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Game of Thrones – Review: My Big Fat Red Wedding

Review of Game of Thrones – Season 3 Episode 9 – The Rains of Castamere:

One of the biggest strengths of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is that there is often no clear-cut hero or villain — not in the objective sense, anyway. Sure, we know that Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is, for all intents and purposes, a decent man. We also know that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is a good guy himself. But there remains ambiguity in each portrayal. The characters make mistakes, act impulsively, or indulge their baser natures. This doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it makes for a more nuanced characterization, as the characters become deeper as a result of their choices and experiences. This, in turn, colors how readers react to them, as a darker character could become more relatable, while what once had been a likable character becomes a little less trustworthy. Of course, since TV is a different medium, Game of Thrones is at a disadvantage when it comes to portraying that duality, since we can’t get directly inside each character’s head here as we can in the books (though the show has still done a remarkable job over these three seasons). So we’re left, simply, with a character’s actions, and I don’t think you needed to be a book reader to understand that Robb Stark (Richard Madden) was making a massive error in following his heart (or his “southron” organ) instead of following through on the letter of his agreement with Lord Walder Frey. While he had acquired passage through the Twins (way back in season one) along with a valuable host of footmen for the inevitable war with King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), he sacrificed his own freedom to choose his bride. As king, Robb should have understood the necessity of this sacrifice, that the realm comes before one’s own honor, one’s own passions or vanity. In many ways, the slaughter at the Twins (an event referred to in the books as “The Red Wedding”) was an unfortunate inevitability, from the moment he broke his marriage pact with the Freys. But the real tragedy is that, despite being raised for rule by Ned Stark, Robb fundamentally failed to grasp the necessity of a ruler’s willingness to sacrifice.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

Yunkai

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) mounts a stealth invasion of Yunkai, in order to liberate the slaves and take the city. To this end, she sends in a three-man infiltration team of Jorah (Iain Glen), Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein), whom Jorah doesn’t trust one bit, mostly because this entire invasion plan is the new guy’s idea. Yet Dany is obviously taken with the man, and when Grey Worm adds in his vote of confidence for Naharis, the matter is settled. Jorah, Grey Worm and Daario invade the city and meet resistance, leading to one of the better action setpieces this season. Seriously, it’s exhilarating stuff to see Grey Worm in action. There’s a certain fluid efficiency in his movements that fits the character perfectly. And Ed Skrein also acquits himself well in the brief moments we see of Daario in action, while Iain Glen remains a solid, capable hand. Jorah returns with Grey Worm and announces that the slavers have surrendered. However, Dany worries when she doesn’t see Daario among the survivors. But Daario is quickly proving himself to be a real showman, making a dramatic entrance and taking a knee to declare that Yunkai is hers. It’s hard to tell whether Dany’s glowing smile is more the result of liking what she hears, or liking what she sees, but there’s obvious chemistry there, slight though it may be at the moment. If nothing else, this further advances the storyline of Dany as a ruler, as she essentially prepares for what she perceives to be her destiny as the rightful ruler of Westeros. So this storyline is aces, by me.

Beyond the Wall

We briefly check in with Sam (John Bradley), who finally reaches The Wall with Gilly (Hannah Murray). The pairing continues to be a delight, as Gilly marvels at the depth of Sam’s knowledge simply from reading (because reading is fundamental everywhere, even in Westeros). She also marvels at the sight of The Wall, recalling how Craster claimed that no wildling had looked upon The Wall and lived. Yet here she is, alive. Adorable.

