It’s been six months, and Game of Thrones fans still aren’t over the June 2 episode and its slaughter of Starks. In separate interviews with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin and showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, EW‘s James Hibberd learned why Robb had to die and how the show pulled it off. Revisit them below.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How early in the process of writing the book series did you know you were gonna kill off Robb and Catelyn?
GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: I knew it almost from the beginning. Not the first day, but very soon. I’ve said in many interviews that I like my fiction to be unpredictable. I like there to be considerable suspense. I killed Ned in the first book and it shocked a lot of people. I killed Ned because everybody thinks he’s the hero and that, sure, he’s going to get into trouble, but then he’ll somehow get out of it. The next predictable thing is to think his eldest son is going to rise up and avenge his father. And everybody is going to expect that. So immediately [killing Robb] became the next thing I had to do.
Since Song of Ice and Fire so often subverts reader expectations and avoids traditional fantasy storytelling structures, should fans have any real hope that this tale will have a happy ending? As The Boy recently said on Thrones, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
I’ve stated numerous times that I anticipate a bittersweet ending.
What sort of reactions have you received from readers over the years about the scene?
Extreme. Both positive and negative. That was the hardest scene I’ve ever had to write. It’s two-thirds of the way through the book, but I skipped over it when I came to it. So the entire book was done and there was still that one chapter left. Then I wrote it. It was like murdering two of your children. I try to make the readers feel they’ve lived the events of the book. Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed. You should care. If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?
Why do you think it has such a powerful reaction? Robb wasn’t one of your “viewpoint characters” in the books and Catelyn wasn’t really a beloved personality.
[Long pause] That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if I have a good answer. Maybe the way I did it. There’s a certain amount of foreboding leading up to it. It’s a betrayal. It comes out of left field. It’s at a wedding feast. Robb has made his peace and you think the worst is over. Then it comes out of nowhere. There’s also secondary characters killed. Then outside hundreds of Stark people are killed. It’s not just two people.
To me, that Robb and Catelyn are family makes it worse. And Catelyn has suffered so much and lost so many people around her, and she actually thinks she’s lost more than she really has (since she doesn’t know for sure that Arya, Bran and Rickon are alive). Then this happens.
She also has the moment there to plead. There’s also her murdering the hostage. He’s not a son that Frey particularly values.* So in the end her bluff is empty. And she does. She carries through. There’s a certain power to that too.
I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this, but: Have you ever regretted the scene?
Martin: No. Not as a writer. It’s probably the most powerful scene in the books. It cost me some readers, but gained me many more. It’s going to be hard for me to watch it [on the show]. It’s going to be a tough night. Because I love these characters too. And in a TV show you get to know the actors. You’re also ending that relationship with an actor that you have affection for. Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley have done an amazing job.
What do you say to readers who are upset about the scene?
It depends on what they say. What can you say to someone who says they’ll never read your book again? People read books for different reasons. I respect that. Some read for comfort. And some of my former readers have said their life is hard, their mother is sick, their dog died, and they read fiction to escape. They don’t want to get hit in the mouth with something horrible. And you read that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair. We all want that at times. There’s a certain vicarious release to that. So I’m not dismissive of people who want that. But that’s not the kind of fiction I write, in most cases. It’s certainly not what Ice and Fire is. It tries to be more realistic about what life is. It has joy, but it also had pain and fear. I think the best fiction captures life in all its light and darkness.
One of my favorite elements of the scene is you introduce this idea of “salt and bread.” We accept that as readers — Okay, in this fantasy world, people don’t harm each other once they eat a host’s bread and salt in their home. Then you break your own rule. It’s like you’re smacking the reader upside the head for being so dense — “Of course they’re not going to follow that silly rule ALL the time!”
It was stolen from history. Hospitality laws were real in Dark Ages society. A host and guest were not allowed to harm each other even if they were enemies. By violating that law, the phrase is, they “condemn themselves for all time.”
What about the Red Wedding itself? Is that based on history too?
The Red Wedding is based on a couple real events from Scottish history. One was a case called The Black Dinner. The king of Scotland was fighting the Black Douglas clan. He reached out to make peace. He offered the young Earl of Douglas safe passage. He came to Edinburgh Castle and had a great feast. Then at the end of the feast, [the king’s men] started pounding on a single drum. They brought out a covered plate and put it in front of the Earl and revealed it was the head of a black boar — the symbol of death. And as soon as he saw it, he knew what it meant. They dragged them out and put them to death in the courtyard. The larger instance was the Glencoe Massacre. Clan MacDonald stayed with the Campbell clan overnight and the laws of hospitality supposedly applied. But the Campbells arose and started butchering every MacDonald they could get their hands on. No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse.
The Black Dinner:
* Changed to one of Frey’s young wives in TV version
This interview with the showrunners was conducted in January 2013, shortly after filming was completed.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did it go?
DAVID BENIOFF: It’s weird to say, “Oh, it went great.” Because we’re not just killing characters. We’re losing these actors who have been with us since the beginning. It’s hard, because you love the actors. But it goes back to that first season, that some of the people we loved the most, whether Jason Momoa or Sean Bean [played characters that were killed off].
