This article includes many “Game of Thrones” spoilers for those who haven’t yet watched “The Rains of Castamere.” You’ve been warned.
There’s no denying that the Red Wedding is one of the most horrific events to be depicted on scripted television. During Season 3’s ninth episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” fans witnessed the not-very-glorious deaths of Robb Stark, Talisa Maegyr and Catelyn Stark, as well as the majority of the Stark bannermen and even Robb’s direwolf Grey Wind. It was brutal and tragic and hard to watch, but unfortunately Robb had it coming.
During a recent conversation with Richard Madden, the actor who portrays Robb admitted that his character “starts making bad decisions” in Season 3. But those decisions stem back to the major event in Robb’s life that set him on the road towards the Red Wedding: Marrying Talisa instead of the Frey he was promised to.
Like his father Eddard Stark, Robb was always portrayed as an honorable man. But Robb put aside his honor and chose to put love and beauty over his word. Unfortunately Robb (or at least Catelyn in Robb’s honor) had already pledged to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, a man who doesn’t have much patience for betrayal and who will without hesitation sell himself to the highest bidder.
Robb’s storyline is an interesting parallel to his father’s. It’s easy to argue that Ned had his Season 1 death coming as well. He refused to play the game of thrones and sought to act honorably and the way that he would in the black-and-white world of the battlefield instead of realizing that politics works in shades of grey. He was warned time and again that he needed to play along with the “game” or he would die, and he ignored those warnings. The result was him being labeled a traitor and getting his head chopped of by Ilyn Payne in front of his daughters and the realm.
Just like Ned, Robb chose to put a different priority over politics. In Robb’s case, it was love, while for Eddard it was honor. Robb was also warned a number of times before his ultimate demise. His mother warned him not to break his word to Walder and pursue his love of Talisa. Rickard Karstark said he lost the War of the Five Kings the day he married Talisa. His advisors, mother and wife warned him not to lawfully execute Karstark and thus lose the Karstark bannermen, and though it was ultimately because Catelyn released Jaime Lannister that he was forced into the situation, it was Robb’s decision to behead Karstark that sent a large portion of his army away and left him crawling back to Walder Frey. Even in “The Rains of Castamere,” Catelyn cautioned Robb that Walder might not keep his word, though none of them really could have anticipated what was in store.
Interestingly, the depiction of Robb marrying for love is a major deviation from his character in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series. In “A Clash of Kings” it is revealed that book-Robb was injured during a battle and treated by a highborn named Jeyne Westerling. During his recovery he learned of Bran and Rickon’s supposed deaths, and when Jeyne comforted him they had sex and he took her virginity. The next morning he married her because it is the honorable thing to do, though love likely played into it in some ways as well.
Another big deviation between the book and the series is the fact that Robb never took Jeyne to the Red Wedding. His decision to bring Talisa and flout his more beautiful bride in front of Walder Frey, while likely an unintentional insult, is just a sign of how little he understood of the game he was playing. Even Talisa needed to caution him not to kiss her during the wedding because it could be considered a slight. While Robb was at his peak as a warrior on the battlefield and led his army to major victories when they had something to fight for, he ultimately proved his youth when it came to women and lost sight of the bigger picture: That love and happiness are not what you get when you’re fighting a war for your very survival.
“He’s been outsmarted and it all comes from his good heart and his trust of other people, his trust that people will do the right thing and not just destroy each other like they do,” Madden admitted during the recent conference call.
“Game of Thrones” is a show about politics and magic and the human condition. That doesn’t leave much room for love, as evidenced by Robb and Talisa’s deaths and Jon’s split from Ygritte in “The Rains of Castamere.” It’s a lesson fans should have learned in Season 1, when Khal Drogo died (and Dany’s attempt to save him only made things much worse) and when Sansa’s dream of finding a knight or prince to fall in love with landed her with a na�ve sense of the world and a fianc� who was a monster.
In fact, Robb was a representation of most things that “Game of Thrones” is not. He might have been the best choice for the Iron Throne, but he also increasingly didn’t play the game of thrones. Again, this was a lesson learned in Season 1: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Robb made too many poor decisions and wasn’t politically minded enough to come out on top. And when you’re putting your faith in a snake like Walder Frey, you don’t come asking for more help after spurning your necessary alliance for, as Walder puts it, “firm tits and a tight grip.”
One of the best politicians in Westeros is Tywin Lannister. Though he is not a likeable character, he understands when to take advantage of weaknesses in his enemies. He has lived so long because, for instance, he knew that he should ally himself with the Freys the second Robb’s marriage to Talisa was revealed. He knew that Roose Bolton was a man who could be bought for money. His understanding of how to work people against one another and the fact that wars aren’t necessarily won on the battlefield is one of the main reasons he’s managed to survive as long as he has, while other more likeable characters like Robb, Ned and even people like Renly have been offed.
It’s interesting the way the Red Wedding came a week after Sansa’s marriage to Tyrion. Not only was that union evidence of Tywin Lannister tightening his grip on the Starks (he, after all, knew the Red Wedding was coming), but it’s also proof that political gain needs to come before love when you’re in a position of power. In a happier series, Tyrion would have thwarted his father and married Shae like he wanted to. Sansa would have found her handsome Daario Naharis-type and been rescued from King’s Landing. But that isn’t the type of show “Game of Thrones” is, and those aren’t the type of stories it tells.
This show has been warning viewers all season that “Game of Thrones” isn’t a show where the people we like the most come out the victors. As Theon’s torturer told him, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Really, you thought Robb was going to have a happy reunion with Walder Frey and then go on to conquer Casterly Rock? That’s a cute thought for a different series, but not for “Game of Thrones.” In this series, it’s the least deserving — like Talisa and Catelyn — who have to die, while those who play by cruel and underhanded tactics come out on top. Virtues like honor and love are not the qualities that get you far in this world. But Robb was not innocent in the events that played up to his death, and those who have paid attention to the lessons “Game of Thrones” has been teaching since Season 1 should have seen that coming.
With that being said, Madden’s turn as Robb Stark was one of the most wonderful performances we’ve had the pleasure to witness, and it is with heavy hearts that we have to say goodbye. In many ways we wish “Game of Thrones” was a different show so his death wouldn’t have been inevitable the second he married Talisa. But that’s not the type of story “Game of Thrones” is telling, and the series needed to use Robb to remind viewers that no one — not even the Young Wolf — is safe.
Rest in peace, Robb Stark, and as always, the North remembers.