FEATURE: Game of Thrones - A Lion Still Has Claws

This is a post especially for those of you who have now seen the ninth episode of the current season of Game of Thrones, The Rains of Castamere, and as such, contains major spoilers. Huge ones. Some as big as your head.


The Rains of Castamere was an important episode for many reasons, not least of which it finally saw the strongest branch of the Stark family defeated, a massive consequence for the political landscape in Westeros. It also proved to be a bit of a shock for its audience, particularly those who haven't read the books and therefore had no idea that it was coming. However, for the rest of us, who have read A Song of Ice and Fire, the episode also heralded the moment in which the dramatic irony of the season, the weight of expectation, the torture of knowing what was on its way was finally relieved. I could have spent my entire review talking about this one scene and the build-up to it throughout the season, but that would have been unfair to the rest of the episode. Therefore, here is my follow-up piece to talk about just why this scene could possibly become the show's defining moment.

My relationship with A Song of Ice and Fire has been relatively short compared to some people's; I started watching the television series, got halfway through the first season and promptly bought all the books. I couldn't bear to get too far without having read them first and so I sat down to read the first, halfway through my third year final exams. Not the best idea, I think you'll agree. By the end of the summer, I'd read them all, but there was not one moment more shocking, more emotional and more heartrending than the Red Wedding. It's one of those literary moments where everyone who has read it has had their own emotional reaction to it; some people threw the book across the room and never picked them up again, some had to take a break and walk away from it for a bit. Personally, I read the chapter and didn't quite believe what had just happened. So I read it again. No, it definitely happened. And it was traumatic. 

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have long stated that this was the event that they wanted to get to in the story, the big set piece that they couldn't wait to show and it's not hard to see why. It's a huge event and one that has a massive impact for your audiences. In George R.R. Martin's books, he has several characters who are designated point-of-view characters who have chapters dedicated to their narratives. The main POV throughout the Robb Stark narrative belongs to Cat, which means that not only does Robb not hold that same emotional attachment, but his story is scene through a character who is definitely not a fan favourite. Nevertheless, the sheer brutality and unexpected nature of the Red Wedding made it a standout set piece that readers paradoxically both looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure. What struck me most about this season though is how well the writers have played both sides of the audience, those who knew what was going to happen and those who hadn't got a clue. 

For non-reader audiences, there was never a hint at what might lay in store for Robb should he go to the Twins. Instead, the focus was placed on him getting to Casterly Rock and taking that to provoke Tywin into battle. The Roose Bolton scene where he lets Jaime go was done on grounds of respectful treatment rather than giving away the knowledge that Bolton had already been turned to the Lannisters. However, things had been going a little too well for Robb; happily married with a child on the way, getting along with his mum again after her betrayal and just generally progressing forward. If that didn't start some alarm bells ringing, then y'all haven't been paying attention.

In contrast, for those who were aware of what was awaiting Robb and Cat at the Twins, this season has been unbelievably torturous because the showrunners kept planting little clues and hints. As mentioned previously, the scene between Roose Bolton and Jaime was perhaps the biggest example; you don't just let your prize hostage meander his way to King's Landing, however benevolent you may be feeling. From the moment the episode began, I felt a slow-burning sense of dread, a despairing anticipation that this was finally the moment in which I saw the chapter that so affected me realised on screen. What I couldn't prepare for was just how shocking that scene would still be.

One of the strongest aspects of the series, especially this recent season, is how they have made Robb a relatable character, primarily because we see much more of him and his relationships than we do in the books. Richard Madden's excellent performance has also helped, remaking Robb into another tragic hero in the same vein as his father Ned. The addition of Talisa (Oona Chaplin) instead of the rather wet Jayne Westerling from books, has also created an interesting and unexpected dynamic; she was the curveball that the readers didn't know what to do with because not only did we not know if she would survive, she was also pregnant.

In fact, it was her death that was the most jolting, the most horrific because of the pregnancy and the graphic way in which her stabbing was shown. Director David Nutter didn't flinch from holding the camera steady on her as she is murdered. Likewise, the rest of the scene was comprised of longer, steadier shots to depict the violence as clearly as possible. This was a massacre that none of us could escape from. I've already talked about Michelle Fairley's performance in my review of the whole episode, but she was really the emotion in the scene and the audience's link to it; we see her note the shift in tone as the band begins to play The Rains of Castamere, she realises that Bolton is not all that he seems. Out of all the characters, Fairley probably had the hardest job in winning the fans of the books over because Cat is universally reviled for being pretty stupid and for starting the whole war off in the first place. That Fairley goes on to inspire such sympathy and to affect us quite so much is a testament to the actor for almost redeeming Catelyn.

Despite knowing that all this was happening, I, like seemingly everyone else who watched the show, sat numb and in shock as the silent credits rolled. The reaction was almost instantaneous (check @RedWeddingTears for the more extreme responses) and I think there seemed to be a consensus amongst those who didn't know it was coming that this was the moment in which Game of Thrones went just that little bit too far.

But the Red Wedding had to happen in all its brutal, horrifying glory and not just because it is in the books, but because of the narrative impact it has; it's a grim reminder that Westeros is a dangerous, dishonourable place and was just the shock a complacent audience needed. After all, we haven't had any major deaths since the first season (in which, lest we forget, there were a lot) and the biggest upset so far was Jaime's hand getting chopped off. The anger that the Red Wedding has received has come as a bit of a surprise to me. Martin has been receiving death threats on Twitter, Benioff and Weiss have also received similar warnings about maiming and people are threatening to not only boycott the show, but cancel their HBO subscription.

Now, forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but Game of Thrones has never been a nice, relaxing family show; death has been a part of its landscape since it first arrived on our screens. This is the show that killed off the King a few episodes into the season, the supposed hero and lead character shortly afterwards. We've had melted gold-related deaths, a wife smothering her husband to free him from his catatonic state and plenty of other minor characters die along the way. To have it happen to characters that we have grown to love does make the Red Wedding all the more unsettling, but it is a logical narrative step and was entirely justifiable.

We needed the shake-up, we needed the reminder that not everything is going to work out all right for the good guys and it also reminds us that Benioff and Weiss are still entirely committed to telling this story properly. Without revealing too much, the Red Wedding has a huge impact on the landscape and characters in Westeros and, for all those decrying that its only the good guys that killed off, we're still only two and a half books into the series. There are plenty of good guys left, a fair few of whom will be driven to other things thanks to the Red Wedding. The bad guys, some of them at least, will get their comeuppance, but these categories aren't necessarily all that clear-cut and some, as Roose Bolton showed, don't necessarily ascribe to what we thought they would.

The Red Wedding will be the show's defining moment because it gives both the audience and the characters a reason to keep going and is a fine, though shocking, example of just how brutal this show and that world can be. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, narrative threads not yet tied up in either book or television and the Red Wedding acts as a catalyst for some of these and a dark background to others. If you're considering not watching the show anymore because the scene was too horrific, I urge you to think again. There are other characters you love, others you hate, but you will never find out what happens to them if you stop watching. 

- Becky

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