The North

Jon and the wildlings are getting deeper into the Northern lands, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to keep his cover. Between arguing to spare the life of an old horse breeder for the Night’s Watch, and his subsequent refusal to go through with an execution, Jon can’t keep up the charade any longer. Having been outed, Orell (Mackenzie Crook), Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and the other wildlings draw their swords against Jon and Ygritte (Rose Leslie), having had their suspicions confirmed that Jon has remained a “crow” and Ygritte has become his “crow wife.” As the fight breaks out, Jon elbows Ygritte to the ground to keep her out of harm’s way by putting all the heat on himself. Meanwhile, in a tower overlooking this scene, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and the others have taken shelter from the rain. Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Meera (Ellie Kendrick) and Osha (Natalia Tena) notice the presence of wildlings. Unfortunately, the thunder sends Hodor (Kristian Nairn) into a terrified fit, and his noisy shouts signal Orell to their presence. And so Bran “wargs” into Hodor to calm him down, essentially using his special abilities to take over the giant’s body. However, Bran doesn’t exactly know how he does this, which makes it hard for him to warg into his direwolf, Summer, in order to participate in the battle below. Bran’s storyline has been building to this moment, as he comes to embrace his fundamental nature.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

The battle continues and Jon slays Orell, telling the wildling that he was right about him the entire time. However, Orell wargs into the body of his eagle at the time of death, leaving Jon with another wild creature to contend with. While all of this is happening, Tormund is holding Ygritte at bay, forcing her to realize Jon’s true nature. Ygritte looks equal parts furious and heartbroken to see Jon riding off without her, as though some essentially terribly part of his personality has been confirmed to her. While Jon likely would have preferred to take her with, his vows come first. Bran follows a similar example, putting the safety of Rickon before anything else, ordering Osha to take Rickon away to safety while he and the Reeds continue onward. It’s the most talking Rickon has ever done in a single episode, but I like the brotherly bond between he and Bran, as well as Osha affirming that Bran means the world to her. It’s a heartening example of Stark men putting duty and family first. Robb could have stood to learn from his brothers’ example.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

The Twins

One of the more heartbreaking aspects of all this is that Robb understands the mistakes he’s made and sets about trying to make amends for them. He ignored his mother when she warned against sending Theon (Alfie Allen) to Winterfell, and now their home has been destroyed along with Bran and Rickon. And so Robb asks Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) her counsel, and she advises her son to make the Lannisters truly understand what it means to lose something they love. Robb and his company, including Catelyn, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), Edmure (Tobias Menzies), and countless others, arrive at the Twins to meet with Lord Walder (David Bradley), who’s as much an insufferable codger now as he was in season one. Walder Frey is among the few characters in the series without so much as a single redeeming characteristic. He’s simply a terrible person who’s outlived more honorable, useful men. Here, he offers Robb and his company his bread and salt, which affords them protection under guest right, before forcing Robb to endure a barrage of innuendo against Talisa. It’s a sequence that really brings home Walder Frey’s slimy personality.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

However, the wedding itself is actually a quite beautiful affair. Edmure is pleasantly surprised to find that his bride somehow missed out on inheriting the Frey’s famously ugly genetics, and what follows is a heartening marriage ceremony and an even more festive reception. Edmure and his wife are taken to their bed chambers for the bedding ceremony while Catelyn chats with Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) about the lack of a bedding ceremony at her own nuptials (Ned didn’t want to have to break another man’s jaw on their wedding night, apparently). Robb and Talisa talk about naming their child after Ned, and Robb looks forward to teaching “little Ned Stark” to ride horses. These are all beautiful little moments that are too idyllic to actually lead to anything else but the full-scale slaughter to come. After Edmure and his wife are led away, one of the Frey guards seals the door to the hall while the wedding band plays “The Rains of Castamere,” the Lannisters’ anthem. Catelyn gradually realizes what is about to happen, and she has it confirmed by Lord Walder, who makes threatening overtures against Robb. Catelyn lifts Roose Bolton’s sleeve to reveal he’s wearing chain mail underneath, exposing his betrayal. She slaps him and lets out a cry for Robb to run. But it’s too late. Frey soldiers appear and launch quiver after quiver of arrows into the host of Northmen while soldiers on the ground slit the throats of the survivors.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

