Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Game of Thrones 3.09: The Rains of Castamere, or, It's A Nice Day For A Red Wedding

Greetings again fantasy nerds, for the penultimate installment of the Nikki & Chris co-blog of Game of Thrones’ third season.

Tonight was one of those nights the GRRM readers have been waiting for: even more than Ned Stark’s death or Daenerys’ immolation of Astapor, the Red Wedding marks a point in the Ice and Fire novel when we really, truly understood the fact that Martin will in fact do anything to his characters. No one is safe. It’s my turn on this post to lead off the discussion, and when that’s the case I normally like to write my first blurb as soon as the show’s over, while it’s fresh in my head. But this week … it was just way too much fun to watch the internet explode.

So even though it is my turn to lead off, I think I’ll look in on Nikki to get her initial reaction. How you doing over there, Nik?
The tension started as soon as I saw the Twins were back in the credits.

Nikki: AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!! OH MY GOD I… AAAAHHHHH!!!! They just stabbed her in the… AAAHHHHHH!!!! And the knife and the OH MY GOD NOT THE DIREWOLF AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!! :::sob!!:::

Christopher: Shhhh. Shhhhh. There, there … everything’s going to be all right.

Or … perhaps not. Once again, GRRM totally fucks with everyone’s head. The Red Wedding, as the massacre at the Twins comes to be known, makes the execution of Ned Stark look like a fratboy prank by comparison … and the body count of people we assumed to be important, pivotal characters is appallingly high. Robb! Catelyn! Grey Wind!

Obviously, this is our biggest point of discussion today—but we’ll save it for last so as to get through a handful of other rather important developments. So while Nikki struggles to regain her composure, let’s consider the rest of the episode, in which Jon Snow betrays the wildlings—and Ygritte—killing Orell in the process; Arya almost makes it home to her mother; Daenerys conquers another city; the Bran storyline finally has some substance to it; and Rickon gets to talk! I don’t know what’s more surprising, the mass murder of Starks or the fact that their youngest scion actually had some lines for a change. And guess what? The kid’s a pretty good actor. Too bad we won’t see him again for the foreseeable future.

So let’s start with Bran … or rather, let’s start with Samwell and Gilly’s five minutes of screen time, in which we get a nifty little bit of exposition disguised as yet another moment of cognitive dissonance between the civilized south and the backward north. Sam goes on at great length—professorially, one might say—about the arrangements of castles at the Wall, and their history. What I like about this moment is the guileless pleasure Sam obviously takes in relating what he knows, which is consistent with his character in the books … he is very much a reader, much preferring the company of musty old tomes to most of his brothers in black, and is possessed of a limitless curiosity. To him, it’s all old hat, but the very idea of learning things in the abstract from “marks on a page” is utterly alien to Gilly. To her, the ability to read is literally magical, and in an awed voice she calls Sam a wizard.  

But of course in this charming little interchange is buried some key information—as when Sam shows Gilly the obsidian knife, we’re being set up for something later on. We begin to glean what it is when Bran &co. start talking along similar lines—about how there are a host of deserted castles along the wall, and pondering how they mean to get to the other side. Bran discounts Osha’s seaborne method, as it would take too long; similarly, his useless legs make it effectively impossible for them to scale the Wall. Perchance this secret passage under the Nightfort described by Sam will come in handy?

"I'm not actually a wizard ... though I am a level 90 mage in World of Warcraft."

After an entire season of Bran inching north, punctuated only by Osha’s petulance and Jojen’s cryptic wisdom (and the occasional “Hodor” thrown in for good measure), it was a relief to finally have something happen with that group. We see a more impressive display of Bran’s talents, for one thing—slipping his skin to briefly possess Hodor, first, in order to silence him. It was a nice little moment, and not just a little creepy to see Bran’s eyes go milky. Jojen stresses that possessing a human is practically unheard-of; and with his encouragement, Bran slips into his direwolf to save Jon in what turns into one of the better fight scenes I’ve seen on the show.

So, Nikki—what did you think of the Bran sequences in this episode?

Um … Nikki? You OK there?

"All in the game, yo."

Nikki: [puts down paper bag she’s been breathing into] Gasp… gasp… okay, yes. I think I can speak now. And I have a LOT to say about that final scene, but yes, let’s begin elsewhere while I attempt to compose my thoughts on the Apologetic Second-Tier Wedding massacre.

Let’s just say I wish I was limited to Hodor’s vocabulary right now. Seems so much… simpler.

