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Game of Thrones: A Reaction to ‘The Rains of Castamere’

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Oh my God.

Please give me a moment to remove my jaw from the floor.

Okay, I’m ready now.  First things first.


All right, where were we?

As an avid Game of Thrones watcher who has not read the books, the “Red Wedding” came as a total shock to me, and hit me on a level Ned Stark’s death didn’t.  I didn’t start watching the show until after the first season had ended.  By the time I watched the pilot, I already knew poor Ned was doomed.  Since then, though, I’ve been very good about not spoiling myself.  So the conclusion of season three’s penultimate episode (and boy, does Game of Thrones know how to throw a penultimate episode) came completely out of left field for me.

And yet, it didn’t.

If you think about it, this one has been coming for a while, and the chain of events that led us here seem so clear now.  Catelyn forms an alliance with Walder Frey on Robb’s behalf, an agreement that includes Robb marrying one of his daughters.  Robb breaks that promise and marries field medic Talisa for love, thereby losing the respect of his army.  Robb executes Lord Karstark for the murders of their young Lannister prisoners and, in doing so, loses half his army.  Hell, maybe we can trace this chain of events back to the day Joffrey had Ned Stark beheaded and led young, naïve Robb to declare himself “King of the North.”

Robb Stark was an honorable man, if one inclined to make foolish, idealistic choices at times.  Ned Stark was an honorable man, and died because of it.  If ever the show—and the story—was sending us a message, it’s this:

There is no room for honorable men in Westeros.

But if there was an MVP for this episode, I have to give it to Michelle Fairley for her performance as Catelyn Stark.  Catelyn Stark has never been the most liked character on the show, but Michelle Fairley’s understated performance has always given her depth, complexity, and intelligence that’s difficult to ignore.  I’ve always thought Catelyn was one of the smartest political minds on the show, and she’s demonstrated that time and time again in her (often ignored) advice to Robb.  She told Robb not to break his promise to wed Frey’s daughter.  She told Robb not to execute Lord Karstark.  Hell, back in the day, she even told Ned not to go to King’s Landing, and Ned brushed her off much the way their son later did.  Catelyn saw the deceit and the politics that her too-honorable husband and son were blind to.  But she’s a woman, and Westeros is, at its core, a man’s world.

In Sunday’s episode, Catelyn’s growing unease becomes palatable as the doors to the hall are shut and the band begins playing “The Rains of Castamere” (also the title of the episode).  If I, Jane Average Viewer, didn’t figure out that something was wrong before then, I sure did at that point!  Catelyn’s face mirrored my own anxiety.

But the real beauty of Fairley’s performance came in Catelyn’s final moments.  Catelyn begs for Robb’s life.  Frey refuses.  Then there’s this moment when Catelyn and her son, Robb, look at each other, and so much goes unsaid in that moment.  Robb had given up.  Once that happened, Catelyn gave up, too.  The light goes out of Catelyn’s eyes before her throat is slit.  When Robb resigns himself to his fate, Catelyn gives up.  Her overwhelming anguish in those final moments, even as she slits the throat of Lord Frey’s young wife, gave me chills (and still does, just thinking about it).  You can’t help but remember: this is a woman who has lost EVERYTHING.  Her husband is dead.  She believes her two youngest sons are dead.  She believes her daughters are prisoners of the Lannisters, and who knows what the Lannisters might do to them?  (Marry one off to Tyrion and lose the other, perhaps?)  And then Robb, her bright, shining hope Robb, is murdered right in front of her, massacred in the home of a supposed ally—but first he gives up.  Both Fairley and Richard Madden, who plays Robb, were phenomenal in this scene, but it was Fairley who really knocked it out of the park.

Although Fairley was the MVP, I also have to give a shout-out to Maisie Williams as Arya Stark.  The Starks’ younger daughter witnessed her father’s death.  (Her eyes were technically covered, but close enough.)  Watching Arya—who has become, out of necessity, so hardened and jaded over the last couple of seasons—get so close to her mother and brother, only to have it snatched out of her hands in the worst possible way, was heartbreaking.  It’s easy to forget how young Arya is, what with her quick wit and fiery temper.  But Arya has had her childhood stolen for her, arguably even more than the other Stark children.  The foreshadowing of bad things to come lasted throughout the episode—arguably, it’s been foreshadowed for the last season and a half—but it was easy to let ourselves get lulled into a false sense of security.  I wanted that reunion as much as Arya did, and Arya’s devistation broke my heart.  And I have to wonder whether Catelyn would have chosen differently, would have fought harder, if she’d known her younger daughter waited just outside.

Catelyn and Cersei Lannister might not have much else in common, but they are both motivated by the love of their children.

I’ve seen other commentators say that this episode, like “Blackwater” last season, should have focused solely on the wedding (and presumably, on Arya and the Hound’s journey to the Twins).  I’ve also seen other commentators say that this episode was too brutal, too violent, and that they’re divorcing the show.  

To the former, I say: eh, maybe.  I really didn’t need to know Samwell Tarly’s amazing ability to read makes Gilly think he’s like a wizard, and Dany’s city conquering and Bran and Rickon’s emotional goodbye certainly would have stood out more in another episode.  But I think it would have been too much.  We would have known too soon that something was wrong, and the show wouldn’t have been able to lure the viewers into a false sense of security, which is I think what it was going for.  (Plus, 40 minutes of partying at the Freys and the “bedding ceremony” would have been a lot to take!)  

