[Obligatory, decade old spoilers alert]
Yesterday on Game of Thrones, HBO did something that might come as a surprise to those who haven't read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, or who just weren't paying attention. They killed off the main character.
I say "weren't paying attention" because Ned Stark's death is foreshadowed all throughout the show. In the first episode, Ned and his children come across the corpses of a direwolf and a stag, the symbols of the houses of Stark and Baratheon. By episode 9, Stark and King Robert Baratheon are both dead. Meanwhile, the direwolf pups themselves share the fates of their owners--Arya is in the wind, Sansa is losing whatever connection she has to the North, Robb is at war, Jon is at the wall, and Bran and Rickon are back in Winterfell. The advertising material itself quotes Circe Lannister: When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die." Ned lost. It was apparent almost from the moment he entered King's Landing, this was a game that Ned, with his unshakeable commitment to honor, was ill equipped to play.
Ned's death is a very direct message to the reader/viewer: No one is safe. Honor means nothing. The good guys can and do lose. Far from being a mere "male power fantasy," this is the kind of story where the traditional male fantasy protagonist loses his head over a commitment to abstract ideals that are meant to prevail. He loses because he is unable to out-maneuver Circe, who, as a woman, is intimately aware of the corrupt foundations of Westeros' feudal system, and all therefore all the more prepared to exploit them. It is the kind of story where a warrior like Khal Drogo, whose Fabio-like physique is seems suited to adorn the novel of some harlequin romance, who has never been defeated in combat, can fall deathly ill to a small infected wound.
The terrible events of the next few books (or seasons) are all directly traceable to King Joffrey's strategic failure--with Ned alive, the war between the Starks and Lannisters could have been easily resolved by a simple trade of Ned's live for Jamie's. Instead, war is coming, as certain as winter itself.
The incredible thing about GoT is that Ned really never stops being the "protagonist." Sure he's killed off early, but there's no character who fills that void of "traditional hero." Ned is a moral crutch for the audience, someone easy to sympathize with--this is perhaps why his death is so frustrating for a television audience used to happy endings. From this point on, we're left with flawed characters struggling to discern whether their allegiance should be to faction or principle, and few easy answers as to who to cheer for. Is Circe really evil for ensuring her son's succession when allowing Ned to prevail would have meant his certain death? Do the Targaryens, with their history of madness and tyranny, truly deserve be revived by Danaerys? Do Jon's obligations lie in helping his brother defeat the Lannister threat to the South, or defending the realm from the undead menace north of the Wall? Can we admire Tyrion's brilliance even as he employs it in defense of his nephew, the false king?
There aren't any easy answers to these questions. This is Martin's challenge to his audience, and why, from both a narrative and moral standpoint, Ned had to die.