Attention Red Wedding Crashers: Get a Grip, Sit Back, and Enjoy a Best-in-Genre Moment

Attention Red Wedding Crashers: Get a Grip, Sit Back, and Enjoy a Best-in-Genre Moment

**Warning: This piece contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.**

If one struggles to name any fantasy-genre
standout on the small screen or silver screen that isn’t a book adaptation, an
animation, or a mawkish cult classic like David Bowie’s Labyrinth, the reason’s simple: American audiences consider
the entire genre frivolous and flippant, and won’t embrace it in new
media unless book-lovers, kids, or hipsters have already given it their stamp
of approval. In other words, outside the context of video games, Americans need
an excuse to love a fantasy-genre production; either it borrows its gravitas
from the fact of it having sold well in bookstores first, it needs no gravitas
because it’s essentially kiddie-candy, or it operates beyond the reach of
gravitas because it’s pure kitsch. The end result is that no one takes the
genre seriously and, beyond a few hundred thousand mass-market paperbacks sold
annually at brick-and-mortar bookstores, no one really cares much about it.
It’s tangential to American life; it’s a first-world curiosity. The reason?
Fantasy authors, animators, and directors have never found a way to make
readers or audiences feel in their gut the grotesque moral savagery around
which the genre is built, or to see in fantastical morality plays lessons with
timely relevance for modern living, and in consequence no story rendered as a
fantasy ever properly lands with American audiences. It’s simply too removed
from anything that really matters.

The Red Wedding scene from the HBO series
“Game of Thrones” may not have reinvigorated a genre—one could argue that the entire series, which
lights up Twitter and Facebook weekly like few other cultural artifacts do, has
done that—but it may well have reinvented it. Martin’s controversial killing off of
three major characters in the middle of the series’ seasons-long story arc, and
his unceremonious ending of the two-family feud at the center of that arc
seemingly seasons too early, is a best-of-genre moment that has roused much
anger among television-watchers precisely because it changed the ground rules
of an entire genre in mid-stride.

Many Americans, this author included, go to
television generally, and fantasy or fantastical shows specifically, as a means
of escaping time—that is, to watch consequence-free melodrama in a space that
feels entirely removed from anything we really care about. Horror films don’t
meet that standard because they frighten; contemporary dramas, because they make
use cry; comedies, because they make us laugh (and sometimes, when done right,
cry while laughing); and romances because they make us swoon. Fantasy shows and
movies are supposed to be more like documentaries that entertain us in the
absence of any informational content; if they refresh our spirit, they do so
quietly and only with our implicit preapproval.

Enter “The Rains of Castamere,” an
episode of “Game of Thrones” that led fans of the series to take to
Twitter and Facebook to issue death threats to the series creator, George R.R.
Martin; many others announced they’d no longer watch the show. Fans of the book
had a similar reaction when the now-infamous Red Wedding scene appeared in the
book on which Season 3 of “Game of Thrones” is based, A Storm of Swords.

In the scene immediately preceding the Red
Wedding in the Robb Stark/Catelyn Stark storyline, the King of the North’s
mother urges him to let his mortal enemies, the Lannisters, know what it feels
like to lose something they love. It’s considered, by both Stark scions, to be
just about the only thing that will awaken the callous Lannisters from their
complacent wealth and endless political victories (also, a string of de facto
military victories brought on not by their own military prowess but the
weakness and disorder of their enemies). In the very same way, Martin’s killing
off of the two senior Starks has affected a complacent, wealthy, victory-rich
nation—America—by taking from it two characters it loves and admires, and doing
so without any of the advance warning first-world countries implicitly demand
before they’re handed a major defeat. That’s what really gets our goat about
the Red Wedding: It was a sneak attack against our affections and our courage,
launched from a platform (the fantasy genre) which has long been free of
such audience-rattling excursions. It’s no wonder the most successful
fantasy-film franchise in the history of Hollywood, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was based on a book Britons once voted
the best of the twentieth century and which, consequently, both the English and
their American cousins already know the ending to. The Red Wedding was
something different; it was a nasty surprise that stole from us something we
actually value and made us actually hurt, thereby breaching the contract
fantasy readers and filmgoers have implicitly always had with the genre.