While this is happening, Arya (Maisie Williams) has finally made it to the Twins with The Hound (Rory McCann). Finding that they’re being barred entry, Arya sneaks in and witnesses Robb’s soldiers being slaughtered…and Grey Wind being butchered as well. Robb’s direwolf had been penned up in a stable. The animal’s fevered reactions display eerie prescience about what was to happen to his master. Unfortunately, Grey Wind is unable to do anything about it, as the Frey guards lower their crossbows through the bars of the pen and riddle the defenseless direwolf with arrows. Arya tries to rush into the Twins, but The Hound stops her. “It’s too late,” he tells Arya, before knocking her unconscious with the hilt of his axe. He carries her off as the carnage continues unabated.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

Robb crawls on his knees toward Talisa, who dies on the floor of the hall in a puddle of her own blood, having been stabbed in the womb repeatedly. Robb is utterly prostrate with grief. Catelyn, hiding under the table, spies Walder’s young wife hiding under the opposite table and takes her chance at a trade. She takes the Frey girl hostage, holding a knife to her neck and threatening to kill the girl if Lord Walder doesn’t allow Robb to leave. Catelyn swears by the Old Gods and the New that she’ll forget this bloodshed if Walder will simply allow her eldest son to live. It’s Michelle Fairley’s best work of the entire series, as she isn’t just selling terror. She’s portraying a mother’s desperation. Even knowing what was going to happen, I struggle to keep back the tears as she let out an anguished scream upon watching Roose Bolton impale her eldest son with a sword. “The Lannisters send their regards,” says Bolton, before letting the King in the North sink to the ground, dead, his last words having been a weak utterance: “Mother.”

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

Catelyn slits the Frey girl’s throat, before becoming catatonic in her grief and shock. And then, as perfunctorily as one might toss an empty candy wrapper in the trash, a Frey soldier waltzes up to Catelyn and slits her throat. Catelyn sinks to the ground, and we fade to the silent end credits.

“The Rains of Castamere” will probably go down as the turning point in the series. The Red Wedding is certainly the darkest event in the series thus far, yet I worry if this isn’t possibly the place where some fans decide to call it a day. I suppose you can only see the proverbial dog get kicked so many times before you just don’t want to see it anymore. But then I think, “Well, the viewership only increased in the aftermath of the similarly tragic death of Ned Stark, so why should I expect anyone would quit after this? There’s still Dany and Jon and Tyrion and plenty others to keep viewers engaged.” Whether you’re the kind of viewer who decides this might have been a bridge too far (no pun intended), or whether you’re now more riveted by the show than ever, I suspect this will be an episode that sticks with you for a long time. Not many shows do something as bold as killing off this many principal characters in one fell swoop. Yet here we are.

Credit: HBO

Credit: HBO

Ultimately, while Robb should have known better than to violate his pact in the first place, the Red Wedding is still heartbreaking because, even in a series with as strong a dichotomy of character as this one, the Starks are ostensibly the characters with whom general audiences most identify. Yes, they can be impulsive, and they certainly are prone to the occasional error in judgment. Should Ned have gone to Cersei with news that he was going to out her affair with Jaime back in season one? No. But when Ned Stark lost his head at King’s Landing, message boards lit up with fans who were equal parts heartbroken and bloodthirsty, demanding King Joffrey’s head on the nearest pike. The Starks had been wronged, and some viewers pegged the series, from that point on, as a revenge tale: the story of how the Starks get their win back. Because, flawed though they might be, the Starks are pretty the only purely good family in the entire series, from noble Ned to fierce Arya. So viewers are naturally loathe to see this sort of thing happen. And yet, it was kind of inevitable, wasn’t it? There’s a certain naivete that attends people who live by a code of honor: they naturally assume that others are held to that same code, when that isn’t the case at all. Ned died by it, and now Robb and pretty much his entire company have as well. It’s the tragic flaw of the Stark men, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less sad when no profit is found in honor, nor is quarter given when it is broken by otherwise honorable men.

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