If you haven’t read the books and the events of last night’s Game of Thrones were a surprise to you, then you’re probably experiencing all kinds of bad feel-feels right now. Anger. Confusion. Perplexment. It’s okay. I understand. Cry if you need to. Want to hit something? Hit this pillow. C’mere. Let’s hug it out. Shhhh. It’s okay. I’m going to explain to you why it’s all for the best, after the jump.
The first time I read through the Red Wedding, I had the same reaction as a lot of people. I was surprised, angry, and confused about what the fuck just happened. I briefly thought I had a reading comprehension problem, and had missed a few important details. I had to reread it to realize that Robb Stark was, in fact, dead. I didn't throw the book across the room, as some people say they do, but I did whine about it on the Internet on a forum I used to frequent. I’ve come around, though. When I read through the series a second time I realized that it all made sense, and that the Red Wedding is very probably the single best plot element in the series.
Imagine what the story would be like if Walder Frey's murder party never happened. Robb would slog on with his army, win battles, gain allies, and then ultimately become King in the North, or maybe even lord of all Westeros. All of his actions would simply be a pat conclusion to the first book. His arc would be little more than “boy gets army, avenges dad.” It would be utterly uninteresting because Robb is a flat, cipher of a character whose only real qualities are being generally honorable and Ned Stark’s son.
Sure, he seems like a protagonist: He’s a sword boy with a dead dad who’s taking on great odds. Go to the gold room at Powell’s, grab a random fantasy book off the shelf, and the protagonist will probably look and feel a lot like Robb. Game of Thrones, though, isn't a rote fantasy series. It's not about a chosen one protagonist or stark divides between good and evil. It's about messiness and shades of grey. No single faction is the "right" one, and no single person is the dedicated savior. Having Robb, a character who looks like a protagonist, die drives that point home.
The conventional fantasy storyline and worldview in direct conflict with Game of Thrones’ outlook. The series uses the trappings and conventions of fantasy, but the narrative seems to be a refutation of much of the genre. Most of the series seems preoccupied with showing that war is horrible, kings can be small and selfish, and that sometimes you have to play dirty to win. Nobility and selflessness are not automatically rewarded. All of that pushes against traditional fantasy. Game of Thrones is to its genre what Watchmen is to superhero comics: both a sterling example of its form, and a harsh criticism of it.
Getting to the specifics of the episode, I was surprised that Talisa died. In the books, Robb's wife is hidden away at Riverrun during the Red Wedding, leading to fan speculation that Robb will have an heir who could succeed him as King in the North. I guess that's out the window, though, at least in the show. Catelyn's end was suitably desperate and brutal, with her slicing open the throat of Walder Frey's latest trophy wife before having her neck turned into a blood sprinkler. I was watching the show with three people who've never read the books, and one of my friends was particularly disturbed when the Freys killed off Grey Wind. Yes, Walder Frey is a brutal and hateful dude. Not even cute puppies are safe from his wrath.
If you're still reeling, though, take heart. The Redd Wedding has myriad consequences. One does not slaughter people at a feast without repercussions, and I'm very much looking forward to how the show will handle the political fallout of the event. Walder Frey is a stab-happy bastard, and now everyone in Westeros knows it. That can't be good if you want to host future dinner parties.
A few other things also happened last night, but they were overshadowed by all of the murder and betrayal. We were reminded that Rickon Stark exists, for instance. Do you remember Rickon? No one does. Bran helpfully mentioned that “if anything happens… [he’s] the heir to Winterfell.” Thanks, Bran, for clearing that up for us. It’s great knowing that micro-Stark is still alive and well. Also, Bran mind warped Hodor and his direwolf. I guess that's pretty neat.
Danaerys continues to be on a roll, and has amassed a group of dudes that my viewing party referred to as Team Sexy Sword Bros. Jorah, Barristan, Grey Worm and Daario all took Yunkai in a fight scene that was so goofily choreographed I expected Errol Flynn to show up. Grey Worm twirls his spear around? Um, Okay. I wouldn't have minded the borderline silly fighting if it had been in a lighter episode, but here it seemed to clash pretty badly with the tone of events in Westeros. Team Beards and Cheekbones was victorious and Dany got herself another city.
Jon Snow had an abrupt falling out with the Wildlings simply because he wouldn't kill an old man in cold blood. Did anyone else think that was too quick and weird? Wouldn't anyone balk at straight-up swording an innocent human? I would, because I'm not a despicable person. That wasn't enough for Tormund Giantsbane, though, who declared that Jon Snow was a "crow." Fighting ensued, and Jon's on his own now slightly south of Castle Black. I guess he and Ygritte aren't going to get pantless in a hot tub again?
Sam and Gilly ran through some snow. Gilly seemed amazed at the idea of books and asked if Sam was a wizard. Reading is magic, ladies and gentlemen.
None of that is what people are talking about today, though. The only thing people are really going to remember about this episode is Robb Stark getting betrayed and killed by a creepy old man. That's what makes the series so good, though. The stakes are real. No one has plot armor. No one's a true protagonist, and characters really, honestly mean it when they say that when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
Update! Super commenter Graham sent me this brilliant compilation of people reacting to last night's episode. So much schadenfreude.