‘Game of Thrones’ Shocker Separates Readers from Viewers

A major death proves the show is more ruthless than we ever imagined — and that's a good thing

(Spoiler alert: Don't read this if you haven't seen the latest "Game of Thrones.")

Sunday's "Game of Thrones" delivered a major surprise to those of us who've only watched the show, without reading the books upon which it's based.

It turns out we've been watching a competely different story than readers have.

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Fans of George R.R. Martin's books already knew that they were watching the tragic tale of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), whose chivalry, honesty and all-around lack of ruthlessness led to his demise.

The rest of us — well, at least one of us — foolishly thought this might be a somewhat traditional story of good and evil, albeit one with more decapitations and orgies than C.S. Lewis would have thrown in.

Stark's beheading, I'm told by people who've read "A Game of Thrones," is also a surprise in the book. But readers who were ready for it must have watched the show with a sense of inevitability the rest of us didn't have.

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We mere TV watchers (I've read the first few chapters of "A Game of Thrones," but that's it) realized with Sunday's episode that "Game of Thrones" is an even cagier — and better — show than it seemed at first glance. We know now, if we didn't get it before, that no twist is off-limits.

Co-creator David Benioff has jokingly described the show as "The Sopranos" set in Middle Earth. But now we see how dramatically that understates the show's audacity.

"The Sopranos" waited until its last episode to — maybe — kill off its lead character. "Game of Thrones" killed Stark in an utterly unexpected way, and didn't even wait for the first season finale to do it. (Of course, Bean's joining ABC's "Missing" makes a lot more sense now.)

Up until the second Ned lost his head, I thought his daughter, Arya, would pull off a precious, ridiculous rescue, right out of hokier fantasy stories, that would make me lose a little respect for the series.

Nope. Sunday's episode proves that "Game of Thrones" isn't just about swords and dragons — it's about ruthlessness.

And not just ruthlessness when it comes to winning a kingdom. We've seen so far on the series how much ruthlessness pays off in the pursuit of power. 

But it pays off even more handsomely in the pursuit of a stunning story.