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It finally happened. The episode I’ve been dreading ever since I read that chapter of George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords two years ago, and then threw the book across the room out of rage and confusion. This week, the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones reached its penultimate episode, which every fan of the show knows is always the dramatic zenith. In Season One, we lost Ned Stark, and in Season Two we saw the epic Battle of the Blackwater, so we all knew something big was coming in The Rains of Castamere. Contains spoilers, obviously.
The show masterfully misdirected fans with no knowledge of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series by beginning the episode with a scene showing King in the North Robb Stark planning an attack on the Lannister’s stronghold of Casterley Rock. His mother Catelyn approves wholeheartedly – “Show them how it feels to lose what they love”, she snarls. There’s also a wedding on the cards, a wedding to forge a political alliance between the Northmen and the Freys of the Crossing. With their forces joined, Casterley Rock is almost certainly doomed. Millions of Robb Stark fangirls and fanboys rejoiced, baying for Lannister blood to avenge dear old Ned’s head. The Rains of Castamere toys with you.
But those people had clearly not been paying attention. Remember Queen Cersei in Season One – “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” We all know this series is about the play for power and the violence that always accompanies it, and it’s not afraid to kill off major characters to make that point. Robb Stark was losing the war, and losing his power. He made foolish decisions –breaking his oath to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters, beheading Rickard Karstark – and he was going to have to pay for them sooner or later. So we come to the wedding – or as it’s known in the fandom, the Red Wedding.
It was masterfully handled, but remains the most harrowing, traumatic and upsetting sequence I’ve ever seen in a television show. I may have known what was coming, but that didn’t rob it of its impact one bit. The Starks are betrayed by the Freys and their bannermen the Boltons, and are brutally murdered at the end of the wedding feast. The show’s writers managed to add a few extra parts to shock even the book readers – Robb’s pregnant wife Talisa being stabbed repeatedly in the stomach still makes me feel a bit teary even as I write about it several days after first watching the episode. Michelle Fairley, who plays Catelyn Stark, deserves so many awards for her emotionally charged performance – from the confusion and anger at the start of the massacre, to her pleading and bargaining for her eldest child’s life, and finally her blank, wordless sorrowful rage as she sees Robb murdered in front of her, shortly before having her own throat slit. The silent end credits which follow leave you to sit and digest the horror you’ve just watched unfolding – although I’d have settled for another showcase of The National’s version of ‘The Rains of Castamere’ from last season.
It wasn’t perfect – one thing the show could have handled better was a clearer exposition of the tradition of “guest rights”. Any guest who drinks and eats under a host’s roof comes under his protection and will not be harmed – hence the massive plate of salt and bread offered to the Starks when they arrive at the Frey’s castle. As far as everyone was concerned, the Starks were absolutely safe under Walder Frey’s roof. Not making that explicit enough both robbed the betrayal of some of its impact (although it still had plenty of that, I grant you) and downplayed the extent of the Frey’s dastardly doings.
Next week brings the finale of the third season – and there’s a lot still to come, show watchers. I know you’re hurting, I really do. The Red Wedding is distressing and traumatic, and horrible things happen to characters who didn’t deserve it, but the story hasn’t ended. Joffrey still sits the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons are still growing across the Narrow Sea, and the White Walkers are still rampaging in the North. I know you feel betrayed and you feel hurt – but stick with it. The story goes on – and winter is coming…