HBO‘s Game of Thrones has often been written about for its graphic portrayal of sex and violence. Indeed, it would be easy to limit the worldwide reaction to the Red Wedding to the nature of its carnage. The Red Wedding is violent: a pregnant woman is stabbed in her womb, a son is murdered in front of his mother, and two Lords betray their King under the guise of friendship and ceremony. Yet, even those acts of violence on such glorious cinematic display that could rival Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Drive, do not account for the subversive profundity of George R. R. Martin‘s world.
The death of Catelyn and Robb Stark bring to mind for the citizens of Westeros and viewers alike the beheading of Ned Stark at the end of Season 1. Again, there is the remarkable audacity of Martin in his books and with HBO in the series to kill such a beloved and central character. That moment is a watermark. It says very clearly “this story has stakes, do not think that we will not kill off a character because they are integral, lovable, or simply good.”
Game of Thrones is a show that dramatically takes the viewers’ feelings into account. Tender moments have been built all over Season 3 to heighten the viewers’ attachment to Catelyn, Robb, and Talisa Stark, and therefore to their loss. In a show so defined by rape and murder, it was comforting to see Robb and Talisa’s playful lovemaking. In a world where slave armies are recruited through the death of infants, it was healing to think that Talisa could bring into the world a child – a new Ned Stark – one whose life might be wholesome and good. It is appropriate to the spirit of betrayal that this dream would be slaughtered first.
However, even that analysis would be too reductionist to qualify the onslaught of grief and shock brought on by the Red Wedding. The Red Wedding does not strike so deeply because of its graphic violence or because the Starks are amiable, that would simply be a flesh wound much like Ygritte shooting arrows at Jon Snow; painful but not fatal. Rather, the potency of the Red Wedding lies in Martin’s ability to find the heart of our assumptions of what the world should be, and put a sword in it.
Part of the viewer’s relatability to the Starks stems from their sense of righteousness. Like us, the Starks have been inculcated with morality lessons from religious offerings to fables told at fireside gatherings. It is on this very notion that Catelyn Stark implores Walder Frey, “He is my son, my first born son. If you let him go, I swear by the old gods and the new that we will forget this.”
“You have already sworn” he responds “by the old Gods and new that your son would marry my daughter.” When reason and religion do not work, Catelyn takes Frey’s wife hostage. Frey again rebuffs her by saying, “I will get another.”
For Walder Frey what does another vow mean from the Starks who were so apt to break their first? Though it would be hard to defend the brutality of his actions, Walder Frey operates in a world of extreme and unromantic practicality. He aligned himself with the Starks, the “noble” Starks for whom his house has had positive historical relations with, only to have them betray him. As a result, he assumed the dangerous risk of such an alliance without any of the spoils. It is not simply that Edmund Tully is a poor substitute for a King, although that would be arguably true; it is that for Frey, time simply has passed. Like in the Cold War, every house in Westeros is caught between the War of the Five Kings. For Walder Frey, his options were reduced to two. Thus, when Lord Bolton stabs Robb saying “the Lannisters send their regards” the quandary who Walder Frey would chose, dies. When your house is at stake, why go for the idealist young wolf who betrayed you, when you can have the Lannisters who “always pay their debts.”
Though his motivations are understandable, his outright violation of guest right strikes another nerve in the viewer. Guest right in Martin’s world and historically in our own were laws of hospitality that states as long as a host accepted a guest, even an enemy, they cannot harm each other. Such a code of conduct permeates the mythology of Winterfell.
Without any knowledge of the fate of his brother, Bran shares with his friends the story of a cook who killed the King’s son and served him to the King in a meat pie. The King liked the pie so well that he asked for a second slice. As punishment, the Gods turned the cook into a rat, doomed to eat his own children. Another character points out to him that people are murdered all the time, and the Gods do not turn them all into rats. Bran responds that the Gods did not transform the cook into a rat because he committed murder or even because he served the King his own son, but because “he killed a guest beneath his roof. That’s something the gods cannot forgive.”
However, this does not mean that the foreshadowing of Bran’s morality tale is of cosmic justice as the fable suggests. This is not to say that Walder Frey’s actions will go unnoticed. More than just Catelyn, Robb, and Talisa died during the Red Wedding, the entire Stark army was butchered outside. It is unlikely in the coming seasons that the rest of the North will forget or forgive. Breaking the guest right will bring forth dire consequences; for the importance of the guest right is not mythic or religious, but one of extreme practicality.
In times of such chaotic violence and barbaric uncertainty, laws that enabled some peace and stability were both pragmatic and sacred. Violating these law did not just put another’s life in peril, but also a deeply needed culturally belief of hope and security. Grief over the Red Wedding, ours and theirs is compounded with the bleak revelation that life is not promised to be safe or just.
Interestingly enough, it is in Tywin Lannister’s reaction to his son Tyrion’s outrage over Stark massacre taking place at a wedding that Martin outright questions cultural assumptions of what is just. “Explain to me,” Tywin demands “why is it more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner?… I did it to end the war.” In Game of Thrones, it is often the most morally ambiguous characters who truly act on the behalf of the entire realm.
It is a prostitute and a eunuch who prevent the sinister Little Finger from taking off with Sansa Stark thereby becoming the King of the North. It is an exiled slave trader who betrayed his oath to King Robert that has kept the true heir of the Iron Thone alive. It is a man who the “righteous” call the King Slayer, who actually defeated the Mad King and saved thousands. Vows are sworn to protect the order of the realm, but it is often those who break those vows, who actually do so. Others preserve life through a live and let live mentality.
The House of Tyrell is perhaps the most successful at adjusting to new circumstances. Having aligned themselves in Season 2 with Renly, a king whose claim for the Iron Throne was based on the illegitimacy of Joffrey’s, they find themselves a season later to be the Lannister’s biggest allies. Margaery, who was once married to Renly is now betrothed to that very pretender. Like a true Tyrell, she knows how to make due. While placating Joffery’s sadistic tendencies, Margaery uses her power over him to get him to act as if he is a “man of the people.” She is one of the few people at King’s Landing who maintains any control over him.
This is not to say that Martin disavows morality all together. Doing so would minimize the effect of Arya, Tyrion, Samwell, Daenerys Targaryen, or Jon Snow. Power and success, however, do not come from being “moral”, they come from being shrewd. Daenery, who perhaps will win this game of thrones, is on one hand very moral. She fully stepped into the role of a wife when she married Drogo. She has liberated over ten thousand slaves. She is “Mysha,” a mother to many. At the same time, she is also a woman who murdered slave traders as she was making deals with them. She took over a city not by battle but by sneaking men behind the front gate. She has sentenced many to death proving Martin’s point that cruelty and nobility are not mutually exclusive.
As Davos Seaworth says to the Red Witch, “I do not know if Robb Stark was killed because of your black magic or because Kings die in war;” it is not certain in Martin’s world if morality has any direct affect on one’s fate. Whether the Gods, new and old, are misinterpretations of truth, man made inventions, or reality itself, no character can earn their salvation. For that is where Martin’s true mastery of horror lies, not in violent betrayals or grotesque magical creatures, but the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of life and therefore death that happens to us all.