Major spoilers follow for episode nine of Game Of Thrones. Do not read on if you have not seen it.
‘A man in dark armour and a pale pink cloak spotted with blood stepped up to Robb. “Jaime Lannister sends his regards.” He thrust his longsword through her son’s heart, and twisted’ – A Storm Of Swords
On set and in interviews, the cast and crew of Game Of Thrones wouldn’t even refer to it by name. They would only call it, in hushed tones, “The Event”: a chapter from book three of the fantasy series so notoriously cruel that fans have been known to throw their copies across the room in shock. The event is the Red Wedding, and it’s most probably the reason you’ve just ordered that new TV.
For fans of the books, there’s been an almost morbid glee leading up to this; a sort of cold, perverse schadenfreude at the prospect of seeing new fans, so innocent and green, lose their minds at the moment where Richard Madden’s Robb Stark and his mother, Catelyn, are betrayed and butchered at the word of Walder Frey. We’ve been there, you see; and now, as a reward for enduring George RR Martin’s murderous whims, we deserve to smugly wallow in their misery. That isn’t, however, what happened. For the slaughter of the beloved Starks, whilst painful to read in the books, took on a new form of horror and heartbreak on screen.
As a plot point, the brutal beauty of the Red Wedding has always been hope: something Game of Thrones uses devastatingly. It teases you with it. It makes you think that perhaps, for once, this story will echo fictional conventions and give us a successful, war-winning union of Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey, or a long-awaited reunion between the long-lost Arya Stark and her mother. The narrative gives you hope because it knows you care. And then, with the closing of grand hall doors and the strings of a Lannister song, it kills everything you care about right in front of you. That’s the thing about hope: if manipulated, it can be just as cruel as despair.
In the book, the scene is written powerfully. The description of chaos, violence and death is vivid and emotional. Still: there’s nothing quite like seeing the blood with your own eyes. The stabbing of Robb’s wife that starts it all off – which isn’t in the book – is sickening, with every stab of the knife in her pregnant stomach feeling like an attack on the senses. From there, the death of the Starks is messy and violent. Even when you know what’s coming, it’s hard to process. On page you can read at your own pace; on TV you can’t. Just like the traitorous Roose Bolton, the scene strolls up – whether you like it or not – and stabs you in the heart. It’s overwhelming. By the time the King In The North lies dead and his mother has her throat slit, you don’t even know what joy is any more.
It’s unfair, that’s what it is. It isn’t right. It shouldn’t be happening. And that, of course, is why it’s so powerful.
George RR Martin, who took inspiration for the scene from the real life 15th century event, the Black Dinner, is determined to show that, just as in reality, fiction shouldn’t operate by the conventions of black and white, but a murky shade of grey. It’s a philosophy that seemed clear enough to new viewers when he, say, executed Ned Stark (killing off Sean Bean) in season one or chopped Jamie Lannister’s hand off for a laugh, but now, after this, they fully realise what they’re dealing with. The Event, indeed.
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