“You think my life is such a precious thing to me, that I would trade my honor for a few more years… of what? You grew up with actors. You learned their craft, and you learned it well. But I grew up with soldiers. I learned how to die a long time ago.”
Most of us knew this was coming, but for many that knowledge didn’t make Ned’s death any easier. For fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, this was the seminal moment. The death of Eddard Stark was a wakeup call to every person holding that book in their hands—no matter what you were used to, no matter what came before, no matter how certain you were in the tropes and the traditions of fantasy writing—this was when you sat up, eyes wide. This was when those safe little Belgariad stories suddenly looked harmless and trite. This put fear into you. If this guy could die…
They did it again. They did it on your TV set. You’ve read and heard the various reactions. Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Sadness. And more than a few calls to boycott the series because of it.
What greater compliment can be paid to the man that played Ned Stark?
The impact Sean Bean had on this show is almost too large to be expressed. For us here at Winter Is Coming he is especially significant, because Phil broke the story of his casting days before anyone else had it. You could say Sean Bean helped put us on the map. We were excited because, prior to that, we had almost assumed the soon-to-be sprawling cast would be filled with no-names, new actors, and character actors, plus or minus Peter Dinklage. Sean Bean taking the role was monumental.
He brought with him his own loyal and passionate fanbase, of course, and he brought some peripheral nerd cred, having carved himself a nice period / fantasy niche playing roles like Richard Sharpe, and Boromir of Gondor. And he brought real acting chops too; he was the sort of actor who didn’t mind getting his hands filthy, outspokenly preferring gritty, physical, sweaty horse-and-sword epics. Sean famously hiked miles up the side of a mountain during filming of The Fellowship of the Ring in full costume, armor and all, rather than take a helicopter to the elevated shoot (dude apparently hates helicopters).
I liked that his female fanbase was especially impressive, and he seems to appeal to a wide array of age groups (Lady Chatterly may have had something to do with that). Which is sort of funny, since Sean isn’t a Hugh Grant smoothie; he’s a Sheffield guy (“Blades for Life!”) at heart, a dude’s dude, and a man of few words who apparently doesn’t mind getting into it and throwing down every so often. (Sean “got into it” just a few days ago, in fact.)
(Is that normal in the UK? If a fight erupts in a bar here in the US, police are everywhere and lawyers are hungrily rubbing their hands together, looking for lawsuits.)
Sean Bean, to me, was the antithesis of a Ned Stark; Sean was known for playing angst-ridden, conflicted and outwardly emotional men. I was accustomed to seeing him with his heart on his sleeve, and Ned Stark was stoic and impenetrable. I saw this role as a monumental challenge for him.
But boy did he step up. So much so that I can’t picture anyone else in the role; his mark was indelible. It’s not a coincidence that he’s been submitted for an Emmy. This could very well have been his greatest, most nuanced performance to date. Whether squinting irritably at Jaime Lannister, or speaking tenderly with Arya, Sean showed us how deeply a stoic man could feel. If there’s anything more triumphant in acting than completely changing someone’s idea of who you should be, I don’t know of it.
Sean was the backbone of this story. Now the challenge will be seeing it without him.
Finally, we can’t talk about Sean’s portrayal of Ned without talking about the death scene. His performance in “Baelor”—an episode named not for the great sept, in my view, but for the single word he uttered to save Arya’s life—was riveting. You can put it down as one of the most tragic deaths in film or television. Top five, assuredly, and that list for me includes what he did with Boromir of Gondor.
What else can compare? Something from The Sopranos? Serenity? Grave of the Fireflies? The English Patient? In The Bedroom? Old Yeller? Maybe.
It comes down to the fact that we, the fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, got more than we ever expected from Ned Stark. And thanks to Sean Bean, the new fans of Game of Thrones got the exact same punch in the gut George R.R. Martin gave us. If not more.
Sean brought greatness to the most important role in this, the television series we always hoped we would see. It’s perhaps shallow to say this is something we “live and die” for—strange, really, in these tough times—but it’s certainly one of our primary passions. We worried at times that they wouldn’t be able to do our beloved story justice. How could they? This momentous scene at the feet of Baelor, in particular.
I wondered if Sean could show me the things I saw in my mind’s eye. I wanted to see Ned.
Well he did better than that. I saw Ned all season, and at the end I saw one of the greatest exits in television history.
What else can you say to that, other than … Take your bow, Sean. This one is the most deserved.