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17 Jun 2013

On the Dangers of Metareading

WARNING: Contains spoilers for season three of Game of Thrones. As well as Buffy, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and the Avengers.

Forget Joffrey. He's just a spoiled little brat. And even then, Tyrion, Tywin and Cersei have a modicum of control over him. It's Walder Frey who's the most evil man in Westeros. For those who have watched it, you know what I'm talking about.

I've loved reading since I was a child. I've loved television and film for much longer. And in all these years I have never been so shocked so much by a sudden and unexpected plot development. So it got me thinking about why. And I've decided it violates the agreement between the writer and reader/viewer.

If anyone is familiar with the game Dungeons and Dragons, or any other role playing game, and sometimes in video games in general, you may also be familiar with the concept of metagaming. The idea behind this is you think of the game as a game. When you think this way, you start to question why a Dungeon Master did this or that, what the point is in a certain event, or, more dangerously, not thinking a DM would do such a thing.

Readers and viewers all do a similar thing, if only subconsciously. There are certain things we expect in a story. Some of these are:

  • The protagonists always win (even if they lose things or people along the way, they still come out on top)
  • The guy always gets the girl
  • The protagonists have at least enough virtues to make you root for them
and most pertinently for this post:
  • Main characters always live to see the finale (if not always the end of the finale)
For my analysis, I will need to define protagonist, antagonist, main characters (MC), secondary characters (SC), and supporting characters or extras. MCs are those with whose eyes the story is viewed, and whose story we follow. SCs are those who support the MCs or antagonists through the plot, but whose own story is smaller than the MCs. Protagonists are the primary characters in the story; those people without whom there can be no significant plot. Antagonists are those who force the protagonist to move the plot along. For example, in Harry Potter, Harry is the protagonist; Hermione and Ron are MCs; Dumbledore, Mrs. Weasley, Fred, Ginny, Malfoy, etc. are all SCs; Voldemort is the antagonist; Grawp, Fleur, Lavender, Professor Binns, are all supporting characters.

To kill off supporting characters is easy. Heck it's expected. I mean there's a reason for the term Redshirt. It's used as a device to show the reader/viewer that the situation is dangerous. To kill off a SC is also expected, but only to up the ante, or to force the protagonist to follow a different path, or to further them along their current one, especially if they were beginning to doubt it. MCs are only ever killed at or near the end of the story, and even then, it's rare. Even Joss Whedon, known for his gleeful murder of SCs, never killed MCs (without bringing them back in some way), Buffy, Angel, Giles, Willow, Xander, Mal, Thor, Iron Man, all survived to the end, while many SCs like Anya, Book, Wash, Fred, Joyce, Tara didn't. These rules are the reason I didn't believe the two burnt bodies Theon displayed were Bran and Rikkon. It just doesn't happen.

Another thing, if a SC does die, they usually get a big send off whereby they do something heroic. Or they're just in the series finale when the writer is fully entitled to slaughter half the cast, simply because no one will be needed again anyway.

So. Why was the wedding scene in Game of Thrones so danged shocking that I STILL haven't gotten over it? Because Robb was a MC and he was killed in cold blood. When I first began watching the series, I was sure Eddard was the MC, but when he died, I realised I was wrong. The main characters are his children. With the exception of Denaerys and Stannis, pretty much the entire story is witnessed through the eyes of these people. Sansa in the south, Robb in Riverrun, Jon to the north, Bran and Rickon in Winterfell, and Arya on the road. As MCs, they are essentially immortal. Thinking of the book/series as a story i.e. metareading/metaviewing, you know they cannot die based on these rules. When a writer breaks these rules you get shocked. Tara's murder in Buffy was something I was in denial about for ages afterwards because it broke the rules of the heroic death. The wedding scene in GOT was shocking because they violated more rules. No one had a heroic death, they killed a MC, and to top it all, they built the entire episode up to be almost the exact opposite. The massacre came out of nowhere because the viewer was given conflicting information. In contrast, Tara's death was merely a consequence of another evil act. Not only all this, but Robb's wife was killed by repeatedly stabbing her unborn child, rather than killing the woman outright as if they wanted the baby dead more than the woman (which they probably did to deprive Robb of an heir).

To conclude, the wedding scene broke as many rules as could be broken and was preceded by completely misleading events, making it the most shocking scene I have ever witnessed on television. Also, you can see there is no right mind set to have, to make this scene any less shocking. If you didn't metaview, you'd be invested in the story and the characters, and still be as upset. 

Game of Thrones has achieved a new level of brilliance. True unpredictability.

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