9.5

Game of Thrones Review - "The Rains of Castamere" (Episode 3.9)

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<i>Game of Thrones</i> Review - "The Rains of Castamere" (Episode 3.9)

Dear Josh,

Boring episode, don’t think we should do an email exchange this week. Don’t have much to say, and the show stinks.

Your pal,
Shane

PS – ;LKSDF;LJASDL;ADSKJF;SLAZQEWIUR!#%$Q$%RALDJ

PPS – Okay, let’s get serious. The Red Wedding just happened. You and I have read the books (and thus we are “wizards,” according to Gilly), so we knew this was coming. But speaking only for myself here, the end of this episode still shocked the sh** out of me. I literally understood in my brain the entire episode that Robb Stark and his bride and his mother and all his men were about to be murdered in brutal fashion, but I still found myself smiling at Lord Edmure eating blackberries from his new bride, and chuckling at his uncle’s awesome comment: “The gods love to reward a fool.” (That goes on the long list of GoT phrases I’ll be incorporating into real life, by the way.)

Then…the wedding got red. The sheer violence of it was stunning, from the stabbing of Talisa all the way to the haunting final shot, when Catelyn slit the girl’s throat, stared out in horror and shock—looking about 20 years older, by the way—and then met her own demise. It was one of the few moments in the show where the action was bigger than the dialogue. Walder Frey had a cutting little line about giving Robb a wedding gift that kicked off the carnage, but then you forgot it immediately in the horror of the ensuing bloodshed. It was visceral, it was fast, and it had an odd emotionless quality to it, even as Robb was crawling toward his wife and Catelyn begged for his life.

It feels weird to say something so awful was “well done,” but man, that was really well done. I wish I could have experienced it without knowing the result to get a real sense of how it landed with the non-book-reading viewer, but from reactions on Twitter and Facebook, it seems like it had the intended impact. And as with Ned Stark, we learned that no character is sacred in George R.R. Martin’s universe (speaking of which, this made me laugh out loud). He will shatter your heart, blow your mind, and then reel you back in.

And let me just take a second to hammer home how friggin’ unbelievable Michelle Fairley was as Catelyn this episode. It’s not easy to go from outrage to desperation to passionate grief to shock in the span of a single scene, but she was pitch perfect. At the final moment, when she cried out and then let the scream fade out into something hollow, you got the sense that she was dead before the knife made its cut. There were tears in my eyes, but they weren’t there because a couple TV characters died; they were there because I’d just witnessed a very powerful artistic performance.

By the way, I’ve noticed a pattern: Episode 9s aren’t what you’d call “great” for the Starks. In Season One, Ned was killed. In Season Two, Sansa had to sit with Cersei during the Battle of the Blackwater and listen to the drunk queen talk about how they’d all be viciously raped when the battle was lost. And this year, Robb and Catelyn are dead. Again, not a fantastic track record.

So, two episodes ago I was fretting about GoT giving way to pure shock value and losing the thread of its genius. Now, I’ve flipped to the opposite extreme and want to ask a loaded question:

Was this the best Game of Thrones episode ever? I present my evidence in favor:

The Red Wedding was a crushing tour de force, but before that, we witnessed the best fight scene in the show’s exceptional ouevre across the narrow sea. Watching Daario, Ser Jorah, and Grey Worm fight off the Yunkai’i using three very different, but very efficient, styles, was just pure exhilaration for me. And it was good to see Ser Jorah flip the badass switch for a minute or two, because he was starting to seem like a whiner. I think we needed to remember his past, and to see what he could do with a sword. But with respect to Westerosian Swordplay and the Arakh of the Second Sons, the style I really want to see more of is the Twirling Spear of the Unsullied.

And then, Josh, AND THEN: BRAN BECAME THE ONLY HUMAN WARG.

