By Kavi Shekhar Pandey, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published October 9, 2011
We need to talk about “Game of Thrones.” You know, the HBO show about the feuding kingdoms in a fantastical realm, nominated for 13 Emmys in its first season (including Outstanding Drama Series) and winning for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Peter Dinklage, like a boss).
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Indeed, I already slathered the show with praise midway through its run, but its excellence increased exponentially as the season wound down — the final few episodes would have probably earned The Michigan Daily’s first six-star reviews. By the season finale, “Game of Thrones” had already catapulted from the “best shows on television” to the best shows of All Time discussion, partly because of a devilishly magnificent sequence that changed dramatic television forever.
Beware all ye who venture further in this article: HUMONGOUS SPOILERS for “Game of Thrones” lie ahead.
Throughout the season, the show has captured numerous storylines in tandem, each with its own protagonist — from the roguish dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Dinklage) to the solemn, honor-bound Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to the fierce, oft-disrobed Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) — but the lead leading man was unquestionably Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the reluctant, think-first stab-later ruler.
Ned’s dilemmas have been not only the centerpiece of show, but also the marketing campaign, as Bean was the most recognizable actor in a cast almost entirely composed of unknowns (sorry, chubby guy from “A Knight’s Tale”). Plus, Bean has the epic-geek cred for playing fan-favorite Boromir in “Lord of the Rings.”
After setting him up as the Glorious Hero of “Game of Thrones,” in one of the most startling moments in the history of the medium, the ninth episode of the series concluded with the merciless execution of Ned Stark in front hundreds of spectators ... including his daughters. Beloved father and husband, steadfast soldier and the only decent man in all of Westeros — Ned’s dead, baby. Ned’s dead.
True, this twist was first unleashed in George R.R. Martin’s novel from which the series is adapted, but to be able to effectively pull it off in an immensely expensive television series is astonishing. TV shows kill off major characters constantly, even the main characters — but never in the penultimate episode of the first season. Imagine if Jack Shephard died after falling in a heroin-smuggling plane instead of Boone on “Lost.” Or if Tony was popped by the thugs sent by Uncle Junior at the end of the first season of “The Sopranos.”
No viewer would have even imagined that either of those characters could have died, because television conventions dictate that does not happen — that’s why “Game of Thrones” changed the game. It raised the stakes to a level once thought impossible, where any character from the presumed lead to the stray extra is expendable.
Ever since The Incident (the clever term I coined for Ned’s execution), it’s been impossible to watch other shows with the same level of investment and enthusiasm. Take last season of “True Blood”: At the end of the eighth episode, Sookie gets shot in the gut and starts to bleed out. Pre-“Thrones,” the cliffhanger would have barely registered, knowing her life was never actually in danger — lo and behold, Sookie made a full recovery within the first five minutes of the next episode (vampire blood works wonders). But in this post-“Thrones” world, it felt cheap, almost pathetic in its predictability.
This issue is exacerbated in network television, which takes even fewer risks and has even lower stakes. As much as I like “Terra Nova,” its formulaic necessity makes sure there is no tension that the Shannon family will ever be ripped to bits by a T-Rex at any moment. The only network show to come close to the incredible stakes of “Game of Thrones” was “24,” where any given supporting character could be killed off in any given episode, no matter how beloved they were (miss you, Edgar Stiles).