By Seth Abramson | Press Play June 7, 2013 at 9:11AM
**Warning: This piece contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.**
If one struggles to name any fantasy-genre standout on the small screen or silver screen that isn't a book adaptation, an animation, or a mawkish cult classic like David Bowie's Labyrinth, the reason's simple: American audiences consider the entire genre frivolous and flippant, and won't embrace it in new media unless book-lovers, kids, or hipsters have already given it their stamp of approval. In other words, outside the context of video games, Americans need an excuse to love a fantasy-genre production; either it borrows its gravitas from the fact of it having sold well in bookstores first, it needs no gravitas because it's essentially kiddie-candy, or it operates beyond the reach of gravitas because it's pure kitsch. The end result is that no one takes the genre seriously and, beyond a few hundred thousand mass-market paperbacks sold annually at brick-and-mortar bookstores, no one really cares much about it. It's tangential to American life; it’s a first-world curiosity. The reason? Fantasy authors, animators, and directors have never found a way to make readers or audiences feel in their gut the grotesque moral savagery around which the genre is built, or to see in fantastical morality plays lessons with timely relevance for modern living, and in consequence no story rendered as a fantasy ever properly lands with American audiences. It's simply too removed from anything that really matters.
The Red Wedding scene from the HBO series "Game of Thrones" may not have reinvigorated a genre—one could argue that the entire series, which lights up Twitter and Facebook weekly like few other cultural artifacts do, has done that—but it may well have reinvented it. Martin's controversial killing off of three major characters in the middle of the series' seasons-long story arc, and his unceremonious ending of the two-family feud at the center of that arc seemingly seasons too early, is a best-of-genre moment that has roused much anger among television-watchers precisely because it changed the ground rules of an entire genre in mid-stride.
Many Americans, this author included, go to television generally, and fantasy or fantastical shows specifically, as a means of escaping time—that is, to watch consequence-free melodrama in a space that feels entirely removed from anything we really care about. Horror films don't meet that standard because they frighten; contemporary dramas, because they make use cry; comedies, because they make us laugh (and sometimes, when done right, cry while laughing); and romances because they make us swoon. Fantasy shows and movies are supposed to be more like documentaries that entertain us in the absence of any informational content; if they refresh our spirit, they do so quietly and only with our implicit preapproval.
Enter "The Rains of Castamere," an episode of "Game of Thrones" that led fans of the series to take to Twitter and Facebook to issue death threats to the series creator, George R.R. Martin; many others announced they'd no longer watch the show. Fans of the book had a similar reaction when the now-infamous Red Wedding scene appeared in the book on which Season 3 of "Game of Thrones" is based, A Storm of Swords.
In the scene immediately preceding the Red Wedding in the Robb Stark/Catelyn Stark storyline, the King of the North's mother urges him to let his mortal enemies, the Lannisters, know what it feels like to lose something they love. It's considered, by both Stark scions, to be just about the only thing that will awaken the callous Lannisters from their complacent wealth and endless political victories (also, a string of de facto military victories brought on not by their own military prowess but the weakness and disorder of their enemies). In the very same way, Martin's killing off of the two senior Starks has affected a complacent, wealthy, victory-rich nation—America—by taking from it two characters it loves and admires, and doing so without any of the advance warning first-world countries implicitly demand before they're handed a major defeat. That's what really gets our goat about the Red Wedding: It was a sneak attack against our affections and our courage, launched from a platform (the fantasy genre) which has long been free of such audience-rattling excursions. It's no wonder the most successful fantasy-film franchise in the history of Hollywood, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was based on a book Britons once voted the best of the twentieth century and which, consequently, both the English and their American cousins already know the ending to. The Red Wedding was something different; it was a nasty surprise that stole from us something we actually value and made us actually hurt, thereby breaching the contract fantasy readers and filmgoers have implicitly always had with the genre.
But George R.R. Martin has taken this particular best-in-genre moment even further, and in doing so has returned fantasy to real-time cultural consequence for the first time in, well, forever. Fans mourning the deaths of Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Talisa Stark fail to see that these are precisely the characters who needed to die. They needed to die immediately and they needed to die in precisely this way, for what has always made the fantasy genre the most underrated of all the genres is not only that (as with the Red Wedding) it carries the capacity to move us as deeply as any other form of entertainment, but also that it teaches us better than any other genre about the moral savagery that still endangers us daily. Whatever we may say of their deaths, the now-deceased Stark trio each had it better than almost anyone in Westeros, which left viewers with little to learn from them except the falsehood that in an unpredictable world the emotionally rich are rarely in peril.
Robb Stark had a father who not only loved him but inspired him, a mother who loved him and modeled for him every strength a man or woman of any time-period could need, a wife with whom he shared true love, a home for which he felt genuine fondness and with which he shared a genuine spiritual attachment, brothers and bannermen and vassals who he loved and who loved him in return. He knew himself, he knew his cause to be just, and he knew himself to be capable of generative moral audacity and abiding political courage. The same could be said of his wife and his mother, excepting that his mother also enjoyed the most loving marriage in Westerosi history for several decades and was perhaps the first mother in Westerosi history to be sincerely and justifiably proud of every one of her children (even Sansa). The tragedy of her last year of life, like the tragedies of Robb's and Talisa's last months together, in no way erases the permanent mark of a life well lived.
