by Forest Lewis
Sean Bean’s character is his fate. Heraclitus said that. But what we mean here by character is not who Sean Bean is in real life, nor in any one role that he has played. Rather we mean the aggregate character of each consecutive role; the many headed hydra-character assembled over a career. And what of the fate? He always dies. You cut one head off and another appears. He’s so good at dying that a metric has been banged up to prove the point. He’s the fourth dyingist actor in Hollywood.
I usually take a long time to come around on media. I have an innate distrust in ‘the new thing’ and so avoid it: this probably has something to do with a convoluted and hoity notion of The Canon and Literacy in general. Also TV remains mostly unavailable to me and so I have to really go out of my way to watch anything. There comes a point when you realize that you will never watch the entirety of The Sopranos. Or Breaking Bad. Or The Wire. And probably don’t need to. “Need” here is the crux; do we really need to watch anything? That’s Bataille’s Accursed Share: as soon as you accomplish basic needs—a house, income—the next task is to figure out how to kill time. In any case I had just seen The Martian starring Sean Bean. Leaving the movie I was like: what the fuck is up with Sean Bean?
So I decided to finally watch Game of Thrones. Talk about time killing.
I hacked HBO and started streaming. Game of Thrones is basically nihilism distilled in narrative form, trussed up in a gory booby ren-fest style; it’s like Donald Trump’s rise to power; you can’t turn away. I only watched until Sean Bean’s death.
Did I expect him to die? Yes I did.
Typecasting is, aside from Studio business logic, a type of language. That is, the actor is a sign; a signal of information beaming beyond the immediate content of the movie. So we know that Jonah Hill will be the comedic patsy. That Paul Giametti will be sardonic and unhappy. That Angelina Jolie will be beautiful and triumphant.
And Sean Bean will always be Boromir. This is the curse of The Lord of the Rings: what actor has ever escaped its gravitational pull? LOTR changed career trajectories, if not flat out ruined them. The Martian is aware of this fact and makes a joke in reference. When Sean Bean shows up in that movie there is a weird moment of cognitive dissonance: what kind of movie are we watching? (The same with the inclusion of Kristen Wiig: she makes it seem like an SNL version of NASA. Even when she’s crying at the end you think she’s doing it for laughs.) Sean Bean is cast so often as a villain (Patriot Games, The Island), or coward (Ronin), or betrayer (Goldeneye, LOTR), that he can’t help but arouse suspicion.
His haggard appearance harkens some downward trajectory: he looks like David Beckham’s alcoholic older brother and we wonder if he’s going to fuck up the mission. That he secretly disobeys orders to save Matt Damon is played as if he knew he was doomed anyhow: he’s making a sacrifice of his career. Even so he does not die, and he helps save the day; it’s a brave attempt to break type: he doesn’t want to be Boromir anymore. Which is a little like saying that he does not want to be Sean Bean.
Narrative conventions deal in small auguries. The story offers clues to the audience as to what may happen. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” is the epigraph to Anna Karenina and one reads it with that in mind: “So when’s this vengeance thing going to happen?” You proceed in the story with a kind of informed ignorance: you do not know what will happen exactly but are invited to guess. The name for this phenomena is suspense.
Speaking with a friend once I mentioned in passing that Anna is run over by a train. “Dude!” my friend protested. “I haven’t read it yet!” He was angry but I was not very apologetic. For one thing I thought everyone knew that Anna Karenina dies. Also, assuming that the ending should be more important or sacred than any other part of the novel is antithetical to Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is better the second time around because you know what’ll happen. The book is littered with little portents and minimal accelerations of doom. The second reading reveals, among other things, the vicissitudes of plot and structure: it is enjoyable because one sees how well constructed it is. And curiously enough, even knowing what will happen, the suspense does not diminish. The same can be said of Moby-Dick.
Ned Stark as Sean Bean in Game of Thrones is one such narrative augury. A Sean Bean that is, for once in his career, the central hero, strong, brave, loyal, standing up for goodness and honor and so forth; but in the end he’s no less doomed than Boromir. The show lulls us into a false hope and his beheading is played for shock. And shocking it is. Shocking because Sean Bean qua Sean Bean is inherently sympathetic: sympathetic because doomed.
His death is meant to ratchet up the suspense of the show: if the main character and biggest star can be killed off so easily then every other character’s life is cheapened. Just because Jon Snow is set up by the conventions of bildungsroman to triumph is no guarantee that he will. The hot question for the series then is not who’ll save the realm, but rather who dies? And in what awful manner? Yes, all plots lead to death, (Delillo) but Game of Thrones, after Sean Bean dies, amounts to a cheap and pointless narrative exercise.
Anna Karenina’s death is no less shocking, but at no point in the narrative are we tricked to believe that she’s not doomed.
The film critic David Thomson has undertaken one of the more curious works of reference in our time:The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Its thousand plus pages catalogues those persons integral to The Movies as a whole. It is extremely biased and wonderful and should be included in any Cinema Nerd’s library; I use it regularly. Curious as to know what Thompson’s opinion on Sean Bean is, I looked him up. There was Bazin and then Beatty, but no Bean. This, in my opinion, is wrong. Let this article stand then as my own wiki entry on Sean Bean for the New Biographical Dictionary. Sean Bean! You will not be forgotten.
Someone has compiled a very violent reel of 21 of his deaths. This death montage is, weirdly enough, rather moving. It’s like watching someone fail over and over again; the pathos is real.