Photo by Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO
WARNING: Contains a spoiler for season six episode two.
The ruler stood on a raised platform surveying a gathering of political foes, vanquished rivals, and professional miscreants. He scowled down at them and named his enemies in the room, calling for the guards to bar the door. As a warning, the ruler invoked a legendary night when a festive gathering, filled with food and alcohol, turned to slaughter.
In other words, over the weekend, President Obama told the gathered throng at the White House Correspondents' Dinner:
You know who you are, Republicans. In fact, I think we've got Republican Senators Tim Scott and Cory Gardner. They're in the house, which reminds me: Security, bar the doors. Judge Merrick Garland? Come on out! We're gonna do this right here, right now! It's like the Red Wedding.
Will season six culminate in a set piece with anything like the power of that great crimson nuptial betrayal? It's off to a good start, with the surprising emergence of Melisandre as a sympathetic, complex, and genuinely interesting character. All it took was the collapse of her surety coupled with a reveal of her true nature, and suddenly her character blossomed. Turning a hated figure (remember she demanded the burning of the child Shireen) into someone we might care for is a welcome trick for the show, recalling the callow Kingslayer Jamie Lannister's shift toward viewer sympathy after losing his hand. Still, it's going to take a lot of work to twist the plot into anything like season three and the Red Wedding.
It means something when lines or scenes from television jump beyond the confines of a series into popular culture. From "the truth is out there" (X-Files) to "I am the one who knocks" (Breaking Bad), the phrases resonate even if you didn't watch the show. For me, as a kid, although I never watched a minute of Dallas (a nighttime soap opera), I knew that " who shot J. R." (and "it was just a dream") would resonate as a catchphrase with pretty much everyone. In DC, I know current and former White House staffers and plenty of others for whom the "Big Block of Cheese Day" (West Wing) still is marked on their calendar. Comedies generate such lines and scenes too, from "we were on a break" (Friends) or "master of my domain" (Seinfeld is a particularly endless supplier, with other signature lines as "no soup for you" and "not that there's anything wrong with that").
And yet, in this era of peak TV, where so many excellent shows proliferate across multiple platforms, it's even more impressive when a moment from a show leaps from fan base to general cultural consciousness. That makes the achievement of the Red Wedding as a cultural touchstone (meaning surprising betrayal and slaughter) all the more impressive. The White House Correspondents' Dinner attendees surely don't all watch Game of Thrones, but everyone seemed to know what the president meant. Startled laughter rolled through the hall.
The Red Wedding's reputation is deserved. The scene was brilliantly executed. Season three built to it over the course of many episodes, raising expectations of a major event, and yet no one (but book readers) could have predicted the outcome. Best of all, those readers generally seemed to hold back spoilers, the better to observe the reactions of the uninitiated.
The scene isn't just gory—it subverts expectations by taking Robb Stark, who seems to be following the quintessential vengeance narrative, and abruptly slaughters him. A whole swathe of compelling, central characters simply vanish from the board in a feat unprecedented in TV (and mostly in fiction, for that matter). Authors just don't discard so many important characters all at once, and that's why the Red Wedding looms so large in the show's mythology.
The Red Wedding is not alone. Game of Thrones has always been at its best when the show creators dedicate large chunks of an episode to a single setting or scenario, and hopes of such scenes keep us going through the choppier early season episodes. We need to sense that tensions are building somewhere, and we need to care. Good seasons result in surprising dramatic set pieces with easily recognizable titles. The Red Wedding and the death of the Starks is one, but the Purple Wedding and Joffrey's demise rivals it for surprise value. The sudden death of the blond child-tyrant caused widespread celebration instead of cries of dismay. The Battle of Blackwater, with Tyrion's fiery victory; Hardhome and the emergence of the Night King; and the battle at the Wall all provide a military showdown to bring plot threads together and carry us from season to season, as does Cersei's walk of shame. The names of these scenes stand in not only for the dramatic power of events over the fictional world of Game of Thrones, but also the experience of watching them. When the show is long over, it's these set pieces that will linger on in the popular imagination.
What set piece will we get in season six? Heading into Sunday's episode, the leading theory was the Battle of Six Armies, filmed last year in Northern Ireland, featuring the deciding contest over control of the North. Early signs this season also point to potential turmoil in King's Landing between the High Sparrow and the Lannisters, and possibly Dorne and the Lannisters, followed by whoever wins the North and the Lannisters. And perhaps the Tyrells and the Lannisters. And don't forget Braavos, Daenaerys, and likely other Lannisters (the Lannisters aren't very good at making or keeping friends). Either King's Landing or the Wall could easily host a big battle, but will there be a surprise? Could it involve zombies? Will a future president, whoever she is, be able to tell a gathering of journalists and celebrity guests to watch out, lest the Night King surprise them at the Battle of Six Armies?
I'm not sure. It might happen, but to some extent the big shocking deaths of Game of Thrones are well in the past. At this point, with the Red and Purple Weddings, we've all been taught to expect that any character could die at any moment. If the writers want to catch our attention, they'll need to reverse course. Instead of death, they need to plot survival.
Which, of course, brings us around to Jon Snow. I'm a little surprised his resurrection came so soon, almost wishing the episode had faded with his body lying there still. There are, though, other fallen who might return. Rumors of the Hound's demise might be exaggerated, and there's always Lady Stoneheart. When death isn't permanent, the possibilities are endless.
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