But George R.R. Martin has taken this particular
best-in-genre moment even further, and in doing so has returned fantasy to
real-time cultural consequence for the first time in, well, forever. Fans
mourning the deaths of Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Talisa Stark fail to see
that these are precisely the characters who needed to die. They needed to die
immediately and they needed to die in precisely this way, for what has always
made the fantasy genre the most underrated of all the genres is not only that
(as with the Red Wedding) it carries the capacity to move us as deeply as any
other form of entertainment, but also that it teaches us better than any other
genre about the moral savagery that still endangers us daily. Whatever we may say
of their deaths, the now-deceased Stark trio each had it better than almost
anyone in Westeros, which left viewers with little to learn from them except
the falsehood that in an unpredictable world the emotionally rich are rarely in
peril. 

Robb Stark had a father who not only loved him
but inspired him, a mother who loved him and modeled for him every strength a
man or woman of any time-period could need, a wife with whom he shared true love, a home for which he felt genuine fondness and with which he shared a
genuine spiritual attachment, brothers and bannermen and vassals who he loved
and who loved him in return. He knew himself, he knew his cause to be just, and
he knew himself to be capable of generative moral audacity and abiding
political courage. The same could be said of his wife and his mother, excepting
that his mother also enjoyed the most loving marriage in Westerosi history for
several decades and was perhaps the first mother in Westerosi history to be
sincerely and justifiably proud of every one of her children (even Sansa). The
tragedy of her last year of life, like the tragedies of Robb’s and Talisa’s
last months together, in no way erases the permanent mark of a life well lived.

In a fantasy book or film, we expect emotional
removal and cultural irrelevance, and so we expect a life well lived to end happily,
as in our own reality they so often do not. In our reality, children are killed
by cluster bombs dropped pursuant to military squabbles they have nothing to do
with; loving mothers are killed in childbirth or by drunk drivers or from
breast cancer; good men are ruined by men with fewer scruples, baser instincts,
and a larger quantity of money. Sometimes, but with precious rarity, what is
true in life is also true in fantasy: We learn from goodness, when we learn
from it at all, only from its downfall. That that’s a lesson we rarely get from
artifacts of the fantasy genre is something we’ve come to live with, in fact
it’s become something that (ironically) makes fantasy palatable to American
audiences.

We call George R.R. Martin a cretin for killing
off the three most noble Starks this side of Arya—Ned, Robb, and Catelyn—but
look for a moment at the miserable lives of his tale’s supposed
“victors.” Cersei is still alive; she’s a beautiful and intelligent
woman who’s never felt romantic love for anyone but her brother, is afforded a
tenth of the respect her intellect deserves, was married off like a parcel of
property (and is about to be so married again) to a man she doesn’t love or
respect, has no mother and fears rather than loves her father, has no friends,
parented a sociopath into a reign of unfettered derangement, and will never
achieve even a fraction of her life’s ambitions. Her brother and lover Jamie
Lannister has led a life of such self-loathing that the first consequential
interpersonal encounter of his thirty-something years is with a six-foot-tall
virginal pariah who’s charged with his prisoner’s transport; it’s not clear that
he’s ever had sex with anyone but his sister or been loved by anyone but her
and his near-universally-despised little brother. Petyr Baelish has spent his
entire life pining after a woman who doesn’t love him and compensating for a
childhood spent getting the snot beat out of him by stronger, taller,
better-looking, better-armored men. He has not a single friend. Lord Varys is a
castrato who endured years of penury, torture, forcible rape, and public
humiliation just so he could work harder than anyone in his immediate vicinity
on behalf of a kingdom that does not appear to deserve (or in any sense
appreciate) his efforts to counter Baelish’s Chaos with Order. Let’s put aside
that no one loves him, either, that he loves no one, and that his only
“friend” is Tyrion Lannister—who doesn’t trust him. All of these
people, and the many other Lannisters and assorted baddies who survived the Red
Wedding, are miserable wretches whose lives and loves we do not admire or envy.
The few days and weeks and months we’re permitted to watch their lives
notwithstanding, they’ve suffered substantially more, and lived substantially less
well, than those they have killed or have just heard about being killed at the
Red Wedding.

