The latest episode of Game of Thrones was pretty much business as usual. It turned out Walder Frey was ready to let bygones be bygones, and a lovely wedding feast was held for Edmure and Roslin. Wine flowed, and music played.
I mean, they played the Lannister family song at a Tully wedding, which I thought was pretty rude. It's like, why are they playing that song?
Why are they playing that -- oh.
You should definitely watch the episode before you read this recap. I really mean it this time. If you read recaps of things you haven't read or seen and then complain about spoilers, I hope you marry a Frey.
Book fans have been waiting for the Red Wedding since the series began, most of us quietly sitting on our hands and gnawing on our knuckles the closer we got to the mighty, shocking event. This is the sort of event that spoiler warnings were invented to conceal, as Gus Mastrapa points out in this lovely piece on the long wait for others to learn the secret so many were keeping.
I knew what was coming, and it was still incredibly gutting television. What I didn't expect was just how broadly the impact reverberated -- crying about fantasy character deaths was the kind of thing that would have gotten you punched in high school, and now we have @RedWeddingTears, a brilliant Twitter feed curating all the outrage across mainstream social media. It's funny, especially because so many people seem to blame HBO as an entity, alongside the show's writers, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. Maybe they don't know A Song of Ice and Fire was a series of books at all.
In this interview, George R.R. Martin talks about why he brutally killed off beloved characters in one fell swoop -- and arguably more importantly, effectively ended the war effort of the Starks, the story's favorite family. For the author it's about surprise, and ensuring readers never get the story arcs they expect.
It's an innovative choice for the fantasy genre, which has for years been led by predictable tropes. Set in quaint lands with old social orders and often including feuding races, fantasy books tend to be a way to process social anxiety and examine ideas of heroism. That can result in narrative arcs with predictable moral ends -- the heroes will be tested, but in the end they must win. It's brave, in a sense, of an author to take on this established expectation and challenge an audience eagerly anticipating gratification of a certain kind.
It's new for TV, too. I've heard a lot of buzz from viewers saying they've never experienced something quite so shocking and absolute on their evening program before. From the event itself to the anticipation, spoiler-guarding and aftermath, the Red Wedding feels culturally momentous, no doubt a unique feeling for the quiet sorts who first fell in love with Martin's less-known, sprawling tomes over a decade ago.
I can't imagine what it would have been like to watch the episode not knowing what was going to occur, but for those who knew, the show was strewn with so many delightful little tells -- the ominous music as Stark banners approached the Twins, the splash and spill of red wine at the tables during the festivities, a tight shot of the musicians who would later play The Rains of Castamere as a signal for the assault. Walder Frey's magnanimous statement to his throne room that "the wine will flow red, the music will play loud" could even be seen as some kind of coded signal to his men to go forward with the plan.
The book eventually makes it explicit that Roslin Frey, Edmure's bride, was aware of her family's plan and forced to participate, as she wept during her marriage and seemed unduly anxious. The show is much more subtle, her stricken look easily mistaken for an especially nervous young bride at her wedding to a stranger. But knowing what's to happen makes her dread little whisper -- "I hope I do not disappoint you" -- so delicately weighted.
The most grueling thing about the gory losses that close this episode is that fundamentally the rest of the episode is about the Stark family, estranged from one another by war but holding fast to their values while apart. It opens with something of a reconciliation between Robb and his mother, his acknowledgment that he ought to have followed her advice and trusted her judgment.
If he'd only listened to her about mistrusting Theon as an envoy, perhaps Winterfell would still be standing and the Stark sons wouldn't have been killed (few know that Bran and Rickon actually escaped, making Catelyn's worry for her last living son and her desperate ache to see her daughters again that much more touching). And while Catelyn's choice to set Jaime Lannister free was a selfish decision, the fact that Jaime was able to save Brienne and to take up her mission to retrieve the Stark daughters probably spells a higher chance of having them returned than trusting in Cersei, Joffrey and Tywin at King's Landing.
It's not just maternal instinct: Catelyn is wise. She has a spine of steel and a good military mind as well -- better, at least, than her brother Edmure Tully, whose Frey marriage is the best penance he can make to the Starks for his folly at war. Catelyn has, of course, had a bad feeling about Robb's marriage from the beginning, so his acknowledgement of his mother's wisdom in some things and not that crucial thing over the war table is bittersweet.
Even though a siege on Casterly Rock is a risky, desperate thing to do, even assuming the fickle Freys lend their strength, there are really no alternatives. As the family procession approaches the Twins, we believe somehow the Starks have to prevail, after having suffered so much. They just have to get through this wedding. Urgh.
The bread and salt served to everyone in the throne room is significant. Eating one's bread and salt ensures you have "guest right" in their home, and to harm someone to whom you've given guest right is almost a spiritual violation. Robb makes very elaborate and graceful apologies to the Frey family even as Walder pervs on his wife, and doofus Edmure just looks concerned that none of the Frey daughters are pretty, increasing his anxiety that he'll be disappointed with his bride.
Walder makes a great show of being offended, of implying that perhaps Robb Stark just felt he was too good for one of the Frey girls, but eventually appears to concede to the marriage. Oh, good, that solves that.
In Yunkai, Daario Naharis, who recently won over Daenerys Targaryen by killing his comrades in support of her beauty, hatches an incredibly risky plan to sack the city, one that puts her best men -- loyal Jorah Mormont and Grey Worm of the Unsullied at risk. I haven't heard from anyone who likes the portrayal of Daario, who in the books is a swashbuckling, lusty Tyroshi with a dyed, sculpted beard. Such a grand look might be distracting for the show, which seems to disdain unnecessary flashiness (According to the books Renly's bannermen were all meant to be wearing rainbow cloaks, which would probably have been both too garish and too literal for the program).