As to the latter, well…can’t blame you.  The episode was one of the most brutal, violent, horrifying things I’ve seen on television, ever.  But Game of Thrones never promised to be a fairy tale.  Characters die, and, unlike many other shows, the deaths matter.  The people dying aren’t Redshirts, and the show doesn’t use these deaths to cull useless or unlikeable characters.  (I’m looking at you, Lost!)  Yes, the scene was all that much more brutal because Robb’s pregnant wife stabbed multiple times through the stomach—a scene that was not in the books.  But I think this was true to the story and the tone of the show.

I loved it.  Not sure what that says about me.

But in the long term, the big question is what does this mean to the show, to the ongoing “game” for the Iron Throne?  Since season 1, the Starks and the Lannisters have been the principal opponents in the battle for the Iron Throne.  The murders of Catelyn and Robb Stark essentially wipe the Starks out as a power.  Sansa is married to Tyrion Lannister, Arya is on the run, Bran is heading north of the Wall, and Rickon is going into hiding with Osha the Wildling.  None of them has the strength or the maturity or the resources right now to make a run for the Iron Throne.  The Starks may not be completely wiped out, but they are out of the game.

That means that the game—and the show—are going to change considerably in season 4.  I suspect we’ll see Dany, with her dragons and her army of Unsullied, take center stage more.  She is, and always has been, the real competitor for the throne, but the Lannisters don’t see that yet.  I wonder if the Lannisters are going to treat Sansa as more of a tactical advantage, given that, with her brothers presumed dead, Sansa is now the heir apparent to (what remains of) Winterfell.  I’m also anxious to see how her new marriage to Tyrion, easily the noblest of the Lannisters, plays out.  I bet Arya is going to go all righteous avenger, and I hope we get to see more of her with the Hound.  And I really, really hope someone chops off Joffrey’s head, but that would probably be too much to ask for.

A few more observations about this season, going into the finale:

*Dany has been having an incredible streak of good luck this season, and I keep wondering when it’s going to end.  If this show, and certainly Sunday’s episode, have taught us anything, it’s that your luck can change in an instant.

*One of the best, and most unexpected, developments of the season was the budding friendship between Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth.  (“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” was the other standout episode of the season.)  Jaime’s growing affection for Brienne—not to mention the loss of his sword hand—have allowed us to see a different side to the character.  But it doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still the guy who pushed Bran Stark out of a window to cover up his incestuous affair with his sister.  One of the things this show excels at is creating complex, compelling characters that are not just “good” or “bad.”

*On a related note, I’m not sure who I want to star in a buddy comedy more: Brienne and Jaime or Arya and the Hound.

*A few episodes ago, Tyrion speculated about who got the worst deal in the Lannister’s upcoming arranged marriages.  He speculated that it was Sansa, but I think Tyrion’s really the one getting the raw deal.  I’m anxious to see Sansa grow up a little bit.  She’s still so naïve, and yet she’s become acutely aware that she can’t trust anyone.  Tyrion won’t hurt her, and he might help her see the world a little bit more clearly.  But Tyrion is stuck with a bride who’s young enough to be his daughter and repulsed by him, and he’s too honorable to bed her.  (Tyrion, didn’t you see what I said above about honorable men in Westeros?)  Not to mention that his mistress, Shae, has become more jealous and possessive.  Hell hath no fury…

*Speaking of a woman’s fury, I would not want to be Jon Snow when Ygritte finds him again.  If looks could kill!

*In addition to the Red Wedding, “The Rains of Castamere” contained a lot of poignant almost-moments: Robb and Catelyn’s almost-reconciliation, Arya’s almost-reunion with Robb and Catelyn, Bran and Rickon’s almost-reunion with Jon Snow.  Not to mention Bran and Rickon’s emotional goodbye, which foreshadowed Robb’s death (when Bran tells Rickon he could be the heir to Winterfell).  It made the episode that much more painful.  The Starks are no longer just fractured.  They are decimated.

In conclusion…despite being Beth the Book Girl (and CC2K’s Book Editor), I made a conscious decision as I was getting into the series not to read the books, because I was enjoying the show so much and I wanted to be surprised by the revelations and plot developments.  (Not to mention the fact that I didn’t want to spend my entire viewing experience saying, “Oh, but it wasn’t like that in the book!”  I can’t tell you how many book readers I’ve heard doing that, and it annoys the shit out of me.)  Sunday night, I was very glad for my decision.  “The Rains of Castamere” was one of the most powerful hours of television I’ve ever watched, and I can’t imagine the impact would have been the same if I’d known it was coming.  I jumped off my couch, gasped, shuddered, cried—and finally, watched the end credits with my jaw scraping the floor.  That’s what’s good television is supposed to do: rivet you emotionally, make you think, make you react.  Game of Thrones has continually done just that, and Sunday night the show did it exceptionally well.

Also—I’ve decided that, if I get married someday, I’m going to have a cellist play “The Rains of Castamere” at my reception.  Then I’m going to see how many people panic.  Because that’s how I roll.