Spoiler Alert! This post deals with the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.
When Ned Stark was executed in the next-to-last episode of Season 1, there was universal shock and outrage. George R.R. Martin is one of the most simultaneously loved and hated people in the fantasy-geek (and now TV-watching) community, and he reportedly left the country this past week because, well, there have been death threats, hate mail, and the like whenever he decides to casually sacrifice some of the series’ best characters.
And the same thing this week – the outrage is understandable, but why the surprise? Isn’t this sort of how the real world works (noble character dying at the hands of the wicked – pretty familiar, amiright?) An A.V. Club blogger said it well this past week:
If there’s one thing that’s marked the Starks since the beginning, it’s their belief that playing by the rules will save them… And while, yes, we still have four Stark kids and a Jon Snow from that little tribe, playing by the rules mostly just causes the Starks more trouble than it’s worth. Ned lost his head for it, and in this episode, we see several other Starks have to deal with the fact that the world isn’t always fair.
Perhaps our bias as readers and viewers springs from a deeply-held desire to earn our success through virtuous living. But this impulse is destructive, misguided. When Peter suggests that death could never happen to someone as wonderful as his teacher and mentor, Jesus comes down on him harder than ever (Mt 16:23). Or Paul, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people the most miserable.”
The wanton death of all our favorite characters (excepting Tyrion) in the Red Wedding this past week isn’t just inconvenient; it illustrates the truth to which our self-justifying human hearts are most resistant, at least if Christianity’s anthropology is to be trusted. Virtue doesn’t trump power in this life, as much as we may wish that good people like the Starks and “bad” people like the Freys and Tywin get their just rewards.
Our human tendency, of course, is to strongarm everything into an action-consequence framework, with entitlement for the good things we’ve done and fear for the bad. Robert Farrar Capon writes of superstition:
It was she who, when you were five, told you that a cut in the flap of skin between your thumb and your forefinger would give you lockjaw…when you were seven she informed you that wearing galoshes indoors would draw your eyes…and at forty, that adulterers always get caught. But all along and above all, it was she who persuaded you that if every one of these dire metaphysical linkages between your actions and her version of the constitution of the universe should somehow fail, God would still get you in the end. (Between Noon and Three).
The tragic death of Robb and Catelyn, the Starks’ betrayal by the Boltons and Freys – as outrageous as it all seems, Martin is exposing the world for what it truly is, which isn’t the moral version of prosperity Gospel we all want to believe it to be. And this is actually good news, because Ned always had an arrogant streak anyway – that is to say, no one is good (no, not one), so there’s only one real hope for us. Capon continues:
We are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God. Dead. Out of the causal nexus for good. Dead. Not on trial. Dead. Out of the judicial process altogether. Not indicted, not prosecuted, not bound over, not found guilty…we have beaten the system.
“If for the War of Five Kings only we have hoped…” etc. And despite Ned’s and Robb’s virtue, Robb’s scenes weren’t that entertaining anyway – kind of stodgy and dark. The show’s best moments are Arya’s play-acting as a knight, the Hound’s roughshod nobility, Tyrion’s flouting of the rules as he slaps King Joffrey, or even Littlefinger’s intricate and ambitious scheming. That is to say, Martin puts our notions of virtuous deserts to a violent death because, absent of that, there’s still a simple enjoyment of watching people do what they do well, being themselves… and with Jaime’s and the Hound’s gradual redemptions in this season, perhaps it’s the less outwardly noble, more liberated characters Martin’s forcing us to like.