This is one of my favorite plot turns in the books, and the show made great use of it as Hodor succumbed to his fear of thunder and threatened to give their position away to the Wildlings below. Then Bran’s eyes rolled back in his head, and suddenly the world of Westeros became a very different place. My prediction, for somewhere down the line when GRRM (I’m calling him “Double-R” from now on) finishes the story, is that Bran will get inside the mind of a dragon and help turn the tide of a key battle or two. But maybe he’ll just use it to look at hot girls. You know how teenagers can be. Plus, the only way Double-R could surprise us now is by taking an incredible power like that and turning it into something really superficial. Expect the unexpected, Josh. That’s all I’m saying.

So we had Red Wedding, sick fight scene, BranWarg. That would be enough to put any episode among the all-time greats. But this one had gave us the bonus of bonuses: Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane. Aka “the perfect character combination.” They have such an amazing, unpredictable chemistry that you almost wish they had their own spin-off called “Playing With Fire,” or something. I think what makes them so compelling- other than great acting and great writing- is that they’re always on the verge of understanding each other, but they never quite get there. Last night, we had a tender moment when Arya convinced him not to kill the hog vendor, and he gained a deeper understanding of her when she tempered her kindness with practicality by knocking the man unconscious when he stirred. But then the Hound couldn’t resist teasing her about her family, and Arya struck back cruelly by re-hashing his fear of fire and his childhood trauma. You could see Clegane was genuinely hurt, and he lashed out by attacking Arya’s weak point, her father’s death, and then she threatened to kill him, and etc. And at that moment I just wanted to shake both of them and yell, “stop doing this to each other!”

But there’s always a moment where the strange affection between them returns, and when the Hound knocked her out to save her life at the Red Wedding, I’ll go out on a limb and say it was the most touching example of a grown man knocking a young girl unconscious in television history.

There’s my evidence. Epic plot twist, best fight ever, Brandon Warging, and Arya/Sandor. I’ve rambled, but if any episode ever justified rambling, this has to be it, right? Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

—Shane

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Shane,

I didn’t watch the episode until this morning. That means I’m still only about 10 minutes removed from watching blood pour from Catelyn’s neck. I’m going to need a minute…

You’re definitely right that Episode 9s have been bad for the Starks. I’ve also noticed a pattern that they’ve had a rough go in Episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10.

It’s funny that you mention Blackwater, though, because last season’s penultimate episode was always my favorite. Joffrey having Sansa kiss his sword, vowing to use it to one day kill her brother, then proving coward when the battle looked lost. Tyrion finding both the courage to lead and the words to inspire, betrayed in the end by his nephew’s Kingsguard. The battle itself with the ships ablaze in green wildfire. And, as you said, Queen Cersei getting drunk, terrifying Sansa and nearly poisoning herself and young Tommen. But “The Rains of Castamere” may have just knocked it off that top spot. I never thought my favorite episode could be one without Tyrion.

The Red Wedding has been looming all season, and while part of me, too, wishes I might have experienced it onscreen completely unaware, knowing what was coming only gave more weight to some of last night’s early scenes, including the first one where Robb asks for his mother’s advice, melting the icy Wall that’s been between them. Catelyn knows better than to trust the Freys—she’s said all along that Robb’s rash marriage had caused irreparable damage. But she’s blinded by her hatred of the Lannisters, and the prize for securing Lord Walder’s army is too great to pass up. Let’s start pushing for that Emmy for Michelle Fairley for the slightest hint of a hidden smile when Robb finally seeks her counsel, for the realization that something is amiss when “The Rains of Castamere” begin to play and she sees Lord Bolton’s armor beneath his sleeve, for the desperation as she pleads for her son, for the overriding guilt that this is all her fault, and for the utter deadness in her face when she kills Frey’s young bride.

So much buildup went into that final scene, not the least of which was the camera lingering on the bread and salt offered Robb and his men as a sign of protection under Frey’s roof. David Bradley does a phenomenal job as the old lord of the Twins, and you could almost feel the dampness of his joyless castle. One of the few chuckles in the episode came when he was introducing his daughters… “Wolwa?” “Fine.” He’s a wretched creature who sees no need to hide his wretchedness, and he’s completely unmoved in the end by the knife at his young bride’s throat. As shocking as The Red Wedding was, the look on Lord Frey’s face at that moment—like he was watching a mildly entertaining play—told you, “Of course he betrayed the Starks.”

