So that was The Red Wedding. Fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire books have been waiting for this moment ever since Ned Stark’s head got chopped off back in season one; it’s the other moment of almost unbearable doom that visits the good guys in Westeros. When I read this section of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, I pretty much quit - I would have thrown the book across the room, but I was reading on my Kindle.
Eventually I came back to the book, and I’m glad I did. Season four will hold many more reversals and shockers. But in the meantime we have the death of Robb Stark, his pregnant wife, and Catelyn to mull over.
The Rains of Castamere is the name of the episode, and it’s a perfect title. Last episode we learned the origins of The Rains of Castamere, the theme song of House Lannister - it’s about the utter destruction of a minor house that dared rebel against Casterly Rock. The Lannisters always pay their debts, they say, but that isn’t just a fiscal motto - it’s a promise of revenge. In our world the word ‘vendetta’ comes from the Sicilians, but I suspect that a Lannister coined it in Westeros.
Episode writers and show runners DB Weiss and David Benioff do something really smart in this episode - they keep the Lannisters out of it. They’re never seen on screen, but their presence is felt, and that presence finally blossoms in the last moments as the supposedly-loyal Roose Bolton slips a knife into Robb Stark’s chest and whispers “The Lannisters send their regards.”
This episode shows just how terribly disjointed the Stark clan has become. Arya stands just outside Frey’s keep as her family is massacred within; Bran and Rickon sit just feet from Jon Snow as he battles Wildlings. And Sansa, whose fate rests in King’s Landing, is not seen at all. The Starks are truly beaten right now, a house without a home, a family without cohesion. It seems likely that everything can only go up from here.
Daenerys has her shit much more together. Daario, Jorah and Grey Worm sneak into Yunkai in an attempt to foment rebellion from within. There’s a wonderful moment where Daario says he has no interest in slaves, as one cannot make love to property, and Dany just gives him such a look. Things are really coming together for her.
What’s interesting is that Dany has taken Yunkai without much of a fight. Instead of epic bloodshed, she has taken the city through subterfuge and the promise of freedom for the city’s slaves. While a wasteful, stupid, destructive war has torn apart Westeros, the last Targaryen has managed to conquer cities across the narrow sea with minimal death. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that once the dust settles in Westeros, once the petty kings and fools have killed each other off, the Mother of Dragons will be in a position to return to the Iron Throne. Assuming her ethical conquest is rewarded.
There’s no guarantee of that. In season one Ned Stark’s honor and decency was rewarded with a beheading. Robb Stark’s true love was rewarded with a massacre. In the world of Game of Thrones the most heroic qualities - love, compassion, honor - leave you weakest. That’s why it’s interesting to see Jon Snow take off on horseback, leaving Ygritte behind in the hands of the remaining Wildlings. Is he just an asshole? Does he believe that she has turned on him? She clearly loves him - the look of heartbreak on her face as he rode off was harrowing - but does he love her?
And Arya is saved from her own Stark heroic quality - fearlessness - when the Hound knocks her out rather than let her attempt to sneak into the Frey’s castle. Running away isn’t your standard fantasy trope, but it’s the only reasonable choice in the situation. It’s touching that the Hound saves her; he was supposedly only transporting her for a reward, but now there can be no reward for her return. He might have been able to hand her over to Bolton’s men to curry favor with the Lannisters, or just to simply unload her. But he’s taking her with him. This relationship is one of the strangest - and sweetest - of the series.
The Red Wedding itself was a masterpiece of tension and horror. I don’t know how it played to non-readers - did you see something bad on the horizon (it is the second to last episode of the season, after all)? - but each little moment of set up was like a twist of the knife to book readers. It’s the graphic, wet nature of the deaths that truly gave the TV Red Wedding its impact; killing these characters is bad, but they were slaughtered like animals, spurting blood everywhere. It was not a heroic death for anyone, except maybe Catelyn, who at the very least got to open the throat of Frey’s latest wife before she went. While Talisa’s death was brutal and Robb’s death tragic, Catelyn’s was stirringly defiant.
As a book reader I’m curious where the next episode ends. We’re halfway through A Storm of Swords and there is still plenty of action to go, but The Red Wedding felt to me like a perfect season-ender. There’s to be aftermath next week (going by the book some of it truly gruesome and upsetting), and I suppose we’ll check in on all the players one final time. The War of the Five Kings is pretty much over - the Starks are destroyed, Stannis is adrift and the Greyjoys are just futzing about - but peace isn’t coming to Westeros anytime soon.
If you're going to comment below please be aware many others have not read the books. Please do not spoil any future developments for season four.