|By Bob Case
on Mar 10, 2017
Last week’s post didn’t go up because my laptop died late on Thursday night, but now I’m here again, with bells on. Two weeks ago I made plans to explain how the death of Roose Bolton was emblematic (to me at least) of the show’s decline. To do that, I’m going to take the way-back machine all the way to the halycon days of 2013, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
The Dead Wedding
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Red Wedding was a watershed moment for Game of Thrones. Even if later episodes and later seasons eventually eclipsed it in ratings, I’m not sure the show has since equaled the amount of buzz the Red Wedding generated. It’s the sort of moment TV executives dream of: millions of mouths gathering around millions of (virtual or otherwise) water coolers, boosting their Q rating into the brand attachment green zone, or whatever sorts of things TV executives say.
And I have to admit, they earned it. The Rains of Castamere was, in fact, a unique moment in television. For one thing, it required the tacit collusion of thousands of book readers not to blow the game ahead of schedule, which I was a little surprised to see it mostly got.It was a teeth-grinding moment every time a book reader got too cheeky with their hint-dropping. Second, it asked for an expert control of tone on the show’s part. The audience has to have a growing sense of unease without suspecting the true extent of the danger. That unease has to steadily grow, then be at least briefly and carefully deflated before the hammer drops.
Since the last episode of MBTSAAFGOTGSMrBtongue’s Scrupulously Accurate and Fair Game of Thrones Griping Spectacular established me as a show!Bolton fanboy, you may not be surprised to learn that my favorite moment was this one:
Twenty minutes into Red Wedding and chill and he gives you this look.
For those whose obsessions are too healthy to remember what this is, it’s the moment just after Catelyn realizes that Roose Bolton is wearing chainmail underneath his clothing. If I had to guess, I would guess that the above is just about the exact frame where the average show-only viewer realized just how bad things were going to get. I imagine an internal monologue going something like “wait, why would you wear armor to a wedd-ooooohhhhhh shitshitshitshit.” I love that the show trusted to viewer to catch the significance of this on their own without spelling it out in some way that would’ve ruined the moment. Even the panicked strangeness of Catelyn’s reaction (she slaps him) rings true.
And the truth is they’ve been chasing that high ever since. They want that buzz again, they want that hype again, that feeling like they’re flying. And to me this is the show’s own mini meta-tragedy: they’re not going to get it. No matter how many characters they feed into their industrial-strength character mincing machine they’re never going to equal the rush of the first time. This is not only because of the natural diminishing returns of dipping your bucket into the “major character death” well over and over again, but also because the Red Wedding took place in a world made up of consistent and believable norms.
In order for it to have the impact that it did, the viewer had to believe that guest right is important and that the Starks will be protected by it. You have to realize the significance of someone wearing armor at a wedding, and to get the full effect you even have to be familiar with the song “Rains of Castamere.” That’s a lot to ask with a show that has precious little screen time to work with, but if you can pull it off the viewer is rewarded not only with the shock of the act itself but with the catharsis of realizing its signifance and the immersion of believing it took place in a consistent world.
But if you just kill off characters willy-nilly, without anchoring the deaths in believable consequences, you’re not going to get that effect. Compare the Red Wedding to the death of the character responsible for its most effective moment (and yes, make allowances for the fact that Roose Bolton is a relatively minor character in comparison to Robb and Catelyn Stark). His murder is noteable for the sheer casualness of it. Ramsay appears to do it on a whim, out of irritation as much as anything else. He apparently could have killed the Lord of the Dreadfort and Warden of the North whenever he felt like it. Roose is lucky it didn’t happen sooner, honestly. To the writers, the unique, unsettling quality of Roose Bolton is no match for the sheer awesomeness of Shirtless McRapestab and his twenty good men.
What was it that finally set him off, by the way? Learning about his new brother-in-law? Or was it when Roose wouldn’t let him march the Bolton army on Castle Black? Maybe that was the thing he wanted to do so badly he killed his own father for not doing it. Only then he never does it! He never even mentions it again! He spends the rest of the season twiddling his thumbs at Winterfell, waiting for Sansa and Jon to deposit an army on his doorstep. Occasionally they bring a minor character (Osha in this case) to his room for him to stab just so he can meet his quota, but otherwise nothing.
Sometimes the show seems to me to be little more than a conveyor belt for this stuff. Make the audience like a character, so when they die they’ll be sad. Make the audience hate a character, so when they die they’ll be happy. But each death has less emotional impact than the one before. The body count climbs ever higher – can I even remember all the season six deaths? Let’s try: Roose Bolton, Osha, Rickon StarkAnd Shaddydog, RIP., Walda FreyAnd her son., Walder FreyAnd two of his sons., Ramsay, Balon Greyjoy, Loras Tyrell, Margaery Tyrell, Mace Tyrell, the High Sparrow, Lancel Lannister, Kevan Lannister, Tommen, HodorAnd Summer, RIP., Maester Pycelle, Doran MartellAnd his bodyguard, Areo Hotah., Trystane Martell, the Three-Eyed RavenAnd the child of the forest who the credits refer to as “Leaf.”, Lady Crane, the Waif… I’m sure I’ve forgotten at least one. They’re knocking off an average of more than two per episode. A part of me suspects that they’re just trying to get their payroll down at this point.
Take life insurance out on these three. Your odds of at least one payout are nearly a lock.
After a while you just kind of get numb to it – or at least I do. This season did have an attempted Red Wedding-like event – only instead of catharsis the sheer farcicalness of it reduced me to half of a giggling fit. But that’s a whole other storyline, one we’ll cover if we ever make it that far. Next week will finally be Sansa week, and after that, the endgame.
 It was a teeth-grinding moment every time a book reader got too cheeky with their hint-dropping.
 MrBtongue’s Scrupulously Accurate and Fair Game of Thrones Griping Spectacular
 And Shaddydog, RIP.
 And her son.
 And two of his sons.
 And Summer, RIP.
 And his bodyguard, Areo Hotah.
 And the child of the forest who the credits refer to as “Leaf.”