Do you remember when television was meant to be relaxing? “The Boob Tube,” “The Idiot Box,” and all the other old nicknames you may have stumbled across in Archie comics spoke of TV’s accepted role in the lives of Americans: as background flashing for beer-drinking, end-of-day dozing, and general time-wasting. Things are different now. For one, the television itself has transformed from a flickering, wood-panelled brick into a sexy sliver of space-age electronics, wired into a thousand entertainment streams at any given moment. But what’s also changed is the programming and, more important, the way we interact with it.
In the craggy guise of Sean Bean, Ned Stark provided a stalwart — if a bit slow — moral compass to the sprawling, confusing, nudity-filled world of Game of Thrones. Cast from the very first episode into a strange landscape of dragon eggs, direwolves, and gratuitous doggy-style sex, Ned was a man we could recognize right away as a hero, someone who was destined to bring order to the show’s chaos and vanquish the conniving, canoodling Lannisters once and for all. Because that’s what a generation of underbaked trilogies had taught us fantasy was all about, right? The good guys winning? (Also: Orcs.) (Also also: Seriously stop reading now if you don't know what happened last night.) And then Ned kept screwing up and maybe the Lannisters were more complicated than we'd initially thought and, wait a second, that executioner’s sword means business, how is his 12-year-old daughter really going to be able to save him? Hey, why’s Ned looking up at the birds like that he couldn’t really be about to d — THWOCK! What the what! When poor Ned Stark’s decapitated head hit the ground in the final moments of last night’s shocking episode, a lot of our television preconceptions dropped with it. Primary among them? The idea that a young show can’t off its main character.