This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
One of the things that TV and film have on books is the way that they can drive home the shock of a particular emotion. For instance, when reading the Red Wedding sequence in A Storm Of Swords, it’s tempting to either slow down a bit or read even more quickly, both the better to minimize the impact of what’s happening (though, as you can probably imagine, the impact is hard to minimize). George R.R. Martin leaves room for whole conversations, for Catelyn to realize just what’s happening and have an inner monologue about it, for the other sequences to play out over paragraphs. This gives the reader the freedom of options. If he or she doesn’t terribly want to deal with the thought of the deaths of Catelyn and Robb, well, he or she can read that much more quickly. Or he or she can read that much more slowly if there’s a need to process the emotions more fully.
On TV, you can’t really do that. The Red Wedding is a bravura scene, but it goes so quickly. Catelyn realizes what’s up—hell, Roose’s contributions to the scene are mostly condensed into a smirk—and then all hell breaks loose. Talisa is getting stabbed over and over in the gut, Robb gets shot with dozens of arrows, and Cat herself takes an arrow to the back. (For a time, I thought the show might avoid the terrible end of this chapter—where she has her throat slit—by having her play dead and survive to fight another day, since Michelle Fairley’s been such a valuable part of this ensemble. But no!) It feels like it’s over within seconds, even though it takes a few minutes. It’s awful and horrible and everything the sequence needed to be, and it marks a new high watermark for the series as a whole.
It’s tempting to make this review all about the Red Wedding, but other stuff happened, too, so let’s loop back around to it and catch it again. Outside of a brief moment with Sam and Gilly and a sidebar Dany subplot, we’re spending all of our time with the Starks and Stark affiliates this week, and that makes the impact of the final sequence that much more horrific. If there’s one thing that’s marked the Starks since the beginning, it’s their belief that playing by the rules will save them. (And, actually, Robb gets a horrible reminder of that when those arrows plunge into his flesh. It’s like the “And that’s why you always leave a note!” lesson from Arrested Development times a million.) And while, yes, we still have four Stark kids and a Jon Snow from that little tribe, playing by the rules mostly just causes the Starks more trouble than it’s worth. Ned lost his head for it, and in this episode, we see several other Starks have to deal with the fact that the world isn’t always fair. In many ways, this is the most Stark-centric episode since season one, though we don’t get any time with Sansa, and it’s all the better for it.
For starters, Bran and company have a meeting—of sorts—with Jon and the wildling bunch. Bran’s still laboring with the whole “being a warg” thing, not really sure when and how he should be using it, but then he very quickly demonstrates that he can apparently use it at will if it’s going to calm down Hodor. From there, it just takes a tiny push from Jojen to send Bran off into the deep end, commanding Summer at will to attack the wildlings who are putting an old horse breeder to death (more about that in a moment). Starks tend to survive on this show based on how quickly they get with the program that their survival sometimes means not playing by the rules. This sequence is indicative of that: Probably using a direwolf to attack a bunch of wildlings isn’t a fair fight, but it’s the only way to get the drop on Orell and company. Hell, Orell doesn’t think twice about sending his soul soaring off into an eagle once Jon runs a sword through his belly, so maybe Bran should do the same. Warging, if you think about it, is kinda creepy, especially when practiced on another human being, but Jojen’s right: If Bran can do it, why not make use of it?
It’s Jon Snow’s sense of honor that fucks him over, as per usual. He’s doing his best at going undercover with the wildlings still, though Orell has yet to really buy it and Ygritte knows his secret, yet when it comes time to subject the horse breeder to the sword, Jon simply can’t do it. He’s got this compulsive, somewhat stupid sense of honor running through him, even in the face of all he’s had to do and see, and he’s not going to kill an innocent man. Don’t get me wrong: Jon’s stupid sense of honor is what makes him a character worth “rooting” for (if such things can exist in Game Of Thrones), but that also makes him a particularly poor choice to lead an undercover mission. Plus, his honor tends to be to higher causes and things that probably shouldn’t matter—the Night’s Watch, in other words—and when he simply leaves Ygritte behind at the little windmill (which seems like it’s the one they saw a few weeks ago), it’s surprisingly heartbreaking. I was never into Jon and Ygritte on the page, but the actors have made this a coupling I’d like to see work out, even as I knew this separation was coming. Go back, Jon! Don’t be an asshole!
