Review: Game of Thrones S3E9 – The Rains of Castamere

Originally published under the pen name “ghostlovesinger” at ToweroftheHand.com, June 4, 2013.

http://towerofthehand.com/blog/2013/06/04-review-rains-of-castamere/index.html

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

 

Game of Thrones has officially made a tradition of a season’s penultimate episode delivering its most memorable moments. Ned Stark lost his head in the first episode nine, season two climaxed with the epic Battle of the Blackwater, and now, season three has given us the Red Wedding. Well, television’s version of the Red Wedding, at least. Unlike other aspects of Game of Thrones, this isn’t one of those things that the show had to get exactly right. No matter how it was set up and executed (too soon?) there was no way the ending of this episode was going to inspire any feelings in the viewing audience apart from apoplectic rage. So I didn’t have any issues with the atmospheric liberties that were taken here, and if I felt that “The Rains of Castamere” was a great piece of filmmaking in and of itself, I would have no complaints. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Neither as fundamentally shocking as “Baelor” nor as purely masterful as “Blackwater,” this episode’s depiction of the Red Wedding earns the dubious commendation of “close enough.”

I should make it clear that most of the rest of the episode was enjoyable. Like “Second Sons” before it, “The Rains of Castamere” limited its scope, focusing primarily on three parts of the map. Game of Thrones is always at its best when it does this; I don’t think it’s any coincidence that “Blackwater,” the best episode of the entire series (deal with it) took place entirely in one location. This time around, our three major settings were the Gift, where Jon and Bran’s respective storylines meet up, the Twins and the surrounding countryside, where Arya comes so close to joining up her mother and brother once more, and Yunkai.

The only exception to this is the brief interlude with Sam and Gilly, who are still north of the Wall. I just want to get this out of the way, because really, this scene shouldn’t have been here. As much as I like John Bradley and Hannah Murray, their dialogue was all blatant exposition and meaningless banter. It seemed very forced, perhaps because the scene itself seemed forced into an episode that it had nothing to do with. Sam knowing about the Nightfort and the Black Gate is certainly in character, but do we really need to rush through this stuff? There should be plenty of time next season to make it through Sam’s remaining adventures; I don’t understand the sense of urgency that would lead a writer to cram a script with context-free details and then try to justify it by throwing in a line that celebrates the act of reading. Frankly, just the fact that these two characters are right back to casual conversation after last week’s Other-stabbing bothers the hell out of me. If you’re going to waste time on people who are completely tangential to this week’s plot, at least have their scene advance the story. This was just wheel-spinning.

Anyway, Daenerys has officially taken Yunkai, thanks to the heroic efforts of her three best warriors. Three things stood out to me during the Slaver’s Bay portion of this episode. First, and most obviously, Jorah, Daario and Grey Worm are all totally bad-ass. Each of this week’s three major locations had its action-packed fight scene; in Yunkai, we got three guys displaying different combat styles taking on three or four times their number without breaking a sweat. It was tons of fun. Second, I wasn’t a huge fan of the bit between Jorah and Ser Barristan. I was hoping it would take longer before this pair got boring, but no such luck. Also, Jorah has some damn nerve, giving a lecture on duty and loyalty to Barristan the Goddamn Bold. Finally, I really enjoyed Dany’s interactions with Daario. Ed Skrein is playing his character to the hilt; his facial expressions and physical acting are fantastic, and that brief look that passes between the two of them while planning their attack was great. I also really enjoyed the look on Iain Glen’s face when the first thing Dany asks him upon his victorious return is whether or not Daario is okay. At first we’re made to think the sellsword might not have made it out; then, when he shows up to present Dany with the flag of Yunkai (or whatever that was) it becomes clear that Jorah’s grief-stricken expression was actually one of rejected dismay.

The episode’s best material came in the Gift, where it managed to simultaneously tie together and elevate two storylines that have been equally up-and-down over the course of the season. Jon Snow started season three in tremendously weak fashion, but has recently been picking up and reaches his high point here. Bran Stark, meanwhile, has simply suffered from a lack of exposure, as there just hasn’t been time to feature him properly until now. With the show taking a break from King’s Landing and the Lannisters (anyone else notice that with Dinklage, Headey and Coster-Waldau absent, Emilia Clarke got top billing?) we finally got a complete story from Bran, Rickon, Osha and the Reeds. The fact that both these plot threads were able to feed off each other, and also help establish the theme of the near-misses of the Stark family, only made them better.

