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Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 9 Notes

3 Jun

Please scroll down immediately past this post if you have not seen this episode yet.  I’ll wait.

Robb Stark of House Stark

Phew.  Okay.  So, Red Wedding.  That’s what it’s called if the internet hasn’t told you a million times already and you haven’t read the books.  Red cause of you know, all the blood.  I have some broader Game of Thrones thoughts I’d like to posit after the season’s done. First, though, some notes on the Red Wedding, and Robb’s ultimate road leading up to it, now that it can be viewed as a whole.  This post ended up being much longer than I had planned, so apologies, but who doesn’t get carried away by Game of Thrones sometimes.

The notion of honor has often been at the crux of Game of Thrones, particularly since the dead patriarch of our main family, the Starks, was known for it, and passed it down as a crucial value if not the most important value, to his sons and daughters.  More than honor, unbending honor, to the point where it was not only not practical or smart, as Ned learned the hard way, and sometimes even difficult to comprehend by our modern standards of what’s important.  Although it’s hard not to like Ned overall (especially in memory), it’s also hard to sympathize with his position that Jaime is despicable and beyond redeemable for being an oathbreaker when killing the Mad King, even though Jaime’s decision may have spared hundreds or thousands of lives (though Ned is hardly the only one who feels this way, as this is a world moral absolutism, and as I’ll discuss below, there’s a reason for that sometimes). Ned sees honor as black and white; Jaime’s oath and his duty toward the king was bound in stone, while his opportunity to save random King’s Landing residents was not. Ned’s children all struggle with how to live honorably, as their father taught them, in a world that can be extremely dishonorable.  They try to figure out where the line is between keeping their heads, hopefully, while, at the same time, doing their father proud.

I think the Red Wedding was handled spectacularly on the show and overall I’ve been thrilled with the show and many of the adaptation choices they’ve made.  I’d like to dwell briefly on one I think was ill-advised.  In both the book and the show, Robb, in order to pass through a precarious patch of country known as the Twins and gain a large component of men for his army, agrees to marry cantankerous and bitter Lord Walder Frey’s daughter.  He violates that oath by marrying someone else.

In the show, he falls in love, and believing love to be more important than keeping a promise (or at least this promise), he chooses to marry the woman he falls in love with and deal with his broken oath to Walder Frey later.  While it’s nice to think that in this world people can actually be in love with the people they marry (I’m not being sarcastic. It is nice), I thought it came off as somewhat selfish, especially when his mom and his other advisers so ardently recommend that he not get married, at the least during the war, when violating the oath would have practical consequences. He just doesn’t listen and does it anyway.  For someone who values honor above all else (something we see again with his decision to execute Rickard Karstark), it’s hard to understand how his decision to marry Talisa would be consistent with his policy of honor above any other value, even love. This would have been a lesson his father, himself in an arranged marriage with his deceased brother’s former fiance, taught him at least.

In the book, Robb’s recovering from an injury suffered from battle far away from his mother and top advisers.  He’s recovering in the house of some minor nobles, and stricken after finding out the news that Theon betrayed him, took Winterfell, and killed his brothers. After he learns this news, his nurse, a young minor noble herself, decides to, uh, comfort him, above and beyond what’s normally expected of a nurse.  Robb, feeling ashamed after taking her virginity (which is a big deal in this world (also in Downton Abbey!), decides the honorable thing to do, being a Stark, is to marry her.  He’s not making the decision out of love, but rather out of his perhaps misguided view that the honorable path in the moment of marrying the girl supersedes the honor of keeping the oath.  His mom is not there to advise him otherwise; she’s miles and miles away and is horrified when she finds out, but it’s too late.  I think the immaturity is accentuated by the fact that Robb’s younger in the book.  While making all the characters a few years older in the show makes sense because actors age, this is one spot where the actions seem more excusable if Robb is younger, and just the couple of years could make a significant difference.  Certainly to some extent, immaturity is also a factor in his not appreciating the value of an oath in the show, and he certainly could have been firmer in refusing to have sex in the book. Still, I think the book both painted a more sympathetic figure of Robb and also doubled down, properly, on how honor, the essential value of the Stark family, played into his decision. It’s possible he was wrong, or at least questionable in balancing the honor at stake in the book, but at least it makes sense from his perspective.

