[SPOILERS] Game of Thrones’ Love Interest Problem: Robb and Talisa, Tyrion and Shae

SPOILER WARNING: Before continuing in the article, it seems polite to note that I am going to be making reference to events up through the end of A Storm of Swords, including material that has, as of the writing of this article, not yet been adapted in the HBO series. If you only read the parts of the article regarding Robb Stark and Talisa Maegyr/Jeyne Westerling, and not the part regarding Tyrion Lannister and Shae, the only spoilers are for events up through the end of season 3 in the show. It might not be that good of an article that way, though.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire novels are marked by both few unambiguous heroes and a robust ensemble cast with secondary characters that cannot rightly be called minor.  The HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones, [1] for the most part succeeds in this respect.  However, its elevating of Robb Stark to unambiguous hero is one that comes at the expense of one such fleshed-out secondary character.  His wife, Talisa Maegyr, is, when all is said and done,a prop, rather than a character in her own right, in spite of the effort made to characterize her.[2]  Her characterization reflects her goodness onto him, thus making his death at the end of season three more shocking.  And when he dies, she dies, because she was never written as anything but a foil to him.  It’s a lazy bit of writing that plays into some problematic narratives about women, and it makes me concerned about the similar elevation of Tyrion’s interactions with the prostitute Shae into a proper romance.  Shae is another fleshed-out character expanded from a minor role in the books, and it would be a shame if the showrunners saw fit solely to use that fleshing-out to give her no more narrative role than love interest to one of the big heroes before killing her off in order to match her death in the novels.

But let’s begin with what has already happened so far in the show.  In the books, Robb’s marriage is to Jeyne Westerling, a largely uncharacterized daughter of a minor family sworn to the Lannisters. She has few lines, and is seen entirely through Catelyn’s eyes, as no chapters are written from Robb’s point of view. We really don’t have insight into what Robb sees in her, aside from wide hips (this isn’t journalistic snark; Catelyn remarks that at least she will have easy childbirths). As such, readers’ attention is largely drawn to the sheer tactical mistake of betraying a bitter grudge-holder like Walder Frey (who demanded Robb marry into his family for him to permit a bridge-crossing without which Robb would have lost the civil war between kings).

Not so in the TV show. His bride here is Talisa Maegyr, a Volantene nurse tending to his army.

Talisa's introduction on the show, amputating a soldier's gangrenous foot.

Talisa’s introduction on the show, amputating a soldier’s gangrenous foot.

On first glance, she’s a much more fleshed out character, insofar as that she has characterization. She is cast in the role of a sort of saintly outsider, as a lowborn idealist who is overtly critical of the way in which the wars of nobles cause the common people to suffer. She is something of a shoulder-angel to Robb, encouraging his more merciful and principled instincts as a king. She falls in love, provides moral insight, gets pregnant, and dies. What she does not do, however, is have a character arc. She is static; always too-good-to-be-true up till her death kicking off the slaughter at the Red Wedding. As such, her goodness is mainly reflected on Robb; she is a sign of what could have been, the perfect lover and simultaneous tipping point into doom. She is there, in short, to make Robb more of a tragic hero, and to deflect audience skepticism about his biggest mistake — marrying against his oath to Walder Frey — by changing the woman he marries from a nonentity into someone it would be a mistake to not marry.  Because of this, though, his arc is arguably less compelling onscreen. Their love is so unmarred by internal conflict, and she so unchanging, that scenes of them together have little dramatic weight beyond the — again, largely unchanging — sense of doom overhanging them as Robb’s kingship slowly declines. Perhaps what was most frustrating as a viewer was that, initially, she was a genuinely unknown quantity. The work put into characterizing her seemed to be going somewhere, and by the end of things, I found her fairly likeable. This new character was an opportunity to catch those of us who’d read the books truly off-guard, and the showrunners instead used her simply to add redundant pathos to something we already knew was lurking ahead.

