(Spoilers for the third season of Game of Thrones begin right below this sentence. You have been warned.)
Something horrible happened on the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Young Robb Stark, the king in the North, attended the wedding of his uncle Edmure and a daughter of Walder Frey, an ally whom the young ruler had spurned in an earlier season. The goal was to repair the bridge between the two houses, strengthen their bond and then march on Casterly Rock, the home of the Stark family's nemeses, the Lannisters. Instead, the Starks found themselves in an ambush. While drunken Northern soldiers were slaughtered outside, the wedding party was ambushed by Frey's men. Robb's pregnant wife was stabbed to death. Robb himself was shot full of arrows before being run through by his traitorous right-hand man Roose Bolton. Catelyn Stark, beside herself in grief, cut the throat of Walder's Frey's wife before a henchman did her the same favor.
It was a scene of instant infamy. It was ugly, brutal and heartbreaking. In one sequence, the Northern rebellion that had been at the center of the show's conflict was crushed. The closest thing the show had to a heroic lead character was butchered. The Lannisters, the bad guys, had won.
And it was also amazing, a moment so unlike anything ever seen before on television or film that it's difficult to imagine it not becoming a pop-culture touchstone. Other shows (and certainly a few movies) are going to spend the next few years chasing their own "Red Wedding." Game of Thrones didn't just break the rules of what you can do with a narrative -- it shattered them in a million pieces. When those pieces get put back together, serialized storytelling may never look the same.
Game of Thrones has pulled this kind of dirty trick before. Back in season one, the honorable Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) was positioned as the noble protagonist of the show, a good man in a world filled with bad people, the man who would fight for justice and defeat the bad guys. But he got labeled a traitor and had his head chopped off by the despicable King Joffrey. However, that shocking demise seemed necessary to create the show's main conflict and introduce a new generation of heroes. With their main man dead, the Stark family and their allies in the North had a reason to march on the Lannisters and start a full-out rebellion. A noble man died to give life to a noble cause... but then we saw that noble cause completely and utterly wrecked by characters who play dirty with no qualms. It's a far cry from traditional fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings, where every setback is just another moment of darkness before an inevitable dawn. These are the things that just don't happen on TV. Hell, they don't even happen in movies.
But here we are. Robb Stark is dead. His family is scattered and powerless. The Lannisters now control the seven kingdoms and there is no one to stop them. Where does that leave us?
Well, it leaves us in a place where the villains have become the main characters on the show.
Antiheroes are nothing new to television (particularly on HBO, which gave birth to The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire), but they've traditionally been somewhat heroic or likable from the outset. Try to count the number of TV criminals with Robin Hood complexes. You can't. There's too many of them. What makes the villains turned protagonists on Game of Thrones so fascinating is that they're the same people they've been from frame one... but we're starting to understand them.
Over the past three seasons, we've seen the drunken, ribald Tyrion grow into a master strategist and savor of King's Landing (not that he'll ever get the credit for it). We've seen the dashing, incestuous and murderous Jaime exposed as an unsung hero, a man whose actions saved countless lives but never received any credit. We've seen the soft underbelly of Cersei and understand that she's spiteful and conniving because she refuses to have control of her life ripped from her again. And Joffrey... well, Joffrey's still the worst.
But the list goes on. As the so-called heroes on Game of Thrones fall, we steadily learn that the so-called villains taking their lives aren't one-dimensional cutouts with mustaches to twirl, but full-fledged human beings who truly believe that they're right. After all, the Jaime of season one is despicable, but the Jaime of season three has become the complex and heartbreaking center of the show. If feeling sympathy for the guy who chucked Bran Stark off a tower in the pilot episode makes you feel a little queasy, then welcome to the club. But isn't struggling with your like for Jaime so much more fun than nodding your head along with boring 'ol Ned or Robb?
In this way, Game of Thrones isn't just a subversion of the fantasy genre, it's a subversion of storytelling in general. It gleefully and bloodily exposes the lies of a traditional narrative. It delights in pulling out the rug from under you, but it doesn't do it for pure shock value. It does it because it wants you to look at the story being told from another perspective. It wants you to relate to and love imperfect, broken and often downright evil characters. It forces you to wonder what goes through the mind of a bad guy and to understand that no one is evil for the sake of evil. Robb Stark may have been butchered by vile cowards, but he was butchered by vile cowards who have every reason in the world to see that as a viable option. In a traditional story, Stannis Baratheon would be the hero because he is the rightful king by every law in the land... but Stannis is just as broken and complicated as Tywin Lannister.
This is an approach that's been done in dense, politically charged dramas like The Wire, but by placing all of this in a more popular, "escapist" genre, Game of Thrones has smuggled challenging material to an audience who may not have watched a "realistic" show. Game of Thrones has always claimed to be a show where no one is safe and that being a good guy won't save you, but now audiences know that they're not messing around. When the smoke clears, audiences will probably love Game of Thrones more than ever and more traditional shows will just start to feel a little old-fashioned in comparison. This bloody fantasy epic has weaned viewers off of easy answers and expectations (even on The Sopranos, you knew Tony wasn't going to bite it like Robb Stark did). It's thrown down the gauntlet in keeping things interesting. If we're lucky, it'll usher us into an era where devices that have always worked are replaced by devices that are challenging, fresh and unexpected. Will this impact movies as well? It'll certainly be more difficult since films don't have the luxury of 30 hours to set this stuff up, but there's sure to be a ripple effect.
There are thousands of ways to tell a story. Game of Thrones has officially given us the permission to try some new options.