WARNING: Have you been watching the episodes before reading our recaps? You should really do that this time.
Showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have gone on the record multiple times in the past saying that getting to the third season of Game of Thrones was their primary objective at the show’s outset. More specifically, they had set the singular objective of building towards a single scene in a single episode. That scene played itself out in shocking and gory fashion this week in episode nine, “The Rains of Castamere.”
Episode nine has traditionally been the stage for big events in the show already, so those not privy to spoilers probably had an idea that something important was on the way. But while Ned Stark’s death shocked and the Battle of Blackwater dazzled, the massacre at the Twins blows past the two in terms of violence and horror.
At the wedding reception for his uncle Edmure, Robb Stark, his mother Catelyn, and his pregnant wife Talisa are murdered alongside their entire army at the hands of Walder Frey, who by now has surely attained equal (if not greater) villain status with Joffrey.
In George R. R. Martin’s fiction, the event became known among Westerosi as the Red Wedding. It’s appropriate that even though that title has yet to be uttered on the show, “Red Wedding” found itself in countless reaction tweets and episode recaps and analysis pieces online. Thousands of book readers struggling to keep the imminent details under wraps exhaled in unison, while those coming into the HBO program with a clean bill of health cried out in horror.
Rather than spending 40 minutes leading to a single scene, ‘The Rains of Castamere’ included turns up the action quotient with several high-paced scenarios. Appropriately, much of it centres on the scattered Stark clan as Arya reluctantly travels with The Hound, Bran unlocks his magical potential, and Jon hits it and quits it with Ygritte.
Young Bran does a lot of growing up this episode, saving the day for both his small group of travellers and his bastard-brother Jon Snow mere metres away. After weeks of cryptic dreams and advice from Jojen Reed, Bran manages to unlock his Warg ability to control first a hysterical Hodor, sending him to sleep rather than causing enough of a ruckus to alert nearby Wildlings of their vulnerable location.
Jon’s short time with the Wildlings comes to an end with a moral situation we’ve seen in this show often: an execution. Snow chooses to play paragon and everything predictably goes to hell. In his time with the Wildlings he appears to have learned more about human intimacy with Ygritte than about being an infiltrator for the Night’s Watch. Jon hesitates to kill an elderly horse breeder, holding his sword up in a feigned motion as though goaded by a schoolyard bully. We’ll give Snow serious points for telling Orell “You were right about me all along,” as he runs him through with a sword, though.
We also get the most dialogue we’ve ever heard from young Rickon Stark as Bran sends him along with Osha to safety. We’ve spent a lot of time with Osha when compared to the rest of Bran’s crew whenever the show visits these travellers. Her verbal sparring with Meera Reed and over-protectiveness of the young Stark boys seems a world away from the captured savage we first saw in season one. We still don’t know exactly what lies in store for Bran, the Reeds, and Hodor though, as viewers are given precious little as to what his Spirit Quest for the three-eyed raven will mean for the wider storyline.
Dany’s conquest of Yunkai happens mostly off-screen, save for a rousing action scene where Jorah, Grey Worm, and Daario fend off a dozen guards. Their varied fighting styles shine through with the excellent choreography, but I felt like I was watching the Power Rangers fight off a horde of Putties. The swashbuckling, high-fantasy feel of the scenes from Yunkai are a world away to the brutal and ‘realistic’ goings-on on Westeros this week.
Arya and The Hound make for an entertaining travelling pair in lieu of Jaime and Brienne, but Arya’s does little more than experience a similar gut-wrenching horror to when she was present at her father’s execution.
The final scene, in its gut-wrenching (and spilling) terror, will undoubtedly be front and centre for book readers. Indeed, a handful of red herrings and wink-wink lines show up early on. When Robb and Catelyn discuss their strategy for moving on Casterly Rock after Edmure’s wedding, Robb muses, “We’ll lose the war and die the way father died. Or worse,” as a possible outcome.
