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The Red Wedding Was a Twist That Highlighted the Absurdity of Television’s Conventions

The bloody happening at the end of the third season of ‘Game of Thrones’ was the twist of the decade for more reasons than one

HBO/Ringer illustration

The 14th anniversary of The Prestige felt like as good an excuse as any to create a package devoted to the movie and TV twists through the years that have stunned us, destroyed us, and changed the way we think. (The twist here is that we’re celebrating a 14th anniversary rather than waiting one more year for a round number.) Join us on Twist Tuesday as we break down what goes into an effective twist, explain the drastic consequences of shocking your audience, and rank the greatest twists of all time.

For what is rightly remembered as one of the most memorable TV twists of the last decade, the Red Wedding wasn’t technically a twist. If a Game of Thrones fan wanted to find out what happened in the underdog Stark clan’s war of independence (and revenge) against the Lannisters, they could simply head to their local independent bookstore and buy the first few volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire. A Storm of Swords, the third and arguably best installment in the saga, predates “The Rains of Castamere,” the Thrones episode that culminates with the infamous event, by a full 13 years. If the events of “Rains” were a surprise, it’s only because viewers chose to make them so.

That the Red Wedding still blindsided millions of viewers is a testament to many things: the massive reach of television as compared to books; the restraint of book readers who wanted to preserve the paradigm-shifting shock they’d once experienced themselves; the continued hard sell of thousand-plus-page genre tomes, even as some of them became the blueprint for massively successful TV shows. Mostly, though, it’s proof of just how effective a twist the Red Wedding was—and, by implication, how hard it is to pull off a reversal that feels both fully surprising and retroactively justified.

I’ve argued previously and at length that Game of Thrones was groundbreaking TV because it was adapted from a story that was itself an allergic reaction to the limitations of TV. The Red Wedding is the culmination of that approach, both the thematic high and emotional low point of the eight-season show. Were showrunners starting from scratch, it’s impossible to imagine them selling a network on killing off a swath of main characters, and effectively firing several stars, multiple seasons into a hit series. Martin’s road map gave Thrones permission to go where no show had gone before. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were rewarded with a reputation for unflinching narrative logic that would come to haunt them in Thrones later seasons, rushed and service-driven as they appeared to longtime fans. The Red Wedding nonetheless endures, on its own and in context.

One would hope that a spoiler warning on a piece about plot twists would be implied, but here’s one anyway, both for Game of Thrones and other series discussed herein. With that necessary caveat out of the way, we can talk about what transpired at those fateful nuptials: Robb Stark, the upstart King in the North, backed out on an alliance-sealing promise to marry a daughter of the resource-and-progeny-rich, prestige-poor Frey clan. The Red Wedding was supposed to be a consolation prize, with Robb’s uncle Edmure Tully subbing in for the monarch himself. Instead, the Freys went back on their sacred promise of hospitality and murdered Robb, his mother, his pregnant wife, and most of their forces at their enemies’ behest. Game of Thrones had tweaked Martin’s script slightly by having Robb break his betrothal out of true love instead of a tragic outbreak of teen horniness. Otherwise, Benioff and Weiss let the bloodshed and devastating fallout stay as is.

The Red Wedding was hardly the first bait-and-switch Thrones had pulled. In fact, the beauty of Robb’s fate is in how anyone paying attention ought to have seen it coming; unable to let themselves do so, the audience found themselves in the same position as Thrones’ foolhardy heroes, sticking to playbooks and codes of conduct they know are hopelessly out of date. The story had already set up one potential protagonist, only to dispatch him before Season 1 was even through: Ned Stark. Robb’s father had been positioned as a moral man trying to lead in an immoral world, only for his own sense of honor to backfire on him before the action could even begin. In a sense, the Red Wedding was only a reprise, and could’ve been less impactful for it.

But there were nonetheless reasons fans hadn’t suspected fictional history to repeat itself, even beyond mere denial. As a twist, Ned’s execution had many analogs in prior shows: revelations like “Peggy was actually pregnant that whole time,” or “Bernard is a host and William is the Man in Black,” or “Mr. Robot is Elliot’s imagined dead dad”—ones that arrive late enough in a debut season to surprise, but early enough that they’re effectively part of the premise. The show about the redemptive power of work of course has its heroine choose the office over family in the most literal way possible; the show about artificial intelligence and consciousness of course used one of its characters as a case study; the show nakedly inspired by Fight Club of course had its very own Tyler Durden. Ned’s demise fell into the same category: a declarative statement of purpose that disrupts a false sense of security, but not one that fundamentally altered a trajectory that was already in motion.

The Red Wedding, by contrast, strikes a rare balance. It’s a twist that feels out of nowhere in the moment, but, in retrospect, feels earned. That second criterion, more than the first, is what separates the Red Wedding from more infamous hairpin turns, both on Game of Thrones and in TV at large. Twists tend to be concentrated near the end of a series, where there’s the greatest chance of running into inconsistency—and the lowest chance of convincing fans the twist was planned for since the beginning, as opposed to a last-second Hail Mary meant to handwave past suspense. There’s no better example than the unmasking of Gossip Girl as one Dan Humphrey, a twist with horrifying implications the writers seemed not to understand (and Penn Badgley would have to make an entire second show to address). Less nonsensical but equally enraging was the final season of How I Met Your Mother, which managed to make audiences indignant on behalf of a character they barely got to know. Cristin Milioti’s mother may not have lived up to seven seasons of hype, but she still didn’t deserve to be killed off in service of Ted’s pursuit of Robin! Late-Thrones incidents (and now memes) like Bran taking the Iron Throne or Dany losing a second dragon because she forgot about the Iron Fleet had more in common with these twists than their own predecessor.

Instead, the Red Wedding falls squarely in the middle of its larger narrative, a placement that’s ideal for a twist’s desired effect but the most difficult in terms of execution. Its only true peer in modern TV may be Lost’s “we have to go back,” the GIF-able moment tacked onto the ABC drama’s Season 3 finale. Like the Red Wedding, “we have to go back” opened up thrilling possibilities for its show; unlike with the Red Wedding, those possibilities were more constructive than destructive. Game of Thrones took major characters out of commission and reminded us no one was safe, while Lost opened up an entire set of timelines, a potentially confusing development that would eventually have its drawbacks but in the moment expanded an already absorbing mythology.

Such pivots rarely happen midstream because the television industry doesn’t prioritize the long game. Unless creators are given a six-season blank check like Peter Morgan was for The Crown, they have little idea how long a story will be allowed to last, and are incentivized to lay their cards on the table as soon as possible in order to entice viewers to stick around. (That uncertainty used to be due to the harsh math of the broadcast ratings system; these days, it’s more likely to be a volume-minded streaming service like Netflix cutting the strings without remorse.) Game of Thrones had the benefit of books to set its pace; Lost was more daringly improvisatory, which by its finale would place it just a hair too close to the sun.

The Red Wedding remains the calling card for Game of Thrones willingness to defy convention. The twist’s novelty is a direct outgrowth of its context. No participant is required to act out of character; no long-term arcs have to be severed before their time. Everyone is behaving how they’ve always behaved; the only reason anyone deluded themselves into thinking they wouldn’t is that the conventions of TV wouldn’t otherwise let them. The Red Wedding revealed that the longevity of other TV casts is what’s truly unbelievable. That’s the real twist, and one we’ve never quite recovered from.