In the first season, I was almost as surprised at Lady’s death as I was Ned Stark’s. I thought the wolves would always be there for the Stark children. But I also naively thought the Stark children would always be there. This episode saw the death of both Robb and his direwolf.

It’s worth noting what a great job the child actors did in this episode; even Rickon gets a few lines. Maisie Williams (Arya) has always been great with The Hound, but this is the first episode where Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran) was her equal. Bran has gained confidence—and power with every step northward.

The end of Ygritte and Jon’s short honeymoon was almost lost amidst everything else this week. She’s known it was coming, but you could still see the pain on her face when Jon caused her arrow to miss the horse merchant. And let’s pour one out for The Office’s Gareth. May his eagle get promoted to Assistant Regional Manager of the local eyrie.

Daenerys had a better go of it last night, and Grey Worm is becoming my favorite new character across the Narrow Sea. Not just for his fighting, which as you say, was the badassest of the three badasses who took the city with some badass weaponry. His relationship with Daenerys is simply mutual affection—the brother she should have had. And you know he could totally take Daario and Ser Jorah.

—Josh

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Josh,

Re: Catelyn Stark’s blindness—you nailed it. She understands that the Freys can’t be trusted, and that even if he does supply the men, there’s a good chance attacking Casterly Rock could be a disaster. But her thirst for revenge wins out—”Show them how it feels to lose what they love.”

And that’s the sad part of the whole Red Wedding—in the world of Westeros, they “deserved” it. Robb should never have broken his promise to the Freys or murdered Karstark or trusted the Freys after he betrayed them. Catelyn never should have let Jamie go and sacrificed a huge bargaining chip, and she shouldn’t have encouraged Robb in his Casterly Rock plan when all her good sense prickled against it. But the Starks make choices based on honor and rigid principles, and in the GoT world, those people die.

I read a great interview with Double-R after the episode in which he noted that the Red Wedding was based on two incidents in Scottish history where key political figures were murdered as guests of their host. And of course, there’s the scene in Macbeth when Macbeth himself kills King Duncan while they’re staying at his castle in Inverness. (As wizards—er, readers—you and I are privy to another Shakespearean parallel coming up in a couple seasons. Was that smug? That was probably smug.) Anyway, the idea of “salt and bread”—that you don’t kill someone you’ve invited into your home—had to be created by Double-R only to be violated. On a similar note, Double-R says in that same interview that he knew Robb would be killed early in the writing process in order to invert everyone’s expectations that the son would rise up to avenge the father. The point is, if Double-R creates a rule like “salt and bread,” you can bet that the rule will be broken.

Another interesting review I read last night took the show to task for shying away from the deep foreboding that was present all throughout the Red Wedding chapter in the book and more or less unleashing the senseless violence as a surprise. And while I agree that the atmosphere was deeply and darkly uncomfortable in the book (the music was terrible, as opposed to the competence of the men playing above Lord Walder last night, for one), I’m not sure the show erred in taking a different turn. First of all, there’s less time on television, and short of hiring David Lynch for a week, it’s no easy task to create that ominous sense of anxiety that an author has the luxury of building up over 30-40 pages. And I’m with you—there were little clues along the way, particularly with Catelyn getting her spidey sense when “The Rains of Castamere” began playing, and then uncovering the clues one by one until the full realization hit and she slapped Roose Bolton. All things considered, I thought there was a decent enough balance between surprise and foreshadow, and even though you know I’m quick to accuse HBO of appealing to the least common denominator at times (see last week’s Penis Violence Scale), I’m not ready to take them to task for kowtowing to the “cult of surprise” this episode. But I will say that review is well worth the read for those smug booksters like ourselves.

And yeah, how rough was it to watch Ygritte get abandoned by Jon Snow? Again, knew it was coming, but it didn’t diminish the impact. In the book, she shoots him in the leg with an arrow as he’s fleeing, but I see they spared us that outcome here.

