“Show them how it feels to lose what they love.”
Well, we were shown, but I’m not sure if anyone can accurately describe how it feels. The devestation. The horror. The treason. The downright unfairness. As a book reader, and indeed as a television viewer, this was without a doubt the most difficult episode to sit down and watch. Whether one knew it was coming or not, the horror, the hatred, the confusion is exactly the same. Similarly, this is definitely the most difficult episode review I have ever had to write, if only because I find it emotionally deteriorating to revisit the Red Wedding in all its visceral carnage. Nevertheless, a sword needs a sheath, a wedding needs a bedding, and HBOWatch needs a review.
Before getting down into the details, it is important to point out that this episode followed in a similar vein to the previous one, Second Sons, in that it narrowed its focus to a minimal number of plot points and characters. Just as the previous episode dealt solely with Tyrion and Sansa, the Dragonstone arc, Arya, Daenerys, and a Samwell epilogue, this episode focused on Jon, Bran, Sam, Daenerys, Arya…and Robb and Catelyn. However, discounting a short scene between Sam and Gilly, five separate storylines became three, as Jon and Bran, and Arya and Robb/Catelyn intersected. This narrow focus enables us to spend more time with each of the characters, in turn enabling the producers to show more meaty scenes. It is no coincidence that the episodes with the narrowest focus points generally turn out to be the best. This was, undoubtedly, the best episode this season, possibly the best in the entire series. I do have one minor gripe, but it is of no significant consequence. The episode, as a whole, was great.
Daenerys’ scenes have been some of the highlights of this season, and the trend continued in this episode (although it is safe to say that this whole episode was a highlight). I was quite skeptical about Ed Skrein in the role of Daario Naharis judging by Second Sons, but after seeing The Rains of Castamere, I think he suits the role quite well. The sacking of Yunkai by Jorah, Daario and Grey Worm was a succinct but impressively choreographed sequence, and it was a pleasure to behold the three very different fighting styles. Jorah impressively wields the longsword as befits the knight he is, Grey Worm flamboyantly twirls the spear and dispatches enemies with short thrusts, while Daario’s style is more brutal, as appropriate for a sellsword. Wielding both a Dothraki arakh and a stiletto, he is quite obviously a seasoned and very capable warrior. Was there anyone who didn’t feel pity for Jorah upon his heroic return, when Dany clearly expressed concern over Daario’s survival ahead of congratulations for the exiled knight? While I enjoyed these short Essos scenes, the manner in which the city of Yunkai was sacked is quite reminiscent of how Meereen was sacked later in A Storm of Swords. I wonder if this means that Meereen has been cut, and Yunkai will replace it? Only time will tell.
Beyond the Wall, we were offered a brief scene with Sam, Gilly, and the as yet unnamed baby boy. This scene, while pleasant (it is always a delight to watch John Bradley’s portrayal of Sam, he is a magnificent actor), served only to indicate where Sam’s current destination is, to avoid him having an excess amount of scenes in this season’s final episode, Mhysa. Sam and Gilly are currently travelling to the Nightfort, one of the abandoned castles along the Wall. The fact that Sam is aware of the secret passage from the Nightfort through the Wall seems to indicate that the character of Coldhands will not be appearing (yet). It is regrettable that Coldhands, the target of much fan speculation, has seemingly been cut from the show. In a nice callback to pre-White Walker slaying Sam, Gilly is in awe of his penchant for knowledge, going so far as to compliment him as a wizard. It is always pleasing to see these kinds of links between seasons, and it speaks to the attentiveness and loyalty of the Game of Thrones audience.
Moving swiftly on, we revisit Bran and co. as they continue to travel north. Bran’s arc has been severely lacking in terms of entertainment value throughout the entire season (although to be fair, Bran’s journey is one of the most difficult to adapt sufficiently), and it was nice to see some significant plot progression in this episode. Although slightly different from the Queenscrown event of the novel, the crossover between Bran and Jon plays out quite similarly in terms of the event and outcome.
Jon balks in the face of harming the innocent when faced with Tormund’s proposed plan of killing the old man and stealing his horses. However, Jon is forced to follow suit with the wildlings lest his true loyalty be discovered, but not before alerting the horses, and consequently the old man, of the oncoming assault. As the storm breaks, Tormund’s party manages to catch up with the old man outside an abandoned tower. The tension in the following scene is palpable, and mirrored later on in the episode.
