“Power resides where men believe it resides, it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall . . .” – Varys
Are you over it yet?
Have the rug burns on your knees faded away yet from crawling on the floor in agony while watching the infamous Red Wedding?
Me, neither. And I read the book, and knew it was coming.
The explosion of emotion that burst through social media and other areas of the internet the past few days has been truly stunning. Some of it has also been wildly hilarious, but most of it was along these lines:
This is not supposed to happen! You don’t do this to your good characters! There’s nobody left to root for! This was just a lot of gratuitous violence! George R.R. Martin is screwing with us! He’s a sick man with issues! I’m through with this show! I’m cancelling HBO!
(Aside: my guess is the final episode on Sunday will actually experience an uptick in ratings, just as the final episode of Season 1 did after many threatened to bail because of the death of Ned Stark. People may follow through with the threat to quit watching, but the buzz about The Rains Of Castamere will lure a lot of curious first-time viewers into taking a look at what the fuss is about. Fan site Winter Is Coming is already reporting that earlier episodes of Game of Thrones are shooting up the list of downloads on iTunes.)
O.K., everybody: BREATHE.
Let’s walk through what happened here.
First of all, I would argue that The Red Wedding is the absolute antithesis of gratuitous violence. No one cares when it’s gratuitous. Gratuitous violence has no meaning, no real impact, no reason to exist in the story.
The violence here is fraught with meaning. The fall-out from the violence will be fraught with meaning. That’s why viewers cried and yelled and used curse words they didn’t even know they knew while it was happening. That’s why readers of the book threw it across the room. That’s why it felt like YOU were being stabbed in the belly and shot full of arrows.
The most fascinating part of this phenomenon is that most viewers—though they might deny it now—didn’t really like Robb, Catelyn and Talisa Stark all that much.
There may have been some fan girl love for Robb’s portrayer, Richard Madden, but other than that, he’s been a fairly pale character. In the books, that’s even more the case, as he never got any point of view chapters. Oona Chaplin has been a lovely presence as Talisa, but I don’t recall much swooning over the romantic pairing.
Some people flat-out hated Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and those who didn’t admired her more than they liked her. (I’m in the admiration camp.) Catelyn from the beginning has been a very prickly character, not someone you cozy up to in a mom sort of way. Many will never forgive her for being so unjustly mean to Jon Snow, or for making what they considered a dunderhead move (releasing Jaime Lannister) even though her motive was understandable (wanting to trade him for the return of her daughters Sansa and Arya).
Yet their deaths—and the way they occurred—sent massive shock waves through the Game of Thrones fandom.
The reason most cited by a variety of post-episode analyses is probably closest to the truth: in spite of not being universally beloved, this branch of the Stark family was assumed to be the nominal heroes of the show. Mainly because after Ned Stark was beheaded, Robb and his mother vowed they would get justice and, up until recently, seemed to be on the road to achieving just that. Since we tend to see stories as falling into a thematic default mode of good vs. evil, the Starks were our representation of good vs. the evil cadre of the Lannisters and their cohorts.
The problem with that is Game of Thrones is not a story about good vs. evil.
This is a story about the illusory quality of power.
Look at the quote up top—that’s just one example of the show telling the audience what the story is really about. I often feel that if people would listen more carefully to what the characters are saying, they would be far less surprised by some of the storyline outcomes.
The reason Robb Stark has always been a poor candidate for the show’s hero is that he was never a candidate for taking the Iron Throne in the first place. Even if he had been successful in demolishing the Lannisters, he still had to contend with Stannis Baratheon and (unknown to him and others at this point) Daenerys Targaryan, plus Balon Greyjoy in the Iron Islands.
Another telling quote from early in the show, by Cersei: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
He was never going to win, because he was not willing to reach for the only possible prize: the entire Seven Kingdoms, not just the North.
The scene between him and Catelyn in the beginning of The Rains of Castamere shows that this is not a simple game of black vs. white, not a game of checkers, or even a game of chess. The map with the figures of lions and wolves on it (and did you notice the one of a man tied to a cross in the shape of an “x”?—hmmm . . .) is like the Westeros version of Stratego.
(Stannis has one, too. He and Melisandre conceived the smoke monster on top of it, in fact.)
When it comes to strategy, Robb Stark is the king of the epic fail.
This is why it is apt that his downfall happens at a wedding. Marrying Talisa instead of fulfilling his promise to marry one of Walder Frey’s progeny is more than a case of a king not honoring a sacred promise or being a jerk and jilting some nice girl. It’s a total misunderstanding of the purpose of marriage in the game—the one where losers die—he is playing.
Marriage is not for love, or lust or even primarily for producing heirs. It’s a way to forge alliances that will help you consolidate power. It’s a way to obtain more wealth to help you consolidate even more power.
Notice what seemed like an almost throwaway conversation between Catelyn and Roose Bolton. He tells her that he married one of Frey’s girls. Frey told Bolton he could pick any of his daughters or granddaughters, and he would give him her weight in silver. He picked the fattest of the lot.
Catelyn: “I hope she makes you very happy.”
Bolton: “Well, she’s made me very rich.”
