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Game of Thrones’ Biggest Book Fans on TV’s Red Wedding: Did It Work?

[Spoilers for last Sunday’s episode follow.] As we discussed in the aftermath of the Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding episode, fans of the show were divided into two camps: Those who hadn’t read the books and who were shocked and destroyed by the bloodbath at Edmure’s wedding to a Frey daughter, and those fans of the books who knew exactly what was coming and were simultaneously dreading and also feeling perversely curious about how this pivotal “celebration” would go down onscreen. So, how did the most dedicated aficionados of George R.R. Martin’s novels feel about how these tragically blood-soaked nuptials were enacted? To find out, we assembled via conference call an MVP team of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire experts, the webmasters behind the main books and show websites: Linda Antonsson from Westeros, Phil Bicking a.k.a. "Winter" from WinterIsComing, Martha Harbison from Brotherhood Without Banners, and Alex Smith from Tower of the Hand. They shared with us what worked, what was missing, and what to expect the next time you're invited to a wedding in Westeros.

Why do you think non-readers were so surprised? Has Ned Stark's beheading not trained this audience to expect treachery and slaughter, especially when we've had so much foreshadowing for this particular event, and we know no characters are safe in this world?

Phil: I was surprised that the reaction was as big as it was. I wasn't surprised at the reaction to Ned's death, because no one would know to expect that, right? But this time, I thought people would be more like, "Oh yeah, so this happened. What's next?"

Alex: Even if you go back and see the foreshadowing in the books, and it's pretty obvious, it still shocks you. This didn't feel like a character whose story was over.

Martha: I think it speaks to a number of things, including the pervasive need to self-delude, because that helps us keep going on in the face of lots of adversity. So many stories in the Western tradition and in modern times are stories of triumph, and we're conditioned to expect something with a happy ending. You're pissed if you don't get it. You feel cheated and incredibly betrayed, even if you know what's coming.

Linda: It's not just what happened, it's how it happened, and how much there was of it. People might have been expecting something to happen to Robb, but they weren't expecting everyone to get slaughtered, and Catelyn dying as well. And there is that thing where you delude yourself, It's going to be all right. Right? Right?

Martha: He's not really dead, I swear! [Laughs] You delude yourself into thinking Robb's just going to rip off Roose Bolton's head.

Alex: At least they weren't so cruel on the show to make everyone think Arya might have bought it, too. I think it was good they made it obvious that she was not killed there.

Yeah, considering the book makes it more ambiguous when Arya is knocked unconscious. What about the major change they made in the show, which was having Talisa at the Red Wedding? There’s no Talisa in the books, period: The show invented her in place of his literary wife Jeyne Westerling, who wasn’t even at the wedding in book three. How do you feel about how they portrayed her death?

Alex: I thought they probably had to get rid of her. It's a very different character. In the books, they have time to build up how the Westerlings were in on the plot because they were Lannister banner men, but Jeyne was this innocent who got manipulated by her family and was spared. Since Talisa is a complete outsider who has no place in the story other than being Robb's love interest, it wouldn't make sense to keep her alive after this. It gave the readers a shock, too. It was nice that we had something that was that horrifying. I was expecting her to die, but that was much more brutal than I was expecting it to be.

Because she was stabbed in the belly while pregnant. Do we think Walder Frey knew she was pregnant, given his comments earlier about being able to see what was under her dress?

Phil: I think he definitely knew.

Martha: Yeah, I think they were trying to tell the audience with that script that he knew that she was pregnant.

Linda: I agree. I think it was good that they did it in such a visceral way, and I was particularly relieved — because I'm not a fan at all of the insertion of Talisa — that they avoided some last dying words. I thought the whole setup, with "I'm pregnant!" and Catelyn starting to approve, it was starting to stray into cliché territory, and they were using that to lull people into a false sense of security. I would rather have seen them use what they played up in the books, which was the “guest right.”

Right, the Westeros law of hospitality, where once they've given you bread and salt, you're not supposed to be harmed under their roof for the duration of your stay. In the show, we see the Freys pass around bread and salt when they enter, but they don't identify it — some people might have thought it was just really bad hors d'oeuvres.

Linda: Yeah, I don't think you would have gotten that unless you had some knowledge of the concept of guest right. And this shows some of the breakdown of the society under the current circumstances.

Martha: Do you remember if there's been any other major violation of guest right in the books?

Linda: Not in the main story line, but we get a story ...

Martha: Is the Rat Cook [the oft-referenced lore in which a cook served a king his own son in a pie] considered a violation?

Alex: That's a fable where the cook is transformed into this hideous creature because of the violation.

Phil: And the mutiny at Craster's Keep, that was another incident of guests in a home being slaughtered. They didn't mention [guest right] at that time, either, and they could have set up the events of the Red Wedding with what happened there.

Linda: I think they were very concerned about giving anything away, even for the sake of building momentum. While I find that the episode was effective overall, I really think it would have been more effective if we had gotten that sense of dread from the books.

Martha: Yeah, the psychological horror. I think that's where the readers have a little bit of an advantage over just the TV viewers. It's like you have this sense of dread: I don't want to watch this. I know what's coming. It's totally inevitable. By playing up the humor and not tipping their hands about the treachery of the Freys, or how grasping the Boltons are, maybe some of the show viewers didn't get the dread.

