As I’m sure many people are now fully aware, certain shocking and series-changing events occurred in the most recent Game of Thrones episode, this Sunday. As a long-time fan of the books, I was looking forward to seeing the reactions from all of the TV viewers; however, the whole shebang got me thinking about my own reaction to reading the scene, four years ago, and my thoughts on it follow:
As so many people discovered to their dismay this past Sunday night, George R. R. Martin really doesn’t have any compunctions against killing off his characters. The Red Wedding hit, in all of its brutal, awful finality, and the TV viewers were fully immersed in the world that readers of A Song of Ice and Fire have been living in for the past 13 years.
The reactions to this scene have been nothing but par for the course. As a reader myself, I distinctly remember the horror I experienced when reading that last, fateful, Catelyn chapter. Expletives certainly fit the situation. On the internet Sunday night and into Monday—and, undoubtedly, all week—fans took to their keyboards to loose strings of four-letter words at Martin, at the show, at HBO, and at the writers and producers. A common theme, once the profanity was sifted through, was a prevailing sense of “what next?”
Many viewers expressed a lack of interest in the show going forward, saying that there was simply no sense in maintaining a viewership for a show that does such awful things to its characters. Indeed, many readers put down A Storm of Swords after reading the scene, and a good number of them never picked it up again. Among those who did, many said that they never felt the same emotional investment in the characters and books, because it simply wasn’t worth the pain anymore.
All this hoopla over the Red Wedding is understandable, really. People died, painfully, horrifically, in front of us; to make things worse, they were the good guys. However, instead of just letting this all roll forward, from an entertainment point-of-view, we should all take a step back and look at just exactly what GRRM has done here.
It was obvious from the first book that even main characters were not surrounded by plot armor; the mind-blowing execution of Lord Eddard Stark, supposed protagonist of A Game of Thrones, was enough to pound that issue home. His death was received by fans with shock. Who saw that coming? However, it did more than just overturn a major fantasy trope (something Martin is exceedingly fond of doing): it established a tone for the whole series. It was not a random killing. It was not a character death thrown in solely to show the readers—and, eventually, viewers—that Martin wasn’t afraid to kill people off.
Instead, the death of Ned Stark displayed, in fell manner, one of the essential underpinnings of Westeros: actions have consequences. This is high fantasy, yes, but nothing will be handed to the characters, be they honorable and upright or practically dragged from the pits of hell. The result of this is that, all too often, those honest characters usually suffer the most dire consequences of all. Without plot armor and Deus ex machina, they suddenly need to play by the rules.
And here is the catch. While many fans are spouting vitriol and announcing their intents to avoid the series henceforth, wailing and gnashing their teeth, they are missing the point.
What Martin did, both with Ned’s beheading and with the Red Wedding, was make us care. He has given this series real meaning, and given real satisfaction to the achievements other characters have made. Every time now that Arya does something crafty and survives, every time Jon Snow upholds his values, and every time Tyrion displays his political savvy, we are reminded that these events aren’t lip service to the genre’s conventions. In the Seven Kingdoms, good things don’t happen to good people because they’re good people. Good things happen to people who earn them. And, in a world filled from top to bottom with strict social rules, it should be no surprise that flouting those standards can sometimes result in fatal consequences.
So, instead of abandoning Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire, fans should savor their triumphs all the more. Yes, the Red Wedding was stunning and horrifying. The very fact that it had such a tremendous impact upon the fanbase should stand as testament to the true magic that George R. R. Martin has spun together in this story.
We care, and we should keep on caring. Further trials await in the world of Westeros and Essos, from the Wall in the North to Dorne in the south, but triumphs await as well. It is only through that combination of failings and successes that we get true satisfaction for taking this journey.
Read on, people, and keep watching.