DAN WEISS: The show is a real family atmosphere. On set, everybody hangs out together. It’s like a member of your family moving across the ocean. You’ll still see them on a holiday. We’ll still see them at conventions for the next 25 years.
Benioff: I remember turning to the script supervisor after one take where Richard was dying and I was like, “That was a good take.” And she was just bawling. It’s a bittersweet thing. You’re making all these people sad. But on the other hand, that’s kind of the idea. If we shot The Red Wedding and nobody got emotional, it would be a failure.
Weiss: It’s the kind of thing that hammers home that everybody’s life is precious and precarious. When you can’t take for granted that a character you love on the show is going to be around forever, it makes you pay more attention to them.
Killing two characters at once has been done before. In fact, The Walking Dead recently did it. Why do you think this scene in particular has had such a strong resonance with fans of the books?
Benioff: Good question. In the book, when the band starts playing “Rains of Castamere,” you know something bad is going to happen. It’s the strongest physical reaction I’ve ever had to reading anything. I didn’t want to turn the page because you know something horrible is going to happen and your can’t quite believe it and you don’t want it to happen. You spend so much time with these characters before then. In the show, we’ve [spent more time focused on] Robb than in the books, mainly because we love Richard Madden as an actor. You look back to the death of Adriana on The Sopranos, that was powerful because you had spent years with her.
Weiss: That’s a good analogy. One of the things that make these deaths so powerful is they’re the machinations of other characters we know. In the case of Charles Dance [Twyin Lannister], it’s a character we like in spite of ourselves. A monster doesn’t come out of the woodwork and chop these people up. The monsters are our other characters, who aren’t monsters, but are people with their own motivations and goals. The fact this thing is happening because of somebody else we know lends to its epic tragic dimension.
Benioff: One of the things I love about the books is that we’re used to, in books and movies when a major character dies, we’re used to a bittersweet final moment. The death speech. You don’t get that here at all. There’s no redemptive moment. There’s just horror and slaughter. You want revenge so quickly for it and you’re not getting it, so you’re deprived of even that satisfaction. It’s just like a kidney punch. That’s the feeling we got in the books and that’s what we’re trying to emulate here on screen.
When first reading the book and I started going so fast through that section that it wasn’t until I re-read Storm recently that I fully processed that Catelyn kills the kid.
Benioff: You won’t miss it when we do it.
There’s also something particularly horrifying about Catelyn having already suffered so many tragedies in her family — real and imagined. Having a mother and son in that situation amps the emotional impact of it.
Benioff: They’ve been though so much. They’ve been through the death of Ned. They had a major falling out after she released Jaime. They managed to get through that and work back through into a loving relationship and then to have all that taken away from them…
And she’s just about to learn Arya is still alive, too.
Benioff: Arya is 100 yards away from her when it happens. It’s just so frustrating.
Weiss: One of the things that make people respond so strongly in George’s writing, and hopefully the show, is it’s not that nobody ever triumphs over adversity. Like Daenerys [unleashing her dragon] in the Plaza of Punishment is such a rousing “f–k yeah!” moment. It’s mixing up those moments with somebody making a horrible mistake and paying the worst possible price. If everything was gruesome and terrible all the time you’d always know what was going to happen since it would always be the most gruesome and terrible thing. The range of different possibilities that play out makes it more real because that’s what the world is like. Sometimes wonderful things happen and sometimes horrible things happen.
Benioff: Like the final shots of the last two episodes of season one. Episode 9 ends with Ned’s beheading and 10 ends with Daenerys rising from the ashes and her baby dragons being born. It went from the darkest possible moment to the most optimistic one.
The darker moments can weigh on fans, though. The Red Wedding in particular is infamous for making many fans very upset with the books. One reader once claimed on the EW boards that there are no heroes in Martin’s novels, only victims.
Benioff: Well, that’s not true. It’s hard to think of Daenerys Targaryen as a victim.
Weiss: She started as a victim. But many heroes start as somebody who is powerless.
Benioff: Also, just because somebody has a tragic end doesn’t turn the character from a hero into a victim. I don’t think Hector of Troy was a victim because he lost to Achilles. He’s still one of the great heroes of that epic. I just don’t even know how you make that argument.
Weiss: Heroism is the way you confront the horrible things that are thrown at you.
I think it’s a reaction to some of the high tragedy in the books. And probably also because we don’t know the ending of the saga yet, so the ultimate story context of what we’re seeing isn’t entirely clear.
Weiss: I can see it from somebody who’s used to a very traditional story — if you’re used to the one dimensional modern pop definition of heroism, yeah. We don’t have people whose dark night of the soul lasts five minutes then they come out the other side into sunshine. That’s not this world.
Benioff: This is not about the epic battle of good and evil. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
What was shooting the scene like for the actors?
Weiss: We tried to call Michelle [Fairley] afterwards. She wasn’t answering. A week later she wrote an email saying, “Sorry I haven’t been able to talk to anybody about the show for the past week because I’ve been so shattered.”
Benioff: Michelle is such a powerhouse. Obviously nobody does anything for the awards and it’s a big ensemble show. But I hope she does get recognition for the entire season and culminating in one of the greatest death scenes that’s ever been shot.