“The Rains of Castamere”
June 2nd, 2013
“The closer you get, the worse the fear gets.”
Every season of Game of Thrones has built to a big event in the season’s ninth episode. As a result, the end of each season has continually created a conflict between those who have read the books and those who haven’t: the pattern means that both parties know the season is building to something major, but only those who have read the books know what that is. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if those people didn’t really, really want to talk about it.
In the first season, I would say fans mostly tried to keep quiet about Ned Stark’s death. The first season hinged on Ned’s story, and the initial shock of his beheading gave the show its big hook that could make casual viewers into fans and help sustain the show moving forward. In the second season, the Battle of Blackwater Bay was a fairly spoiler-free form of anticipation, as there’s nothing to really spoil: no one major dies, Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing is never kept a secret, and the episode was more about execution than surprise (and well-executed it was).
The third season was always going to be the problem. The “Red Wedding” has been on the tips of readers’ tongues since they read the books, considered by most to be the definitive moment in the series. It’s the moment that makes Ned’s death look like just a drop in the bucket, and the clearest evidence of George R.R. Martin’s wanton disregard for his own characters and their happiness. From the time the show first sprung into existence, this has been the moment that book readers were waiting for, and by the time it arrived in the third season there was no longer any concern about letting viewers engage with the series on their own terms out of fear for its future. This season has all been a buildup to this moment, to the point where the phrase “Red Wedding” was something that even those who tried to avoid spoilers were probably familiar with because readers could not contain themselves.
“The Rains of Castamere” arrives with intense expectation, and like many other book readers I sat through the episode with a slightly higher heart rate. As much as I think the fans went too far in proliferating the use of “Red Wedding” and hyping this particular episode as noteworthy, thus providing non-readers enough information to potentially spoil the episode’s conclusion, I can understand why they were excited, and felt that excitement in the moments leading up to the episode and throughout. This is as intense an hour of television that Game of Thrones will produce over the course of its run, and I’d argue it’s a particularly well-executed adaptation that makes some smart choices to salt the wounds left behind by this most storied of literary–and now televisual—weddings.
I’ll always remember the way the first season played up Catelyn and Ned’s last meeting. The show had to stretch itself to get Catelyn to King’s Landing with the knife, but it allowed for those beautiful moment where the two characters say goodbye for the last time without realizing it. It’s a tragic moment, but it’s also a moment that will play very differently for those who have read the books and those who haven’t. Nonetheless, though, I imagine on some level it could be read by those without knowledge as a sign that either Ned or Catelyn were doomed. It’s a romantic moment just before the romance is about to be drained from the story, as tragedy is about to befall the Stark family in more ways than they can imagine.
Since that point, the Starks have been scattered across Westeros, but “The Rains of Castamere” promises to bring them together. Arya looks at the Twins from close by, afraid to look away lest it suddenly disappear from her view. Bran and Rickon sit up in an old windmill hiding, unable to reveal themselves to Jon Snow who rides alongside the Wildlings below. In a happier story, Jon and Ygritte would have fought off all of the Wildlings, allowing for Bran and Rickon to emerge and reunite with their brother. In an even happier story, Arya would have arrived at the Twins and been reunited with her mother and her brother. Bran only gets to glimpse Jon briefly through the eyes of Summer as he evens the odds in the battle where Jon escapes; Arya, meanwhile, sees only a captive Grey Wind before the wolf is killed, symbolic of the slaughter ongoing inside. This is not a happy story.
Where “The Rains of Castamere” succeeds is in salting that wound without overdoing it. They bring Arya closer to the Red Wedding than they did in the books, even giving us a brief moment to imagine that she could get to the pen, release Grey Wind, and potentially save her family. And yet before that can be perceived as an actual possibility, more men arrive and murder the wolf in front of her. Arya perhaps doesn’t entirely understand the magnitude of what is happening inside; she knows something is wrong after watching the Stark men be killed, and she certainly feels the pain of Grey Wind’s death, but how can anyone—let alone someone of Arya’s age—process what’s happening in that moment? While I certainly lament the deaths of Robb and Catelyn, the weight of those deaths on Arya is the most powerful impact of the Red Wedding for me, and so I thought they designed a nice way for that to be highlighted while still having the Hound knock her out and escort her away without witnessing the main event of sorts.
As for the Red Wedding itself, I thought it was well handled. Interestingly, they didn’t shoot it as a continuous scene, which seemed to me a purposeful effort to build tension and suspense by pulling away as if something could change the next time we return. At a certain point, it becomes clear that something bad is going to happen, and so they drag it out a bit so those who don’t know how the story evolves can question how far it’s going to go. Maybe they want to keep Robb and Catelyn hostage? Maybe they intend to send them back to the Lannisters? The episode gives you moments to think through those questions, nicely building on the tension of Walder Frey’s first address to Robb and Talisa at the beginning of the episode. The show never lets us get comfortable in the Twins, and that tension is something I have to believe that readers and non-readers alike would feel.
Despite coming at this from different angles, there’s a moment in that final sequence where readers and non-readers might finally be on the same page, two ships crossing in opposite directions. As Catelyn watches her son bent over his wife’s dead body and has taken Walder’s own wife hostage, non-readers are probably thinking it’s unlikely that Catelyn would be able to survive this scenario. Readers, meanwhile, know that Catelyn doesn’t survive but there has to be at least part of us—provided we care about her character—who are sort of hoping she doesn’t, that somehow the show finds a way to undo the tragedy about to befall her. Michelle Fairley acts the hell out of that scene, and when she inevitably dies the show leaves us in the silence of our thoughts, a moment of contemplation that despite being distinct for readers and non-readers is nonetheless shared (at least with those in your respective time zone).
