With the end of Game of Thrones in sight, one of the show's original stars is reflecting on his character's impact nearly eight years after the HBO epic's first shocking death.
Sean Bean's Ned Stark was a tonesetter in many ways back when Game of Thrones first premiered on HBO. He was the first leader and hero that the audience could follow and root for, the primary adult point-of-view character for much of the first season, and infamously, the first major character to be killed off. The penultimate episode of Season 1, "Baelor," was a warning shot to all Game of Thrones viewers.
From the moment Ned Stark's head left his body, we knew: No one on this show is safe, no matter how well-regarded the actor is or how essential to the story we think the character might be. In the six seasons and counting that have come since, we've seen all manner of executions, bloody weddings, deaths in battle, and horrific duels, and they all stem from that first jaw-dropping beheading.
Bean hasn't been a part of Game of Thrones for many years now, but as he told Entertainment Weekly in a new interview about his time on the show, he knew that going in. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made it quite clear to him that Ned Stark's place in the series was a brief one, and he was happy to chart the character's arc, set a tone, and lend his gravitas to the series for one season. Since then, he's been able to watch the show grow in scope and popularity from afar, and he's seen Ned's legacy carried on by the surviving Stark children.
So, what does Ned Stark mean for Game of Thrones today? Here's how Bean explains it:
"He’s very honorable, he’s very honest, he’s a man of integrity, and he does the dirty work, as he does at the beginning when he chops off the guy’s head. But he’s a man who’s very fair-minded, and he’ll stick to his principles through thick and thin, regardless of who he’s up against," Bean said. "With him going to King’s Landing and getting involved with such backstabbers, it’s something he wasn’t used to, and certainly not at that level."
He went on to say he enjoyed Ned's arc of trying to stand against all that political in-fighting, and though he didn't succeed, he instilled that attitude in his children who are still carrying the show today.
"I think it was quite tragic to see him chipped away by these people until he was really struggling, and he was in very deep. Throughout, he maintained his honor and his integrity, and I think that’s something viewers really took to their hearts," he said. "He’s one of the very few good men. He was the first good man in Game of Thrones, and he stayed that way to the bitter end. His sons and daughters have taken those values for themselves, and it’s a much richer show because of that — because of him."
One of the things many Game of Thrones fans will point to when discussing why they love the series is its lack of moral absolutes. It's not a fantasy series that traffics in shining heroes and dark lords with a clear compass for what's right and what's wrong. There are heroes and villains, yes, but even the ostensibly good characters must compromise their own moral codes sometimes for the sake of survival or victory. It's a show full of gray areas, and that's part of the appeal.
Ned Stark, though, was a man who resisted gray areas whenever possible. He valued honesty, loyalty, and a code of honor that he'd been trying to preserve for much of his life, including a promise he made to his dying sister to keep Jon's parentage secret for his own safety (which Bean says he was never told about), though he risked his own marriage to do it.
Ned's refusal to bend his code played a large role in what eventually got him killed, but his essential goodness has resonated, and it held particularly sway in Season 7, when the Stark children reunited and even Sansa and Arya were reciting his old mantra: "The lone wolf dies but the pack survives."
What's left of Ned Stark's legacy will be put to the test again when Game of Thrones returns April 14 on HBO. Will his values prevail?