Facing my Stark terror
It took me a couple days to compose my thoughts about the Game of Thrones Red Wedding shocker. I know many fans are enraged that some of their favorite characters were brutally murdered in an act of unexpected betrayal. I had read the book so I knew what was coming, but actually watching Catelyn Stark beg for her son’s life while her daughter-and-law and unborn grand baby bleed out was still a roundhouse kick to the groin. Part of the shock came from the fact that I read Storm of Swords as a young college student, but watched the episode as a father and husband. I could sympathize with the characters before, even root for them despite all their mistakes and short-comings. But this time around I could actually imagine myself in their shoes.
It also made me realize that there had to be something deeper beyond simply the fact that the good guys weren’t making it out alive. I don’t remember this much nerd rage backlash when say Lori from the Walking Dead died or even when Dumbledore dies in Harry Potter. For me, the episode tapped into my greatest fear – watching the ones I love die around me without warning. If this fear seems completely unfounded, think for a moment what has happened in the past few months. I imagine what it was like for the parents of the children who died in the Boston bombings or the Oklahoma tornados. So while I know I’ll never be betrayed by my bannermen, I cannot with 100 percent certainty say my family and I will never be caught in the path of a deranged gunman, terrorist blast zone, earthquake, or drunk driver. I can easily put myself in the shoes of either Robb Stark or Catelyn, knowing that in my last moments my whole world had turned to ash.
What made it even worse was the fact it happened just as everything seemed to be improving. The Starks finally looked like they had a chance to win the war. Robb and his wife were happily discussing baby names right before all hell breaks loose. This too feeds into another fear Kate and I share – we worry disaster is about to strike when things are going too well. And in the past few years that unfortunately has been the reality in our lives. I get accepted to a prestigious professional program and one of my favorite uncle dies. My career takes off and Kate and I settle into our marriage just around the time her mother suddenly goes into the hospital Friday night for an excruciating headache and is brain dead by mid-day Saturday. Our son is born and a few months later I am both out of a job and my father-in-law is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The fact that things are very stable now both at work and home feels less like success and more like foreshadowing.
And so I want to praise George RR Martin for being able to make me face these fears and come out the other side stronger. The samurai supposedly spent a certain amount of time every day contemplating their own death so that they could show great courage when it finally arrived. In that way, the Red Wedding is helping me to do the same, albeit by proxy. Which is probably for the best, as I was born not in feudal Japan but modern America. Death is something I learned to avoid talking or thinking about at all costs. His story has also reminded me that life is for the living and that every moment counts. Some of the articles I’ve read about the episode describe Robb and Talisa as fools trying to hold on to outdated notions of love and chivalry in an unforgiving time. But they held true to what’s most important even in the face of certain death, and that they dared to love deeply and fearlessly. In many ways, it’s Catelyn who is the more tragic figure. She holds on to sorrow and worry for her family so tightly that she never has a chance to live until it’s too late. If there’s a final lesson from Season 3, it’s not that Martin is an uncaring asshole or that modern storytelling has to emphasize the tragic instead of goodness and love conquering all. It’s that if I am not destined for a fairy tale life, I’d rather be Robb Stark than his mum.