I agree that it was exciting for something to finally happen with that other group, and while I’m sure the GRRM fans were all yelling, “NO! Get back to the Twins and leave this stuff til later!” I had no idea what was coming (well, some idea as I’ll explain in a minute) so I was happy just to see some side characters finally get screen time.

Oh, and to add to what you said above, I have in my notes, “Rickon says more in his first scene than in the entirety of his presence on the show!” Wow. I’m sure there’s a casting agent out there who put the kid in the show when he was a babe who sat back in relief and went, “Whew,” after that episode.

The direwolf scene was AMAZING. The readers of the books adore the direwolves, and as a viewer I think they are truly majestic to watch, but we almost never see them. I suspect they have a bigger role in the books, since there is a spiritual connection to their guardian that just can’t be conveyed on screen. But near the beginning we see the cavalry go by and the direwolf is almost the same size as the horse. Incredible. My husband and I were both yelling and cheering when the direwolves attacked, and he said he didn’t think we’d ever seen one attack before, but I know we’ve seen a couple of smaller ones where arms and legs get bitten. But this was amazing.

I couldn’t help during this scene but watch Ygritte with some amusement after her repeated comments previously when she and Jon were travelling over the Wall, and kept doing her voice through the episode. “You know NOTHING of decapitation, JON SNOW.” But at the very end, when he leapt on the horse, I thought he was going to pause and pull her up and then… he just took off. The look on her face mirrored mine in that moment. “You know NOTHING about commitment, JON SNOW.” Perhaps this is a deliberate mislead, and he’s actually tricking the others to think he’s leaving her when in fact he’s coming back. But that was a shock.

This episode easily had the best fight scenes in it since the Battle of the Blackwater, from the direwolves to the end scene (sob). But there’s also a pretty fantastic fight scene with the Three Danyketeers: Jorah, Grey Worm, and Daario. Of course there was the constant threat that Daario was leading them into a trap the entire time, but he stayed true to the Khaleesi. What did you think of that scene, Chris?

"Yes, Daario. Sure, you're handsome, with that chin and that hair and that smile that could take the paint off a wall, but ... um ... what was I saying?"

Christopher: I thought the fight scene was pretty amazing, though there was something about it that was weirdly familiar. I didn’t put my finger on it until I read a review of the episode that said it was “very 1960s Batman.” And it was! Something about the way the bad guys encircled them and got fought off was very reminiscent of the way in which Batman and Robin always found themselves surrounded by wave after wave of assailants. All it needed was “PAFF!” and “CLANG!” being thrown up on the screen to be perfect.

Strange overtones of Adam West aside, I thought it was really well done, and it was quite satisfying to see Grey Worm fight—after all the hype about how awesome the Unsullied are in combat, it was good to see that the eunuch has some game. But the scene was also entirely different from the novel: in the book, Yunkai submits to Daenerys’ demands and allows their slaves to join her growing army. I suspect they made the change as a means of letting Daario prove his bona fides … and also because it’s more exciting than simply watching a stream of former slaves issue from Yunkai’s gates.

That being said, I found that all the Daenerys bits in the episode were somewhat flat. Perhaps I was just clenching up in anticipation of the wedding, but it seemed somewhat hurried and rote: Daario establishing himself in Dany’s inner circle; Jorah getting his alpha male hackles up; those hackles going up further when Dany gets flirty; Barristan being honourable. About the only real point of interest is the point Daenerys makes of asking Grey Worm’s opinion—emphasizing that he is no longer a slave, but a leader of his people. And the ending, when Jorah returns to tell Daenerys that all those soldiers streaming out into the courtyard in fact proceeded to surrender, it feels somewhat anticlimactic. I think it would have made for a far more affecting and dramatic scene to have seen the Yunkish soldiers throw down their weapons after a threatening moment where they just stood silently around the Danyketeers.

(Now you have me wondering: which one is Athos? Porthos? Aramis? I would have to assume Jorah is Athos, and Barristan Aramis … which would mean Daario would have to be Porthos, with Grey Worm taking on the heroic role of D’Artagnan. He certainly fights well enough).

But to return to the north: if we ignore the Red Wedding, easily the most affecting moments of the episode belonged to Jon Snow and Ygritte. The closer they get to Castle Black, the greater the tension, as we know the moment of truth is coming for Jon. I loved everything about the ramp-up to the fight, from Jon’s subtle smack on the rock with his sword to warn the horse-breeder, to the way he distracts Ygritte so her arrow misses. Rose Leslie, it needs to be said, was stellar in this episode—she did more with her face than everyone else’s words combined, wearing her fear and suspicion and love for Jon Snow all the way through. When she misses the man on the horse, the look she throws at him is so conflicted it’s heartbreaking—though not as heartbreaking as her utter shock at his betrayal when he rides off.

