Warning: This piece contains spoilers for HBO’s Game Of Thrones series up through the end of the June 2 episode, “The Rains Of Castamere.”
As Game Of Thrones aired its penultimate season-three episode, “The Rains Of Castamere,” veterans of George R.R. Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire novels were holding their collective breath for what they knew would be the most explosive, emotional development to hit the TV adaptation of his series since the execution of seeming protagonist Eddard Stark toward the end of season one. The betrayal and murder of Eddard’s heir, Robb, along with his pregnant wife and his mother, Catelyn, ends one of the series’ many plotlines with abrupt, thudding finality. And their deaths come at a moment that should be triumphant, during Catelyn’s brother’s wedding, which is supposedly sealing a much-needed alliance between the Starks and the Frey family. Instead, the Freys violate their oaths of hospitality and slaughter the Starks and hundreds of their soldiers and followers (though the TV adaptation only shows a small handful dying), in what comes to be known as the Red Wedding.
As Martin himself put it, in an EW interview that posted immediately after the episode aired, the Red Wedding is “probably the most powerful scene in the books.” He says he’s fielded vehement, extreme reactions to it ever since book fans first experienced the event in his 2000 novel A Storm Of Swords. When the Game Of Thrones show launched, the Red Wedding immediately became a primary topic of discussion for fans of the books, who wondered whether HBO would soften, alter, or even excise it for fear of alienating viewers. HBO didn’t, and the viewer reaction has been predictably stunned and horrified, as evidenced by the Red Wedding Tears Twitter feed, or the YouTube compilation of live video reactions. Even the critical reaction has come across as aggrieved and despairing, with pieces like i09’s thoughtful but pained “Why do we sit through the brutality of Game Of Thrones every week?”, or Pajiba’s write-up, subtitled “There Is Nothing Fair In This World; There Is Nothing Safe In This World.”
In that EW interview, James Hibberd asks Martin why the Red Wedding evokes such powerful reactions, particularly since neither Robb nor Catelyn have ever been fan-favorite characters. Martin says, “I don’t know if I have a good answer,” and vaguely theorizes that it’s because their murder is such a surprise and a betrayal. He’s quick to add that a lot of minor characters and anonymous guardsmen die, in addition to the two least-beloved remaining Starks, which ups the stakes. But off-screen deaths and the massacre touched on in the books don’t explain the Internet descending into breast-beating, clothes-rending misery, and even the dramatic reversal of a joyous event abruptly turning into a horrific one is a minor part of the impact. A lot of the initial reaction to the televised version of the Red Wedding was simple shock at the brutality of the sequence. Some of it is because Robb and Catelyn were main characters: Like Eddard’s death, theirs suggest that no one in Martin’s world is safe, and that even Arya or Tyrion or Jon or Daenerys or whomever else the viewers love most could die at any moment. And in a story where one family can casually break all its society’s most sacred rules and slaughter unarmed wedding guests, there’s no trusting any vow or promise, or any seeming friendship or romance.
But at heart, past that first shock, the Red Wedding floors readers and viewers because it’s the death of hope.
There are reasons the Robb and Catelyn Stark of the books were never considered fan favorites: Robb is never a point-of-view character, and he’s a distant, vanilla figure compared to the troubled characters Martin uses as portholes to the world. He’s a noble figurehead, and a simplistically perfect one: In spite of his youth, he’s a skilled, principled leader and a smart strategist, and his only major misstep is in falling in love and failing to honor his oath to marry for political gain. Catelyn Stark has much more of a personality, but she’s a flinty martinet who makes poor decisions in her attempts to protect her family, and she’s essentially a Northern version of Cersei: strong-willed to the point of blindness where her children are concerned. (Those impressions are more from the book’s fandom than the show’s, however, judging from the number of HBO fans now posting proprietary, swoony online laments for “my Robb,” and the fanbase Michelle Fairley accumulated for finding Catelyn’s sympathetic, human side without losing her hardness.)
But Robb and Catelyn had a combination of righteousness, purity, and resources that no one else on the show could claim. They were the traditional, ideologically pure “good guys.” They weren’t after power for selfish, grasping reasons: They had a moral calling to avenge Eddard’s murder at the hands of the treacherous Lannister family, and reclaim Catelyn’s daughters from the Lannisters’ abusive household. They were stepping up to face an unwanted but necessary challenge, to protect their family and country in a mature, considered, responsible way. They were playing the part of conventional fantasy heroes, wronged and seeking justice. And in any conventional hero’s-journey story, Robb would be expected to save the day and triumph: As the son of a man murdered by evil, grasping, cheating sadists, he reluctantly took up the messiah mantle and fought back, and the standard format for this kind of story suggests he deserves his inevitable victory.
