Chapter One: The Great Divide CHAPTER ONE The GREAT DIVIDE
On the night of June 2, 2013, a chasm of pain and misery materialized in front of an unsuspecting television audience. Millions of Game of Thrones
fans had spent more than two years obsessing over the grim politics of Westeros and falling in love with knights and lords and ladies and outcasts alike. They hadn’t noticed HBO was barreling them toward a cliff’s edge the whole time, like lambs to the slaughter. But the rest of us knew, and sat back, popcorn in hand and camera phones out, to watch the blood spill and the tears flow.
“Red Wedding” is such an innocuous phrase. It means nothing. But now it means everything to Game of Thrones
fans. Ever since that fated night, this pair of words has taken on a cultural weight almost no other television show in history can lift. Author George R. R. Martin had changed fantasy storytelling long before he turned his story over to David Benioff and D. B. Weiss so they could change television. But on that June night, the entire world was finally fully clued-in on the mastery that is Game of Thrones
. The invisible rift that had sat between the book-readers and show-watchers was stitched back together.
From then on, we entered a new phase of pop culture. There was everything before the Red Wedding, and then everything after. There was a past when Game of Thrones
might have been lost in the shuffle of prestige television’s heyday, and the future where HBO’s big risk on a fantasy series would be remembered as one of the greatest decisions ever made in Hollywood.
The novels in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) series were already topping bestseller charts before Game of Thrones
came along. But tens of millions more people would not have known the stories of Daenerys Targaryen, the Unburnt and Mother of Dragons, or of Jon Snow, the secret Targaryen prince kept hidden in plain sight, if it weren’t for David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Those fans wouldn’t have shed tears over the execution of Lord Eddard Stark, nor sat, mouths agape, as they realized his son and wife, Robb and Catelyn, were doomed as well.
When HBO announced the episode titles for the third Game of Thrones
season, Martin’s longtime readers knew at once what was coming. The ninth episode was called “The Rains of Castamere,” the name of the infamously ominous Lannister song. The lyrics of “The Rains of Castamere” tell the story of Lord Tywin crushing a lesser house beneath his heel when they dared challenge the Lannisters of Casterly Rock. In both the books and the show’s version of events, Catelyn Stark only realizes the festivities of her brother’s wedding are about to take a perilous turn when the Freys’ hired musicians begin playing “The Rains of Castamere,” signaling Tywin’s machinations even though he was nowhere near the castle.
Knowing what was coming for the show-only fans, ASOIAF readers banded together, both online and in the real world. They were determined to let the show’s audience experience the horror of the Red Wedding in the same way they had in the books: shocked, angry, heartbroken, and going from heartily invested in the young King in the North to freshly grieving for Robb and Catelyn and what felt like the entire House Stark cause.
Book-readers went through this gauntlet of grief with Martin’s third novel, A Storm of Swords,
when it was first published in 2000. Ask anyone about the experience of reading Catelyn Stark’s point-of-view chapter, starting with the drums pounding, pounding, pounding, and they’ll feel a sick churning in their stomachs. They’ll tell you about throwing the book across the room in anger, or gasping so loud they startled their sleeping cat.
Only the most astute of readers would have seen the Red Wedding coming. No other book series had begun its run with the surprise execution of its presumed protagonist, only to carry forward with a new hero, that former protagonist’s son, and then give him the axe, too. What kind of sadism was this? What twisted sense of justice? What self-sabotaging writer would do such a thing?
This is Martin’s genius. Many of his characters are gray, and their prospects are bleak. Heroic characters die not in glory but in cold blood at a dinner table and all because of very human missteps. The heart and truth and valor lurking within them is captivating. Losing Ned Stark hurt. Losing Robb and Catelyn hurt more, because they represented our best hope for vengeance. Martin knew the moment he planned out Ned’s death that his son would have to follow, but the story was carefully built to lull us into a sense of security before he pulled the rug out.
The signs were all there with Robb’s series of mistakes and misfortunes, but audiences and readers alike were duped by the tropes of fantasy we thought the story would follow. Martin’s devoted book-readers had taken extra care over the previous three years not to spoil the coming shock. “Red Wedding” wasn’t even typed out in full on fan discussion forums like Westeros.org
and Reddit; it was shortened to “RW.” Some news outlets picked up on the fact that something
bad was about to happen, but it was anybody’s guess as to what new devastation was on its way.
Benioff and Weiss had been purposefully building toward this moment in the series from the start. Like the rest of us, they were hooked on Martin’s writing from the moment Jaime Lannister pushed little Bran Stark out a window. But they knew if they could sell Game of Thrones,
and convince HBO to renew the series for at least three seasons, they would make it to the Red Wedding and everything would change. If they could get there, they knew they’d have the world convinced that A Song of Ice and Fire was the greatest story ever told.
“When we read the books, we knew we just wanted to get to this scene and do this holy-shit moment justice, that throw-the-book-across-the-room moment,” Weiss said at a 2016 San Diego Comic-Con panel.
With a few loaded crossbows, a few more daggers, and a twist to the heart, “The Rains of Castamere” brought together two factions of the fandom. Book-readers prepared for the aftermath of millions of people around the world finding out Robb, Catelyn, Grey Wind, and the entirety of the Stark army was obliterated. The people in the know were ready to be a shoulder to cry on, but first they would have a bit of fun with their show-only comrades.
