So the axe came down on Game of Thrones last week. The much anticipated and feared Red Wedding happened. And a lot of people are bothered.
Warning, spoilers behind the cut!
I had actually expected the Red Wedding to happen in the season finale, which aired yesterday in the US (and which I haven’t seen yet), serving as the season end cliffhanger, like that other famous televised wedding massacre. And yes, I’ve drawn the parallels to that moment ever since I first heard of the Red Wedding. “Oh, you mean it’s the fantasy version of the Dynasty wedding massacre?”
Of course, since this is Game of Thrones, the main characters are actually dead, unlike Dynasty where only two guest stars and Steven Carrington’s gay partner (so unfair) died, while everybody else just got up, in spite of just having been shot in full view of the camera. Whereas on Game of Thrones, dead is usually dead and no one is safe.
Considering that A Storm of Swords came out approx. ten years ago, I honestly hadn’t expected such a shock and outcry. After all, I’d known about the Red Wedding for ages, though I never even read beyond the first book (didn’t much care for it, though I find myself enjoying the show to my infinite surprise). So I thought the fact that some of the principal Starks and a whole lot of their allies get slaughtered at a wedding was common knowledge by now, just as it’s common knowledge that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, that Godot never comes, that Soylent Green is people. But when you’re immersed in the SFF community, it’s easy to forget that not everybody knows or cares what happens in books they haven’t read. Hell, whenever there is a new Pride and Prejudice adaption on TV, people are actually biting their nails whether Elisabeth and Darcy will get together. And that spoiler has only been out for two hundred years.
Here is a video compilation of audience reactions to last Sunday’s episode BTW. Though chuckling at the shock and horror of your friends, family and/or significant others is not cool IMO. Just as it’s not really cool to let friends walk into something like Game of Thrones unprepared. When recommending something like Spooks or Game of Thrones to other people, I usually tell them, “This is really good, but don’t get too attached to the characters, cause a lot of them die.” Interestingly enough, I never had problems persuading people to watch Spooks, but a lot of them refuse to watch Game of Thrones. No idea why, since both are equally happy to slaughtetr characters and – more importantly – both play relatively fair by having serious and horrible things happen to likable characters early on, Spooks by shoving a junior agent face first into a deep fryer in the second episode and Game of Thrones by shoving Bran from the tower in the first episode (plus slaughtering a bunch of unnamed men of the Night’s Watch and beheading the lone survivor in the opening minutes) and killing Sansa’s direwolf as well as Myka, the butcher’s boy, in the second. Never mind that Game of Thrones infamously chopped off the head of its star at the end of its first season. So yeah, if you watch this, you know what you’re getting.
So what did I think of the episode and the Red Wedding itself? The sense of doom was palpatable from the moment Robb Stark and company arrived at the Twins. David Bradley, an actor who specializes in creepy old man parts and has been in anything from Ashes to Ashes via Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Adventures to Harry Potter, really outdid himself as the supremely disgusting Walder Frey, head of a brood of some of the most unfortunate looking people in Westeros. Even if you didn’t know that Walder Frey was going to have everybody killed, how could you not hate that guy after watching him humiliate Robb, Talisa and his own daughters and granddaughters. Honestly, what is it with horrible fathers in Westeros? We have Walder Frey, we have the guy behind the wall who marries his daughters and kills his sons, we have Tywin Lannister, uncontested two-times winner of the Darth Vader parenthood award*.
Just as weddings in Westeros tend to range from the terribly awkward (Daenerys and Khal Drogo, Sansa and Tyrion) to the downright horrible (the Red Wedding). Robb’s and Talisa’s briefly glimpsed wedding is the only positive depiction of a wedding we ever see in the series and that’s probably because unlike all other couples, Robb and Talisa actually chose each other (and look where it got them). As someone who dislikes weddings in real life, I find it strangely heartening to see weddings – which are usually portrayed as both romantic and “pull out all the stops” extravaganzas in popular culture, see the Dynasty wedding clip I posted – as something pretty awkward and awful that is best survived by getting really, really drunk (see Tyrion). In fact, I strongly suspect that George R.R. Martin is no more a fans of weddings than I am, considering he only married his longterm partner in 2011 after thirty years together, which is quite remarkable considering that couples cohabitating for years or decades without getting married is a lot rarer in the US than in Western Europe.
That said – though I don’t like weddings and have no plans of ever being an active participant in one – if I ever were to get married, I’d totally want “The Rains of Castermere” played at my wedding, at the point when I just want the guests to leave. Of course, knowing my decidedly ungeeky relatives, none of them would get it. Nonetheless, the sense of foreboding as the doors at the feast are suddenly locked, the Hound is turned away at the gates by a guard who tells him that “The Feast is over”, the band (which includes the drummer of Coldplay BTW) suddenly playing the mournful tune of “The Rains of Castermere” (which was also played at Tyrion’s and Sansa’s wedding the episode before, where Cersei even helpfully explained the meaning of the song – basically it’s an educational tale about what happens to those who piss off the Lannisters) and Catelyn Stark, driven by a sense of unease, pushing up Roose Bolton’s sleeve to see the chainmail underneath. It’s very well done indeed.