The Red Wedding of course, is about the exact opposite of honor.  Not sadism or brutality, but total disregard for the rules, the willful violation of social norms that everybody in a society believes in to function where there doesn’t exist a modern state with clearly defined rules and well-enforced law.  These norms can be held together by religious beliefs, or a cultural belief so strongly shared that violating it would prompt instant outrage from society at large (in GoT, it’s both religious and cultural).  Oaths, in this world, have that kind of power.  Like in the Ancient Greek world, an oath is a bond.  It’s more than an oath would mean today when there’s so many other ways to enforce promises – we have contracts and courts.  The oath Robb broke is serious business, which can’t be underestimated, and they do a good job on the show of making out what a big deal this is (as mentioned above everyone still refers to Jaime as Kingslayer for his oath violation years and years ago).  You don’t have much more than your word.  Ned Stark wouldn;t have smiled on Robb’s choice in the show.

That said, there’s an even greater breach here in the Red Wedding which isn’t articulated so much in the show but which at least comes across strongly in the visuals of the scene.  I’m not sure it was a focus, but they definitely made a point of mentioning, in the scene in which Robb and his entourage arrived at the Freys, that the visitors were to receive bread and salt.  This means, book readers know, that, as guests, they’re now under the protection of their hosts.  Guest right is a sacred and important tradition in Westeros, much like it was in Ancient Greece, where it shows up crucially in both the Odyssey and the Illiad.  Once visitors have been welcomed with bread, they can not be harmed until they leave the premises.  This is so sacred that it’s basically unheard of; one famous song in the Game of Thrones universe known as the Rat Cook tells of a violation and the horrible consequences that came to the violator, and serves as an admonishment to would be guest right-breakers.  Both the shock and the disturbance of the betrayal by his allies are heightened by this visceral break with hundreds of years old tradition.  The fact that it’s a not simply a normal stay, but a wedding, a sacred and joyful ceremony, only multiplies the deeply felt wrongness of the perpetrators’ actions. This breach puts those who violated outside of the normal social order of Westeros. This may win the war for now, and it may be difficult to overstate the value of that, but this will not be something soon forgotten by anyone in the realm, just as Robb’s oath violation wasn’t forgotten.

Robb’s issues of course extended beyond breaking his oath to Walder Frey.  His campaign, while winning battles left and right, suffered from numerous off-the-field problems, chief among them, besides his marriage, his mother’s decision to release Jaime Lannister and his questionable decision to execute Rickard Karstark.  Still, even these blunders simply cover up a more basic issue with the Robb Stark strategy: there isn’t one.

Robb’s tactics are excellent; his strategy is non-existent.  It’s brought up explicitly by his wife when they’re first getting to know each other.  What’s the goal of his war and how does he make it happen.  He tells his soon-to-be-wife that he wants to get to King’s Landing and kill Joffrey, and she rightfully asks, what then.  He says he merely wants to be King of the North, but that means he has to find a way for whoever rules at King’s Landing to both accept his secession, and find a way to preserve a more permanent peace (who’s to say the next King wouldn’t seek to reconquer the North?) The goal becomes muddled, and even before he gets mired in problems with his troops, he doesn’t really know the best way to reach this goal. When the North gets taken over by Ironborn, his path to victory gets even more questionable and confusing, considering he doesn’t even possess the only place he claims he wants to be in control of.   Maybe if Robb decided he wanted to put himself on the throne, or put someone else on the throne, it would be just as unsuccessful but at least it’d be a coherent goal.  His plan to capture Casterly Rock seems like a desperate gambit that may provide only a temporary lift, even if successful.  It reminds me of the Confederacy’s plan to capture Washington D.C. during the Civil War (note for longer entry: compare the Confederacy’s secession to the North’s in Game of Thrones).  They knew they were outgunned and outnumbered, and no matter how many battles they won, the North just had more of everything.  They imagined if they had taken the heart of the North (US, not Winterfell), they would destroy morale, and break the North’s will.  There’s a world in which this strategy could have worked work, but luckily for the US, Lincoln’s will, like Tywin Lannister’s was indomitable.  Maybe taking Casterly Rock would have caused a lesser or less stubborn leader to give in, but I have a hard time seeing Tywin conceding.  Robb needed manpower and allies, strength, and those he was hemorrhaging, and probably never had enough of to begin with.