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(Spoilers for season three episode nine of Game of Thrones are below).
Where to begin?
Betrayal and treachery were the themes of the most recent Game of Thrones episode. Where previous episodes in the season subtly weave themes in, Game of Thrones uses the theme of treachery to stab its viewers through their hearts in this episode.
“If you think this has a happy ending, then you haven’t been paying attention.”
In fourteen agonizingly long minutes viewers are treated to watching the strongest and most powerful members of the show’s central protagonist family, the Starks, getting destroyed on television. With the deaths of Robb, Catelyn, Talisa, Grey Wind, Robb’s unborn child, and the entire Stark army, the most realistic power that had a chance of defeating Joffrey, was annihilated.
The Starks weren’t annihilated in a blaze of glory, they didn’t lose their power in a large battle like Stannis did. They lost the behind the scenes battle. They lost the game of thrones (again), the political battle for power. The Starks were betrayed by the Bolton’s and Freys to the Lannsiters, in a heinous act of violence. In a single political maneuver, the Lannisters have now become the greatest power in Westeros, and this is perhaps where the greatest betrayal takes place, the betrayal to viewers expectations (I mean betrayal in an aesthetically good way).
Treachery makes its way into nearly all of the story threads in this episode of Game of Thrones. No betrayal though has as a large of an impact as the betrayal of the Starks.
Despite the major act of treachery that concludes the episode, the betrayal theme works its way into the other plot threads. Whether it’s the threat of Daario betraying Daenerys, or the Hound reminding Arya about her father’s execution for being a traitor, or Jon betraying the Wildlings, Game of Thrones shows viewers the cost of breaking your vows and keeping your honor.
The Rewards of Treachery and The Cost of Honor
Isn’t it ironic? Jon Snow falls in love with Ygritte, betrays her for his Night’s Watch oaths, and lives. Robb falls in love with Talisa, remains loyal to her in spite of his treaty with Walder Frey, and dies.
Jon’s loyalty to the Night’s Watch is honorable, but the way he betrays Ygritte and leaves her standing in the rain is not. Robb’s marriage to Talisa is dishonorable, but the way he loves her is not. The inversion of Jon and Robb’s actions and results of those actions is one of the highlights of this episode.
The Rains of Castamere seems to fully support the idea that treachery is a rewarding idea, while honor is not. Will Jon be rewarded for being honorable to the Night’s Watch? Probably not. Was Robb rewarded for being honorable to Talisa? Definitely not. Was Jon rewarded for betraying Ygritte? He saved his life and her’s, compared to Robb that’s pretty good. Will the Frey’s and Bolton’s be rewarded for killing the Starks? Presumably, since the Lannisters were involved, they will be greatly rewarded.
Rewards for betrayal are even interspersed into this episode’s secondary plots. Barristan is reminded to be loyal to Daenerys by Jorah. This exchange, hypocritically, reminds viewers of Jorah’s own treachery where he sold information about Daenerys’ whereabouts for a pardon from the King. Jorah’s pardon is another great reward for treachery. Furthermore Daenerys sacks Yunkai with minimal casualties after convincing Daario and The Second Sons to betray the Yunkai slave masters and fight for her. Again treachery prevails.
The Betrayal of the Starks and Viewer Expectations
Perhaps the greatest form of betrayal occurred to the viewer once they knew there wasn’t going to be a happy Stark reunion. Ever since the first episode of the first season, which is the first and only time you see the entire Stark family together, viewers have been waiting for the family to reunite. This season has teased this idea, and had been building this episode up as a sort of mini-reunification for certain members of the Stark family.
For the first thirty minutes of this episode the show continues to forward the case for reunion. Bran is a stone’s throw away from Jon, and Arya is just outside the gates of the Twins where Robb and Catelyn are attending a wedding. Then it all goes to hell. The Starks who were so close to reuniting are now split further apart as Bran and Rickon parts ways, and Arya narrowly escapes being slaughtered like her brother and mother were.
99 percent of television shows would have done the exact opposite. Because of those other television shows that make up the 99 percent, and the average television viewer’s subconscious preconditioning to these television formats, viewers have expectations of a Stark reunification.
These viewers are thinking that there should have be a reunion of a family that had been split for as long as the Starks have, but instead viewers are treated to watching their dreams of a happy Stark ending getting destroyed. As the reunification dream is devastated, viewers are reminded that this is Game of Thrones… and again I’m going refer to the quote at the top of this article from Theon’s torturer.
Thinking of this sequence of events as a pun, this is a betrayal of viewer expectations. Even people who thought something was going to go wrong at the wedding, had no idea that it was going to as wrong as it did. It’s the betrayal of viewer expectations, coupled with the on screen betrayal of the Starks, that makes this episode so powerful emotionally and so well connected thematically.
The significance of this betrayal is momentous. It all but signifies that the Lannisters and Joffrey have won the ongoing war that has spanned across three seasons of the show, and like in the real world, it reminds the viewers that the good guys can’t always win.
The only hope for the Stark family now is in the four youngest Stark children, all of whom are in very dangerous situations. If any of them are going to persevere, it should be expected that they will have to endure a lot more suffering in their lives before they do.