In comments on Jeff’s post defending the much-lamented former Hand of the King on Game of Thrones, long-time commenter Dirk Lester notes, “Neither Ned’s honor nor his sense of duty were problematic. It was his failure to think strategically based on those impulses that was moronic.” I wanted to riff on that a little bit, because I think it gets at the core reasons I’ve always thought it was a good decision for Martin to kill off Ned Stark — and why people who are deeply upset about Ned’s death on the show are missing the point.
Ned’s failure as Hand of the King comes less from the fact that he’s unfailingly noble, and more from the fact that he fails to recognize that other people’s actions won’t be predictable because nobility is no longer the dominant code of the land — strategic thinking is. Repeatedly, Ned assumes that only one outcome is possible because he assumes everyone is using the same basis for decision-making that he is: he never thinks through the possibility that Cersei won’t react to the revelation of her incest with shame but with deliberate action; he can’t imagine that the people around him would have little compunction about harming his children or using them as hostages; he has a difficult time adapting to the existence of spy tradecraft, much less using it to protect himself while he’s investigating Jon Arryn’s murder; he can’t foresee that the Mountain will essentially go rabid and turn on the man meant to bring him in; he doesn’t anticipate that Renly won’t bow to the line of succession, choosing flight and fight rather than submission; it was inconceivable to him that Robert might have beggared the realm; and he can’t see that a rigid definition of honor might lead anyone into dishonorable actions, as it did with Jamie Lannister.
It’s not so much that Ned is stupid. In a world where the old rules applied and where a collective commitment to a shared definition of honor constrained the actions that people took, he generally did fine. His error was accepting a job he didn’t really want without trying to understand the rules that everyone else was playing by, and without understanding that he was facing a fundamental shift in politics, rather than a small diversion that he could shame people out of and back into the old ways. Ned Stark’s a man of Westeros’s past, which like most nation’s historical pasts, is probably less ideal than it appears.
All of which makes the extent to which some fans are outraged by his death almost inexplicable to me. Much more so than any show on television, Game of Thrones doesn’t have a single main character. And, as befits a genuine epic, it’s not playing by the conventional roles of television storytelling, with the season-long arc and resolution that’s been established as the mode of sophisticated shows by everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Wire. This first season is one-seventh of the story Martin’s telling, and as such, it’s prologue. Ned is a necessary introduction to the old Westeros, or everyone’s romance of the old Westeros, but he’s not a man who can function effectively in the new world. His death is a necessary and specific illustration of the violent death of the ideals of an old order. And it clears the way for people who want to actually play the game, something Ned has no real interest in doing. A fundamentally conservative story about a man struggling for his honor and for the restoration of a predictable old world ultimately isn’t that interesting. Shifting, messy realignments, on the other hand, are fascinating.