Weddings, Beheadings and narrative risk

(Warning that the following post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones TV series up to episode 9 of Season 3, and for the Song of Ice and Fire novels up to the equivalent events)

The HBO, Benioff/Weiss, adaptation of George Martin’s books reached the pivotal moment known to readers of the series as The Red Wedding… and the internet went into meltdown.

In my house I approached the ‘Rains of Castermere’ episode with anticipation, which unfortunately gave my wife (a viewer who has not read the books) the misapprehension that this would be a joyful episode. That only compounded her reaction.

“How could you have been so excited?” she asked. “How could I have wanted so much to watch that episode, to have been looking forward to that wedding?”

They are legitimate, and difficult questions.

Most tellingly she asked why I didn’t warn her. But of course I couldn’t… could I? That would have been spoiling, and in truth part of what I was looking forward to was seeing her experience the Red Wedding for the first time. I wanted to see her reaction, unspoiled, to the twist. I wanted to re-live, vicariously, that moment of shock that I experienced as a reader several years ago.

In attempting to explain to her why I approached the episode as I did it occurred to me that, as a writer, I wanted to see how an unsuspecting audience reacted. I wanted to see just how George Martin’s narrative hand-grenade would go off in this adaptation. I wanted to watch as the writers brought to a close the stories they had set up, cut short the character development they had so invested in. I wanted to see  how they used Robb’s proposed march on Casterley Rock itself as the hide, from behind which they would fire the shots. Three quarters of the way through the episode, and knowing what was to come, I doubted anyone could have made the prediction of what would follow. That, of course, is its strength. That the audience is aware that some betrayal is possible, even that Frey might do something untoward, but that the totality of that betrayal was so unexpected.

The immediately available comparison is of course to the death of Ned in the first book (and season 1). I could not parse that moment in my first reading. All my knowledge of narrative, all my familiarity with genre, was attuned to imagining how Ned may be spared that fate, even how he might return even after that fate was enacted upon him. That beheading was a bold stroke (pun intended – sorry) and one which set Martin’s writing apart from his contemporaries long before people had started to throw ‘grimdark‘ around as either perjorative or descriptor. The Red Wedding re-establishes the brutal fact of Westerosi life – that anyone can die. Ned, Hand to the King, Warden of the North, betrayed and beheaded. His son Robb, King in the North, betrayed and beheaded. Who then is safe?

Other comparisons present themselves, most notably Janet Leigh’s demise in Psycho. Hitchcock murders the top-billed actress, a shining star of her generation of Hollywood, the protagonist of the narrative until the point of her fateful shower. Indeed, with her, he ends that narrative entirely, and shifts to the story of a damaged boy and his ‘mother’. These are not so much twists in a narrative, as they are narrative derailments. The story is not changed by these events, stories are ended, and new stories begun.

Compare this with other ‘shock’ deaths – Samuel L Jackson in that shark movie Deep Blue Sea, Marvin in Pulp Fiction, Sonny in Godfather. As much as these were unexpected twists, they didn’t alter the very fabric of the narrative in the way Martin has twice done. These deaths significantly alter the stories being told, they are essential plot events and disruptive, but Deep Blue Sea continues to be a story about people trying to avoid a killer shark (or something), Pulp Fiction remains a story about Jules and Vic, Godfather remains the tale of Don Corelone.
But when Marion Crane dies, the story of a woman embezzling from her boss dies with her. When Ned dies the story of an honest man investigating a mystery dies too. The new story that begins is of a civil war in which there are several claimants to the throne: ‘The War of the Five Kings’. Now, largely due to the Red Wedding, this story has ended, and a new one will begin which is not about rivals who all claim to be kings. That war is finished, the Starks have lost, and without them the result is an inevitability… or so it would seem.

The risk in this narrative technique is that you lose your audience. Martin has suggested that he had that response from some readers. My sister has spoken of throwing the book across the room, and not picking it up for a week. Twitter and Tumblr has shown that the risk is very real, perhaps more so, from a TV audience. But the reward for taking the risk is that the reader can never be certain, the threats the author levels at his characters are very real, and thus the narrative tension in the text remains effective.
Next time Joffrey raises his bow at Sansa… she really could die.
Next time Arya threatens the Hound… she might really go through with it.
Next time Tyrion goes into battle… he may end up with worse than a scar.
Is Varys safe? Is Cersei? Jon? Sam? Bran? Could even Dany be killed? If the King of the North and all his plans can be bled out on the Frey’s floor, we cannot assume anything.

And that is a great place for a writer to have his audience.

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