When I watched season 2 of Game of Thrones, I got the sense that the show creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, are rather fond of Robb Stark. I may have gotten this impression because Robb had more screen time and story than any other Stark character except for Arya.
The decision to move Robb to the forefront bothered me a little bit. I liked Robb in the books, but he wasn’t a POV character. Catelyn, Sansa, and Bran are all POV characters in the books. This season, I felt like I barely saw Catelyn or Bran, while Sansa had a strong showing in the “Blackwater” episode but was otherwise shoved into the background except when the writers needed to show Joffrey abusing her.
Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the decision to move Robb to the forefront and shove Catelyn, Sansa, and Bran to the back. In the book, I saw Robb through Catelyn’s eyes, and on the show, I have to see Catelyn as a supporting character in her son’s story. Catelyn’s motivations are less clear and less understandable on the show than they are in the books, and even though Michelle Fairley’s doing a great job with the material she’s given, I’m not pleased with her diminished presence on the show.
There’s also a part of me that thinks this creative decision is motivated by a fanboy man crush on Robb Stark, because Robb is the Young Wolf! He nobly wants to secede from the rest of Westeros to avenge his father’s death and to nobly begin a kingdom of his own! That’s so much more interesting than his boring mom who misses her children, or his lame little brother who can’t even fight anything.
(Heh, I just now realized that the war in Game of Thrones has the North seceding from the South. I is smart.)
At the same time, I’m not sure I can blame internalized misogyny for this creative decision, as these same showrunners have also made Cersei a more complex, sympathetic character than she was in the books while making Jaime less complex and more of a monster.
Anyway, whatever the creators’ reasons for putting Robb front and center, they’ve done it. He is a more important character than three of his family members. Now how does this decision affect the characterization of Robb himself?
Well, let’s look at the differences between Book Robb and Show Robb – specifically, at his decision to marry someone other than Walder Frey’s daughter. (In the next few paragraphs, I will be discussing spoilers for A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords.)
In the book, Robb doesn’t sleep with another woman until after he’s heard about the murders of Bran and Rickon. At the time, he is staying with the Westerlings, a noble yet small (i.e. “not rich”) house. In his grief, he sleeps with Jeyne, the virgin daughter of the Westerlings who was comforting him. To protect Jeyne’s honor, Robb marries her, and thus loses the alliance of the Freys. When he returns to camp, he learns that Catelyn freed Jaime Lannister (a decision she also made out of grief for Bran and Rickon, and fear for Sansa and Arya). Robb isn’t too happy that his mother went against his wishes, but he understands her reasons for doing it, so he pardons her. When Lord Karstark calls Catelyn a traitor, Robb essentially tells Karstark to get bent and stop insulting his mother.
On the show, Robb flirts with Talisa, a made-for-TV character. Talisa is from Volantis and doesn’t know how to keep her hair out of her face, even though she’s the Westerosi equivalent of a surgeon and might want to invest in a headband. Robb and Talisa flirt for several episodes. Meanwhile, Catelyn notices that her son’s soldiers are ready to murder the Kingslayer. Knowing that a dead Kingslayer will result in a dead Sansa and Arya, Catelyn releases Jaime and asks Brienne to deliver him back to King’s Landing. When Robb hears about this, he’s furious with his mother. He calls her a traitor and has his soldiers guard her. Then he talks to Talisa. They have a conversation where she exposits some backstory that I didn’t really pay attention to, and then they have sex. Two episodes later, Robb tells Catelyn that he’s in love with Talisa. She tries to tell him that marriage for love isn’t a luxury that a person in his position can afford, and he basically tells her to get bent, because she broke the rules when she released the Kingslayer, so now he gets to break the rules. Robb marries Talisa, still not knowing about the “deaths” of his little brothers.
Considering Robb’s strong, visible presence in the show, I can only conclude that Benioff & Weiss made these changes because they wanted to make him look good. They think they’re making Robb into an even better character by showing his romance and purity. Look, he doesn’t care about the rules! He wants to marry for love!
But instead of seeing a romantic hero, I see a whiny brat who has made a HUGE tactical error by throwing a metaphorical middle finger into the face of the Freys. And that would be fine if Robb was only putting his own life in danger, but he’s leading a rebellion that is affecting the lives of all of his people, and by sacrificing the extra help from Walder Frey’s huge army AND personally insulting the man, he’s putting them all at a much bigger risk.
But are we meant to see Robb as a foolish brat who puts his own desires above his people’s? No. I really think Benioff & Weiss want us to sympathize with his decision, and even think he was right to do it.
And I don’t understand this creative decision at all. Book Robb was sympathetic enough as written. If Benioff & Weiss wanted to throw a little romance into Game of Thrones, why not proceed with his story as it was in the books, but throw in a few scenes of Robb and Jeyne falling in love? Robb can tell her that he loves her but was promised to another, then sleep with her after Bran and Rickon “die,” and then marry her for love AND honor.
But no, now we have a character who’s meant to be “romantic” and “heroic,” yet comes off as more immature and bratty than his counterpart in the book, even though Book Robb is several years younger than Show Robb. I can’t see him as romantic or heroic because I’m too busy muttering, “You are stupid, stupid, STUPID, Robb Stark, possibly even stupider than Show Jon Snow, and you were lucky to get Walder Frey’s help anyway because you’re rebelling against the crown and Frey’s not even sworn to the Starks, he’s sworn to the Tullys, and why the hell do you need to have armored men guard your mother? She freed the Kingslayer out of love for your sisters, asshole, it’s not like she’s going to go around freeing every prisoner in camp because her ladybrainz are making her too impulsive!”
In short: Despite the creators’ intentions, and despite Richard Madden’s handsomeness and decent acting, Robb Stark on the show is a spoiled brat, not a romantic hero. In an attempt to highlight the character, they actually weakened his motivations and made him less complex and sympathetic.
And here’s the kicker: these are the same showrunners who are responsible for portraying Theon Greyjoy. I forgot to talk about Theon in my post on Monday, but his story was the highlight of the season for me. The writers and Alfie Allen did a marvelous job showing the complexities of his character and made him oddly sympathetic without whitewashing or excusing any of his terrible, terrible actions. How the writers can succeed with his character while failing with Robb, I don’t understand.