Within hours of the silent credits rolling on the episode, videos began circulating online showing people, in real time, watching the Red Wedding unfold. Some crafty readers, simmering with anticipation of the shared grief and horror, took out their cell phones and recorded the trauma washing over their loved ones like so many shocks of cold water. In one such video, a shirtless man lays on a beige carpet. He rolls over onto his back and looks into the camera, his expression both accusatory and impressed.
“You guys knew about this?” he says, his voice cracking with what could be either high-pitched emotion or the sound of a person’s reality collapsing in on itself.
This clip was shown during an episode of Conan
on June 5, when Conan O’Brien welcomed guest of honor George R. R. Martin. He sat the author down and had him watch a compilation of Game of Thrones
fans reacting to “The Rains of Castamere.”
“The episode on Sunday melted people’s minds,” O’Brien said. “My eyeballs melted out of my head. The reaction was stunning. And I was thinking, ‘What is it about this show Game of Thrones
?’ And I realized you get us to really care about characters, love them, think that they’re central to everything, and then you kill them
! You sick bastard.”
Martin sat wearing his signature cap with a turtle pin, a symbol of the little dime store turtles he had as a boy, kept in a terrarium with a miniature castle. The small creatures died often, as was their lot, and so Martin would dream up stories of wars and royal family infighting to explain the turtles’ high mortality rate. Decades later, faced with the kind of success no author dares to imagine, Martin sat beside Conan O’Brien as a guest of honor, hands folded across his stomach and chuckling at the late-night host’s indignation.
Despite the humor embedded in Martin’s major television appearance, the author talked at length about the emotional challenge of writing the Red Wedding. “I’ve gotten a lot of mail from readers, many of them saying it was brilliant, but others saying they couldn’t read past that, and they were giving up on my book, it was too painful,” Martin told a fan during an Entertainment Weekly
Q&A in 2007. “But it’s supposed to be painful. It was painful to write, it should be painful to read, it should be a scene that rips your heart out, and fills you with terror and grief. That’s what I’m striving for.”
We may laugh now at the “Red Wedding reaction” compilation videos, showing women with their hands over their mouths, curled up unsuspectingly on couches and beds, but the dreadfulness of it is always there. The terror and grief live in our bones. It was a betrayal not just from Walder Frey, but from Martin himself.
The Red Wedding was a thousand thousand
times worse than Albus Dumbledore getting blasted off the top of that tower. More gutting than Gandalf letting go of that ledge, disappearing into the abyss below. More horrifying than Dexter finding Rita in that bathtub of blood. More stunning than Omar Little dropping to the floor of that convenience store. And yes, the Red Wedding was more shocking than anything else that would happen on Game of Thrones.
Even the execution of poor, dead Ned.
The horror didn’t just come from Benioff and Weiss’s bold choice of starting off the massacre with the stabbing of an unborn child in its mother’s womb (a specific slice of brutality not
found in Martin’s novels), but from the nonstop slaughter that followed. This wasn’t a fight. Not even a bit of fisticuffs. Just death, death, death. And then a quick break as we see Arya. Oh, right—she’s watching Grey Wind die. And back to death. It was a massacre of unparalleled proportions, a scene so laden with emotions that we didn’t even need a somber background score. As the credits rolled, the audience was left sitting in silent contemplation of how pointless this all really was.
Of course, what goes down must come up. That’s how Game of Thrones
works, even if the peaks were hard to see while we were laid so low in the valleys. It took four years, but our thirst for vengeance was quenched when Arya returned to that wicked castle and sliced open Walder Frey’s throat. Our hearts soared when Jon Snow stood with a tentative pride before the lords of the North as they hailed him as their king, just as his brother (er, “brother”) had done.
As the series marched toward its end, a truth became clear. Game of Thrones
was the last show of its kind. For decades, before VCRs and then DVR and then on-demand and then streaming, appointment-viewing television was how the world consumed shows. But by the time the final episodes of Game of Thrones
were set to air, no other show could command a live audience of tens of millions of people. Instead, for most other programs, people watched at their own pace. Sometimes live, other weeks they’d catch it a few hours later, or maybe the next morning or on Thursday when they had a free night. They’d binge old seasons of series on Netflix or HBO Now or Hulu. But not Game of Thrones.
By the end of its run on HBO, Game of Thrones
was the Super Bowl of scripted television. It wasn’t just TV—it was a worldwide event happening live in your living room every Sunday for more than a month. Sure, you could opt out of watching. But if you went that route you were sure to wake up the next morning to an onslaught of spoilers. There was no avoiding the tidal wave of conversations, both on- and offline, about the events of the episode. You had to sit down and watch Game of Thrones
at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, or else suffer at the hands of the zeitgeist. No other television show was achieving that kind of public fervor in 2019.
To know how that rabid fandom evolved, we have to travel further back in time before the Red Wedding broke hearts on that spring evening. We must go back to the days when the Mother of Dragons and King in the North and grumpkins and snarks were just an inkling of an idea in one man’s mind.