If you’ve ever watched Jackass there’s a familiar rhythm to their pranks. One of the crew of miscreants will set up some kind of trap, like a giant, spring-loaded boxing glove aimed at nut level. He’ll sit in wait as one of his compatriots steps into the trap and then laugh gleefully as his chum catches a blow to the crotch. The instructional bit is what happens next: the victim and the original prankster will re-set the trap and wait for the next sucker.
This weekend a booby-trap three years in the making was sprung. Millions of TV viewers watching A Game of Thrones took the proverbial blow. A good many nerds, having read the books ages ago, have been patiently waiting for this moment. And it was glorious.
The “Red Wedding” climax of this particular episode is the kind of plot point that the word “spoiler” was coined to describe. The event wasn’t merely a cool thing that happened or a twist it would be nice to experience fresh. It is a heart-breaking, game-changing turn of events that doesn’t just pull the rug out from under the viewer, it beats them with it. Beloved characters were offed in a way rarely seen on television.
Author George R.R. Martin is a cruel god. He toys with the lives and loves of his characters with what can seem like a kind of malice. In doing so, he wreaks similar havoc with the emotions of his loyal readers and viewers. The untimely death of Eddard Stark, the kind of character who would remain the undying hero of a lesser fantasy series, serves as a kind of thesis the way things work in Westeros. “All men must die,” the long dead Valyrians would say, and a sure fire way to meet your end too soon is to resist change. Ned’s stubborn dedication to honor was his undoing. Call the events of the “Red Wedding” a nasty pop quiz to remind the slow learners how things work in George R.R. Martin’s brutal world.
Those who read the books learned this lesson in a somewhat different fashion than last weekend’s TV viewers. Nobody was watching when we got the bad news. We were up late devouring A Storm of Swords way past our regular bedtimes. Or turning pages bleary-eyed on a cross-country flight. There was no-one around to watch our faces turn pale as we turned the page. Nobody heard our gasps. I read the words but didn’t digest them until chapters later, when I was forced to go back and read the whole passage again to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Yes, that did happen.
The solitude of that experience is part of the reason why finding another fan of the books was so special way back when. You knew that this person had been through the same pain. There is, admittedly, a certain smugness the book readers feel towards the unwashed masses that are waiting for HBO to squirt out the story, one episode at a time. For a certain breed of nerd, having read the books before the TV show aired is like being into a band before they broke or screening a movie before it was picked up at Sundance.
And now, thirteen-years later for some of us, has come a very special moment – a mass initiation into our once exclusive club. On Sunday night, we all huddled in the corner, behind show producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, to watch the trap spring once more. Some of us laughed at your shock and pain. It wasn’t because we are cruel. It is because we still remember what that kick in the groin felt like. The pain, like all of our fleeting lives, is temporary. Membership in this jaded society of A Game of Thrones survivors? It is forever.
Welcome to the club. Now catch your breath and hide. Another group of chumps will be along any minute.