For all my criticism of his past work, Kit Harington has stepped up his game over the past few weeks, really coming into his own as the conflicted bastard of Winterfell. It also helps that the script he’s working with has gotten considerably better since climbing the Wall. Pretty much everything involving Jon was brilliantly written here; not just the dialogue, though “You were right the whole time” is now one of my favorite “finish him” lines, but the set-up and the pacing. The tension between Jon’s deception and Orell’s suspicion has boiled over to the point where it’s coming right out in the open, in front of the other wildlings, which builds up the encroaching sense that something has to give. It’s a feeling that permeates the entire episode, but the structure of the wildlings’ hunt and capture of the old man is what establishes that atmosphere. With every back-and-forth beat, the tension grows: Jon urges Tormund not to kill the old man, which casts doubt on his loyalty. Point, Orell. He joins the attack, but rings his sword on a rock as a clandestine warning and distracts Ygritte from killing the old man as he flees. Point, Jon. A couple scenes later, when the man has been caught, it’s clear that Jon can’t save him, but Orell ups the stakes by demanding that Jon strike the blow. Point, Orell. And Jon can’t swing the sword.

That’s when everything finally breaks down. Ygritte kills the old man herself, but the wildlings turn on them. I liked that Tormund hesitated before giving the order to kill Jon. He hasn’t been given his due as a character, but that hesitation means the writers know he’s not really a cold-hearted bastard, which gives me hope for him in the future. Jon and Orell finally do what they’ve been wanting to do since they met, and Jon runs him through. Point, set and match, though the eagle gets some long-awaited revenge. I really liked the expansion of Orell from page to screen, and this was a magnificent pay-off to a feud that was one of the season’s better not-in-the-book ideas. Jon’s final escape was heroic and heart-breaking in equal parts; he escaped the wildlings, surviving despite the fact that he couldn’t compromise his principles (how many people in Westeros call pull that off?) but he also left Ygritte after she stood by him… and after she murdered a man for the crime of breeding horses. This conflict is absolutely the most important aspect of Jon Snow’s character. The fact that the writers, and Harington, were able to visually convey that conflict in such an effective manner is a prime example of what makes this show so often great.

Meanwhile, Bran and his companions are waiting out a storm in an abandoned tower, which, as it happens, is the place where the wildlings catch the old man. In the scenes that follow, Bran fulfills a season’s worth of potential character growth, helped along by a wonderful performance from Isaac Hempstead-Wright. First he has to warg into Hodor to avoid detection by the wildlings, a well-written and well-acted scene from the books. Then he wargs into Summer, and the two wolves help Jon when his situation descends into combat, killing a couple wildling extras so Jon is free to deal with Orell. Jon clearly recognizes the wolves, and it will be interesting to see how future episodes handle this, since there’s been so much hesitation to let anyone really believe Bran and Rickon are dead. At any rate, this episode did us a favor by finally showing us Bran warging instead of just talking about it. We even got to see Orell’s transition into the second life, a nice early set-up for something that will (probably) be important later. Granted, once the talking started up again, there were several altered details regarding the process that didn’t exactly thrill me, but those are extremely minor concerns. The important thing is that Bran, at long last, has started consciously using his abilities. Doing it accidentally gave him the confidence necessary to do it intentionally, and once he did that, he was finally able to accept who he is and what he has to do.

In the books, of course, this character growth happened a long time ago, at the end of A Clash of Kings. By the time Bran, Hodor and the Reeds arrive at Queenscrown (which is where they are, despite the fact that the camera never got high enough to show us the gold merlons) Bran is practiced enough at warging that he is capable of entering another human being. Still, I didn’t have a problem with the show saving this story until it could be offered proper time. The change in Bran, while sudden, does not feel too rushed or out of place; it feels more like something long-awaited coming to fruition, and the actors involved are good enough to make it work. In his final scene of the episode, Bran is practical and decisive. He’s no longer hesitant about his identity or his path forward. Recognizing Osha’s objections to his journey and the danger of bringing Rickon with him, he orders the group to separate. Again, this is something that happened in the second book, but the writers and Natalia Tena have built up Osha’s relationship with Bran to the point that their parting carries very real impact. To top it off, Art Parkinson actually gets some emotional screen time as Rickon Stark, and the kid was great. I’ve been enjoying the show’s occasional take on Rickon ever since he started smashing walnuts last season, and Parkinson excels in the combination of savage and six-year-old.