What concerns me about Shae, then, is that she, too, in the chronology of the books, is fated to die. As with Talisa/Jeyne, her role in the books has been greatly expanded for the show. She spends most of the scenes in which she appears doing one or both of two things: telling Tyrion exactly what he wants to hear, and reveling in the material wealth granted from her proximity to the hoi polloi of King’s Landing. While her internal world is entirely hidden from the reader, from the calculation necessary in being so insipid toward Tyrion, and her later testimony against him when he is being accused of treason in the latter half of A Storm of Swords, it is fairly easy to figure out what she probably sees in Tyrion. It is that he’s a reliable customer who spends a lot of money on her. When he becomes someone with whom it is dangerous to be connected, she makes the sensible decision to preserve her own safety by throwing him under the bus (or, to avoid anachronism, under the royal procession).

While she is a flat character, Shae’s real role in the books is to shine light on some major psychological issues of Tyrion’s. In both the show and books, we learn the story of Tysha, the crofter’s daughter he briefly marries in his adolescence. In a scene clearly too good to be true, he rescues her from brigands, she falls in love, and he bribes a drunken septon[3] to marry them. After the wedding, he finds out Tysha was just a prostitute hired by his brother Jaime — the whole thing was staged because Tyrion’s brother figured it was time he lose his virginity. In the light of this formative experience, Tyrion’s habit of patronizing prostitutes is more than just a bit of colorful hedonism. In his mind, he, a dwarf, must settle for paying for sex from women who find him repulsive[4] instead ofseeking the love he thought he had from Tysha. With Shae, he knows he’s kidding himself; he knows she doesn’t love him, he knows no one could, but still he expects her to be loyal, to put herself in danger for him.

That this damage of Tyrion’s is so important is because, after she testifies against him, as he’s escaping prison in the end of A Storm of Swords, he kills her. In what would otherwise be a triumphant scene, before finally killing his father and escaping King’s Landing, here is the sign that he has nothing left to lose. Tyrion isn’t triumphant at the end of Storm, he’s snapped. Years of alienation and mistreatment have boiled over and he is going to burn all his bridges. When we next pick up his story in A Dance with Dragons, he’s in a deep depression.

But neither the Shae nor Tyrion of the show are the same people they are in the novels. Tyrion is far closer to the lovable rogue that exists on the surface, and his self-destructive streak does not tend to drag other people in its wake the way it does in the books. Shae, meanwhile, has genuine affection for Tyrion, and furthermore, outwardly presents strength.

As the above clip demonstrates, she is unapologetic about doing what she must to survive, protective of her dignity and her secrets, and able to see right through Tyrion. Furthermore, as her interactions with Sansa show, she can be outright heroic when it comes to protecting someone with whom she feels a kinship. So, to have this Tyrion murder this Shae would not only damn him utterly in the audience’s eyes, it would also be bizarre. Indeed, with her arc where it stands now, her main motivation is to find a place for her and Tyrion to be free of the titular game between nobles. As a fiercely independent person, she seems unwilling to accept Tyrion’s having it both ways, trying to come out ahead in a world that has no use for him (which, as it so happens, is roughly the bitter decision he makes when, at the end of Storm, it seems he has lost). For either her betrayal of him or his murder of her to happen as it did in the books would be strange and dissonant with the characters thus far.

But based on the show so far, the writers seem only willing to experiment up to a point. When it comes time to move pieces where they go in the events of the books, they will scrap what was previously set in place. Talisa was a character that was too ill-sketched yet too prominent to not receive follow-through, yet they settled for anticlimax in order to bring Robb’s arc where it needed to go. Similarly, the buildup of Ros (a character wholly invented for the show)  from simple exposition-and-titillation mechanism to a purveyor of information, and thus power, with as much wildcard potential as Varys or Littlefinger, was squandered with her offscreen murder. This killing of a potentially interesting character served no other narrative purpose than to establish what we already knew: that Joffrey and Littlefinger are very bad people. That she was not in the books may have made the writers find her more expendable, but she had been showing potential and growth as a character since season two, and I would argue that that alone made her not expendable if it meant her arc be cut short. My concern, then, is that Shae will be similarly thrown under the bus of loyalty to the books.