We also spend fun times on the road to the wedding with Arya and the Hound, who’s trying to teach her that sometimes, you have to leave behind what you think you know to get ahead in this world. Arya, meanwhile, doesn’t want the Hound to kill an innocent old man. It’s Arya, I think, who holds the crux of the Stark legacy in her hands, if she hasn’t done so ever since her father died. She’s the one who still has the best shot at preserving the family’s rough code of honor, even as she’s someone who realizes that circumstances sometimes call for other solutions to problems than just doing the right thing. (It’s hard to imagine Arya bumbling her way into the Red Wedding, for instance, yet once she realizes what’s happening, it takes the Hound knocking her out and dragging her away to keep her from going in and similarly dying at the hands of the Freys and Boltons.) The scene at the farmer’s cart is like the story of the Starks in miniature: Someone’s life should be preserved, but killing said person would prevent any danger from finding its way back. The Starks almost always choose life. Sometimes—as with the farmer—it doesn’t add up to anything more. Yet other times—as with that wedding—it results in gruesome, awful death.
Fuck Sam and Dany. We’ll save them for the Strays. It’s Red Wedding time.
No sequence in the books—not even Ned’s death—holds as much sway over the imaginations of readers as the Red Wedding. It’s a massively important sequence in the story of the series—in that it dramatically underlines just how low the family that appeared to have been the series’ protagonists has been brought—but it’s also impressive because it arrives at a point that’s so off-kilter in the book overall, just past the halfway point of A Storm Of Swords. Big, climactic moments are supposed to arrive toward the end of a book. That’s what happened with Ned’s death, and it’s what happened with the Battle of Blackwater. Yet Martin uses this against readers, creating a dim sort of sense that nothing truly bad could happen because there’s so much book left. He also situates the events from the point-of-view of Catelyn (something the show returns to several times, by situating shots from just over her shoulder or roughly where she’s sitting), who’s by far one of the most important point-of-view characters in the books to that point. She’s the kind of character who doesn’t die in books like these, so that doubly underlines the safety readers are supposed to feel, which makes it all the more effective when things go to hell.
I’ll be honest: I sometimes think Martin’s dark plot twists can feel like they exist for the sake of having dark plot twists, as if he thought that killing Ned didn’t buy him enough “no one is safe!” currency and felt the need to keep spending it. But the Red Wedding might be the best thing he’s ever written, and it’s all the more effective for the way it creates a sense of normalcy at first that very slowly curdles into unease. Wait a second, you find yourself thinking. Not all of this is right. And then “The Rains Of Castamere” starts up, and Catelyn figures out about the chainmail, and we’re off to the races. (Also: Good on the show for so thoroughly establishing “The Rains Of Castamere” as a song in the series’ universe and even having Cersei explain what it was all about last week. It helped emphasize the gravity of the situation once the song started up, without having to call attention to itself or have Catelyn say something unnatural, like, “That’s ‘The Rains Of Castamere!’ Oh no!”) This is all to say that the TV show had a hell of a task to accomplish when it came time to figure out a way to present the Red Wedding onscreen.
As mentioned, I think it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and the way it succeeded was by taking much the opposite approach to Martin’s prose. The reason Martin’s depiction of the event initially feels safe—even though it shouldn’t, due to the characters involved—is because on some level, when we’re reading, we’re reading on a metatextual level, where we know how books work and at what point particular events are supposed to happen within a narrative. The TV show doesn’t have that particular benefit. Each season’s ninth episode has featured some huge event or another, and that means non-readers were likely already expecting something to happen here, moreso than if the wedding had somehow taken place in episode five (which would have been its placement if the entire book had been condensed into a season of TV, which would have been a terrible idea). So the episode steers into that skid. Every possible moment of ominous intrigue is highlighted, from Walder calling Talisa forward to tell her just how hot he thinks she is in lascivious terms to Grey Wind whining in his kennel as the wedding feast proceeds. Even otherwise normal moments—like the Blackfish heading out to take a piss or Edmure and Roslyn departing for their bedding ceremony (HBO: the most handsomely shot sexual assault ceremonies on television)—are given a weird sense of portent by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s script and David Nutter’s camera.
