Why Game of Thrones ( and the books ) will have a happier ending than the TV show has led us to believe
“If you think this has a happy ending you haven’t been paying attention”, Ramsay Bolton ominously declares to Theon in episode 6 of season 3 of Game of Thrones. Many fans consider this line to be an almost meta-reference, a piece of subtext, inserted by the writers to imply not only the fate of poor Theon, but of the entire saga as well. The TV series, based on the popular “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga by George R.R. Martin, seems drenched in pessimistic and even nihilistic undertones at times, and while the novels may appear particularly dark and gritty at first glance, it may do well to look deeper into Martin’s saga and ask if there is only the Long Night on the horizon, and if Westeros and its citizens really face nothing but death and carnage in the future.
The world of Westeros is not an easy place to live, to be sure. It is a feudal society reminiscent of Medieval Europe, where the nobles, the knights, the lords and the kings thrive, and pretty much everybody else does not. It is a place where war controls the lives of the citizens, where conflict is part of the daily routine, where heinous, inhuman acts like rape and murder are overlooked in favor of a positive outcome in the ongoing fight for power. Martin does not paint a pretty picture of his world. However, when looking at the way this world is presented in the television series and in the novels, a clear difference may appear; where the TV series often feeds on the darkness and pessimism of Westeros and makes them a part of its own narrative, the novels, in contrast, seem almost sorry for having to portray them – Martin disattaches the narrative from the horrors of the world, and it is clear that the narration is not happy to see life like it is.
Take Ned Stark, for example. We all know the man loved his honor, and we all know that his honor got him killed. But in the show, his honor – a precious moral value – was equated to stupidity by the narrative. When surrounded by scheming, Machiavellian characters like Cersei or Littlefinger, Ned came across as an oaf, clumsily trying to navigate the muddy waters of Southern politics and failing miserably. Long after his head rolled down the steps of the Sept of Baelor we heard various characters, both positive and negative, refer to Ned Stark as a stupid man who had too much honor. It’s as if the show is telling its audience “do not bother with honor or honesty – it’s going to get you nowhere!”
Of course, some characters in the book series also think of Ned Stark in a similar light. But perhaps the difference here lies in the fact that in the novels we get to see what’s going on inside a character’s head. In Ned’s case, we get to know that he has seen what dishonor does to people, he has seen that dishonesty and scheming and strife can turn people into monsters – we can understand that he chooses to be honorable, even when he knows it can lead to certain misgivings or even worse. In this case, upholding one’s personal values is shown as a positive thing – the narrative of the books says that even in an unfair and unforgiving world, it is important to remember your values and to stand by them. And that honor is a fine thing to have. In this way, the novels remind the readers that they are not trying to endorse pessimism – only to portray it.
A similar distinction can be made in the portrayal of the Red Wedding, more specifically on how human emotions are handled. In the TV show, the famous scene is played largely for shock value and is clearly directed in a way that is supposed to make the viewers gasp and cover their mouths in shock and disgust – the sequence begins with Robb Stark’s pregnant wife Talisa being stabbed repeatedly in the belly. The rest of the scene also delivers shock after shock, until it ends with Catelyn Stark’s throat being slit in front of the camera and we watch her bleed out and fall on the ground, dead. The entire scene seems to have been made while keeping in consideration the shock value over the sadness and absurdity of the situation. It doesn’t help that the Red Wedding is barely mentioned in the future seasons – it is very soon brushed off and the characters seem to forget the war crime that was committed under Walder Frey’s roof.
Of course, that’s not to say that in the novels the wedding is any less shocking. The shock is definitely there, and a feeling of dread and finality envelops the whole chapter. But there are also other feelings that we get while reading it. We realise the desperation and the madness that Catelyn succumbs into when she grabs Jinglebell and threatens to cut his throat. We understand what a little, helpless boy Robb still is in the moment when he calls for his mother, for his wife and for his direwolf. It is more grounded in the feeling of human emotions rather than plain shock value. And that is what separates the narrative from the events happening in it. The narrative here doesn’t go out of its way and doesn’t bend itself over to shock us. The narrative wants to make us feel for the characters, and we are simply shocked because of what is presented to us – not because of how it is presented. And of course, the books do not let us forget the Red Wedding so quickly – the repercussions of the massacre echo throughout the remaining books, and the consequences are felt both by the reader and the characters. It tells us that while the Red Wedding was a terrible event and a crime against humanity, it does not set the norm. It does not mean that there is nothing in the world but death and unfairness. It tells us that a brighter future is in fact quite possible.
The show is by no means all bad, of course. It is good to see that it is also beginning to acknowledge the underlying positivity of the books; the latest season’s narrative is for the most part more similar to the one of the novels, and that is a refreshing change. If the series keeps itself on the path of portraying its characters the way Martin does, and keeps the viewers’ interest by telling an engaging story that relies on human emotions and subtle optimism over shock value, there will always be a ray of hope and light for our Westerosi characters stuck in a complicated world.
The “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels tell a dark story. But they don’t forget that darkness is not all there is. The characters strive for a better future, they try to keep their core values intact against all odds, and while at some times it may even lead to their death, we are always reminded that some things are worth fighting for until the end, and we can but hope that it will pay off in the end. We have been paying attention, Ramsay, and after every winter there’s always a spring. The final book of the series is entitled A Dream of Spring, after all.
Image Credits: HBO