrones yet, the reaction to Ned’s death brings up an interesting debate regarding television’s narratives and the characters who inhabit them. Is the story told on our favorite show bigger than any one character? Or is it characters who make the story?
It’s difficult to gauge viewer investment in television characters. Was Buffy more important than the vampires she slayed? Do viewers miss Seinfeld more than his misadventures? While the answers are subjective, there are examples of shows where character investment is high. In soap operas, the same actors play the same roles for decades, creating a loyal character following that often supersedes the melodrama.
Alternatively, there are shows where characters are designed to serve the story. This is primarily found in procedural dramas like Law & Order and CSI where the formula of crime, investigation and prosecution is the focus rather than the main characters’ journeys.
Game of Thrones, however, did something different when it killed off Ned Stark. While the series is filled with many characters, Ned represented the trope of the hero that was completely disrupted when he died. As the hero, Ned should follow a predictable trajectory where he encounters obstacles to his quest but ultimately succeeds in restoring order. When he was killed, the hero trope suddenly stopped working like it should.
For many viewers, this wasn’t a clever twist. It was a slap in the face. Not only were they invested in Ned, they were committed to the idea of the hero, as well.
Like many fans of the show, I felt temporarily crushed by Ned’s surprising demise, but the bold choice to turn the universal notion of the hero on its head is what makes the series compelling. As for story versus character, the preference is an individual one, but I would argue that feeling something for a character is often more rewarding than simply enjoying a story. As for me, I’ve decided to stop mourning Ned and pour my affection into Daenerys Targaryen and her little dragons.