How do you begin a story? If you’re developing a saga, one that reaches over many years and across cultures and nations, that’s a tale that might be big enough to begin with a type of event that could kill a lesser one: the death of your main character.
Of course, he’s not really your main character—he’s the protagonist of your prelude, and perhaps a red herring, too. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the novel series on which Game of Thrones is based, Eddard (Ned) Stark, the patriarch of his family and perhaps the only truly noble character among hundreds of significant ones in the epic, is executed fairly early on (It’s been years since GoT aired so the moratorium on spoilers for season one is long lifted—but beware, spoilers are ahead for Vinland Saga); it’s a shocking development and throws the entire world of that series into chaos, and demonstrated to the viewers that anything, anything could happen in Westeros.
I was aware that Eddard was going to die when I watched Game of Thrones. In fact, that scene is what finally convinced me to give it a try. It was almost more difficult knowing that Ned was going to die, as the first half-dozen episodes establish him as such a wonderful man—even his flaws are admirable (his greatest sin, even, is later shown to be something consistent with his integrity); I was sitting on edge just waiting for the when.
Vinland Saga, the new anime based on a critically acclaimed manga, hasn’t risen to ASOIAF heights (and it probably won’t—those who’ve only watched the HBO series perhaps don’t realize what incredible literature GRRM’s books are), but it’s followed the pattern of Game of Thrones, perhaps purposely so. And as with my experience, the audience knows that its “main character” is probably meant to die as well, for the introduction shows us as much. It establishes that the true protagonist of the series is not Thors, but his son, Thorfinn. By episode three, we even know how Thors will die, when Askeladd is introduced as the assassin hired to kill him, which combined with an OP showing Thorfinn’s hatred for Askeladd, is enough to convince us that this moment is nigh.
I don’t think Vinland Saga means to shock us too much, however. These hints seems to be dropped purposely. Even the way the episodes are distributed give us a hint—the first three were aired all at one, ending just before Askeladd fights Thors, and forcing us to wait several weeks before the fourth episode—the one in which Thors dies—was aired. Tension was built. Death was coming to a character every bit the man Eddard Stark was.
The decisions made by George R.R. Martin and Makoto Yukimura are brilliant. While stories smaller in scale would buckle under the weight of such a loss, their tales could not only survive, but be bolstered by such deaths, which set intense events in motion. At least, I assume that’s so for Vinland Saga, which should experience a time jump soon revealing some of the consequences of the unjust death of Thors. It’s certainly true for Game of Thrones, where Joffrey’s last-minute decision to execute the former Hand of the King pushes the land into a war like it had never seen, while also doing something more intimate—it created motivation for all of the Stark family members and led them on their individual journeys as they aligned with the larger gears of war.
Each of the Stark children who make it to or near the end of the saga (I’ll go light on spoiler for the final season at least!) mature and grow into characters of significance. In fact, they each become notable individuals in their own right, ones who will one day be the focus of their own sagas and songs. In a noble family, this would be rare, no matter the talent of those within; some are destined to rise and others to disappear into obscurity. But Eddard’s execution sets them on paths they otherwise would never have taken, those that are worth following. It might be pleasant to watch a series about how Sansa learns to be less selfish and eventually becomes a noble woman and mother, but it’s far more watchable to see how she turns from spoiled brat to a mighty and ruthless lady in just a couple of years.
And that’s a huge part of why Game of Thrones works—the life of the those who are intimate with the dead character are changed dramatically and permanently. There is no greater motivation for any of the Stark children than their father’s execution. If this won’t churn out a tale, then those characters were never worth writing about in the first place.
Because of Yukimura’s acclaim, and because of the high quality of episodes one through four, I expect something similar from Vinland Saga, in that I think we’ll see Thorfinn become that worthy character. His flaws have already been on full display, but with the shadow of Thors behind him, there’s so much possibility to see him struggle and grow. He is Arya in anime form, a headstrong but talented young person who lost a father too young and who could very easily turn toward a darker shadow than that of dad, who likely will do so before finding rescue somehow, some way.
And if that’s true, if there’s some comparison here to made to ASOIAF and Arya Stark, the stage may be set for something fantastic, one that’s worth some emotional pain for our characters—and for ourselves.