The Ned Stark gimmick

Apparently, a prequel to “Game of Thrones” is about to air, and some folks are very excited about it.

Perhaps you are among them. I am not, although I confess I made a point of watching the original series. Each year that a new season appeared, I signed up for HBO Now (later succeeded by HBO Max) for a few weeks to watch it — and catch up with such things as “Barry.”

I found it entertaining in its own weird way, but was not a fan in the original sense of a fanatic. For instance, I wasn’t the sort to sign petitions demanding that the final season be reshot with a different ending. I thought the ending was fine. I mean, come on — Daenerys needed to go, and if you can’t see that, I suspect you might be one of those who believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen. And the ways the writers tied up the other loose ends were, I suppose, satisfactory. Time to move on, people.

Now the prequel is about to start, which I know because this morning The Washington Post went on and on about it, in five separate stories by my count. You see four of them in the screengrab above. And no, I’m not planning to sign up for HBO Max to watch it. I did skim through some of the stories, though.

For instance, this one, which tries to parse the alleged 6,887 deaths that occurred in the series, began with this (I’d say SPOILER ALERT here, but if you don’t know this, you obviously don’t care about the topic, and therefore haven’t read this far):

The season that started it all. When Ned Stark, the main hero and character supposedly least at risk, was beheaded, viewers everywhere realized that no one was safe.

Exactly. And this reminds me why, from the very beginning, I would never love this series. I don’t like being manipulated that way.

And this was major-league manipulation. You have bewilderingly numerous cast of actors you’ve never seen before (with the possible exception of Aidan Gillen, if you’re a fan of “The Wire”), but you know Sean Bean, right? And he’s the hero, right? So at the end of the first season, he gets killed off, so that two things will happen:

  1. You’ll get more invested in the other characters, whom you’ve sort of gotten to know over the course of the first season.
  2. You’ve been shocked into believing, with all your heart, that anybody can get killed at any time, which adds suspense during every subsequent second of the rest of the series. (Which only makes the Red Wedding slightly less shocking.)

(And no, this was not a big surprise to those who had read the books, I suppose, but I’m not a member of that set.)

Anyway, I had seen this before, and the first time, I was more impressed by it. Remember the opening scene of “The Hurt Locker?” It starts with Guy Pearce, as a bomb-disposal specialist, getting suited up to approach and disarm an IED. Every little detail of the scene persuades you that he will be the star of the show. He’s obviously the central character of this scene, suiting up for his task with a certain heroic elan. And you know him, from L.A. Confidential and, more impressively, from “Memento.” He’s the only then-famous actor in the whole movie, with the exception of the brilliant David Morse, whose later scene as a wound-too-tight colonel pretty much steals the movie.

And then, in that very first scene (SPOILER ALERT, although you’ve certainly seen this coming), he gets blown up. And the “star” of the rest of the movie is Jeremy Renner, whom at this point in his career, you’ve probably never seen before. (Really. Check out IMDB for any major flicks in which he was the star before this one.)

And you watch the rest of the film thinking, “This nobody could get blown up any second. Hey, they killed off Guy Pearce at the very beginning!”

This is such an obvious and effective gimmick that I’m sure Hollywood had used it before. Maybe you can give me a Top Five list of previous films that did the same thing. (In fact, here’s such a list on which Guy Pearce shows up as No. 6.) But this was the first time I really noticed it, and identified all the elements. It was quite well done. And it impressed me.

When I saw it again in “Game of Thrones,” I was far less impressed. In fact, I was kind of ticked, particularly since they didn’t hit me with it until I had watched a whole season.

Next time I see it, I’ll probably just stop watching…

Guy Pearce, in the opening scene of “The Hurt Locker.”

7 thoughts on “The Ned Stark gimmick

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    As I was finishing posting that, it suddenly occurred to me that I had written about the Ned Stark thing before, AND confessed to having watched a later show that sort of did the same thing. You can forget these things when you write more than 11,000 posts over the course of 17 years….

    That was the first season of “Britannia,” which ended with the person I THOUGHT was the central character being gruesomely murdered.

    Which of course would have been my cue to stop watching, and I DID, but not on my own volition.

    That first season came out in 2018, but the second didn’t come to Prime until sometime in 2021 — and I only started to watch that a few months ago. But I stopped after an episode or two — because I just couldn’t find anyone to care about to replace the murdered character. Also, the plot was sort of drifting…

    Anyway, I thought I had written a post about it, but I couldn’t find one. I just saw a mention in a comment

  2. Rose

    I hated GOT and have zero interest in the prequel. I didn’t make it through the series because of the exploitation of the actresses in the nude, sex, and rape scenes. Too pornographic.

    1. Ken

      Short-sighted. The women — especially Daeneris as well as Sansa and Arya Stark — turn out to be among the strongest of characters, with a lot of resilience and staying power — which counts for a lot in this particular universe. Most of the men, by comparison, tend to be blood-thirsty tyrants, slobs, weaklings, canivers, hangers-on and more often dead.

      1. Rose

        That’s true. But I don’t want or need to SEE in detail all of those acts.
        And the cast members, particularly the women, were very vocal about how nudity was mishandled on the set.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          The best spoof I ever saw of GOT was on SNL, when a skit “revealed” that the reason you saw all that was a key consultant to the program — a 13-year-old boy, played by Andy Samberg.

          I looked for video of it, but couldn’t find it. Here’s the transcript

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