It was already too late at this point, but this was a huge red flag. Bolton was a Stark bannerman, but he’s also allied by marriage to Frey, an alliance that made him rich. Bolton understands that marriage is a power move in this world, not a road to personal fulfillment. He also must have understood that the Stark star began falling as soon as Robb married Talisa, a foreign nobody (not my harsh assessment, just how Bolton would have seen her) with no wealth or powerful family members who would bolster Robb’s position on the Westeros Stratego map. It’s almost certain that’s why he decided to switch his loyalty over to the Lannisters.
The death of Talisa is horrific, but there’s also a symbolic element. Her only value to the Lannisters and Freys of this world is her sex and ability to bear an heir. Her murder is a dynastic one. By wiping out Robb and Talisa and their unborn child, Tywin Lannister clears the way to grab the North for the Lannisters. He wasn’t nagging Tyrion to consummate his marriage to Sansa Stark because he wants another grandchild to bounce on his knee. Like most of the characters in the story, he believes Bran and Rickon are dead and Arya is either permanently missing or dead. With Robb and Talisa out of the way, that leaves Sansa as the sole heir to Winterfell—until she has a son.
(By the way, Robb’s wife in the books is a totally different person and is not killed at the Red Wedding because she’s left behind at Riverrun. His reason for marrying her is also different—he deflowers her and feels obligated by honor to marry her. So he breaks one promise of honor to save the honor of a young girl. I actually think the reconfiguration of the character in the show works better than in the books.)
Marrying Talisa was not Robb’s only, or even most self-defeating mistake. The biggest one he made was executing Rickard Karstark. In this way, Robb almost mirrors Joffrey in his misunderstanding of where his power comes from. Like Joffrey, he doesn’t foresee the consequences of flexing his power. By beheading Karstark (for good reason—if he hadn’t needed him politically), he may as well have knocked the crown right off his own head. Karstark was one of the first people who declared Robb King of the North. Karstark’s death led to the rest of the Karstarks abandoning his cause—forcing Robb to seek out the Freys again to replace the men he lost.
He plays right into the hands of Tywin Lannisert and Walder Frey. The Freys are the red-headed stepchildren of the Westeros aristocracy—few want to marry into the family. A Frey marriage with Robb, a declared king, was going to capture the (forgive the pun) gold ring for Frey at last. He could have one day become the grandfather of a king. Being offered Robb’s foolish uncle as a consolation prize was an even bigger slap in the face.
Frey introducing his daughters and granddaughters early in the episode is an elaborate way of rubbing Robb’s blunder in his face. The girls themselves mean so little to him that he can’t even remember some of their names. They only represent to him opportunities to align himself with powerful families. His smirk when the bride—the one beauty in the bunch, apparently—is unveiled is classic. “You could have had what you found with that nobody foreign girl AND saved your honor AND made a great alliance with me,” it seemed to say.
The position of noblewomen in Westeros is most starkly realized when, in the middle of the slaughter, Catelyn grabs Frey’s little wife and swears she will cut her throat if he doesn’t stop the carnage.
“I can always get another,” he replies.
(In the book, it’s a mentally disabled grandson, not Frey’s wife, that Catelyn kills. Another change for the better, in my opinion.)
Women being used as bargaining chips has been a part of the story from the beginning, when Daenerys was married to Khal Drogo against her will. In her case, she found a way to acquire power within her marriage (she insisted Drogo treat her like a person, and eventually won him and his people over to the point where she became his confidant and advisor). Margaery Tyrell is another case, though she is a willing, even eager, participant in the bargaining (she wants to be THE Queen). Like Daenerys, she sees the key to attaining some measure of power as winning over the small folk. Unlike like Daenerys, her efforts read as fake. She is trying to win over Joffrey, but is hindered by the fact that he’s a psycho. Cersei thought she was done being used in this manner, but her father brought her crashing down to earth when he forced her to become betrothed to Loras Tyrell.
Then, of course, there’s Sansa, who believes in chivalric nonsense and thought her luck had finally turned when the Tyrells plotted to marry her to Loras. But Tywin was too crafty to allow that to happen.
It isn’t just on the battlefield where this kind of war is won—it’s also in the marriage bed. Robb Stark learned this lesson far too late. But don’t be too sure yet that you know who is going to win in the end. The machine that ground Robb Stark into dust is going to claim more victims—and you won’t always be crying and moaning when it happens. I’m not saying this to be spoilery—even book readers don’t know the ultimate body count because we’re still waiting for the final two to be published.
That’s just the way it goes, when you play the game of thrones.
- The Red Wedding Therapy Session (dinaalziab.com)
- ‘Game of Thrones’: Why I Loved ‘The Rains of Castamere’ (noplaceliketelevision.wordpress.com)
- ‘They are so dead’: Game Of Thrones’ Arya Stark leads shocked reactions to gruesome ‘Red Wedding’ (metro.co.uk)
- Twitter Reacts to the “Game of Thrones” Red Wedding (complex.com)
- Game of Thrones- The Rains of Castamere- Season 3 Episode 9 (bscspoileralert.wordpress.com)