The episode proceeds to intercut between Jon and Bran, and it must be said that the editing was first class during this entire sequence. As the group takes shelter in an abandoned tower from the oncoming storm, Hodor begins to panic and draw attention from Orell. Bran is then compelled into unintentionally warging into Hodor – a human being – previously an inconceivable innovation. I am not sure that the Tormund of the books would so easily let the possibility of a presence in the tower slide, given that he was so concerned about silencing the old man in case the Night’s Watch discovered their presence south of the Wall. However, Bran succeeds in silencing Hodor, to his companions’ horror, but ultimately to their safety. As Jon is once again forced to prove his loyalty to Mance Rayder’s cause, Jojen encourages Bran to use his sight to have Summer dispatch the wildlings. As Jon fails to execute the old man, Ygritte performs the deed, but is quickly shoved aside by Jon so she does not have to die for his sake. As battle ensues, Summer and Shaggydog intervene and rescue Jon from imminent death, providing a very brief reunion via direwolf for Jon and Bran. Jon is obviously very much aware of the direwolves’ identities, yet can do nothing as chaos prevails. He finally kills Orell, gracelessly informing him that he had never given up his loyalty to the Watch, before being maimed by Orell’s eagle, which has been warged by the dying Orell. Tormund succeeds in pacifying Ygritte, asking her if she really wants to die for one of “them”, and Jon narrowly escaped with his life.
As a whole, this sequence played out wonderfully, and as previously mentioned, the tension was quite prevalent. The intensity of Bran’s group hiding in the tower, the intensity of Jon facing a definitive choice, and the intensity of the lashing rain all combined in a wonderful coalescence. Not once were we taken out of the moment, as the perspective shifted seamlessly from Bran to Jon and vice-versa. I appreciated the use of the filter for Bran’s vision via Summer, an effect which we haven’t seen since the beginning of season 2. On the acting front, we bid farewell to Mackenzie Crook’s Orell. He played the character memorably, and was a fitting antagonist for Jon this season. Similarly to Noah Taylor’s Locke, he will be fondly remembered not as a character, but as a personification of the spite and vileness that exists and is very prominent in the world of Game of Thrones. During this episode we also saw the most of Art Parkinson that we have ever seen. The child actors in this show far surpass the same in any other show, and we have Nina Gold to thank for that. We have not seen much of Rickon at all over these three seasons, and it is quite possible that we may not see him again for some time due to his departure for Last Hearth with Osha. Nevertheless, Parkinson gave as good as he got from others, and was incredibly touching in his parting scene with Bran. The much speculated on “Heir to Winterfell” track from the soundtrack was used in perhaps the most unlikely of places, but was very fitting. Natalia Tena also continues to impress, and is constantly hailed by the Lord of Light himself, George R.R. Martin. Hopefully we can expect some future scenes between her and Parkinson.
I purposefully chose to leave the events surrounding the Red Wedding until the end, for obvious reasons. There were many moments during this episode that touched me personally, and the first was the triumphant yet tragic iteration of the “King of the North” (the official typo) theme as Robb’s host, led by Grey Wind, approached the Twins. I knew what was coming, and the fact that that particular theme played during that sequence, as Robb and Catelyn were riding to their doom, was hard to stomach. Ramin Djawadi has done, and continues to do, a marvelous job with the score. The producers chose to have Robb reconcile his past mistakes with his mother, and Michelle Fairley was finally given another chance to shine. The mood is optimistic; Robb intends to take Casterly Rock once he has regained the allegiance of House Frey. Arya and Sandor Clegane also approach the Twins, and Arya is forced to confront the Hound regarding the murder of innocents. While a touching moment, it also draws a welcome parallel to Jon’s scene, as Jon and Arya were very close as siblings. At this stage, I am happy that the producers have finally given Arya something violent to do, realized in her clubbing of the farmer. By this point in the novels, Arya’s kill count was significantly higher. Hopefully that will soon be resolved.