Alex: It almost felt like there was a scene missing. You get Grey Wind in the kennel all chained up, and I thought the way they handled his death was fine, but there should have been a scene where he was refusing to cross the bridge [to the Freys’ castle], getting agitated, and then ends up in that kennel. I think that would have played to that sense of foreboding.

Phil: My experience reading the book was I was lulled into a false sense of security. Maybe that just speaks to how unperceptive I am!

Martha: You're just an eternal optimist!

Phil: [Laughs] I guess so. I just thought, It seems like everything's going okay. They had the bread and salt. Edmure's wife is pretty. Things are looking up! And then, just like in the show, they shut the doors, and "The Rains of Castamere" starts playing, and you're like, Uh-oh.

Do you feel like the TV audience would recognize that song at this point, that they'd heard it enough times to know it even without the lyrics or when it was done in a different key? And that they got what it means, per the discussion in the last episode about the story behind the song?

Linda: I think so. I've seen enough people commenting on Twitter that the Lannister anthem is bad news.

Phil: Even if people didn't catch it the first time around, it's one of those things that will be a reward upon repeat viewing: Ah, that's the Lannister theme! I liked that they kept it subtle and it wasn't Catelyn running around going, "Agh! 'The Rains of Castamere!' Noooo!"

Martha: Exactly! [Laughs] Throwing her arms up!

Alex: I liked the building anxiety on her face as that song started to play.

Martha: I'm actually curious how many people cottoned on to the Lannister theme behind the slaughter? They realize that "The Rains of Castamere" is bad, but did they catch the "the Lannisters send their regards" line?

Instead of "Jaime Lannister sends his regards."

Martha: Yeah, I wonder if they realize that the Lannisters are the ones who actually orchestrated the entire Red Wedding by offering protection to the Freys?

Phil: I'm sure they'll clear it up next episode and explain how it all went down. I thought they alluded to all the right things, that Roose Bolton betrayed Robb, that the Lannisters — possibly Tywin — were behind it all. If anyone missed it, they'll figure it out next episode.

Were there any things you were expecting to see that you did not see?

Linda: Catelyn going mad, in a more tragic way, tearing at her face and her hair, and basically being killed to put her out of her misery. Here, it's not clear that her being killed was not part of the plan.

Alex: I think the way it went down in the book would have been too way over the top. On the other hand, I think they should have found a way to make it clear that hers was a mercy killing, that they weren't planning to slit her throat all along.

Martha: But I'm not sure it would have played as well onscreen, because it's hard to do crazy without looking cheesy. And I thought Michelle Fairley did a really good job. That last look, when she just sagged at the end?

Phil: And you could just hear in her voice the pain and anguish she had just been through, all culminated in that final moment. It was great.

Linda: But it should be more operatic. She's like something out of a Greek tragedy, a Cassandra of the books. It's interesting how many premonitions she has had, as if she had some mild prophetic ability. I wish we had gotten more of that, to play up her spiraling toward this moment. The effectiveness of the Red Wedding in the books is that [George R.R.] Martin puts you in a horror story and he doesn't tell you. So feeling the sense of building dread throughout the whole chapter, you're just waiting for the release. You wish it was over. And you don't realize that you're wishing for the resolution of a horror movie, where everyone is going to end up dead at the end, and the main character is going to be there screaming in terror before being killed. So it's a genre twist that he pulls on you that I wish they pulled on viewers as well.

Phil: Well, I think in the book, you're seeing everything from Catelyn's point of view, and it's all one chapter that leads up to that, whereas in the show, they're cutting into other scenes. So I think it would have been harder to build that tension and have it stay present. So I think having what they did have at the end, when they went to the Twins and showed everything from then on either inside or outside with Arya, I think they got enough of that sense that the book had. Maybe it wasn't sustained quite as long, but that's one of the things you lose when you adapt to TV.

Has the audience become a little more savvy to these kinds of plot points? Will the showrunners have to adapt?

Martha: If they haven't caught on by now, I don't think they're going to. We've had the Hand of a King and three kings die — Robert, Renly, and Robb — and I don't know if they would change anything significantly. They might play up the pageantry of the next wedding [for Joffrey and Margaery], in terms of the use of color. The Frey scene was super muted, because the Twins are not very well lit, but everybody was wearing brown. It was a very unhappy wedding. I don't know if they'll try to lull the audience into a sense of complacency by having a very brightly colored one at King's Landing. George does that, too. You spend how many pages talking about the banquet food? So the showrunners and costumers will probably follow suit, because when you see really bright colors, you don't expect to see someone fall over. But going back to the Renly wedding, Renly was all about the pageantry, so some of the savvier ones will probably catch on.  

Phil: Even if you expect someone to die this season or next season, I think there are enough shocking events, especially in A Storm of Swords, and there's no way people can expect all of it. I think they're still going to be surprised.

What kind of fan reaction have you seen, as far as mash-ups or creative responses to the Red Wedding? I've been looking for someone to do a version with Billy Idol's "White Wedding."  

Martha: I've seen a few GIFs of that! Have you seen the one with Roose Bolton's head on the guitarist in the "White Wedding" video? We're probably not going to see a lot of them until later.

Linda: Once people recover, we'll see a lot more of those!

Martha: They were probably just drinking themselves into a stupor last night, and today is like, All right, I have to actually work out my feelings.

Should we have grief counselors on standby?

Martha: Yes!

Phil: One of my co-workers early on said she had a bad feeling about Robb Stark, and I tried to lead her away from that: "Do you really think they'd kill him? Nah ..."