(Extended Cut posts are articles where I’ll exceed my usual 200-word limit to allow for more detailed discussion)
Well, that happened. With one deft swoop, Game of Thrones sealed its title as the least fan-friendly show on television. The show has carefully spent three seasons developing the Starks as well-meaning, sentimental types, a rare beacon of goodness in the murky fog of the Westeros. So, of course – just as Tyrion’s spent the season downtrodden and miserable, just as Daenerys’s march towards Westeros grinds to a halt to focus on slave cities, just as everything seems to turning up Milhouse for Joffrey – the Starks must die, because that’s exactly what the show’s manifold fans don’t want to see.
I’m still somewhat surprised that I managed to go into this episode unspoiled. Of course, with Twitter and friends who’ve read the books knowingly smirking, I knew something was up, but the exact details were thankfully vague, meaning that as it became gradually clear that Edmure’s wedding – the “red wedding” – had a deeply sinister undercurrent, my reaction was one of, if not surprise, at least dawning horror.
Not knowing where the plot was going, I found the foreshadowing masterful, whether it was Cersei’s conversation with Margaery regarding the titular Rains of Castamere, or the menacing atmosphere as Robb and Catelyn stand over a war table filled with intricately-carved wolves, facing down a field of lions yet surrounded by Bolton’s flayed men and Frey’s ashen towers. My trepidation grew as I pondered the presence of Roose Bolton after his favourable treatment of the Kingslayer, and I found that the surprising beauty of Edmure’s bride seemed at odds with Frey’s bitter contempt for the Starks and the Tullys.
The growing sense of dread in the pit of my stomach was certainly instigated by the uncertain knowledge of something immense occurring in this episode, but even without this episode did a consummate job of developing and maintaining an all-consuming atmosphere of dread. By the time the hall’s doors swung closed and the Lannister song began, the bloody climax seemed inevitable.
Of course, from a narrative stand point it makes sense. After his promising aggression and prowess on the battlefield in late-Season One/early-Season Two, Robb seemed like a genuine contender for the throne, someone to avoid his father’s mistakes. But it had become clear that Ned Stark was an integral part of Robb, in the fibre of his being, and while that may have impelled his victories with the sword, they undermined the strength of his leadership. With his home overrun with Greyjoy’s men, Karstark’s head at his feet and a foreign bride at his side, what was there to keep the North’s loyalty? Little more than oaths to his name; oaths to an oathbreaker. It’s easy to sympathise with Robb’s decision to marry for love, but love doesn’t win the game of thrones.
I can’t say I had much affection for Robb Stark, or even his mother. They were good people, but it was already clear that this is not a world where goodness is rewarded. But a day after seeing the episode, the loss resonates. It’s testament to the quality of the episode, directed with near perfection by David Nutter, that I felt shellshocked; overwhelmed with the sense of disbelief that follows real-world tragedy.
I’ve been writing for three times the length of a normal post now, and I’ve only touched upon one aspect of an episode; an episode that was surprisingly dense given the magnitude of the events within. The focus was certainly on the Starks – Robb and Cat’s morose end, Arya’s devastation – but there was also Bran, and Jon Snow, and Daenerys, even if no-one’s talking about them today. There was even a brief mention of “wizard” Sam, in one of the episode’s few moments of levity.
Bran’s story this season is one of a handful to not work for me at all. The mysterious visions, portentous talk that goes nowhere and enigmatic siblings is perhaps intriguing on the page, but it’s largely been a drag whenever they’ve appeared on screen this season. Thankfully, this episode was a welcome change, thanks to a thrilling intersection with Jon Snow’s story, that brought humour (“Stop Hodoring!”), a surprise demonstration of Bran’s talents, and real emotion as the party split into two.
Jon Snow remains a thoroughly underwhelming character, (and – I’ve said this before – I think the blame lies squarely on Kit Harrington’s broad but boring shoulders) but at least he got to do stuff this episode. I imagine the skirmish between Snow and the wildlings is more coherent on the page: I was confused as to why he knocked Ygritte down, or why he rode off after spotting Bran and Rickon’s direwolves, but it was exciting nonetheless, and a necessary climax to the building tension between Snow and the wildlings.
I maybe misrepresented the facts a little when I suggested Daenerys’s story isn’t fan friendly. After all, her liberation of Astapor was undeniably awesome, and her unabashed nudity in “Second Sons” was pretty much the definition of fan service. But while I’m sure most of the audience wants her to pack up her dragons and Unsullied and go remove Joffrey from the Iron Throne, she doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to get there. Provided she keeps being both awesome and entertaining, that’s no problem with me, but for once, Daenerys’s plot was the weakest of the episode, largely due to necessary brevity.
Her liberation of Yunkai felt too rushed, cut together to show off Daario, Jorah and Grey Worm’s fighting skills at the expense of a coherent conclusion. When the show left the three warriors facing an apparent ambush by dozens of guards, I convinced myself that perhaps Daenerys would be the one to meet a horrible end, and when only Jorah and Grey Worm arrived at Daenerys’s tent, I was more concerned. Except, no, apparently it was just some clumsy editing, and everything turned out fine (barring another major twist – there is a finale to go, after all).
But it seems petty to pick at such minor flaws in a peripheral storyline, when the impact of Frey’s betrayal is so immense. Personally, I’m off to listen to the latest National album; their brooding music seems like the best way to cope with the immense crater left by “The Rains of Castamere.”