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Warning: Contains spoilers for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones:
It’s tempting, as a fan of George R.R. Martin’s novels, to make fun of the poor souls who didn’t see the Red Wedding coming on Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones. It’s hard not to smirk at the reaction videos on YouTube, and the histrionic, profanity-laden tweets declaring that everything good in the world is dead. My favorites include:
— so’Nko (@kgzo_nko) June 5, 2013
I can’t believe rob stark and Kathryn stark died…and the damn wolf…I can’t I’m heartbroken, upset, I wannah cry…I can’t#GoT just WHY
— *IslandLover* (@xSexyShanaStarx) June 3, 2013
Holy fucking shit they just killed Ron stark, his mom and everyone else oh my god I’m in complete shock. Oh my god they’re killing everyone
— Y Dilla (@MasterofWispers) June 3, 2013
Giggles aside, what the heck is going on here? People are threatening to boycott the HBO drama and to murder Martin (which is only slightly less counterintuitive than when people threaten to murder him because he isn’t writing the next book fast enough). The scene on the TV show is pretty bloody, and pretty shocking — but nowhere near as brutal (to my mind) as the scene from the book. What’s more awful than reading from Catelyn Stark’s perspective as her throat is slit? And yet, show fans seem more upset about this scene than book fans ever were.
My roommate leant me the Song of Ice and Fire series one by one. When I finally got to A Storm of Swords, I remember her asking me repeatedly, “Where are you in the book? What’s going on?” And I would say something like, “Oh, you know, everyone’s trucking out to the Freys’ house for a wedding. Seems boring. I might pick it up later.” When I finally got to the Red Wedding (my roommate has a terrific poker face), I was shocked. Horrified. But I was dying to keep reading. I didn’t think that Martin was a bad dude. I wanted to know how these deaths would impact the realm, the last living Starks, and ultimately, the Iron Throne.
There are a few differences that might be contributing to the madness over the HBO episode. For one, Robb’s wife doesn’t appear at the Red Wedding in the book, and thus doesn’t get slaughtered. Catelyn begs Robb to run away for Jeyne’s (aka Talisa’s) sake, the only time she really comes around on their whole marriage. The only other female death (aside from Catelyn) that we witness in the book is Dacey Mormont (and the Mormont ladies are actually warriors). Catelyn threatens to kill a fool, Jinglebell, not Lord Walder’s wife. The non-combatants and women are all “off camera” when and if they die in the book. I’m a feminist and all, but the people in Westeros are not. Killing unarmed women is much, much worse than disarming knights of the realm and stabbing them in the back. And it reads that way on screen. It’s possible the producers of the HBO series got a little carried away with how much brutality they wanted to show — just as they have frequently gotten carried away with how much sex they’ve shown. It seems the main goal is to get people talking — not necessarily in a positive way.
The amped-up brutality of the TV scene isn’t the only thing at work. The fans of the HBO show are also coming from a different place than fans of fantasy novels. As you can probably tell from some of the tweets above, there are some very, very casual watchers of Game of Thrones out there. Apparently, you can watch the show and still think it’s “Ron” Stark and “Kathryn.” There’s no possible way to be a “casual” reader of A Song of Ice and Fire. The damn thing is thousands of pages long. You’d think that because of this long investment, readers would be more prone to anger than TV viewers over a character’s death. But by reading so deeply, the logic of Martin’s world starts to make sense. Although it’s horrific that Catelyn and Robb are murdered, it happens because they are using old rules of honor in a new world of Lannister “justice.” And in Martin’s universe, playing by the rules is what gets you killed fastest. The Starks, it seems, are just very slow learners.
It would be easy to watch the HBO show and miss all the social and political underpinnings of Westeros. There’s a heck of a lot to like about the show that doesn’t require terribly much in the way of mental energy. The people are hot; they get naked periodically. There are cool fight scenes. If that’s why you watch the show, then an utterly brutal slaughter of unarmed people is nonsensical to the point of insanity. It might make you feel betrayed — like your super-fun Sunday night just got gutted.
In theory, shows like The Sopranos and The Wire taught us to watch TV in a less passive, more intellectual way — and that has allowed a complex ensemble series like Game of Thrones to thrive. But you have to keep watching (and thinking) to figure out what’s going on and why. A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t fun, particularly not in the later books. It’s good. The screen is a dangerous place for un-fun fare. And in this series, the least-fun stuff is yet to come.