But I don't think one is meant to like sloe-eyed, grinning Daario, or to empathize with Dany's attraction to him and his corny pickup lines. Her attraction makes her more liable to like and trust the romantic mercenary, which suggests something of a flaw in her silver queen's armor. It must be hard for Mormont, too, who's been silently in love with her all this time. Daario's implication that Mormont's suspicion means he's probably a dishonest person is an interesting stab.
We've been able to admire Daenerys because she's moved through an inhospitable land refusing to allow herself to be underestimated or diminished by men. But one "I serve beauty" from a guy whose dagger hilts are shaped like nude women, and she's willing to put her loyal old Mormont in harm's way? No, we aren't meant to like Daario, even when he proves dependable and orchestrates the sack of Yunkai on her behalf, ultimately prevailing: he's a device to remind us Dany is still quite a young girl, barely able to hide her desire to see him unharmed after the battle.
I have a controversial confession: I didn't find Arya Stark interesting in the books. She is a conventional archetype, the girl men are supposed to admire because she takes up a sword and is physically brave in a man's world. Especially as I work in video games, I tend to be unhappy when the "strong female character" -- i.e, the one that best wears traditionally-masculine traits -- is held up as the most popular way for women to be admirable. It's simplistic, lacks imagination, doesn't require much empathy.
But. But! I love Maisie Williams' portrayal of Arya, a tough kid finding her way in the world who still openly wants her family again, doesn't dare to hope she can have them back. I thought I'd never like anything so much as the complexity and nuance of her scenes last season posing as Tywin Lannister's cupbearer, but I love her with The Hound as well. Arya's experience of the adults in her world sheds more light on them, and we get crucial perspective from her.
Arya begging The Hound not to kill the old cart-driver isn't just Arya being a tough kid -- it's Arya being a Stark. The series opened with Eddard's important lesson about executions -- if you sentence a man to die under the law, you kill him yourself. Ned Stark would have never killed an old cart driver.
Nor would he have killed an old horseman. Arya's standing up to The Hound has parallels in Jon's standing up to the Wildlings, even at the risk of earning their fatal distrust and damaging his relationship with Ygritte. His inability to kill an innocent friend of the Night's Watch is the last straw for Orell and Tormund.
Even Ygritte urges him to do it, perhaps afraid of what it means if he can't. She's never asked for him to prove himself before. Yet even when Jon can't come through, she can't bring herself to stop defending him, though he tries to stop her from turning against her own people by bumping her into the mud. Remember a few episodes ago Jon asked Orell what would happen to his eagle if he killed him? He gets an answer.
All the while, of course, Bran is achingly close to his half-brother, even closer than Arya was while gazing at her family's location across a river. Bran is able to save Jon by inhabiting his direwolf, Summer, and along with Rickon's Shaggydog the Stark wolves help Jon get away from a people and a value system that could never be wholly his. Ygritte's stricken face as Jon rides off without so much as a look back is painful to behold.
Part of what's so hard about this episode is that the Stark family draws nearer to one another than ever since the war, and no reunion ever occurs. In fact, little Rickon and Bran need to be separated now, as Bran's ability to possess Hodor's mind proves even to Osha that the boy is on a dangerous spirit quest where she can't follow. Bad memories and fears keep her from ever journeying North of the Wall again, but she can take Rickon to House Umber, Stark bannermen that can be relied upon to protect him.
Back at the Twins, we get more of an idea that Roose Bolton, who sent Jaime back to the Lannisters before coming to this wedding, is not so good a guy. We're again reminded he doesn't drink (a fact Jaime thinks makes him hard to trust), and we learn he married the heaviest Frey wife because he wanted the money offered for her weight. That kind of transaction disgusts Catelyn, again delineating the difference between the Starks and other people.
The wedding band begins playing The Rains of Castamere as a signal to begin the massacre. Last episode, Cersei explained to Margaery the tune is about the perils of standing up to the Lannisters. Only Catelyn seems discomfited by the song, suspicious of it, as guards pull shut the door to the dining hall. Perhaps the Hound is alerted by it too -- when their cart is stopped by guards at the gate and Arya bolts, he decides to investigate rather than chase her. Earlier Arya knocked out the cart driver as a way of proving she isn't too kind to survive; Sandor Clegane's knocking Arya out in turn here is most definitely a kindness. He knows she mustn't see what's going on inside, and that it's already too late.
What can I say about the rest of it? It's truly unspeakable, and that is a sort of miracle in and of itself.
You don't have to love Robb or Talisa or Catelyn for it to matter. It's the sad death of what their family stood for, that the wife of a man who was too noble for a rowdy bedding ceremony dies because her hostage, Walder Frey's wife, was worth nothing to him (in the books Catelyn killed Walder Frey's mentally-handicapped son, but this is clearly a wiser adaptation). It's Catelyn's maternal grief that carved me personally. She has borne a succession of losses -- her husband, her children, her eldest son, a war -- and she breaks at Walder Frey's feet, just another founting corpse. I can't remember ever seeing a fantasy story so unafraid to be so cruel.
Whether or not you were prepared for the events, how did the Red Wedding affect you?
Phew. Okay. Lighter stuff. How many "Wedding Crashers" memes featuring Roose Bolton and Walder Frey have you seen this week? Did you, like me, think of the "Arrested Westeros" crossover blog when Robb delivered that portentious "made a huge mistake" line? Are we okay?