Furthermore, the fact that all these characters are women raises an additional issue besides just unsatisfying storytelling[5]. The notion that female characters are expendable foils to the male characters (who, of course, are the ‘real’ main characters) is one that has rightly had a lot of criticism leveled at it.  And Ros and Talisa were, I think, clearly used in such a capacity. The former was used to make two male antagonists reassert their villainy, while the latter was used to make a male protagonist’s downfall hurt more. Given that Shae is the most compelling of these three characters, clearly elevated from her status as an expendable foil in the books, falling back into that old sexist chestnut would be particularly disappointing from either a storytelling or a feminist perspective.

The books are still unfinished, and the screenwriters are running out of already-written plot. I would encourage them to not squander the fact that adaptations are allowed artistic license. In this article so far, I’ve made the case that when they try only to tell George R.R. Martin’s story, the other stories they end up telling get told poorly. Shae’s is one of these other stories, and a particularly interesting one, and it would be a shame if it were to be brought to an unsatisfying end solely to try and tell the story George R.R. Martin has already told. They’re excellent books, but they exist independently from the show. What matters most is making an excellent show. The richness of character, not slavish devotion to the source material, is what makes the show a worthy adaptation (just look at, for example, the interactions between Arya and Tywin in season two, or Lena Headey’s sympathetic and layered performance as Cersei in contrast to the character’s more straightforward villainy in the novels). If any character is impoverished for the sake of congruence of plot, the adaptation is failing. Don’t screw it up, screenwriters.


[1] For what it’s worth, Game of Thrones is a title that cuts far more to the thematic core of the series.
[2] This whole article would never have been written without the insights of Erin Quinlan, with whom I had a long talk about Talisa and the Red Wedding at Connecticon. Thanks, Erin.
[3] In the event that those of you who’ve not read the books or seen the show have been spoiling yourself thus far, that’s the term for a priest of the seven gods of Westeros.
[4] In the books, there are repeated references to his being ugly, which are wisely excised from the show in light of their being implausible when said of a character played by Peter Dinklage.
[5] I have not yet mentioned Gendry, a similarly expanded character. While the criticism thus far would apply if they discarded him like Ros or Talisa, obviously the gender angle would not. That said, I don’t want to see his arc wasted either.

About The Author

Alex Ehrhardt has a B.A. in Philosophy from the college of Wooster, which he graduated in 2012. He currently lives in Boston, where he is an aspiring poet. He is probably listening to Nick Cave and reading either comic books or dry ethical texts at this very moment.
  • enjoymoreradio

    I think I agree with you abou how the showrunners have dealt with adaptation. Their attempts to strike a middle ground between slavish rendering of GRRM’s books and their desire to blaze their own trail run headlong against each other, and it’s only going to get worse.

    Stannis, of course, is a victim of this. The showrunners obviously realize the show needs a prominent villain to replace the Lannister triumvirate of Joffrey/Tywin/Cersei after they are killed/imprisoned. So they’ve latched on to Melisandre (who is admittedly a pretty unsettling character throughout the first four books). Unfortunately, since Melisandre is the most compelling and understandable threat, Stannis takes a back seat to her machinations. Instead of the stern but just king-by-necessity, TV-Stannis is a puppet in Melisandre’s game, and Davos is reduced to a Jiminy-Cricket-esque role as conscience.

    At some point (in the near future most likely) D&D will have to decide whose story their telling (and if they decide to tell their own, I truly hope it’s good).

  • http://unitedfederationofcharles.blogspot.com/ C.T. Phipps

    Excellent essay, though I don’t see much of a problem with Tyrion OR Shae’s actions in the show. Shae long feared being treated as a harlot and a plaything by Tyrion when he defined their relationship as a serious one. Tyrion then tried to treat her as one to get her to leave. Sadly, he didn’t think how she’d react to it. Neither did she when she betrayed him. Of course they ended up killing each other (or trying).