HBO’s Game of Thrones returns Sunday, April 12, and it runs a significant risk at, rumors and book knowledge aside, disappointing the masses whose expectations have been molded by the previous seasons. Viewers trained on the series’ penchant for dramatic, bold strokes of shocking plot twists will undoubtedly be on the lookout for that next big shock (and, if we’re being honest, that next big death). Still, I have confidence that the creative team of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will find ways to balance the politics and palace intrigue with dramatic, violent outbursts.
But it is largely the unexpected surprises that incur my obsession, partially because I endure the sometimes (here come the tomatoes) tediously dense passages of dialogue for the great violent outbursts. Hey, it’s not just me – I have a friend who watched all of Season One and still had no idea what Winterfell was. I’m not quite that bad, but I am known to use a Wikipedia page or two for a quick primer.
Full disclosure, I have never read the A Song of Ice and Fire books. I tried, believe me, I did. There’s something about Martin’s prose (and Tolkien’s before him) that becomes akin to Wile E. Coyote holding up his stop sign. Nope, this is not for you, Clarence Moye. And it never will be.
Given that, many of the novels’ most famous moments were completely new to me. So now that Season Five is upon us, I thought we’d take a look at the major surprises the series has pulled off to those previously uninitiated in the world of Westeros. And before we proceed, just so you know, over its four seasons I have grown to obsess over all aspects of the series – not just the gory deaths.
Naturally, spoilers abound for anyone who hasn’t seen the show.
6. Wait… Hold up… Aren’t They Brother and Sister?
Giving credence to the time-honored phrase “incest is best,” the pilot episode introduces us to Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime. Their introduction as I remember it was innocuous enough – the Lannisters visit the Starks at Winterfell in a meeting that sets so many events into motion that its frankly dizzying to consider. And the episode closes with young Bran Stark nimbly scrambling up a crumbling tower. He’d been told not to, but he did it anyway. It’s the kind of thing young kids do, for those of you who have none.
But what he encounters in that tower has been largely burned in my brain ever since. Jaime. Taking Cersei. From behind. Perhaps the moment may not have shocked you as much as it did me, but it established Cersei as unapologetically “keepin’ it real,” bloodline style. When Jaime deals with Bran by pushing him out of the window, you’re completely aware that we are not in Hobbit territory here. This is dark. This is dirty. And it only built from there.
5. Melisandre Pops Out a Shadow Assassin.
Season Two brings us Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light and a character that, initially, I thought would turn out to be something of a tease. She stands behind Stannis Baratheon in his quest to win the Iron Throne, but yet her allegiance always, at least to me, had the weight of a snake oil saleswoman. She claimed to have magical powers and the power of prophecy, but that always felt rather shady to me. Particularly when she begs Stannis to have sex with her to celebrate the Lord of Light or something like that.
But when she revealed a nearly overnight pregnant belly to Stannis’s right-hand man Davos, we all knew something shifty was about to go down. Later, in a dark cave with Davos looking on, she writhes and contorts from the pain of childbirth. When two shadowy black hands appear from between her legs and pull a shadow figure from her womb… well… Shit got real.
4. The Eye-poppingly Graphic Death of Oberyn Martell.
Oberyn Martell was an interesting character that featured prominently in Season Four. Appearing in Westeros in time for Joffrey’s wedding, he had a few things going on. First, he was unabashedly bi-sexual, so when he paid a visit to the local brothel, he was given to sample from a wide banquet of treats of the flesh. Second, he had a not-so-hidden agenda regarding seeking revenge for the rape and murder of his sister at the hands of a Lannister bannerman. Honestly, he kind of had a Princess Bride “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” vibe about him.
Toward the end of the season, he volunteers to fight in support of Tyrion Lannister’s trial by combat effort, a battle he decidedly does not win. In fact, not only does he not win, but he’s done in by his own arrogance, thinking he’d felled the Red Viper. His death is spectacular, though, in that he’s punched in the face, his eyes are gouged out, and his skull is crushed by the man-mountain. If you gotta go… Don’t go like that.
3. Just About Everything That Happens at The Eyrie.
Sitting on the sit of a massive mountain chain, the Eyrie is the domain of House Arryn, primarily occupied by Jon Arryn’s widow Lysa and her son Robin. When we first meet Lysa, she’s breastfeeding her son. He’s somewhere around 10. To paraphrase an old adage, if you’re old enough to reach up and pull it out, then you’re too old for it in the first place. Anyway, the breastfeeding is an appropriate event because it betrays Lysa’s mental state and Robin’s physical dependency on his mother.
That’s a minor moment in what’s to come. Once Petyr Baelish rescues Sansa Stark from the Joffrey’s wedding fallout, he brings her to the Eyrie as Petyr is now married to Lysa. Sansa’s presence at the Eyrie stirs a jealous rage within Lysa that makes her unbearable as a character. There are a handful of scenes where Lysa berates Sansa for minor offenses, and those are especially hard to take given the significant obstacles already put in Sansa’s path during the run of the series. So, perhaps it’s not as “shocking” as it is completely gratifying when Petyr, after rescuing Sansa from “flying through the moon door” (ie – being pushed out of a giant hole in the floor into the vast below), puts an end to Lysa’s insanity by sending her sailing through the moon door. Aside from the fate of Joffrey, there has never been so much pleasure from so much death.
On a side note, another surprising turn at the Eyrie is Sansa’s evolution following Lysa’s death. She apparently learns how to play the game and finally seems to be becoming a woman. It is her trajectory in Season Five that excites me the most.
2. The Death of Ned Stark
Aside from my most shocking moment of Game of Thrones, the death of Ned Stark is perhaps the most widely discussed moment of the series. Actor Sean Bean was the biggest name in Season One, and no one (again, outside of those who read the books) expected his demise at the hands of the newly crowned King Joffrey. When Ned is led to the public execution, you regard the scene with the traditional sense of “Something will happen. This cannot take place.” Yet, it does. The blade comes down as his two daughters look on in horror. Later, his head is placed on a spike around the castle walls, partially for the benefit of Joffrey’s painful torture of Sansa Stark. Killing off the main character isn’t a new conceit by any measure, but it does give you the sense that the series isn’t playing around. Anyone is fair game for the blade. Or knife. Or burning. Or arrows. Or head crushing. Or poison. Take your pick.
1. The Red Wedding.
Sure it’s a cliche. The world screamed out in unison at the massive body count immediately following the wedding of Edmure Tully to a daughter of Walder Frey. Perhaps even those who knew the progression of the novels were surprised at the brutality of the scene as “The Rains of Castamere” began to play. Suddenly, Robb Stark’s pregnant wife, Talisa, was stabbed repeatedly in the stomach. Then, a rain of arrows pierced many a body cavity as Robb Stark himself was stabbed in the heart. Finally, his mother, Catelyn – a fan favorite since day 1, had her throat sliced from ear to ear, leaving her to bleed out all over the floor. And, most heartbreaking, Robb Stark’s direwolf, Grey Wind, is struck down just as you think Arya Stark, in hiding to avoid the calamity, will free it.
The bloody wedding is a conceit that runs through all entertainment – Dynasty‘s Moldavian Massacre springs to mind. But here is another instance where Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin show you that they’re not playing around. This is an epic series that plays it very real. Few characters escape unscathed, physically or emotionally, and that’s one of the primary reasons the series is so profoundly great.