As for the slaughter itself, I really could have done without the graphic footage of seeing pregnant Talisa stabbed repeatedly in the abdomen. It’s yet another entry in the long list of pregnant women abused in SFF. I already wrote about the issues I have with the abuse of pregnant women, particularly in visual media, when the pregnant character is played by an actress who is pregnant in real life, here. The murder of Talisa is just another variation on the theme. I actually liked the way her pregnancy was handled, since Talisa started sporting gowns that were noticeably high-waisted and full at the belly a few episodes before she told Robb about her pregnancy. So when Robb went “Wait a minute… what?”, I thought, “Dude, I already suspected she was pregnant two episodes ago. I bet your Mom knows, too.” And when Talisa began to go on about little Ned Stark, it was pretty obvious she was doomed. Nonetheless, I’d argue that we didn’t need to see her shredded womb, especially since that scene isn’t even in the books.
Robb pretty much gives up fighting once Talisa is killed and just stands there until Roose Bolton cuts his throat. Catelyn, however, goes out on a high note and grabs Walder Frey’s wife as a hostage, hoping to secure Robb’s escape. However, Walder Frey, bastard that he is, smiles and says, “Then I’ll simply find another”, before Catelyn kills the unfortunate Mrs. Frey and has her own throat cut. Most of Robb’s bannermen, whom I for one could never tell apart, as well as Robb’s direwolf die as well, the direwolf actually expiring in front of Arya who’s made it to the courtyard of the Twins, before she is carried away/rescued by the Hound. BTW, unlike many others, I’m actually glad that Arya did not get to see her mother and brother one last time. Because if she had seen them again, she would inevitably have seen them die. And considering how obviously traumatized and damaged Arya is, the last thing she needs is seeing yet more family members slaughtered before her eyes.
Though the member of the Stark family who actually managed to bring a few tears to my eyes was not Robb or Catelyn or Arya or Talisa, but Rickon, the usually neglected youngest Stark kid. Because the good-bye scene between Bran and Rickon in the abandoned mill and Rickon telling Bran that he can’t leave his older brother, after all he has to protect him (and Rickon is supposed to be six or seven) is the moment that really brought tears to my eyes rather than the more high-profile wedding massacre. This isn’t the first time little Rickon has impressed me either. Remember back in season 1, when Rickon goes missing and is found in the crypt under Winterfell in the niche reserved for his father and says that he has been visiting his father (of whose execution no one knows at this point)? And when he’s scolded and told to wait for Mom and Dad and Robb to come back, Rickon only shakes his head and says, “They won’t come back.” Bran isn’t the only Stark kid with supernatural abilities (and note how he says “When something happens to Robb” – when, not if), Rickon seems to be precognitive as well.
Indeed, for me one of the main draws of Game of Thrones (apart from the fact that it is highly entertaining in all its bloody and naked glory) is that the Stark kids (plus Jon) as well as other young characters such as Daenerys, Gendry, Hotpie, Tommen and Myrcella, the Meer siblings appeal to my protective teacher instincts. Basically, those are kids in trouble – lots of kids in trouble – and the teacher in me wants to protect them. And let’s not forget that these are kids – and not just the ones who obviously look like kids. In the books, Jon and Robb are about 16, Danaerys is 13 or 14, Gendry would have to be around 16 as well, Sansa is 14 on the show and younger in the books. These kids basically are the age of my students (Rickon and Tommen are younger, since I only teach grades 5 to 10). Of course, Jon, Robb, Daenerys and Gendry are played by actors in their early 20s, because they have sexually explicit scenes. But they’re still supposed to be kids, which makes what happens to them all the more horrible. And let’s not forget that according to George R.R. Martin himself the seed of the whole Song of Ice and Fire series was not “I’m going to rewrite the War of the Roses in a fantasy setting” but Bran really wanting a direwolf cub of his own and persuading his father to let him (and his siblings) keep them.
BTW, I am stunned how many Americans do not seem to know the significance of presenting bread and salt to visitors, since there was some discussion online how the significance of hospitality and guest rights was not made clear in the show. After all, handing bread and salt to visitors not just a sacred custom on Westeros, but still practiced in the real world. I’ve seen new neighbours welcomed with bred and salt myself, though nowadays a slice of cake or a potted plant are more common.
For some behind the scenes stuff and reactions, Entertainment Weekly interviewed the producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff, while the Huffington Post interviewed actors Michelle Fairley, who played Catelyn, and Richard Madden, who played Robb.
*The Darth Vader parenthood award is an informal prize I award to the worst parent figure in popular culture I have encountered in a given year. The uncontested 2012 and 2013 winner is Tywin Lannister. The 2011 winner is Nathan’s mother from Misfits, who coincidentally was portrayed by Michelle Fairley, the actress who plays Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones. She also plays Hermione’s mother in the Harry Potter films BTW.