In a fantasy book or film, we expect emotional removal and cultural irrelevance, and so we expect a life well lived to end happily, as in our own reality they so often do not. In our reality, children are killed by cluster bombs dropped pursuant to military squabbles they have nothing to do with; loving mothers are killed in childbirth or by drunk drivers or from breast cancer; good men are ruined by men with fewer scruples, baser instincts, and a larger quantity of money. Sometimes, but with precious rarity, what is true in life is also true in fantasy: We learn from goodness, when we learn from it at all, only from its downfall. That that's a lesson we rarely get from artifacts of the fantasy genre is something we've come to live with, in fact it's become something that (ironically) makes fantasy palatable to American audiences.
We call George R.R. Martin a cretin for killing off the three most noble Starks this side of Arya—Ned, Robb, and Catelyn—but look for a moment at the miserable lives of his tale's supposed "victors." Cersei is still alive; she's a beautiful and intelligent woman who's never felt romantic love for anyone but her brother, is afforded a tenth of the respect her intellect deserves, was married off like a parcel of property (and is about to be so married again) to a man she doesn't love or respect, has no mother and fears rather than loves her father, has no friends, parented a sociopath into a reign of unfettered derangement, and will never achieve even a fraction of her life's ambitions. Her brother and lover Jamie Lannister has led a life of such self-loathing that the first consequential interpersonal encounter of his thirty-something years is with a six-foot-tall virginal pariah who's charged with his prisoner's transport; it's not clear that he's ever had sex with anyone but his sister or been loved by anyone but her and his near-universally-despised little brother. Petyr Baelish has spent his entire life pining after a woman who doesn't love him and compensating for a childhood spent getting the snot beat out of him by stronger, taller, better-looking, better-armored men. He has not a single friend. Lord Varys is a castrato who endured years of penury, torture, forcible rape, and public humiliation just so he could work harder than anyone in his immediate vicinity on behalf of a kingdom that does not appear to deserve (or in any sense appreciate) his efforts to counter Baelish’s Chaos with Order. Let's put aside that no one loves him, either, that he loves no one, and that his only "friend" is Tyrion Lannister—who doesn't trust him. All of these people, and the many other Lannisters and assorted baddies who survived the Red Wedding, are miserable wretches whose lives and loves we do not admire or envy. The few days and weeks and months we're permitted to watch their lives notwithstanding, they've suffered substantially more, and lived substantially less well, than those they have killed or have just heard about being killed at the Red Wedding.
The lesson of the Red Wedding, then, isn't just that well-written fantasy takes from us things that are precious to us in a way that actually hurts us, but that we learn more from the suffering of the bad than the clean living of the good. This isn't a lesson we normally associate with fantasy--in fantasy, or so the casual fantasy-watcher thinks, the evil ultimately perish and the good ultimately prosper—but it's a lesson many of us have been associating with the very best exemplars of the genre for a very long time. If you're a Ned Stark-like father-figure who happens to live in a war-torn Middle Eastern country, all your hard lessons about righteousness and many years of dedicated love may not keep your children or wife safe; if you're a homosexual in the wrong place on Earth, your true love for another may someday lead to your brutal murder; if the way you live and love is an inspiration to others, you may have your entire life toppled someday by someone lacking your stringent codes of honor and various self-restrictions. The only way to encourage a nation to fight the worst human instincts—whether they arise from within the nation or without it—is to engender in that nation an abiding understanding of what it means to lose what one loves and what it means to watch the devious succeed. By the same token, the only way to encourage a nation to honor the best human instincts—whether they arise from within the nation or without it—is to enforce an understanding that goodness sometimes leads to happiness before it leads to tragedy, and that savagery often leads to misery before (and even while) it leads to perpetual skin-of-one’s-teeth survival.
One of the worst things about human history is that we have often learned the above lessons, when we've learned them at all, from violence and loss of life; one of the best things about human history is its continual production and reproduction of art, and one of the best things about art is that it teaches us what we need to learn about ourselves and language and the nature of attachment without any accompanying need for bloodshed.
Don't hate George R.R. Martin for taking from you what you love, “Game of Thrones” viewers, thank him. Don't hate "Game of Thrones" for bending the conventions of fantasy to make you feel something real in real-time, be grateful for it. And don't underestimate the beauty of something good—whether a life or a love—because it's ended, nor overestimate the comforts of something false and miserable because it persists. Most of all, don't treat the death of a pregnant woman, her husband, and his mother as the end of an era for a television program; treat it as what it is: the rebirth of an entire genre, and a regeneration of the belief all well-intentioned persons share, which is that living justly and kindly is its own reward and earns back any subsequent cost a thousand times over.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.