Warning: this piece contains major, major Game of Thrones spoilers. Avoid it like the plague unless you’ve seen season three, episode nine or read the books.
One of the more brilliant decisions David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have made in the course of adapting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire for television is to put the most dramatic and/or shocking events of the season in the penultimate episode, episode nine of each season. In season one’s Baelor, the show’s apparent lead character was unceremoniously beheaded in front of his two teenaged daughters, and no matter how many jokes we’ve all made since then about how everyone should have seen it coming because he was played by Sean Bean, at the time that was a big rug-pull. Season two’s episode nine, Blackwater, was a huge battle that took over the entire episode, directed by a movie director known for violent and bloody films (Neil Marshall), and while only minor characters actually died, the effect of Baelor was such that genuine fear was felt for our heroes, especially Tyrion (by anyone who hadn’t read the books at least).
And now we come to season three.
There are basically two huge events in Game of Thrones so far that have separated book readers from TV-only fans, that change the way we view the series and ensure that nothing in the books’ world will ever be the same again. The first was Ned Stark getting his head chopped off, and the second is the event unanimously christened ‘the Red Wedding’ by fans for… obvious reasons. Poor long-dead Ned’s downfall pales in comparison to this bloodbath and book fans have been waiting eight long weeks to see it, itching to put poor, deluded TV fans out of their misery, but hopefully too kind to do so.
The structure of this episode was sublime. For the first time since season one, this is an episode all about the Starks (it’s also only the second episode in the series not to feature Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, following season one’s You Win Or You Die). The whole thing is built around doomed attempts to reunite members of the Stark family, who, as the dialogue points out, haven’t been so physically close to each other since season one. We get two reminders of poor Ned’s grisly death, as well as a more subtle reminder of their family values as both Jon and Arya fight against the rampant killing that comes with constant warfare. And of course, by the end, the only two pairs of Starks still together (not counting the wolves) have been separated, Bran and Rickon for Rickon’s safety, Catelyn and Robb by their vicious murders. It’s a wonderful counterpoint to season two’s Lannister/Baratheon-centric Blackwater, though it makes the few cuts to Daenerys’ story feel like an intrusion, no matter how much Ser Jorah emotes at the screen.
(We realise we just counted Sansa as a Lannister. To be fair, as of Second Sons, technically this is accurate).
It’s Catelyn and Robb’s story that drives this episode, opening it with tense strategy and closing it with gushing blood. Luckily there is some humour to lighten the mood towards the beginning and prevent the whole thing from becoming unwatchably awful. Edmure Tully’s expression as he examines Walder Frey’s girls, wondering which one he will end up with, is priceless. He really should have guessed something was up when he was given the beautiful one, but Walder Frey looks at Robb as if to imply that this is his petty revenge – showing Robb what he’s missing – so Edmure is forgiven for not smelling a rat, and so are viewers. Roose Bolton’s teetotal habit was also set up a few episodes earlier (when he has dinner with Jaime and Brienne in The Climb) so even his refusal of the wine doesn’t seem as suspicious as it did in the book, making the sudden turn of events following Edmure’s bedding that much more unexpected for anyone who doesn’t know what’s coming.
For those who do know what’s coming, of course, the entire episode is like watching that moment in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Cedric Diggory says goodbye to his father and walks into the maze. Except that this lasts nearly an hour. The emphasis on the oncoming storm in Bran’s storyline may be a little cheesy in context, but cheesy or not it works, and the entire hour has that sense of grim foreboding and claustrophobic tightness that comes before a real storm. Perhaps most effective is Arya, staring at her brother’s camp, too genre savvy to expect that everything will be okay now. We know she’s right.
The scene itself is a masterful combination of details from the books and new elements. Weiss and Benioff’s particular stroke of genius lay in creating the character of Talisa Maegyr to replace Jeyne Westerling as Robb’s wife. Because she’s a new character, even those of us who’ve read the books genuinely didn’t know whether she would be killed along with the rest, or whether she would turn out to have been a Lannister spy all along (as implied by the quick cut from Orell insisting to Jon that people only love each other when it suits them to Talisa writing a mysterious letter in the Martin-penned The Bear and the Maiden Fair). There was genuine tension surrounding what would happen to her for all viewers, book-readers and TV fans alike. And then, of course, she becomes the first casualty. She and Robb’s unborn child are killed together in the first, vicious attack and you can see the fight go out of Robb as he crawls over to her bleeding body. Catelyn still has something to fight for as long as Robb’s alive, but when he dies so does she – she already looks dead even before her throat is cut.
One element that is straight out of the books is the musicians switching from playing The Bear and the Maiden Fair to The Rains of Castamere, the Lannisters’ song about slaughtering their enemies. Benioff and Weiss mention in their DVD commentary on episode one of season two, when this tune is first introduced (Tyrion whistles it and it plays later in the background as Cersei confronts Littlefinger) that they needed to include the song as much as possible so that the audience would recognise it when the moment came. They did their best, having Bronn sing it and draw attention to it in Blackwater and having Cersei explain the lyrics to Margaery in the previous episode, Second Sons, but there will still be viewers without a good memory for tunes who won’t recognise it. That doesn’t really matter though. The look on Catelyn’s face when she hears it is enough to tell us that something is wrong, and the tune itself is brooding enough that it sounds threatening even if you don’t know what it is.
Other than Talisa’s presence, events play out more or less as in the book, albeit with a slightly reduced role for Grey Wind (though we do see him die) and a slightly different take on Arya’s story (implying that anything too terrible had happened to her too would be a bit much all at once). It’s a shame to lose Catelyn’s pathetic final plea (‘not my hair, Ned loves my hair’) but worth it for that utterly blank petrification that takes over Michelle Fairley’s whole body just before her character is killed. There is one notable line change, the significance of which we won’t speculate on too much in order to avoid spoilers; we will just say that the reason ‘Jaime Lannister’ was changed to ‘the Lannisters’ (in the line “the Lannisters send their regards”) is probably to keep the focus of the episode firmly on the Starks. None of the Lannisters were mentioned by name in this episode, and certainly not likeable characters like Tyrion and (as of season three) Jaime. Although it’s clear from the use of ‘The Rains of Castamere’ that the Lannisters are ultimately behind this, and the focus on Casterly Rock on the map at the beginning reinforced that, reminding viewers of Lannisters they like would detract from the horror of the scene – better to focus on the Starks’ tragedy.
This was the scene that book readers have been looking forward to (in a wanting-to-rip-off-the-band-aid sort of way) and that needed to shock and stun TV fans. If it had gone wrong, and been done badly, that could have really hurt the show. Luckily, Benioff and Weiss have produced a masterpiece. Game of Thrones was always, on some level, about the Starks, or so we all thought. With Robb gone, who do we root for? Stannis, the dullest man alive? Balon Greyjoy, who thinks his son is a wimp because he hasn’t murdered enough people? Joffrey?! The creators (who wrote this episode) knew how important this scene was and they’ve given it their all, culminating in a devastating performance from Michelle Fairley as Catelyn, so traumatising that even the credit sequence is in shock (who knew that silent credits could be so creepy?). As Walder Frey said, “the wine will flow red and the music will play loud” indeed…
Read our episode review of The Rains of Castamere, here.
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