Having him go down as the victim of a sneaky, cowardly plot is like watching Harry Potter get fatally gutshot at the Yule Ball, halfway through the books. He’s the hero; he’s supposed to win, no matter what it takes. The majority of fantasy stories are about escapism and wish-fulfillment, and about the catharsis that comes when a deserving champion punishes and defeats an equally deserving villain. The protagonists may have setbacks and disappointments, they may make sacrifices, but they don’t die ignominiously, choking on their own blood, while their enemies gloat.
And with Robb and Catelyn gone, there’s no longer any chance at the expected, traditional happy ending any time in the near future. There are plenty of protagonists left behind to take up the fight, but none have Robb and Catelyn’s moral purity of cause, combined with the army to back it up. They were the last appeal to adult authority, the last illusion that someone sensible and severe could come in and take charge. The remaining heroes are currently scattered, disempowered, and isolated. The ones with Robb’s righteous claim to vengeance—Eddard’s five other children—have no power. Four are currently fleeing enemies; one, Sansa Stark, is in captivity. Four of them are children, and the fifth, Jon Snow, has his own massive problems to contend with. Meanwhile, the rest of the people who do have the power to challenge the Lannisters are either half a world away and still consolidating their forces, or hopelessly morally compromised by dark magic, murder, and hubris.
For that matter, there’s no chance at the expected, traditional happy ending in the far future, either. The Lannisters might eventually be destroyed, and the kingdom restored to a just and honest ruler, but that victory would still have to take place in a world where the rightful hero watched his pregnant wife stabbed to death in front of him, then bled out in front of his dying mother. That’s why the Red Wedding has such an emotional impact, George: It ups the ante on the series’ sheer physical brutality, it leaves readers and viewers expecting that any character or situation might suddenly devolve into gory slaughter, and it definitively ends any hope for a glorious, clean ending where all the black hats are put in their place and all the white hats ride away triumphantly.
So is it time for despair and suicide, as some of the most histrionic reactions have suggested? More sensibly, should former fans just give up on the series? Plenty of newcomers to the Red Wedding have suggested that Martin is just a sadist himself, that he “has issues” or is some sort of psychotic bastard, twisting the knife in his viewers for his own sick reasons, and that they’re better off getting away before he can emotionally hurt them further. But I’ll let you in on a secret about him, one that suggests viewers should stick by the series to the end.
I have a long-brewing theory that Martin is the world’s most cynical romantic. I’ve never yet read a Martin novel or story that ended in utter despair for any character who hadn’t thoroughly earned it—and I’ve read him extensively, from his 1977 debut novel, Dying Of The Light, to his many short-story collections and the entire Song Of Ice And Fire series. His work has always embraced bleakness, loneliness, and hardship, with tough-minded people muddling through traumas that perpetually threaten to break them. His protagonists rarely get exactly what they want; often, they can consider themselves lucky if they become wise enough to realize they wanted the wrong thing. His characters often make hard, ugly choices to survive, but those choices make them stronger and fiercer, and more capable of protecting themselves from the hatefulness of the predatory worlds they live in.
Martin’s cynical side can be overpowering: Characters who start his stories with naïve faith in honor, loyalty, or love—especially their own one-sided, demanding love, as opposed to a mutual bond—are commonly punished for their beliefs. But his romantic side holds just as steady, with the most steadfast and worthy characters prevailing. As I put it in that Gateways, “For a man whose writing is so often ruthless and uncompromising, he has a hell of a sentimental streak when it comes to questions of injustice, honor, nobility, personal dignity against long odds, and wrongs that need to be righted at any cost.”
I’ve said this over and over when writing about Martin’s work. What he does better than any author I’ve ever encountered—what defines his writing for me—is his masterful skill at exploiting the tension between the desire for justice and the availability of that justice. But that doesn’t mean there is no justice, just that it’s always hard-won and thoroughly earned. Robb and Catelyn’s grotesque ends complicate the search for justice considerably, and move it far into the future. But it doesn’t make the quest impossible. It just means it’ll be that much sweeter and that much more satisfying when it finally arrives.