The build-up deserves praise in and of itself. David “Argus Filch” Bradley quickly establishes himself as the embittered villain to hate even though he appeared only a single time in the show before now. He nods to apologies from Robb while making Talisa thoroughly uncomfortable at their arrival, hinting that he’ll be content to extract humiliation from the Starks while securing his family’s connection to the Tullys. His wink at Robb when revealing his one stunning daughter twists the metaphorical knife before unsheathing the real one.
Brief moments of joy and relief at the reception break down our guard for what comes next. Catelyn frowns at the bedding, but is generally supportive. Blackfish Tully shoves off to find a tree to relieve himself on. Talisa muses that if her unborn child is a son, she will name him Eddard, after Robb’s father whom she’s never met before.
The camera’s focus on Catelyn and her growing sense of dread mirror the events in the book, which were written from her point of view. An errant Frey walking by like a wayward extra gets her attention. The band begins to play “The Rains of Castamere,” which if you haven’t been paying attention is the Lannister theme song for “we murdered an entire family who stood against us,” and she knows something is wrong.
Even for long-time book readers, watching the Red Wedding play out on the screen managed to rattle hearts and minds. All viewers had reason for shock when Talisa, Robb’s wife and a show-only character, is viciously murdered by an unnamed Frey who stabs her repeatedly in the stomach. It’s genuinely uncomfortable to watch and some have made valid criticisms that it made an already graphic scene unnecessarily worse.
Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley give an unforgettable final performance for their characters. Robb gives her mother a look when it’s all said and done, that Madden puts into better words than I could:
“…there’s a moment in this scene where we look at each other – it’s Robb Stark essentially saying goodbye to his mother and giving up, and rather than it being something really bad, there’s a moment of tragedy and utter relief, actually, because these two characters have fought and fought and fought and fought, and it’s finally over.”
Fairley’s anguished scream at the end of the ordeal, slitting the throat of Walder’s young wife who he cares absolutely nothing for before she suffers the same fate, is absolutely gut-wrenching. For all her character’s flaws, which some fans have taken uneven joy to pick apart, Catelyn’s fate at seeing her son’s death might be the greatest injustice amid a sea of them.
And so, unnamed members of Walder Frey’s brood commit the most horrific acts of the series as Walder himself sits in the comfortable head chair just as he was at the beginning of the reception. Ned Stark’s seasons-old dictate of passing the sentence and swinging the sword has been broken and perverted far, far beyond even Ned’s death at Joffrey’s order.
Viewers are still left with murky details, though. We’re not sure how much of Walder’s plan the Lannisters were privy to – my guess is the details were fuzzy even to Tywin, although with no scenes in King’s Landing it’s hard to tell. Roose Bolton’s “The Lannisters send their regards” echoes Jaime’s send-off from a couple episodes ago, but from what we’ve seen on-screen it isn’t clear if he had a clue about what was going down. And what should happen to poor Arya now that The Hound doesn’t have anyone to sell her to?
Some have called ‘The Rains of Castamere’ the most ambitious hour of television ever. Coming from a regular watcher of WWE Raw and Super Sentai, I’m not one to judge. But it’s certainly a daring one that can evoke real despair in its viewers instead of the typical “wow did you see what happened?” reactions. Get ready for next week, because the Red Wedding will surely have massive repercussions throughout Westeros.
– Gilly calls Sam a wizard. Cute, but why on earth should we care this episode?
– Daario appears to be taking Daenerys’ favour as her newest champion. You could almost hear Jorah’s heart break when Daario presents her the banner of Yunkai.
– Michael McElhatton’s work as the calm yet clearly evil Roose Bolton grounds the Red Wedding with his wicked one-liners and subtle body language opposite Michelle Fairley.
– I’m honestly surprised that they kept the bit at the end where Catelyn slits an innocent person’s throat. In the book it was a mentally challenged grandson of Walder, but the change to his current wife is a sensible change. But it’s so grim I honestly thought the show would have skipped it.
– Speaking of Catelyn, whose idea was it to make her death the head press image for half a dozen articles online?