The lesson of the Red Wedding, then, isn’t just
that well-written fantasy takes from us things that are precious to us in a way
that actually hurts us, but that we learn more from the suffering of the bad
than the clean living of the good. This isn’t a lesson we normally associate
with fantasy–in fantasy, or so the casual fantasy-watcher thinks, the evil
ultimately perish and the good ultimately prosper—but it’s a lesson many of us
have been associating with the very best exemplars of the genre for a very long
time. If you’re a Ned Stark-like father-figure who happens to live in a
war-torn Middle Eastern country, all your hard lessons about righteousness and
many years of dedicated love may not keep your children or wife safe; if
you’re a homosexual in the wrong place on Earth, your true love for another may
someday lead to your brutal murder; if the way you live and love is an
inspiration to others, you may have your entire life toppled someday by someone
lacking your stringent codes of honor and various self-restrictions. The only
way to encourage a nation to fight the worst human instincts—whether they arise
from within the nation or without it—is to engender in that nation an abiding
understanding of what it means to lose what one loves and what it means to
watch the devious succeed. By the same token, the only way to encourage a
nation to honor the best human instincts—whether they arise from within the
nation or without it—is to enforce an understanding that goodness sometimes
leads to happiness before it leads to tragedy, and that savagery often leads to
misery before (and even while) it leads to perpetual skin-of-one’s-teeth
survival.

One of the worst things about human history is that
we have often learned the above lessons, when we’ve learned them at all, from
violence and loss of life; one of the best things about human history is its
continual production and reproduction of art, and one of the best things about art is that it teaches us what we need to learn about ourselves and language
and the nature of attachment without any accompanying need for bloodshed.

Don’t hate George R.R. Martin for taking from
you what you love, “Game of Thrones” viewers, thank him. Don’t hate “Game
of Thrones” for bending the conventions of fantasy to make you feel
something real in real-time, be grateful for it. And don’t underestimate the
beauty of something good—whether a life or a love—because it’s ended, nor
overestimate the comforts of something false and miserable because it persists.
Most of all, don’t treat the death of a pregnant woman, her husband, and his
mother as the end of an era for a television program; treat it as what it is:
the rebirth of an entire genre, and a regeneration of the belief all
well-intentioned persons share, which is that living justly and kindly is its
own reward and earns back any subsequent cost a thousand times over.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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Comments

David Cumming

Can't say I've ever watched How I met your mother or ever had the desire to. By comparing the heroic death of Boromir to the brutal stabbing to death of a pregnant woman you seem to be completely missing the mark by some way. It's exactly because I was enjoying the show so much I'm angry, because it was so different and original but in that one scene ruined it. The horrible foreshadowing, the setup of the stuff about the kid being named after his father, the massive signposting of the death of the wolf. All cliched and obvious, something that to the that point GOT had rarely lowered itself to, avoiding the usual "explain everything to the audience" garbage they resorted to there. It was horribly put together, the stabbing was over the top (and as you point out not even in the book) and some of the effects were laughable which gave the scene a feel completely at odds to what we've come to expect and simply felt like a "Look what we can get away with" scene. The deaths of Robb and his mother are almost secondary, it's the awful way it was put together and presented I feel was wrong as I expect to be treated like a moron watching some shows, this was one I thought as better. I'm angry because a smart challenging show lowered itself to the kind of crap I'd expect from far less intelligent shows. If that kind of poorly put together rubbish is what you enjoy and makes you feel clever, good for you, enjoy. People are upset because they loved the show for all the reasons you say, who are you to tell them to not be upset when they feel the author and producers have dumped all over the show they love?

David Cumming

Nonsense. Stop trying to paint this crass scene as anything other than a lame attempt to shock and in doing so treating the readers and in turn viewers like morons. Best in genre? It was, it's just jumped the shark and should end now and leave us with memories of something good rather than just another show trying to hard to be clever when it was anything but.

Damnil

Great article! Thanks for making me look at the show in a different light.

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