Two quick thoughts before I turn it over to you:

1. Are the Freys the McPoyles of the GoT universe? They’re completely horrendous in that same sickly, malnourished way. Can’t you see them pouring milk all over each other in celebration after the Red Wedding? And let’s not forget, the McPoyles had their own weird wedding. Am I accusing Double-R of plagiarizing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Maybe I am, Josh. Maybe I am.

2. My wife cracked me up last night during the scene when Tormund Giantsbane and the wildlings charged the horse merchant: “This looks exactly like one of those Capital One commercials.” I hated her for making me laugh during the Red Wedding episode, but watch again and you’ll see it’s 100 percent accurate.

—Shane

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Shane,

Again, it’s hard to tell how much of a sense of foreboding was built for those who haven’t seen the books. The show’s creators are doing double-duty, though, for wizards like us (I like that) and those who haven’t read the books. More than 25 million copies of GRRM’s books have been sold, so it’s not like we’re alone in already knowing this was on its way. And if I hadn’t read the books, I’m not sure I’d have wanted them to tip their hands anymore than they did. Yes it was a shocking ending and a strong candidate for this list, but it was supported by the obvious wretchedness of Lord Frey and the many mistakes of Robb and Catelyn Stark. And you knew that baby was doomed as soon as Talisa named him Eddard.

While the wedding does ring a bit of MacBeth (I’m watching Season 2 of the excellent Slings and Arrows right now, too, by the way, so that’s been on my mind), I don’t think Shakespeare wrote enough plays to inspire all of the tragedies happening in GoT. None of the love stories have lasted much more than a season—Kalisi lost Kal Drogo to infection (and zombicide?), and now both Robb and Jon’s blissful romances have met the grim realities of Westeros. Plus Sansa never got her handsome Ser Loras.

While the tragedies get full hearing, though, it’s easy to forget that a whole city full of slaves was just freed, and Bran Stark saved his half-brother from death at the hands of the Wildlings. The tension created by GRRM and now HBO has a greater impact because, whether you first watched or read, you knew that Ser Jorah and Greyworm could have easily been sent back from Yunkai with the head of Daario. And Ygritte could have put in arrow in Jon’s back. With no one safe—not even the heir of Ned Stark—you’re not just watching to see how your favorite characters escape; you’re worried about them.

And that’s the magic of Game of Thrones—getting you to care deeply about the fates of its inhabitants. And, of course, its author. As a wise co-writer of mine keeps saying, “Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.”

PS – What’s in your wallet?

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Josh,

I have to congratulate you on maintaining a moderate tone despite having read the books. I think the Red Wedding sent me over the precipice into a freefall of smugness, culminating in this dialogue with my friend Spike over g-chat last night:

Me: And by the way, I think something almost as huge is coming in ep. 10
Me: Not positive though
Me: either ep 10 or early on in season 4
Spike: what is that?
Spike: that’s not helpful
Me: haha!
Spike: did you think that was helpful???
Me: HAHAHAHA
Me: I’M A WIZARD
Me: A WIZARD OF BOOKS
Spike: GODDAMIT

The evidence is clear: I’ve become insufferable. But I’m going to take a lead from your balanced style and rein it in before everyone hates me. Anyway, I’m in full agreement about the uncertainty this show heaps on its viewers. Every action is potential death for someone we love, and you live it as you would have lived life in Westeros: Lots of dread, punctuated by brief moments of triumph and joy. And that’s the ultimate success of Martin’s books and the TV show, because that is closer to real life than almost anything else we can see on television. As the man himself said in the interview I linked earlier, “no matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse.” It’s not for everyone, but for those of us who love shades of gray in our art, it’s spectacular.

Until next week (and the Season Three grand finale!!), it’s been a pleasure as always. And, yeah, don’t die GRRM.

—Shane

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Shane,

If Spike is real, you’re my hero.

—Josh

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson team up to review each new episode of Game of Thrones. Ryan writes for Grantland as well as Paste, and Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.

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