For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. We’re unveiling those shows, one per publication day, culminating in our picks for the top three of the year.
Start with the worst moment—the darkest turn, the biggest shock, the most horrible surprise. The third season of Game Of Thrones certainly doesn’t lack terrible, terrible choices. War rages across Westeros. The wildlings approach from the North, along with a far greater and more terrible threat. Across the sea, a queen searches among the poor, the lost, and the enslaved for the tools to regain her kingdom. “Fantasy” label aside (yes, there are dragons, and yes, there is magic), this is not a happy place to be, and it gets worse. Over the course of 10 episodes, beloved figures are alienated and beaten. They lose limbs and have their throats cut. Their backs are stabbed, and their values mocked. Picking the “worst” out of this particular haystack of pain is no easy task.
Out of a year full of television horrors, the climax of “The Rains Of Castamere,” the season’s penultimate episode, is hard to top. Known to fans as the “Red Wedding,” the twisting plot saw the betrayal and death of three of the series’ most noble characters: Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), Robb Stark (Richard Madden), and his pregnant wife Talisa (Oona Chaplin). If you want to pinpoint the exact moment the bottom fell out from the world, it was when someone stabbed Talisa six or seven times in the stomach in rapid succession. The violence was brutal, and the apparent implication that all good had been wiped away with the thrust of a knife was even worse.
Game Of Thrones and its creator, George R.R. Martin, have a reputation for brutality. Earlier this year, some clever person went through and tagged each character death in A Song Of Ice And Fire with a sticky note. The result was five thick paperbacks littered with pastel reminders of mortality. But character killing is not a notable achievement, and even the grotesquely imaginative nature of so many deaths in the series isn’t, in and of itself, anything to write home about. Anyone can create a name, and any show can cast an actor to fill a part, just as any show can simulate a hanging, gutting, or massacre. If you’re looking for a fictional abattoir, you’ll be spoiled for choice: There’s The Walking Dead (which has its moments) or The Following (which doesn’t) or a dozen other shows. Violence in a vacuum is not impressive. What makes Game Of Thrones work so well isn’t the cruelty of its (mostly human) monsters, but the context that cruelty exists within. Without hope, the cruelty wouldn’t sting. Without empathy, the dying wouldn’t make us weep.
This sounds like a Pollyannaish argument to make about a show that seems to wallow in misery, but a closer look at season three reveals a deeper purpose. Step back from that worst moment (plus the bit when Catelyn cuts a terrified woman’s throat, because holy shit, right?), and a slightly more optimistic narrative emerges. The most triumphant scenes of the season revolve around characters making connections with each other and trying to protect the helpless. The slow-burn friendship of fallen knight Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the magnificent Brienne Of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) was one of the highlights of the year. By connecting with a woman who stands for the ideals he claims to despise, Jaime was able to rediscover his wounded humanity, ultimately coming to her rescue for no better reason than that it was the right thing to do. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), a self-described coward and inept fighter, struggles to defend a girl and her child and becomes the first person in the run of the series to successfully kill a White Walker. Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) stands by his principles, risks his life to save an innocent boy, and—because of his friendship with a lonely child—manages to find the truth he needs to save the kid. These characters live on a knife’s edge, and a mistake could send them to their doom. But the fact that they survive, and the way they survive, sends a message.
That message comes loudest from across the sea. Next to the Red Wedding, the most iconic scene of season three is from “And Now His Watch Has Ended,” when exiled queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) “buys” an army, and in the process, lays waste to a city of slavers and sets a people free. Daenerys’ ambitions may one day lay her low (and the season’s final scene, in which Daenerys crowd surfs over a swarm of former slaves, has some troubling racial politics), but the thrill comes from her willingness to question old values and protect those in need. Her desire for power is as much motivated by compassion as it is ambition, and while there’s something a trifle uneasy in her hubris, there’s no question that the show values the desire for justice that drives her. There are objectives worth more than simple greed, and might can also be used in the service of higher ends.
But what’s the alternative? Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) has risen far (Hand of the King, grandson on the throne, his most dangerous enemy dead, all of his plans coming to fruition), and none of his achievements were made with the betterment of humanity in mind. He tells his son Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) that he does everything in the name of “family,” but his plotting is cold, precise, and tyrannical. His children matter to him as little more than pieces on a board, and what has he gained for his efforts, really? His grandson the King, the result of an incestuous pairing between daughter and son—the most extreme demonstration of “family devotion” imaginable, a twisted reflection of Tywin’s own self-regard—is mad, petty, and foolish. Tywin’s arrogance and tyrannical domination of his children put him in a position of needing to control everything, and such a precarious balance makes him vulnerable. It was his hands that set the trap that laid the Starks low, but the victory is only a temporary one. Winter is coming.
This idea finds its apex (or perhaps its nadir) in the most controversial storyline of the season: the seemingly endless torture of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). After failing to please his father and prove himself a man, Theon ends up in the unkind hands of Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), the bastard son of Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) and all around psychopath. Theon’s “punishment” lasts longer than it needs to, and the scenes quickly descend into ugliness for its own sake. Buried under the suffering is the thought that Ramsay, for all his apparent alien nature, is the end result of the path that his father and Walder Frey (David Bradley) are on, just as Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) is the final destination of Tywin’s grand vision. Power for its own sake, even when cloaked in the guise of family, has a single destination: mindless, chaotic rage.
That isn’t the end though. There are those still fighting for something better, and some are succeeding, albeit not as quickly as anyone would like. Season three doesn’t suddenly turn soft on anyone: Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and her journey from bad to worse shows the toll Westeros takes on anyone with innocence left to burn. Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) seemingly doomed relationship with a Wildling reveals both the value of connection and the cost. And Tyrion’s forced marriage to the hapless Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is proof that basic decency isn’t enough to undo the damage wrought by the Tywins of the world.
But the intent is undeniable. Much like Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) death in season one (an event implicitly referenced twice in “The Rains Of Castamere,” moments before the carnage begins), the Red Wedding serves to bring all 10 episodes into focus. But where Ned’s death represented a shift toward a different kind of storytelling, the end of Robb, Catelyn, and Talisa underlines what was already slowly becoming clear: These people died not as punishment, but to prove the necessity of their cause. By demonstrating the value of empathy, compassion, and trust, Game Of Thrones found the light within its darkness, and gave viewers a reason to hope, even as their hearts were breaking.