Monday, June 3, 2013

Game of Thrones review: The Rains of Castamere

Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley as Robb and Catelyn Stark. (Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO)

If there's one thing we should already know about George R.R. Martin's world, it's that anyone can be killed. But that doesn't make last night's events any less shocking.

The final 15 minutes -- like the massacre itself -- was masterfully executed. All was well. Catelyn's brother got a beautiful bride. Walder Frey seemed satisfied. Catelyn and Robb were in good graces again. Robb and Talisa were imagining their future with baby Ned.

As Catelyn watched her brother and his bride get carried off for the bedding ceremony, she reminisced about her own wedding night with Ned, who refused the same ceremony because he didn't want to mar their special day by punching someone in the face. That story was greeted with, in retrospect, a tell-tale smirk from Roose Bolton, who no doubt was thinking, "How quaint." Because then came the solitary guard to close the hall's massive doors, and bit by maddeningly suspenseful bit, the pieces of the ambush fell into place until it was too late to be stopped.

And while everyone was being butchered inside, the steady march of troops past Arya and The Hound to the camps outside provided the first clue as to just how extensive and well-planned this massacre was. They even thought to kill the direwolf (not cool).

The deaths of Robb and Catelyn are a blow. I wouldn't necessarily list them as among my favorite characters, but I liked and admired them. Robb was a brilliant tactician, and noble and fair like his father. Catelyn was strong-willed and fiercely protective of her children. They spent much of the series together, so it's poetic -- if unfair -- that they should die together.

Strangely, what got to me most was not their deaths, but their reactions to the deaths of their loved ones. I felt for Robb as he held his dying wife (the attack on her was brutal). And I especially felt for Catelyn, who first pleaded desperately for Frey to spare her son's life and then watched helplessly as he was killed calling out to her. Robb was the last child she knew for certain she had left. Without him ... well, the catatonic silence that choked off her brief wail says it all: She died before her execution.

What really makes their deaths such a gut-punch is that the Red Wedding, as the massacre comes to be known, signals the end of something much bigger. With the inevitable destruction of their unsuspecting army, the Starks are now essentially extinct. They are the Castameres of the episode's eponymous song -- a family that thought it could rise to the top, but lost everything. All that's left now are the children, scattered to the four winds.

My heart aches most for Arya, who came so close to being reunited with her mother and brother that she kept looking toward The Twins, terrified that she would be too late to see them again. She was. And for the second time in her young life, she was dragged away at the last minute from the scene of a family tragedy.

It's tempting to be mad at Martin for putting us through this ringer, but the Red Wedding was a logical outcome to a story set in motion back in season 2, when Catelyn struck a deal for Robb to marry one of Frey's daughters in exchange for safe passage across the river. When Robb broke that pledge by marrying Talisa, Frey was humiliated and slighted. His response was shocking, but not surprising. Of course he wouldn't be satisfied with a Tully for a son-in-law in place of a king. And of course he would give no credence to an unwritten rule of war that says no harm will come to those who break bread together. Most importantly, because Frey is not one to pick sides until he knows which way the wind is blowing -- and because an increasingly fed-up Bolton switched allegiances -- he had nothing to lose by annihilating the Stark army, and at the same time he could satisfy his taste for revenge.

Meanwhile, back at the farm...
Hard as it may seem, there was more to this episode than the last 15 minutes. In other cloak and dagger developments:
-- Jon could pretend to be a wildling no longer. When faced with the prospect of executing an innocent man, he turned on his fake brothers and high-tailed it out of there -- with a little help from a Bran-possessed direwolf. In his haste to escape, he even left Ygritte behind. (And she. Is. Pissed.)

-- Speaking of Bran -- who was as tantalizingly close to Jon as Arya was to their mother and brother -- his special ability is getting cooler and cooler. Although others can willingly possess animals, Bran appears to be the only one who can willingly possess people as well. (To be fair, Hodor's is a simple mind.)
 On a more grounded note, I was sad to see Bran and Rickon part, even though I'd forgotten the little brother was part of their merry band. Why can't anyone stay together in this stupid show?!

-- Daario, Jorah and Grey Worm are pretty bad-ass, holding off a stream of guards after sneaking into Yunkai on what was supposed to be an easy mission. Grey Worm was particularly impressive with his spear, and Jorah still moves like a young warrior. I was a tad disappointed not to see more, but I suppose their blood-covered faces told the tale well enough. Their victory means Dany has yet another city, and another potential army of former slaves.
 (Side note: I felt bad for Jorah, who returned triumphant to his beloved queen only to realize she was more concerned about Daario.)

Just one more episode left. What did everyone else think?

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