Reflections on the Red Wedding

This is a post about the Red Wedding, portrayed in the most recent episode of the HBO show Game of Thrones, and first described in George R.R. Martin’s book  A Storm of Swords. If you want to avoid plot spoilers, don’t read below the fold. If you ignore this warning, don’t complain about spoilers.

Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones has already caused great deal of anguish among fans, because portrayed perhaps the most painful and controversial scene in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series: the Red Wedding, where heroic protagonist Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn Stark are treacherously slain at his uncle’s wedding feast. Having read the books, I knew exactly what was coming. But the episode was powerful enough that it was still painful to watch.

When I first read this scene in the book, I was so shocked and annoyed I didn’t want to read further. But, over time, I was persuaded that Martin made the right decision. This is perhaps the most crucial point in the book series, where it really became clear that George R.R. Martin was not going to follow fantasy convention and ensure a “happy ending.” The result also works because it was a logical consequence of Robb Stark’s and Catelyn’s various errors up to that point. Robb was forced to attend the Red Wedding in the first place because he had made a long series of foolish political decisions that isolated him from potential allies. Letting him off the hook would have undermined the believability of this fictional universe.

The episode also leads us to wonder whether Robb was really a better contender for the crown of Westeros than his enemies. Before I read the Red Wedding scene, I was – like most readers – inclined to sympathize with Robb and hoping that he prevails. His shocking demise led me to reflect on Robb’s shortcomings and the underlying message of the series much more seriously than I otherwise would have. Superficially, Robb seems more admirable than the Lannisters; he has a sense of honor, and is not personally sadistic like King Joffrey. But his ultimate objective is actually very similar to theirs: to serve the interests of his House. He does not go to war to give the people of Westeros a better government, but to avenge his father’s death and protect his family’s position of power. It seems unlikely that Stark rule would be much better for the average Westerosi than Lannister rule. By removing Robb and emphasizing the narrowness of his political vision, Martin highlights the futility of his war for the vast majority of the people. Eliminating Robb also focuses more of our attention on Daenerys Targaryen. With her determination to abolish slavery and promote freedom, she is the one contender for the crown who actually does have an agenda that might benefit more than a tiny clique of elites.

UPDATE: George R.R. Martin explains why he wrote the Red Wedding scene in this interesting interview.