Warning: SEVERE and EARTH-SHATTERING spoilers for the first season/book Game of Thrones.
In my opinion, Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire made a crucial error in Book/Season 1 that turned a potentially great series into just a good one.
That mistake was getting rid of Ned Stark’s character.
Notice I did not say “killing Ned Stark”. There’s a big difference.
Allow me to explain.
Game of Thrones is a story that features every sort of scoundrel in the book. Every type of human vice is explored in full. Every flaw is given its own embodiment.
You have Robert Baratheon, a hedonistic pig who cares nothing about all the responsibilities of his position. You have Cersei, who cares only about her own and her family’s power. There’s Jaime with his pride that knows no loyalty, Littlefinger who has a hand in everyone’s pocket, Varys who manipulates the entire kingdom behind the scenes. Joffrey who is just evil incarnate.
On the other side, you have characters like Tyrion who is well intentioned but not honorable by any means, Sansa who is naive and vain, Catelyn who is loyal but rash, Danaerys who is pure but weak, Jon Snow who is capable but lost. You have lesser characters like the loyalty-void Bronn, the merciless Hound, the ego-blinded Viserys, the conflicted Jorah Mormont.
You have every shade of villain, rascal, and ne’er do well under the sun.
And on the far end of all this, there’s Ned Stark: the good man.
(Not to say Ned Stark was perfect, but that he represents the good man. His only flaws were those caused by his virtuous qualities.)
The story of Game of Thrones is that of the good man thrown headfirst into this mess of depravity and corruption with the simple directive to deal with it.
Killing Ned Stark changed this entire setup. The removal of the anchor provided by the Good Man character, in effect, cut short that beautiful spectrum of morality, which resulted in the crippling of the story’s thematic element.
What gave that first book/season so much weight is that it came down to a war between honesty and honor on the one hand, against deceit and treachery on the other. It posed the ultimate question: can a good man win out when the cards are stacked against him?
What had given such a broad sense of depth to the story’s characterization was the diversity we encountered in the two incontrovertibly different sets of motivations and actions and how they played out in the same setting. We got to see Ned Stark’s way of using power and we got to see the Lannister’s. We saw the differences between them, the interplay, how each stance was viewed by the other side. It was engaging and fascinating.
Without the extreme balance point of Ned Stark on one end of the spectrum, we were left with a one dimensional cast of characters who were all only a shade different than each other according to their respective degrees of corruption. The “Game of Thrones” itself no longer represented a the most significant thematic dilemma of politics, but a meaningless contest to see which of the miscreants would win power.
But I want to be clear, killing Ned Stark was a brilliant groundbreaking move on George Martin’s part, an all around a great decision.
Getting rid of the Ned Stark character, in my opinion, wasn’t.
That void was never filled, and the show again never reached that fantastic span of human morality. With Jon Snow and Danaerys off in the middle of nowhere, Catelyn remaining effectively inactive for the following two books, Stannis being unlikable to the point of frustration, and Brienne being the most boring viewpoint character in the entire series, there was not a single character anywhere close to being in the position to take up the Ned Stark role. There was no structure left to continue exploring that pivotal moral question in new and interesting ways.
All we had left to root for was Tyrion, who, despite his admirable ends, operated on identical means as the rest of his King’s Landing counterparts. He no longer had a foil on either side of him–a better character to emphasize his flaws and a more evil character to emphasize his virtues. Instead of being elated to see at least one Lannister working towards good ends, albeit in his own way, it became dismaying and nerve-wracking to realize that the only character workings towards good ends was a Lannister of all people.
Lacking its thematic element, series continued on as a political drama carried along by its outrageous twists and surprise deaths. For me, a fan of positive stuff in fiction and not just grimy characters and the conflict they create for themselves (as I talked about in my post on Breaking Bad), I still enjoy the show and the books. But I find that I only keep coming back for the storylines of Danaerys, Arya, and to a lesser degree, those concerning the Wall and beyond. King’s Landing remained somewhat entertaining because of Tyrion, but all in all, it was just a shadow of what it was in the first book/season. And at the rate Martin is killing off characters, I wonder just how much of that initial spectrum of characters will remain by the end of the show.
But that’s just my opinion.
What do YOU think of the effect of Ned Stark’s removal on the series? Do you agree with me? Or do you think the series is still going strong? Do you think its better now than ever?
I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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Come back in two weeks for more from the Schneeblog!