I had not expected the tradition of offering bread and salt to be included, and was delighted when it was. This is a sacred custom in Westeros, and is inspired by medieval history. Upon being offered bread and salt by the host, one is guaranteed safety under their roof. Fittingly, the Northern host is relieved by being offered such. Walder Frey is undoubtedly one of the most despicable characters in this tale, and shades of this were shown as he inappropriately assessed Talisa, noting her shapely figure and growing child. Robb took this affront with grace and dignity, albeit with assistance from Catelyn. If there was one line I wish could have been included, it would be Robb informing Catelyn that if it pleased Lord Walder to serve him stewed crow smothered in maggots, he would “eat it and ask for a second bowl.” The most significant departure from the source material during the whole Red Wedding sequence is that Robb’s wife is present; in the novel, Jeyne Westerling is left at Riverrun with the Blackfish, so as not to insult Lord Walder by her presence.
The wedding ceremony itself is an event which we did not in fact have the pleasure of experiencing in A Storm of Swords, and it was a fitting addition to the show. I must admit, knowing what was to come, I felt a chill down my spine upon seeing Roose Bolton standing directly behind Robb. Added to the fact that he gave a knowing look to Lord Walder as the latter escorted the bride up the aisle, it provided a veiled sense of dread in a moment of such happiness. The same theme is played during the ceremony as was played during Tyrion and Sansa’s wedding, a cathartic, almost heavenly theme. This mirrors both Roslin’s beauty, and Edmure’s delight, and the vows are a nice callback to Robb and Talisa’s wedding in season 2. It is also worth noting that the sense of dread as Edmure strains to see the visage of his wife, followed by his elation, provides an interesting counterpoint for the massacre later in the episode, as the wedding guests revel in their elation before a pervasive sense of dread dominates the atmosphere.
I had originally anticipated the Red Wedding to be gutted of much of its impact, given the lack of recognizable loyal Northern bannermen who would subsequently lose their lives, but my worry turned out to be unfounded. Nevertheless, we lament Clive Mantle’s Greatjon Umber, and can only imagine what he could have brought to the scene if he was still a part of the cast. The overall atmosphere of the feast is in stark contrast to its book counterpart, although this is thankfully in no way to its detriment. In A Storm of Swords, the musicians are terrible (as they are actually crossbowmen posing), the food is less than appetizing, the room is cramped and uncomfortable, and Catelyn’s head is pounding. The producers approached the scene quite differently, as everything seems completely normal and enjoyable as the Northerners enjoy a much needed respite from the war. I do question, however, the presence of Wendel Manderly, as he was given no significance whatsoever, and his inclusion indicates that a plot further down the line may well come to pass. I can only surmise that an introduction scene was filmed and later scrapped for one reason or another. Catelyn clearly has a sense of unease around Roose Bolton throughout the feast, echoing her thoughts in the book; “This is a cold man.” It is obvious there is something not quite right with Bolton, as he coolly boasts of the wealth gained as a result of his new wife. The Blackfish conveniently excuses himself from the table, indicating something to book readers which I shall not spoil here. I have criticized the Talisa plot from the beginning, but it really came full circle in this episode. It was an inspired touch to include the potential naming of the unborn child as Eddard. Unfortunately, naming a child after Sean Bean is not the best idea, given his habit of attracting death wherever he goes.
The announcement of the bedding ceremony signaled to me that there was not long to go until the slaughter began. The exchange between Catelyn and Roose as the bride and groom were hoisted off to the bedchamber was marvelous to behold, and a great piece of writing from Benioff and Weiss. Although a departure from the source material, Catelyn jokingly informs Lord Bolton that Ned forbade their own bedding ceremony, as it wouldn’t be right if he broke a man’s jaw on their wedding night. Bolton simply gives a grunt and a knowing leer before departing her side.
Soon after comes the focal point of the episode itself. While Catelyn looks lovingly at her son and his bride, finally accepting their happiness and believing that all the wrongs have been amended, she notices Black Walder Frey stalking the hall and shutting the doors. The musicians then proceed to play “The Rains of Castamere”, solely a Lannister number, and the titular song of the episode. The scene shifts to Arya and the Hound arriving at the Twins, only to be refused entry. Sandor fails to negotiate with the watchman, only to find that Arya has disappeared, with plans of her own. The rising tension inside the hall is terrifying, as Catelyn becomes increasingly worried and suspicious. Walder Frey’s veiled mocking of Robb is juxtaposed with the reveal of chainmail beneath Roose Bolton’s sleeve, and the betrayal finally comes to the fore. Catelyn strikes Roose – who hurries to the side of the hall to avoid the imminent crossbow shafts – and calls a warning to Robb. It is too late, and, in the most horrific image in the entirety of the series so far, Talisa is stabbed repeatedly in the stomach by Lame Lothar Frey. When visualizing the Red Wedding, I never successfully conceived an image as graphic and disturbing as this. Robb is then struck by a shaft, and chaos ensues. The Frey men-at-arms proceed to systematically massacre the lords and bannermen of the North, while Robb and Catelyn are peppered with crossbow bolts. It is here that my aforementioned gripe comes into play. It is a minor nitpick, but I wish the scene had not cut back to Arya. Ideally, it should have all flowed seamlessly, with no reprieve from the slaughter. However, Arya witnesses the horror firsthand, as Grey Wind is shot and breathes his last breath before her. I did appreciate, however, Sandor clearly knocking Arya out and removing her from the scene. If Arya’s “death” was presented as a cliffhanger moment as it was in the novel, it may have gutted some of the impact of the Red Wedding itself, as the audience wondered what Arya’s fate was rather than reflecting on the murderous treason of Frey and Bolton.
