Game of Groans

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[Editor's Note: This blog post discusses plot details from the recent “Game of Thrones” episode "The Rains of Castamere.”] HBO's highly successful adaptation of the George RR Martin "A Song of Fire and Ice" novels might have been titled "Middle Earth Meets the War of the Roses Meets the Sopranos Meets Quentin Tarantino."  But I'll admit that "Game of Thrones" was a much handier choice. Up till now I've had nothing to say about the series beyond the fact that it is another signifier of a continuing medieval revival that began with the enthusiastic embrace of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by the baby boom generation back in the 1960s, and which has been continued not only by the successful filming of those works in the new millennium but by a whole series of "sword and sorcery" entertainments in popular literature, cinema, and video games (indeed, long before there was "World of Warcraft" there was "Dungeons and Dragons," while Harry Potter himself is a descendant of Tolkien's reworking of the wizard tradition).  But with the recent broadcasting of "The Rains of Castamere" episode of "Game of Thrones," an interesting difference has appeared within this system of medieval-themed phenomena, and as I cannot say often enough, it is the differences within a semiotic system that points to cultural significance. The difference in this case is to be seen less in the episode itself (also known as the "Red Wedding") than in the impassioned response to it.  And as the Los Angeles Times reports, that response hasn't been pretty (see "'Game Of Thrones' fans see red over "Red Wedding'").  Indeed, as the Times reports, a whole Twitter feed, @RedWeddingTears, has been opened just to express fan outrage over the episode. There is no way that I could provide a casual summary of what happened in the "Red Wedding" episode.  Like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," " Game of Thrones" is a very complicated story indeed, with far too many characters and plot lines to contain in any simple description.  Ideally, one has to watch not only every episode of the TV series but to read the novels on which it is based as well (not so incidentally, the fact that many of the TV fans of the program have not read the books accounts for a good deal of the outrage expressed in the Twitter rants: they were completely taken by surprise).  So let me just say that in a scene that combines the killing of Macduff's family in Macbeth with the Glencoe Massacre with the climactic revenge scene in Django Unchained, most of the surviving members of a popular family in the story (the Starks), and their household, are treacherously (and graphically) murdered during a wedding celebration.  Even the family dog/wolf is killed. The response to all this has been quite striking.  In astoundingly profane language, male and female fans of the show alike (the preponderance seems to be female, however) tweet their fury at the TV show, at the producers of the show, and even at George RR Martin for "ruining" their lives.  Tears, convulsions, even a claim of having been "literally" killed (literally!?) by watching the episode make their way into the tweet thread. Now, violence is nothing new to either modern or ancient story telling and entertainment, and deep audience identification with fictional characters is hardly a recent phenomenon either (my favorite instance of this from the past is to be found in the nearly hysterical reaction to the death of Little Nell during the serialization of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop).  But there is still something interesting going on here. The key lies in the fact that for all its claims of historical realism, "Game of Thrones" still belongs to the category of fantasy story telling (there are, after all, dragons in the tale).  And while fantasy stories are characteristically violent, and prominent characters do die in them, they generally present rather clear-cut oppositions between Good and Evil, with Good eventually triumphing.  This is particularly obvious in Tolkien's tales, whereby Evil is not only ugly but not even human (oh, Sauron has his human slaves and allies, but the focus is always on Orcs, trolls, Balrogs, giant spiders, Nazgulized-Ring-Wraiths-Who- Were-Once-Men, and whatnot).  Human history, on the other hand, isn't like that all, and if you want some really depressing reading, read some world history; it doesn't matter from what region of the world.  It's always human beings murdering other human beings, with no one being wholly Good, and Evil frequently triumphing over the innocent. So that's what makes fantasy what it is: fantasy, not a realistic view of human behavior or history.  The unspoken contract between the fantasy story teller and the fantasy audience is that Good will ultimately prevail over Evil (which is why English audiences for over a century preferred Nahum Tate's revised version of King Lear to Shakespeare's original: in Shakespeare almost everyone dies, Good as well as Evil; in Tate's play both Cordelia and Lear live happily ever after).  That many fans of "Game of Thrones" feel betrayed by the "Red Wedding" is thus quite understandable.  As a popular genre, fantasy is supposed to deliver on its ancient promise, and the "Red Wedding" doesn't.  The Good Starks are practically wiped out.  There is one member of the clan left, from what I understand, and she may get her revenge in the end for all I know, but right now a lot of fans are seeing, well, Red. Which raises an interesting semiotic question.  Martin's novels (which contained the "Red Wedding" scene already for anyone who took the trouble to read it, though the TV version made it even more violent), and the television show that has been created out of those novels indicate a certain difference in the history of popular fantasy story telling.  If this difference was restricted to just this instance, it wouldn't mean very much.  But at a time when (Good) heroes are being replaced by (not-so-Good) anti-heroes all over television (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Dexter are prominent examples), while such current hits as "The Walking Dead" present a world where Good and Evil have become irrelevant in a chaotic killing field whereby your own family members and allies can be zombified into killable enemies at any moment, "Game of Thrones" appears to be a sign.  But of what? I'd like to think that the growing popularity of stories that are abandoning the old conventions of Good triumphing over Evil signifies a certain historical realism, and even maturity, in their audiences, a rejection of simplistic fantasy and a recognition of the messiness of human history.  But I don't think that's it.  The Good vs. Evil motif still thrives in most superhero stories and many, if not most, of all the other stories that continue to be a part of our popular culture.  The signs point instead to a certain fascination with pure violence itself, an amoral vision even bleaker than Tarantino's, whose violence is characteristically "justified" by some atrocity or other on the part of its victims (Nazism in Inglourius Basterds, and slavery in Django Unchained).  After all, not everyone was outraged by the "Red Wedding," and the responses of the not-outraged fans of the show (which can be found all over the Internet as well) to the laments of those who were, are, dare I say, often unnecessarily violent.  
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.