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You win or you die

HBO has been adapting a popular series of fantasy novels generally referred to as “A Game of Thrones,” although that’s technically only the title of the first volume; author George R.R. Martin names the entire series “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  The show has been an enormous hit for HBO, evidently drawing a large number of viewers who didn’t read the original books.  Last night’s episode, second to last in Season Three, therefore came as devastating blow to much of the audience.  It’s impossible to discuss without some spoilers, so please click away now if you don’t want the plot of the show spoiled for you.

Here’s a bit of general background, which will also give the spoiler-averse a moment to eject from this post: “Game of Thrones” is about the brutal struggle for control of a fantasy kingdom called Westeros.  The supernatural elements of the show are very muted.  In fact, most of the characters don’t actually believe in magic at all, but there are supernatural forces afoot.  For the most part, it’s an extremely gritty show set in a realistic medieval environment.  You really don’t want to live in a realistic medieval environment, especially if you’re one of the peasants, or “smallfolk” as they’re known in the books.

It’s not exactly a fairy tale for the nobility, either.  A running theme of the books – arguably the central premise – is that power has certain demands.  It’s dangerous to be on the sharp end of power – say, if you happen to be a prostitute who draws the short straw on an evening when the psychotic inbred boy king decides he wants to play with his fancy new crossbow.  But it can also be dangerous to wield it.  Ignorance of what must be done to maintain power is the cardinal sin of Martin’s bleak world.  There aren’t many truly idealistic characters in the story, but all of them commit this sin of ignorance, and pay dearly for it.  ”Rhaegar fought valiantly, Rhaegar fought nobly, Rhaegar fought honorably… and Rhaegar died,” a worldly older knight tells his young queen, referring to one of her fallen relatives.  She really should have paid more attention to what he was trying to tell her.

Last night on the TV series, it was time for a different idealist to meet an incredibly cruel fate.  One of the contenders for the throne is a young upstart king whose mother promised his hand in marriage to the daughter of a powerful old lord named Walder Frey, a very nasty piece of work known for his greed and vindictiveness.  The young king, Robb Stark, blows off this arrangement to marry for love.  (His wife, changed somewhat from book to TV show, is a wonderful young woman who seems perfect for him.)  Later Robb realizes he really needs that wretched old Lord Frey on his side, so a substitute marriage between Robb’s uncle and a Frey daughter is arranged to patch things up.

But at the wedding, Lord Frey reveals that things are not, in fact, patched up.  He is eager to bury the hatchet, but not in the metaphorical sense.  King Robb’s the one who needs patching up, after getting pumped full of crossbow bolts and taking a knife in the belly.  His retainers, his mother, and his pregnant wife are all murdered alongside him, in a bloodbath that comes to be known as “The Red Wedding.”  In the TV show, the betrayal that ruins an otherwise happy evening begins with Robb’s wife getting brutally stabbed in her pregnant belly.  She dies in his arms just minutes after telling him she wanted to name their son after Robb’s father, who was in turn betrayed and executed earlier in the story.

An entire storyline was cut short, several opening-credits members of the cast were snuffed out, and the ending credits rolled without musical accompaniment.  Viewers unfamiliar with the books were left to gape at the screen in stunned horror.

This was too much for Joe Concha at Mediaite, who declared he was “divorcing” the show and would never watch another episode.  Not only was the horrible murder of a pregnant woman too much, but they also killed off King Robb’s dog (well, giant wolf.)  Hopefully nobody tells Concha what the victorious Frey butchers do with the corpses of the young king and his loyal animal companion in the books.  It’s not pretty, even by Westeros standards.

No one can be criticized for announcing that a particular piece of entertainment has irredeemably offended him – that’s a matter of personal taste.  This is a fantasy story, not a faithful recreation of some unpleasant real-world historical event – and even if it were, there’s no reason the butchery of the pregnant woman has to be shown on-screen.  It’s also a detail that was not present in the source material, as Robb’s wife became one of the many minor characters who just drops out of the story.  The author often abandons such characters, perhaps to illustrate that not everyone has a neat and tidy life story that ends with a crisp exit from the stage.  The writers of the TV show, on the other hand, have been trying to tie off those story threads, occasionally consolidating minor characters to keep the size of the cast down.

Those who can accept the horror of the Red Wedding might appreciate the point it makes about the dangers of blind idealism in a brutal world where cosmic justice is not swiftly meted out to villains.  (There are a lot of absolute S.O.B.s still waiting for a comeuppance, several thousand pages into the “Game of Thrones” novels, plus one S.O.B. who seems to be in the process of growing a conscience, and might therefore be best equipped to conquer the world.)  Robb’s downfall involved putting personal satisfaction ahead of his clear duty.  He wanted to seize the throne in a desperate rebellion, but he thought he could bypass some unpleasant realities of the office he assumed.

In a Disney movie, it would all have worked out fine.  The story would have been filled with sympathetic characters who shared the modern audience’s disdain for the instruments of feudal authority, including arranged marriages.  These characters would have been the clear heroes of the story, and they would have prevailed.  Love and tolerance would have conquered all.

Not to overstretch the themes Martin expounds in his books, but there is something for the student of modern politics to glean from the way one character sums up the overall conflict: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”  We don’t literally die when we lose power struggles in the more civilized modern West, and our families are not slaughtered beside us.  Our political culture admires idealism, or at least claims to, and just about every politician presents himself or herself as a deeply principled idealist.

But still… the game has high stakes, and the quest for power has rules – unfair rules, administered differently for the two major American political parties, and every third party that seeks a place on the national stage.  Good intentions do not suspend these rules.  Kind and decent people get chewed up and spit out by the system.  Look at what happened to all those energetic outsider candidates who ran in the 2012 presidential election.  It’s just not enough to be an enthusiastic outsider with some bright ideas.  It is necessary to run a tight race, attend to the ground game, and avoid self-destructive mistakes.

In other words, the requirements of power must still be obeyed.  Those who believe their good intentions or persuasive charisma can change the game tend to suffer for their hubris, even when they are decent people with fine ideas.  It’s even worse when they convince themselves there are some depths their opponents would never sink to, some rules they would never, ever break – the way Robb Stark never dreamed his host would violate the rules of hospitality at a noble wedding.  There’s nothing sadder than the sight of a bewildered candidate standing on the sidelines, waiting for the election “referees” to throw a penalty flag that never comes.

Those great ideas and noble intentions don’t mean much without the political influence to enact them.  A prospective candidate who thinks himself above the unpleasantness of the modern electoral arena should save his prospective donors a lot of money and take a pass on running.  ”You win or you die” would make a good motivational poster for a campaign office, in any era.

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