It’s entirely possible this is just me doing this. A cursory scan of reactions from non-readers on Twitter suggests that many of them were as thrown by this as I was the first time I read it. It’s possible that because I knew what was coming, I was looking for the ways that the creative team chose to highlight all of the dire foreshadowing that Robb missed, where those who had no idea of the freight train barreling down on them were hoping things might turn out okay (and, indeed, thought they very well might once Roslyn turned out to be so pretty). But at every turn, the episode is making things ominous where they needn’t necessarily be so. The lighting leaves room for shadow. The other Starks run into their own predicaments and blunder their way through them. The scenes at the Twins steadily ratchet up the tension, creating an escalating sense that things could go very wrong at any moment. At all turns, the characters walk deeper and deeper into that treachery, because they must. And then there’s Michelle Fairley’s face, the script leaving her silent so often, letting her drink in what’s happened and slowly realize her part in it. If she had never loosed Jaime Lannister, would this have happened? Almost certainly not. And now both she and her son are dead for it.
That, in the end, is what makes the Starks such good protagonists—even if they’re fairly shitty occupants of the universe Martin has turned them loose in. By constantly striving to do something approaching honorable and right, they earn our respect, even if we know it will cost them dearly. And by having such a strong connection running among all the family members, they put themselves into even greater danger to protect those they love. The only reason Catelyn ends up with a sword at her throat is because she couldn’t bear the thought of her daughters dying, and hoped against hope that returning Jaime would return them to her. Her problem is that she lives in a world where that will be visited back upon her tenfold, that her mother’s anguish will be felt, raw and real and aching, right up until the sword does its nasty business and she bleeds out.
- Yayyyyyyyyy! Red Wedding! I hope you all brought a party favor for a newbie. They’re going to need them. Also: Please mark your spoilers for now, while the newbies wait for David to finish his review. And give them hugs. Lots and lots of hugs.
- As you may have surmised, “The Rains Of Castamere” is the signal to begin the attack. Given that the musicians can be heard out where the Hound and Arya are, those must be some loud-ass musicians.
- Adaptation choice I liked: I realize that in the books, he’s not there, but having the Blackfish along made the whole thing that much more nauseating for me, because I knew what was coming, and I didn’t want to lose that character. (You could pretty easily cut him from the events of future books.) And, come to think of it, the scenes in the camp outside were rather dark on my TV, so maybe he did die. (Cue 500 comments of, “No, he’s safe!” or “No, he died!”)
- Adaptation choice I didn’t like: Roose says, “The Lannisters send their regards,” instead of “Jaime Lannister sends his regards,” which is a minor change, but I think that removes some of Jaime’s hand (har har) in the whole thing, which I don’t really like.
- It was a cool nod to book fans to show the "salt and bread" business, without really explaining it.
- The Dany storyline is pretty good as a B-story, and I was surprised to find how much time we spent there. Daario still feels like a character added by network note (even though I know that’s not the case), but I liked the way that Jorah’s falling face when Dany asks about him indicates less that he died and more that Jorah realizes Dany’s got a bit of a crush on our surfer dude warrior guy.
- Sam and Gilly mostly pop up to talk a bit about the Wall and for Sam to show off his ability to read books. It’s not a bad scene, but it’s hard for it to feel anything other than inconsequential.
- One thing made clear in the chaos that must have been hard to depict: This is a huge, huge rout for the Stark forces. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the North ever returning from this moment.
- So, now that Robb is dead, can I have his giant chess set thing?
- RIP, Talisa. I am sorry I called you Jeyne for most of season two.
Here be spoilers!:
- All right. I thought about commenting on this in the main review, but it seems spoilery enough to leave it down here. Talisa’s death seems to indicate that the whole thing about the Blackfish refusing to turn over Jeyne in the books won’t be paralleled here, and it also suggests that if Jeyne’s pregnant (which is only a wacky fan theory at this point), it’s not going to be all that important ultimately.
- I’ve been speculating that the show would find some other way to kill Catelyn, that her wounds wouldn’t lead to her speaking so little in seasons to come after her resurrection, but, nope. Throat slit. I’m going to miss Michelle Fairley monologues, but I’m glad she’s not off the show.
- A part of me wondered if the show wouldn’t shove Joffrey’s wedding into the season finale, since that would give fans of the series as sense that, yes, sometimes the loathsome pay the price on this series, too, but I saw nothing in the “next week on” to suggest that would be the case.