The death of an idea can hurt just as badly as the death of a person. People are mortal, after all, and come with an expiration date – it's the cost of doing business with them. But ideas often have a wider impact than any one person. They're passed down and passed around, like heirlooms or viruses. It's easy to convince ourselves that an idea that gives our life meaning will outlast our life, any life, in turn. To lose an idea like that leaves us adrift, with no shore in sight.
The Red Wedding – I know, the episode of Game of Thrones is called "The Rains of Castamere" for spoiler-avoidance purposes, but the Red Wedding is what book-readers have called it for more than a decade and it's how it will be known to show-watchers until the end of time – killed much more than Robb Stark, and Catelyn Stark, and Talisa Stark, and Grey Wind, and the Northern army. It killed an idea. In the world of the show, it killed the hope of the North, the spirit of independence and rebellion and justice that promised one last bloom of warmth before the coming winter if the Starks had prevailed over the Lannisters.
But for readers and viewers, it killed our idea of what this series is. The central conflict, Stark vs. Lannister, is now over. The Lannisters won. There will be no comeback now, if ever. Sure, we know on some level that there's much more going on, from smaller rivalries like Littlefinger vs. Varys or Cersei vs. Margaery to the potentially massive storms brewing north of the Wall and east of the Sea. But it's been Stark vs. Lannister the whole time, until now. A lifetime of reading and watching fiction has trained us to treat the establishment of a central conflict as a promise that it will remain the central conflict until the end of that work of fiction. The Red Wedding took that promise, cut its throat and dumped it on the floor to bleed out.
And whether you came to this episode blissfully unspoiled or spent the last three years anxiously awaiting it, the impact was still absolutely punishing. Credit writers/showrunners/creators David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and director David Nutter, who took author George R.R. Martin's original, unforgettable plot twist and nestled it snugly at the end of an episode full of sword-and-sorcery swashbuckling. Bran possessed Hodor to save himself and his direwolf Summer to save Jon Snow. Jon betrayed Ygritte and the wildlings to save an innocent man's life, only to see it taken anyway by the woman he loved; then killed his enemy Orell, only to get clawed in the face by the eagle Orell telepathically passed into before he died. Jorah, Grey Worm and Daario went on a daring three-man raid into Yunkai, displaying complementary fighting styles that would do any video game proud, then returned to a Daenerys who only had eyes for Daario. Arya and the Hound's bitter alliance of convenience reached an all-new level of murderous intensity, while Rickon and Osha had a tearful goodbye as their alliance with Bran and his posse came to an end. Gilly called Sam a wizard for being able to memorize stuff he saw in books, making every A Song of Ice and Fire diehard out there a hero, just for one day. With all that going on, it felt like it could have been a climactic ninth episode of Game of Thrones even without a massacre.
They even made the Stark storyline itself a lively, lovely thing. Robb turning to Catelyn for advice, recalling the times he ignored her to his detriment. The big dramatic chessboard planning session itself. The cringe-comedy welcome that Walder Frey delivered. Poor hapless Edmure Tully's agita about his potentially hideous bride, giving way to sweet rom-com music when her veil is lifted and it's pretty young Roslin Frey. The bawdy bedding tradition, sort of like a horny horah. All sorts of good-natured joking with the Blackfish and Roose Bolton at the reception.
Then a guard closes a door and the band plays the Lannister anthem and a man stabs a pregnant woman in the gut over and over and over.
From there on out it's a nightmare, top to bottom. And it started there because that way it came as a surprise to everyone: In the books, though the events play out in much the same way for the same reason of Robb jilting the Freys for another woman, the woman is totally different and not in attendance at the wedding. The fate of Talisa Maegyr Stark was a mystery even to the most well-read fan, and the show settled it in the most repulsively brutal way possible.
"Repulsively brutal" – I like that, as a way to describe what we see. Not just the violence, though it's astonishing, and lingered on to be made all the more so. I also mean the human reactions. Roose Bolton, eyes twinkling with malice as he allows Catelyn to see the armor he secretly wore. Walder Frey, drinking and smiling as everyone dies. His child bride, eyes full of terror and sadness as she's slaughtered for no reason. Robb, saying goodbye to his mother and his wife and his life in his head; Catelyn, deranged with grief, the camera's unyielding gaze feeling like nothing more or less than another assault.
It was, in a real way, television as assault. I'd imagine there are a number of viewers who are done, done, done with this show now, because it's difficult to endure, or to risk enduring again. But that's as it should be. When you murder an idea, the bodies pile up.
Previously: Call of Duty