(From HBO)Prestige TV drama lives and dies by its most memorable, most shocking moments. Not even Mad Men, which so successfully fulfills its audience through full immersion into a place and time, can resist the occasional lawn mower or suicide or kitchen knife on a stick. But more than any other show, Game of Thrones' shocking moments really are shocking.
Thanks to the sustained success of the show's source material, and the books' fans' obvious devotion to the characters, Game of Thrones gets away with more than any other show. The frequency with which key characters are killed or maimed forces us to ask: What's a lead character but an expendable storyline forever preparing to pass its baton to the next most attractive subplot as it approaches its terminus? It's a challenging way to write a show that's left its fans with two of their three major heroes dead. And as much as those fans might complain, they're not ditching the show.
But which of Game of Thrones' many shocking moments is the most shocking? Well that's what we're here to find out. Ned Stark's beheading vs. the blood-drenched Red Wedding. Check out the arguments below and vote for which you think deserves the top prize.
Most Shocking Moment: Ned Stark's Beheading
By JJ Duncan
Eddard "Ned" Stark's beheading is not only Game of Thrones' most shocking moment, but possibly the most shocking moment of any show ever. The Red Wedding had a higher body count, and left the show's fans equally traumatized, but its sense of shock was undeniably dulled by the moment that made it possible in the first place; the moment Sir Ilyn Payne took off Ned Stark's head with one sweep of the victim's own sword, killing off the series' lead character just nine episodes in.
When we watch TV we tend to treat our lead characters like home base. No matter how weird or unfamiliar things get, characters like Walter White bring us back down to earth. Losing our home base so early in 'Game of Thrones' left us like the Starks themselves after that terrible act, refugees scattered through the wilderness of a strange and hostile land. Ned's beheading was shocking because it subverted our expectations, yes, but it also left us unsure of anything. It was possibly the first time we'd come up against any show (besides maybe The Wire) willing to treat both its protagonists and antagonists as combatants of equal stature — no home field advantage, or last minute reprieves, for the so-called heroes.
After Ned died we asked, "Where can they go from here?" It's a question that continues to be answered in every episode as we start to root for Tyrion, attach ourselves to Daenerys, and find ourselves actually caring what happens to Bran. In Game of Thrones, as in life, we mourn a painful passing and are surprised when we begin to find meaning elsewhere. And because we went through that experience so early in the show, we know, after the initial shock wears off, there's still plenty to love about life in Westeros. Perhaps that a television show can pull off that feat is the most shocking thing of all.
Most Shocking Moment: The Red Wedding
By Hayley Igarashi
While Ned Stark's death was shocking, it fell within the bounds of a familiar and immensely popular fantasy storyline: noble father is killed, and his equally noble (and younger and more attractive) son rises up to avenge his death. Season 2 was structured to that end, showcasing Robb's triumphant success on the battlefield. The young Stark had earned a respite, and fans were more than happy to let him get frisky with his new wife, teach his newborn how to ride a horse, and obliterate every single Lannister in Westeros (except Tyrion… and Jaime). The sudden slaughter of Robb, his wife, his unborn child, and his mother was therefore not just unpredictable, but a heart-wrenching departure from the narrative we all thought we understood.
Let's also not forget that Ned was executed after spending days in a dungeon for committing treason against the crown, a crown worn by the unstable Joffrey Lannister. Setting matters, people. While the writing was on the wall for honorable Ned and his utterly useless critical thinking skills ("Black of hair... Black of hair... "), Robb and company were at a wedding! Walder Frey had given them bread and salt, a very old and very respected tradition in Westeros that meant they were under his protection. And aside from that, let's be honest, there's just a lulling sense of calm whenever any of us identify that, ah, this is a wedding episode. Or there used to be, anyway.
Finally, there's the sheer enormity of the Red Wedding versus anything else that's ever happened in Westeros. On top of the three brutal main character deaths in the show, nearly all of the Stark's 3,500 bannermen were slaughtered, along with Robb's lovable direwolf Grey Wind. Ned's death sent the Stark family reeling, but the Red Wedding effectively halted the trajectories of two major families: the Starks and the Tullys.
Even George R.R. Martin admits that the Red Wedding was the hardest scene he's ever had to write. Let's just all nod and agree it was the hardest scene to watch too. If we give Martin what he wants, maybe he'll stop killing everyone we love.
(Photos by HBO)