With the two Stark boys and their respective guardians parting ways, I’ll be curious to learn whether or not the show decides to devote time to Osha and Rickon on their own. Certainly the plan Bran gives them suggests that there might be more adventures ahead of them; they’ve been sent to the Umbers, which is not where we think they currently are in the books, and the show has proven reluctant to give perceived major characters significant time off (see Allen, Alfie). Personally, I hope they do show Osha and Rickon running around doing things, if only because I want to see more of Tena and Parkinson. As for Bran and the Reeds, hopefully this will give the writers the chance to do something – anything – with Meera.

Meanwhile, the Riverlands, Robb and his family/army are making their fateful way to the Twins, with Arya and the Hound not far behind them. The interactions between Rory McCann and Maisie Williams seem to be living up to expectations so far, though part of that has to be just me getting used to McCann’s Sandor Clegane. The story between the two of them this week was about killing, and to be honest, it should never be about anything else. Arya and Sandor are contradictory characters who revolve around their attitudes toward death, which is why they play so well against one another. In their first scene together, Arya stops the Hound from killing his unconscious victim. After he tells her that kindness will be the death of her, however, she knocks the man unconscious again. Arya also mocks the Hound by describing Jaqen H’ghar’s skills at assassination, despite her objection to Sandor committing murder. In their second scene, after exchanging well-scripted barbs, Arya flat-out tells the Hound she’s going to kill him. And after that, in the most contradictory act of all, Sandor saves Arya’s life by knocking her in the head and carrying her away from the Red Wedding. Between the writing, the acting and the thematic storytelling (including more Stark family near-misses) this was absolutely excellent television.

Which brings us to Robb and Catelyn, because it had to happen eventually. The first scene between these two was okay, if nothing spectacular. They did manage some subtlety (something we wouldn’t see much of in the episode as a whole) through Catelyn’s “anger is more important than common sense” routine and Robb’s excellent line about what would happen if they failed: “We’ll lose the war and die the way father died… or worse.” Yeah, that about sums it up.

It’s been a long time since David Bradley last appeared in the role of Walder Frey. He was good back then, and he was even better this week. His dialogue was a nice blend of book material and new lines, his treatment of Talisa was astoundingly in-character considering the two never met in the novel, and his daughters and grand-daughters were appropriately plain and clearly worth little to him, setting up his later indifference toward the fate of his wife. Tobias Menzies was likewise fine in the small role he had, although witnessing the wedding ceremony meant we had to sit through another rendition of the Dumbest. Wedding vows. Ever. I also have to give serious props to Michael McElhatton, who delivered on all the promises of his characterization of Roose Bolton in this episode. It would have been nice to see Catelyn do more prior to the feast, but as it turned out, that was symptomatic of a larger problem.

So, let’s talk about the Red Wedding itself. First of all, it was built up in a completely different fashion from the books. All the little clues, the slow growth of a nagging feeling that something is very wrong, were gone: there were no tears on Roslin’s face, no warnings from Grey Wind, no realization that none of the Freys who were loyal to Robb were in attendance, no bad food and worse music. It was clear, however, that this was deliberate. Several of David Bradley’s lines, for example, were lines from the book, slightly altered to avoid the hints of betrayal they imply. “The wine will run,” Lord Frey says, not “the red will run,” and “we’ll put this mess behind us,” not “we’ll set some wrongs a-right.” Even during the feast itself, it’s some time before the slightest suggestion of tragedy appears on the horizon; until then it’s all laughing and joking and naming our son Eddard. To a certain extent, this makes sense. For fans of the books, the mounting sense of dread was going to be there regardless, but for non-readers, the Red Wedding was a swerve. We got the nervous tension; they got their socks knocked off. As I said before, I don’t really have a problem with this strategy. It was the most efficient way to affect both sides of the audience equally. When the doors were closed, Grey Wind started whining in his pen and the band launched into the title song, non-readers probably thought something was about to happen, but likely weren’t anticipating a massacre; meanwhile, Talisa’s presence kept the readers guessing, since we didn’t know what was happening with her. Still, it can’t be denied that where A Storm of Swords provided suspense, “The Rains of Castamere” went with shock and awe.

