Robb presents himself to Walder Frey, and Edmure meets his bride. Jon faces his harshest test yet. Bran discovers a new gift. Daario and Jorah debate how to take Yunkai. House Frey joins with House Tully.
The analysis of this episode has been one of the most difficult such pieces I’ve written to date, and perhaps it’s no surprise. After all, the key event of the episode was the very last thing George R.R. Martin wrote in A Storm of Swords, and he has called it the most difficult piece of writing that he has done for the series. The level of anticipation for this episode among those “in the know”—readers of the novels and spoiler-hounds alike—has been extraordinary, and we can only imagine the reactions of those who came to the episode with no real inkling of what was to come. “The Rains of Castamere” set out to achieve certain things, and without a doubt it achieved them. It’s an effective episode, a good episode, and if there are quibbles about some of the direction and acting, they’re few and relatively minor, and I think we can dispense with them. Lets take it as given that many of the stories are handled well, and are well-acted (a special nod to David Bradley as Walder Frey, who clearly seems to relish the role). But for this analysis, I’d like to focus just on one thing, becomes it looms so large and for many viewers will define the episode in its entirety: the Red Wedding.
Here’s the thing that makes writing this so difficult: even though it’s an effective episode, it’s not really a great episode, unless one wants to define greatness by the level of shock value and nothing more. There’s nothing bold, as such, in what the show does at the Twins: it’s George R.R. Martin who was bold. But the real genius of the Red Wedding is not the “what”, but the “how”, and in this, Benioff and Weiss seemed to step back rather than attempt to equal or match it. “Blackwater” was a triumph in terms of scale and production value, but it also featured one of the show’s tautest, most well-honed scripts and some inspired performances, things that helped elevate it beyond mere spectacle. “The Rains of Castamere,” on the other hand, does not rise above the shock value—it takes it as its destination and sees no reason to go further.
Those who’ve read the books will surely recall that part of the power of the Red Wedding was the atmosphere and the nagging feeling that something, somewhere, was not quite right. This uneasy feeling is a hallmark of the entire chapter, not just the final pages. Martin builds tension from the opening line (“The drums were pounding, pounding, pounding, and her head with them.”), leaving readers aching for the release—the end of this awful, uncomfortable wedding—and then when the resolution comes, it’s in the cruelest way possible. It bears recalling that Martin isn’t just an award-winning writer of science fiction and fantasy, but also an award-winning horror writer, and it shows within this chapter. What sets apart that final Catelyn chapter from (almost) every other chapter in the series is that Martin seamlessly slips into the horror mode. From start to finish, the chapter is filled with horror tropes: a feeling of growing dread, an uneasy focal character who can’t quite pin down what’s wrong, an environment that feels threatening in some inexplicable way.
It’s not as if Benioff and Weiss tried and failed to capture the mood, the sense of the wedding as being the wedding from hell—an ungracious host, bad food, bad music, too many people in too close a place—and then segueing into the bloodiest wedding imaginable is. Instead, the executive producers/writers eschewed the atmosphere entirely. Where in the novel it’s a plot point that the musicians are terrible, they actively go with the musicians being quite capable (perhaps because drummer Will Champion of Coldplay was among them?), and the gaiety seems quite unforced. Even Catelyn is in good cheer through much of it. Was it a lack of ambition? A belief that going from the extreme of a joyous atmosphere to an orgy of murder is more powerful than mounting dread and uncertainty? A need to simplify and shorten?
There seems to be something hollow in “The Rains of Castamere”, and I believe it comes down to this choice to reconfigure the event into a “Big! Shocking! Moment!” that’s really at fault. What makes one react even more strongly about this failure to really go all out is that from day one, Benioff and Weiss have hinted that this event, the Red Wedding, has been the thing they’ve most wanted to depict on the screen, that if they could take the show far enough to get there, they would be happy. And yet when the moment finally comes, they take the easy way out: they simply hid their hand, as if any premonition from viewers more than a minute or two before the slaughter began would somehow be a failure and ruin the “surprise”. It’s now an “event”, little more. The texture of what the scene could have been, the thing that could elevate it into true greatness rather than an inevitable entry in one of those tedious TV’s 20 Most Shocking Moments-type programs, is gone.
There’s an orgy of violence, yes, there’s a brutality, yes, but all these things are relatively easy to do on the screen if you have the money and the extras for it. The dread and unease that builds throughout—those are harder things to achieve, a matter of establishing atmosphere, of subtly urging viewers into a position of tension. While the Red Wedding of the show was effective as a “shocker”, it simply doesn’t live up to what it might have been, to what Martin put on the page and which readers went through. Those who are blessedly ignorant of the fiction will doubtless be over the moon with paroxysms of shock, and perhaps they (who are the vast majority of viewers, after all) are all that really matters. But it could have been so much more than it was. They aimed low and so, armed with Martin’s masterful storytelling to provide the basic outline, they passed the bar with some ease. But they did not aim high, and at the end that failure in ambition is something I fault them for.
Emblematic of this, in a way, is the fact Catelyn Stark is again given short shrift: though the choice of having her threaten and kill Lady Frey was inspired (thereby skipping the need to introduce and explain Walder Frey’s lackwit grandson Jinglebells), the choice to have her become catatonic on the end lacked the pathos of her fate in the novel. The character has sat silent or ignored so often in this season (Robb’s consultation feels like a sop for those who rued the show’s depiction of Catelyn, but it’s all rather too little, too late) that catatonia simply feels like just another instance of silencing the character. Why avoid the grief-stricken agony, the blood, the madness? Why pull back from a moment fully as gruesome and horrifying as all the bloodshed that came before? There’s a reason that Catelyn’s final chapter was the last one Martin wrote… and we’re fairly certain it had a great deal more to do with what Martin was about to do to one of his POV characters than to Robb and his battle companions. For those who hoped that at last the show might really given Catelyn Stark her due as one of the central characters—not necessarily in terms of plot, but certainly in terms of themes and setting of tone—we have to think there’ll be some disappointment.
But so it goes, on Game of Thrones. They have shepherded another season almost to its close, and if it is sometimes a shadow of the material on which it is based, at least it’s an effective shadow, able to get the job done (usually) thanks to its grand production ambitions and less-than-grand artistic ambitions.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Catelyn VI, Bran III, Arya IX, Jon V, a very small portion of Daenerys IV, Catelyn VII, Arya X, and Arya XI.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Robb and Catelyn: As previously noted, Robb’s plans in the novel involve going North to drive out the ironborn, rather than to go against the Westerlands. In the novels, the plan would be utter madness, as Casterly Rock is a vast and impregnable fortress, but the show may have a different take on the castle. It should also be added that another scene from the novels, in which Robb reveals his intention to legitimize Jon Snow and name him his heir, has clearly been excised from the television series.
Daenerys’s Plan: In the novels, Daenerys plans a night attack against the Second Sons. Daario’s plan to sneak into Yunkai with a few picked men and open the gates actually seems to reflect later events in the novel, involving the city of Meereen.
Sam and Gilly: In the novel, Coldhands leads Sam and Gilly to the Nightfort, with instructions to bring Bran Stark and his companions through the Black Gate.
The Wildlings and the Horse Breeder: There is no attack by the wildlings on a settlement in the gift. As noted, instead, they come across a traveler whom they kill.
Bran and Rickon: As previously noted, the siblings are not together at this point.