Spoiler Warning: The following post talks about the “The Red Wedding” scene from the television series Game of Thrones; in particular, season 3 episode 9. If you haven’t caught up to that point in the show, please set this blog post aside until you have.
There are very few characters in Game of Thrones that I like.
The cast is wide and broad and spans multiple continents and a dozen plotlines, but I can count the number of characters whom I truly care about and root for on a single hand: Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Lord Varys, and Ser Barristan Selmy. A special mention goes out to the Hound, Sandor Clegane.
Robb, Talisa, and Catelyn Stark are not on that list, yet the Red Wedding hit me just as hard as it did the watchers who loved those characters. Interesting, isn’t it?
In fact, I’ve been rather bored with the Robb-Talisa storyline ever since they got together and Catelyn Stark always felt too impulsive and short-sighted for me to respect. Sure, I understand all of their motivations for what they do and I can sympathize, but I didn’t like them.
Yet when The Scene played out before me and ended with those silent credits, I found myself speechless with goosebumps prickling across my skin. I was confused. Stunned. Even angry. Did that really just happen on my TV screen? I mean, what? Did I really just watch three main characters get slaughtered?
It’s been two weeks since the episode aired but I’ve only just managed to (somewhat) sort out the reasons for why that scene hits with such impact, even for someone like me who didn’t even like the ones who died. Boiled down, it’s actually quite simple.
The power of the Red Wedding rests in the fact that it shatters two of the most basic aspects of what it means to be human: trust and hope.
In the books (which I haven’t read) prior to the Red Wedding, Martin built up an in-world custom that involved bread and salt. When a guest eats and drinks under the roof of a host, both guest and host enter a sacred covenant that neither shall harm the other for the duration of the guesting. This is the invocation of guest right and we saw this happen on screen, but sadly it wasn’t explained until the next episode.
But the episode built up this idea of trust in other ways. Robb Stark made his apologies and the Freys seemed to accept his remorse. Walder Frey offered up one of his more beautiful daughters to Edmure Tully, which made us think that all is right between them. Plus, the sprinkling of humor here and there was brilliant misdirection for defusing tension. Maybe the Starks and Freys were on good terms now. Trust established.
And then the massacre from out of nowhere.
Betrayal is a universal emotion. We all know what it feels like to trust and have that trust ignored, exploited, or broken. It cuts at one of the deepest issues we have as humans: insecurity. When betrayed, we immediately lose our sense of security and it hurts. Bad.
In fact, betrayal is such a strong emotion that it hurts us even when we see another being betrayed. When two people enter an agreement of trust and one turns on the other, we can’t help but share in the victim’s pain because it reminds us of all the times our own trusted friends and family members have turned on us.
Well, at the Red Wedding, we experienced betrayal on two levels. We watched as the characters on screen were betrayed AND we ourselves felt betrayed by the writers. We believed that these three characters were main characters, and in the world of conventional storytelling main characters don’t die. We trusted that they would live until the end and triumph. They didn’t.
But it doesn’t end there.
Throughout the Red Wedding, we also saw through the eyes of Arya. Here’s a girl who’s been fighting for two seasons to reunite with her family from whom she was separated just after witnessing her father’s execution. During those two seasons, she’s had her life threatened and she’s lost her closest friends, Hot Pie and Gendry. She’s got nothing now.
And she’s come so close to that reunion that she so desperately wanted. From a distance, she could see the encampment as they celebrated and she knew that she was less than a day away from seeing her mother and brother again, but a part of her remained fearful that they’d somehow slip through her fingers at the last moment.
Unfortunately for her, the worst case scenario in her mind was that they’d get up and leave before she could catch up to them.
Hope is another powerful emotion that drives us. It helps us to weather the storms and to endure the night because it promises sunny skies on the other side if we just persevere long enough. Hope gives us something when we have nothing. The world would be a terrible place if we had nothing for which to hope.
So when Arya arrives at camp only to see her family and her family’s bannermen being slaughtered, we can’t help but be crushed. We remember the times when we’ve had our own hopes yanked out from under us and we remember how much it hurts to have the scales peeled from our eyes to reveal that we really had nothing all along.
The other aspects of the Red Wedding—like the gruesome violence and the implications for other plotlines—only serve to amplify these two base yet powerful violations. You don’t have to like Robb, Talisa, Catelyn, or Arya, but when they experience the breaking of trust and the loss of hope, coupled with the finality of death, we have no choice but to share in their pain and mourn with them.