Stannis Baratheon is in many ways a traditional fantasy hero. He is the rightful heir to the kingdom, forced into flight by the usurpation of the throne by an evil, incestuous family. He has a stalwart and loyal adviser from a lowborn family, and wields a magic sword that he pulled from a burning fire.
But then his entire army is burnt alive at sea. Just like that, the HBO show Game of Thrones reveals the deft, and yet, incredibly obvious way it plays with both perception and our ingrained sense of the ideas and patterns that make up traditional fantasy— and then brutally subverts and deconstructs them.
The fact that Robb Stark had such a brutal end at the Red Wedding, slaughtered by a petty man he had grievously insulted, should not be surprising in isolation. He was barely out of his teens, leading an entire country and military coalition.
That the chickens came home to roost for this young warrior king shocked us to our very core. We ignored the lessons of history that tell us that young, absolute rulers rarely perform well. We did this because we saw Robb as a HeroTM , who was on the Path of Righteous RevengeTM, who would bring justice to the evil Lannisters and kill that little shit Joffrey. He couldn’t fail in our minds because our rudimentary knowledge of how fantasy works tells us he can’t.
The assumption of Robb’s inevitable triumph in the face of rapidly worsening odds reveals the way that narrative focus can assign roles to. Daenerys Targaryen is another “hero” because we follow her as well, and she is the rightful heir to the throne. Jaime Lannister is the “bad guy” because he chucked a kid out a window. But the brilliance of Game of Thrones is how it takes our expectations and turns them on our heads, all the while showing how our initial assumptions were so wrong. Yes, Daenerys is on a path to reclaim the throne of her father, but that path leads her to consort with barbarian raiders, traitors and slavers, and leaves war and burning cities in her wake.
Game of Thrones isn’t just a good show because it has a large budget, solid acting, great pacing and an excellent screenplay. Its value comes from the way it challenges what we expect from fantasy, and instead comments on the ideological premises that we take for granted. As the show returns this year to its fourth season, we eagerly await to see what other basic tropes of fiction Game of Thrones indulges in, explores and ultimately throws in our face. And even if they kill off all my favourite characters, I wouldn’t have it any other way.