The article below contains spoilers for "The Rains of Castamere," the June 2nd, 2013 episode of "Game of Thrones," as well as a few for season three of "The Walking Dead."
Even if you aren't a "Game of Thrones" fan, even if you have only the most peripheral sense of the HBO drama as being about dragons, medieval sexytimes and Peter Dinklage acting sassy, rumbles that something major happened on this Sunday's installment surely reached you via social media or Monday morning watercooler weeping at the office. "The Rains of Castamere," directed by David Nutter and written by showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, was one hell of an episode centered around an incident known as the "Red Wedding" that separated out those who had read the books and braced themselves for what was coming from those unprepared for the slaughter that took place. (A viral video compilation of reactions to the scene makes for a very entertaining watch.)
"The Rains of Castamere" not only provided what has to be the dramatic high point of the season, but also another reminder that no character can be counted on as a secure through line in the bloody intrigues of Westeros -- and that no character can be counted on to survive. If Ned's death was upsetting, the killings in this most recent episode were even more so in their brutality and the way they shook up expectations about where the show is headed.
In fact, what made the Red Wedding sequence particularly wrenching is that it was played as a comfortable lull in action that was escalating toward some other end right until it wasn't. Good things were happening: Robb Stark (Richard Madden) had finally reconciled with his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) after a long altercation following her freeing of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) last season, and he had a plan -- to attack and take the Lannister home of Casterly Rock while Tywin (Charles Dance) was away at King's Landing; a difficult battle but a winnable one.
TV dramas have been offering up different challenges to the idea of a likable protagonist over the last decade -- there have been the antiheroes of "Breaking Bad," "The Sopranos" and others, who've brought into question our investment in characters who aren't lovable rascals but genuine criminals. They have been shows like "The Wire" and "Treme" that have made their communities the center, shifting focus so that different stories and people slide into and retreat from prominence. And "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones" have, in their third seasons in particular, made their grand themes -- survival in the apocalypse and a battle for dominance -- the constant, with characters getting freely ground in the gears of the story as it moves forward. It demands a shift in how you watch these shows, because ultimately they are not the tales of Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies) struggling with her fears about being a parent once again in a world filled with dangers, or of Robb learning to be a good leader on his way to avenging his father and taking back the North.
We expect death on "The Walking Dead" -- it's there in the title -- which, along with certain issues of characterization can soften the blow of people being offed. It's a central part of the show's universe, and its characters are all participating in a gruesome marathon with no end in sight, in which all they can really hope is to stay alive as long as possible. But "Game of Thrones," despite its sprawl and the immensity of its ensemble cast, treats its characters as more precious -- they expect to live, and they act like it, even as they have to constantly and perilously scrabble for position on shifting ground. They're knotty, difficult people who come with histories and strong personalities, and even the real bastards among the lot, like Tywin Lannister, aren't easily dismissed. They don't come across as disposable, but they're also not load-bearing when it comes to the narrative -- like life, the series will go on without them, being told from none of their points of view exclusively.