If any living actor knows how to prepare for a death scene, it’s probably Sean Bean. From The Lord of the Rings to GoldenEye, Patriot Games or Clarissa, the man has learned his away around simulating that last breath. But probably his most famous death scene, at least this side of Gondor, was also one of the most brutally sudden: when Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell gets beheaded on the steps of Baelor in Game of Thrones.
The sequence, which occurs during the ninth episode of Game of Thrones’ first season, ominously titled “Baelor,” is the one that came to define the show’s reputation for cruel thrills, and an unsentimental mean streak that allowed it to kill major protagonists off without a seeming second thought (a fact that still surprised fans, to their eventual anger, all the way up to the series finale). And there was apparently no forethought at all from King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the vicious boy king who gave the order to claim poor dead Ned’s head.
Yet for Bean there was plenty of thought in it. The actor opened up about as much in a recent chat with Entertainment Weekly. Reiterating comments he’s made in the past, Bean revisited his memory of what he wanted to convey was racing through Ned’s mind in the scene.
“It was horror and disbelief,” Bean told EW, “that Joffrey changed his mind [about exiling Ned] – and then resignation and [realizing that he was] seeing his daughter for the last time, Arya. I was trying to think of all four [things]. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh God, I’m getting my head chopped off.’ Those mix of feelings is what made it what it was, I suppose.”
Bean has had experience in figuring out how to strain those mixed emotions into a single fleeting moment of screen time. And at least with Thrones, he revealed his preparation process for doing so.
“It took like a whole day or so to film it and… so you have to just keep focused on the fact that you’re about to meet your death without messing around. I was very hot at the time, so that probably helped. And everybody else’s reaction were fantastic – Cersei and the kids. It was very moving with a lot of pathos in that scene. Then I put my head in the block and I was finished for the day.”
It clearly makes for an iconic piece of television history. The death of Ned Stark pulled the rug out from under audiences who were unfamiliar with George R.R. Martin’s source material novels. While major characters had been killed off on TV shows before, never had it been the main protagonist ahead of even the season 1 finale. Ned’s death would also pave the way for a regular litany of carnage and painful deaths on the show, arguably transforming audiences’ relationships with characters, at least on prestige cable (or streaming) dramas.
It also ranks among one of our great television death scenes to this day.