As for “The Rains of Castamere” as a larger episode, most of what we saw did a nice job of tying in other storylines to the goings-on at the Twins. I actually teared up more during Osha’s goodbye to Bran than I did during the Red Wedding, as I thought they did a nice job of building that relationship before Rickon needed to be split off from the group (which, for non-readers, happened earlier in the books). I think you could argue that Bran’s storyline has been overly sleepy this season, but they did enough work with it to make both the convergence with Jon’s story and the splitting of the party into meaningful moments for those characters involved. Some very nice work from Natalie Tena, who I’m hopeful the show finds a way to keep around in some capacity in the future.
As for Jon and Ygritte, and on some level Dany and Daario, there’s an investigation of that question of “love” that Robb and Walder Frey ruminate on in the early scenes of the episode. In writing about Catelyn and Ned’s final romantic moment in King’s Landing above, it reminded me of how Jon and Ygritte on the Wall is their equivalent; although Ygritte knew that Jon wasn’t really a Wildling, she at least imagined that he would take her with him should he want to leave, and that was certainly the moment that she would hold onto. And there she is putting her life on the line, fighting for him at his side, and yet he kills Orell and runs away without trying to rescue her from Tormund. While the books were always stuck in Jon Snow’s head during scenes like that one, we really see that sequence from the perspective of Ygritte, who is left behind in the rain a traitor to her own people and having been abandoned by the man she loved. Jon’s storyline had some issues with momentum this season, but the relationship between the two characters was built up well enough for that sequence to resonate, both within the themes of the episode as a whole and within Jon’s story arc in particular.
As for Dany’s siege of Yunkai, it was a nice way to inject a bit of action into the episode and a fairly weak way of building any kind of suspense. As much as I enjoyed the swordplay—which replaced a somewhat less dignified back entrance into Yunkai in the books—and particularly thought Grey Worm was badass to witness in battle, the beat where Dany isn’t sure if Daario is alive was a tad too choreographed. Obviously, the show is playing with her desire and her sense of love toward him, but it’s all been a bit too quickly developed, and I don’t know if they did enough to make the siege of Yunkai hold any weight when the actual sacking of the city took place entirely offscreen. I understand there are budget limitations, don’t get me wrong, and Dany already had her narrative climax earlier in the season. It just felt like the three scenes we got from Dany’s perspective were trying to be a bit too clean about building their relationship, to the point where the siege of Yunkai felt slight (perhaps inevitable alongside the Red Wedding, sure, but not necessarily to this degree).
“The Rains of Castamere” was always going to be about the Red Wedding, and what I realized watching it was that there really was no way to screw it up. They changed a few things (like not making a bigger deal about the guest rights which were supposed to keep them safe, although they left them in the episode as a nod to fans), and they used the distinct pacing of television to rely less on a single shocking moment and instead force us to wallow in the inevitability of something very terrible happening, but this was always going to be the episode where Robb and Catelyn are murdered at the wedding of Edmure Tully under the roof of Walder Frey. It is a rare moment in the series where the very fact of the matter holds the most meaning, a statement of the series’ willingness to end lives. Where “The Rains of Castamere” succeeds most for me is making it seem like more than a fact, building around that event a nice collection of reactions, impacts, and foreshadowing which increase the sense of tragedy for both readers and non-readers alike. There will never be a point where readers and non-readers are truly on the same page, not really, but I’d like to think Benioff and Weiss here delivered a moment where we can at least all relate to the same emotional weight of what was put on screen. While I may have had too much knowledge to feign true “disbelief” at what I was seeing, that I came even close to that feeling is a testament to the execution—pun unintended—involved.
- For book readers, I did a spoiler-filled podcast—covering all books—with Joanna Robinson as part of A Cast of Kings. We might record another one after next week’s finale, depending on scheduling, so there might be some more book spoilery thoughts on the Red Wedding execution then.
- I don’t remember if the “It’s treason to strike a King” line was in the books anywhere, but that little scene between Robb and Talisa did have my mind doing gymnastics after the theory that Talisa was in some way responsible for orchestrating the Red Wedding. For non-book readers, Talisa is a new character with an entirely different back story than the woman Robb marries in the books, and so theories were the character existed to add another piece to the puzzle. Talk of treason had my ears perked up, to the point where I wondered if it was a purposeful red herring designed to respond to the theory. I suppose it’s still possible we’ll learn she was part of the plan, but her swift death would imply that was misdirection.
- Interesting that the show isn’t choosing to visualize Bran’s warging when it isn’t in the dream state (as in we never see the battle from Summer’s perspective nor do we see out of Hodor’s eyes at any point when Bran takes over his brain). Curious to see how that could change in the future.
- We get only the one brief scene between Sam and Gilly, but the little wizard callback was a light touch in an episode that needed one.
- Although the episode didn’t entirely focus on a single set of characters like “Blackwater,” it did entirely leave out the setting that “Blackwater” focused on, making this one of the few episodes to not visit King’s Landing (and potentially the only one, although I’d have to check on that). It’s fitting, though, that the Lannisters don’t speak in an episode where Roose Bolton delivers a message on their behalf.
- My heart rate went up every time we were shown a bit of foreshadowing, which certainly kept the suspense from being sucked out of the episode by knowing how it ended. There was the way the Flayed Man map marker came into focus during the opening scene (suggesting Bolton’s involvement), and there was also the shots of the assassins at the feast (I had them pegged by the way the camera lingered on them or showed them conspiring in the background). Some nice stuff by David Nutter, there.
- Many parts of this show are truly stunning technical achievements. The bird attacking Jon Snow was not one such moment. I hope someone puts a laugh track over it.