And I think it would have worked for me. It almost did. When Catelyn pulled back Roose Bolton’s sleeve and the butchery began, I was all in. Of course, the first thing the Freys did was start stabbing Talisa, which simply made my mouth drop. It’s a decision that I don’t fully understand, and it was a little disappointing. I had been hoping that the writers were actually going somewhere with this new character, and of all the possible outcomes she could have had, one that I didn’t see coming was “oh, she dies in the Red Wedding.” On the one hand, I have to give credit to the script for throwing me a curveball even though I knew what was coming. On the other hand, if throwing me that curveball was the sole purpose of Jeyne Westerling’s complete re-imagining, it seems an awful lot like a waste of my time (on a total side note, you people go ahead and talk about how this scene officially kills the Jeyne-is-pregnant theory, we’ll see who’s laughing in the end). Nor was I thrilled with the way Grey Wind went out. Aside from the fact that he didn’t get to do anything cool, it kills me that on American television, you can mercilessly slaughter as many humans as you want, but you don’t dare show an animal being put down. Is this a great country or what?

All that said, it was still horribly gripping to watch the Red Wedding occur on-screen, and I was still prepared to call it excellent. All the most crucial elements were there, from Lord Walder’s greedy sipping of his wine to the external realization, through Arya’s perspective, of what was actually happening. Catelyn Stark made her threats, Walder Frey ignored them, and Roose Bolton delivered the killing stroke. It had happened.

That’s where I fell off the wagon. Yes, Michelle Fairley did a very good job of portraying Catelyn going through all five stages of grief in two minutes. Yes, she deserves commendation for her acting, which was phenomenal in this scene. No, it wasn’t nearly what it could have been, or should have been. When Fairley’s final dramatic scene was over, the only take-away for me was how great she would have been in a proper depiction of Catelyn Stark. Game of Thrones has cheated her character almost non-stop for three seasons now, and it’s sadly fitting that in death, she was cheated once more.

“He’s my son,” Michelle Fairley says. “My first son.” Close to the line in the book, but no cigar. The line in the book is “My first son, and my last.” They couldn’t use that line, though, because Catelyn has not been able to grieve for Bran and Rickon. She hasn’t been given the depth of characterization that defines her final moments, that sure knowledge that all of her children are dead, and it’s her fault. HBO’s Catelyn can’t have that moment… but I would have been happy enough if they had tried to fake it. When Robb is killed, Catelyn lets out a heart-rending scream, slits Lady Frey’s throat, and then lets the Freys slit her own. Her final expression is emotionless and dead. That might seem appropriate, but it’s not. Catelyn of the books didn’t just slit Jinglebell’s throat; she sawed with that dagger until she hit bone. Then she started laughing and crying and tearing her own face to pieces. That’s the death of Catelyn Stark. Instead of grief-stricken madness culminating in some merciful Frey putting her out of her misery, we got a nothing but a ridiculous spurt of blood that made me wonder if Catelyn was about to get back to her feet and start yelling that the Black Knight always triumphs.

Don’t tell me it would have been too gory to show Catelyn shredding her face with her nails. When you’ve just stabbed a pregnant woman in the fetus, you forfeit the right to hide behind that excuse. This was simply the end result of a long run of mistakes Game of Thrones has made in regard to Catelyn’s character, and it put a huge damper on my opinion of what was otherwise a perfectly fine Red Wedding. I was prepared to give these guys the benefit of the doubt, if only they had stuck the landing.

Nevertheless, I’ll try to end on a positive note. This wasn’t a bad episode, it just wasn’t a totally awesome episode, which I think a lot of people (me included) were expecting. If this week’s show disappointed, it’s only because the bar has been set too high, and it wasn’t quite able to make that leap. I really liked the silent credits at the end, and on the whole, I think the episode did almost everything it needed to do. If you don’t believe me, check out io9’s list of the 100 best tweets in response to “The Rains of Castamere.” It’s the best kind of schadenfreude.

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