I really enjoy HBO’s Game of Thrones. It’s a fantastic bit of nerd television, with beautiful cinematography, excellent acting, and great writing. Sure, I have some gripes sometimes about the particular uses of violence and/or nudity in some episodes. But, in the end, I think it does an excellent job of translating the original material. One of the most memorable and important scenes in A Storm of Swords, the book upon which season 3 is based, it the so called Red Wedding, where Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn, along with most of his army are murdered at the arranged wedding of his uncle to the daughter of an powerful lord. I think for many of us who have read the books and are now watching the series, it’s one of the most anticipate moments yet.
Well, after the episode aired, every social media outlet exploded with rage and anger from fans of the series (it seems to be mostly from those who didn’t know this was coming). Some folks are angry at the sheer graphicness of the violence, particularly the shot of Robb’s wife, Talisa, being stabbed repeatedly in the belly (she’s pregnant). This is a departure from the books, largely because Talisa’s entire identity is a departure. In the novels, Robb marries the daughter for a Lannister bannerman, and she doesn’t even attend the wedding, nor is she pregnant. Some of argued that there was no need for this level of graphic violence against a pregnant woman, or to make her pregnant at all if the plan was to kill her off. But I didn’t hear nearly his level of outrage last season after the episode where Joffrey orders all of his father’s bastard children murdered, and men with swords brutally murder infants in front of their mothers. I’d argue that scene was MUCH more horrific, but it didn’t gain this level of attention precisely because the writing doesn’t drive you to have a deep care about those children. So I’d argue that readers are upset mostly because of their attachment to Talisa, not the particulars of her murder. And that really brings me to my point, that the strong emotional reaction that people had to the episode is proof that the series is good.
The tropes of “good guys win” and “plot armor” are extraordinarily common in literature, particularly in the fantasy genre. Fantasy tends to be an fairly escapist type of fiction, and so the common perception is that those who are on the side of “good” will win the day, and the “bad guys” will get what’s coming to them in the end. After all, who wants to “escape” into a world where genuinely awful things happen and the world isn’t fair or “right”. We have plenty of that here in the real world. But while that may make for a “fun” read or a “fun” series to watch, it really doesn’t make for GREAT literature or GREAT television (just ask Joss Whedon). So much of the dynamic tension and emotion of a series is lost if you’re never seriously concerned about what could happen to the main characters, particularly the characters you like. I argue that what truly draws someone into the action is that anticipation of what could happen, and it’s what makes you root for those characters even harder. To me, whether you’re talking books, movies, or television, the mark of truly well made fiction is the depth of emotion the creators are able to draw out of you. It means you really connected with the characters and the story, and what happens to them MATTERS to you. That’s no small feat for a story. So if you were full of heartbreak and mourning, if tears were streaming down your face, or even if your heart just sank while you watched Talisa fall to the floor, while you saw the dying rob hold his young wife, or when you heard Lady Catelyn beg for her son’s life, then the creators of GoT have absolutely done their jobs, and done them extraordinarily well. And now you are even more fully aware that in Game of Thrones, absolutely no one is safe. And that makes the series just that much more enthralling.
George RR Martin, the writer of the novels and the Executive Producer of the series, has said on numerous occasions that the world he created does not follow the usual fantasy tropes, even if it seems to carry some familiar themes (Queens and knights, dragons and monsters). And anyone who watched the first season should have had any delusions of things turning out happy for almost anyone in Westeros shaken right out of them. As so poignantly stated eluded to by the torturer of Theon Greyjoy: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” If you don’t want to watch television that can affect you emotionally, I suggest that “reality” TV might be more your style.