In light of the Game of Thrones TV series coming to its end, and the book series entering (eventually) into its final stage, some folks are starting to ask what I think is a really interesting question: Just what was the purpose of the War of the Five Kings, and specifically the Red Wedding?
I’ll get to why I think the Red Wedding works so well, but first we have to understand exactly where the complaint is coming from. The complaint isn’t that the story was bad, or that viewers can’t appreciate a well-told tragedy. It’s that it isn’t clear where those events fit into the larger story. The climax of the series involves the War for the Dawn and Dany’s Conquest. It’s difficult to see how exactly the events of the Red Wedding are directly affecting these final conflicts.
It’s tempting to reflexively answer something like “Well if Robb Stark were still around he would have…” and then go on about defeating the Lannisters, and if the Lannisters aren’t around, who is Daenerys (or Young Griff) liberating people from? But, all that can be satisfied by a story that simply didn’t have a Robb Stark to begin with. From the view of the final two books and seasons, it looks almost like Robb was created simply to be killed, and then not really influence anything beyond that. Arya could still escape to Braavos, Winterfell could still be raided with Bran escaping north. It’s unlikely Lady Stoneheart is going to play a role Beric couldn’t have worked for. Why such an elaborate and time consuming story that doesn’t appear to have much impact for the remaining series?
I’m not advocating for minimalism here. Stories don’t need to be told in the simplest way possible, and complex events can be really enjoyable. But, the amount of time a scene or plot line gets should be relative to its importance in the overall story structure. In the novels, we get Robb’s story through Catelyn’s point of view chapters, and in both A Clash of Kings and a Storm of Swords, she has more chapters than Daenerys. This tells the audience that Robb’s plot line is as important if not more important to the whole story as Dany’s. Two novels and 5 show seasons later, not so much.
This structure is rather confounding, but at the same time, who doesn’t think that the Red Wedding plot is a masterpiece? How can it be so good, when structurally it makes as much sense as the Canto Bight sub-plot from The Last Jedi?
Game of Thrones is Not One Story
If we think in terms of conflicts, climaxes, and character arcs, the series quite nicely divides into three different (sometimes interwoven) stories.
The first is The King in the North. It gets kicked off in Act I with Tyrion’s capture, then Ned’s imprisonment and execution. Act II starts with Robb winning the war, but then he’s betrayed by Theon and later Catelyn frees Jaime; all the while, Robb is falling in love with Talisa/Jeyne. In Act III, Robb is betrayed by the Karstarks, executes Rickard, and goes back to the Freys to get their army. Red Wedding ensues. This is a really nicely structured story with two compelling subplots: Theon struggles with his identity, betrays Robb, and ends the story captured and tortured by Ramsay; Jaime gets a redemption arc with rescuing Brienne from the bear pit and then sending her to fulfill his oath to Catelyn. That’s the end of the story, and it works magnificently as a tragedy.
The second story is The War for the Dawn and deals with the tension between the political intrigue of Westeros and the existential threat of the White Walkers. We don’t actually need any of the six southern kingdoms to make this work, just Stannis’s army, recently defeated but with renewed purpose, the Boltons, the Wildling army, and the politicking in Castle Black. Act I is about Jon learning about the WW threat and joining up with the Wildlings; Act II is everyone farting about fighting each other when they need to be getting unified; Act III is battling against the invading army of the dead. Theon gets a redemption arc, though this works even if we first meet him as Reek and just know he previously was a traitor. Bran does robot tree psychic stuff.
The third story is Fire and Blood and is focused on the conflict between Westeros and the Targaryens. The focus is on Dany, with the other main players being Cersei, Tyrion, and Young Griff. Act I, Dany gets her dragons and begins building her army while Robert dies as the Lannisters start losing respect. Act II is Dany struggling with the hardships of rulership in Slaver’s Bay, and then getting beat to the punch by Young Griff who overthrows the Lannisters in King’s Landing. Act III is the conflict between Griff and Dany with her decent into madness as she loses the core of her identity (being the rightful, beloved queen). The story ends with Jon Snow, having recently won the War for the Dawn coming down to play Fortinbras for our Dany/Hamlet. In the show version, Jon has to be shoehorned into the Young Griff role.
By breaking the series into three separate stories, we no longer are left wondering what the point of the Red Wedding was. Or, for that matter, what the point of the Army of the Dead is if the final show down is more King’s Landing intrigue. We don’t ask because the Red Wedding was the climax of its own story. The battle against the dead was similarly the climax of its story. The resolution of Daenerys’s plot is the resolution of a third, separate story. They’re all taking place in the same fictional universe, with several of the same characters, but they’re not one singular story.