The final scene will haunt many viewers for a long, long time. In a final moment of futile desperation, Catelyn attempts to bargain with Lord Walder, to exchange his wife’s life for Robb’s. Robb is transfixed, pierced by bolts and frozen at the sight of his murdered wife and unborn child. He is completely unable to react, and this is a very welcome departure from the heroic and vengeful last stand most other shows would have resorted to. Lord Walder announces his little regard for his wife’s life, and all is lost. Robb gives Catelyn one last, pleading look. “He’s just a boy.” So spake Ned Stark in season 1, and Robb the boy makes a return as he shares a final look with his mother. “Mother…” In that look is contained a mixture of love, hopelessness, and farewell. “The Lannisters send their regards.” Bolton thrusts his sword into Robb’s heart and twists, ending both the life of his king, and the Northern rebellion. David Bradley and Michael McElhatton both gave truly excellent performances in their roles as Walder Frey and Roose Bolton; they clearly relish their parts. I look forward to seeing more of Roose as the series continues. However, the real acting accolades deserve to go to Michelle Fairley, who is without a shadow of a doubt, the best actress in the show. She was criminally underused this season, and her performance in this episode alone cements the reason why. Catelyn’s own life ends moments before the blade touches her neck, as she keeps her word and cuts the throat of Lord Walder’s young wife, before letting out a heartbreaking, horrific scream, and entering a state of sheer catatonia. “Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.”
Usually at the conclusion of my reviews I have a section on the highlights and low points of the episode. This time, however, is different. There were no low points (in terms of execution), and the episode surpassed my expectations in every regard. Everything was a highlight.
I will be the first to say that we current fans of the show, and especially those Unsullied viewers who have chosen not to read the books, should consider ourselves extremely lucky and privileged to have experienced the screen adaption of this event as it aired. It is very likely that to future generations, the Red Wedding will be used as a selling point for the show, and will therefore lack the punch with which it pummeled us. Indeed, it is the most remembered and lamented event for book readers, and we can finally exhale and release all those pent up spoilers we have been holding in for years. It happened. It’s over. Many are still trying to wrap their heads around that fact, and will continue to do so for some time to come. The fact that beloved characters can be so viciously and remorselessly ripped from life and have such an immense lasting impact is a testament to George R.R. Martin, and now to David Benioff and Dan Weiss. However, it is perhaps the fact that the central conflict around which the show seemed to be based – the Stark/Lannister conflict – is now over, that will shock most fans. Since Ned’s execution, we have been rooting for the Northern cause, for Robb to bring justice and vengeance upon the Lannisters. But now it’s over. The Lannisters have won, and the Northern rebellion has been extinguished. House Stark has been more or less demolished, both physically with the deaths of Robb and Catelyn, and symbolically with the burning of Winterfell. They are no longer a prominent Westerosi house. And that is it. Such is the tragic beauty and reality of Martin’s world, so eloquently portrayed in A Song of Ice and Fire, and now so wonderfully rendered in its screen portrayal. Hopefully next week will brighten people’s spirits somewhat. Until then, here’s a preview of the finale, Mhysa:
Cian is a student of Theology and History. He frequently confuses the real world with Westeros, and if he’s not talking about A Song of Ice and Fire…he’s talking about Game of Thrones. Mainly interested in old HBO classics such as Rome, Deadwood and The Wire, he currently maintains a vested interest in Boardwalk Empire, Treme and Game of Thrones.