The painful moment of realizing He's Just Not That Into You.

If Ygritte’s shock is the most affecting moment, I’d say the most satisfying one is when Jon Snow kills Orell, murmuring “You were right about me all along.” Cold comfort for the wildling, I suppose (poor Gareth. Always getting the short end of the stick). It’s dueling wargs, though, and Jon has no time to take satisfaction in his victory as Orell’s eagle proceeds to dive-bomb him. These pets … so, so protective of their humans.

The other storyline in this episode, of course, was the continuing buddy comedy starring Arya and the Hound … not nearly as entertaining as Jaime and Brienne, but with some funny moments. My favourite bit was Arya preventing him from killing the cart man. Their exchange is worth quoting in its entirety:

“You’re so dangerous, aren’t you? Saying scary things to little girls. Killing little boys and old people. A real hard man, aren’t you.”
“More than anyone you know.”
“You’re wrong. I know a killer. A real killer.”
“Is that so?”
“You’d be like a kitten to him. He’d kill you with his little finger.”
[indicates unconscious man] “Is that him?”
“Don’t kill him! Please! Please don’t.”
“You’re very kind. Some day it will get you killed.”

And then as the cart man struggles back to consciousness, Arya matter-of-factly thwacks him across the skull again. And for all of the Hound’s show of being unimpressed, the look he gives her as she walks past him is appraising.

What I loved about this is it shows two sides of Arya—on one hand, practical and fearless, unfazed by neither the Hound’s looks nor his brutality; but she is still a lost little girl, and in a moment of weakness reaches for the memory of the last person who impressed her—Jaquen. Her description of him is funny but also vaguely pathetic, like some phantom big brother she wishes could rescue her.

What did you think of the Arya moments, Nikki?

Nikki: I realize GRRM clearly has a penchant for killing Starks, but seriously, if he touches one hair on Arya’s head…

I thought Arya’s scene definitely had some of the comic highlights, as did the scene where Robb stood before Walder and apologized for not marrying one of his female descendants. VERY funny, actually, which is something that tipped me off that things were about to go VERY BADLY.

Tip #1: When Robb Stark said to his mom (I might be paraphrasing here), “So, I’d like to ask for your advice out of the blue and make amends with absolutely no lead-up to it whatsoever after locking you up and treating you like a prisoner forever, BECAUSE you counseled me on something else that I’d completely ignored, and of course by saying this I’m reminding viewers of that OTHER thing you counseled me on — marrying Walder’s kid — and therefore hinting that something very bad is about to happen. Oh, and just to drive that point home, let’s put this little chiseled model of the Twins here on the board…”
Me: “Oh shit… Robb’s going to die.”

Tip #2: When Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter says to Robb, “And we shall name him EDDARD!!”
Me: “Oh crap. That kid is doomed. So… she’s going to die. And Robb. And baby makes three.”

Tip #3: Arya looking out at the Twins while the Hound is totally wasting time eating pig’s feet and not moving for god’s sakes!!! and he says, “You’re worried you won’t make it in time.”
Me: OH MY GOD they’re going to kill all of them.

Tip #4: The merry little wedding band begins playing “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” during the celebration.
Me: WTF they’re going to lock them in with a bear?! Or… they’re going to slice off a hand. Last time I heard that song Bolton’s men had just sliced off Jaime’s hand.

Tip #5: Bolton’s sitting there.
Me: I’m going to be sick.

So… was it worse than what happened to Ned in season 1? Yes. Three Starks and an unborn child is pretty darn awful. (And methinks Edmure isn’t going to fare well down the hall there…) But was it as shocking as Ned’s? No. For weeks fans had been talking about a Very Big Thing that was going to happen. I had no idea it was going to be this. But I figured someone was going to die. And by the time the wedding was in full swing I knew it was going to be a Stark or three. My stomach was in terrible knots. Seeing the end was like knowing I was about to step into a boxing ring, and then having to deal with pain that’s much worse than what I could have possibly imagined. But with Ned? There was no way they were going to kill him. Major character… most famous person in the cast… the guy on the freakin’ season 1 poster and all promo materials… yeah, they won’t kill him. They’re going to go up there, and bend him over on the thing and Joffrey will be a prick and Arya will run up there just in time and OH MY GOD THEY KILLED HIM WTF?! To go back to the boxing metaphor, it was like I was walking down the street enjoying the beautiful day when I suddenly got walloped in the gut so hard it knocked me unconscious.

The Red Wedding was horrific and awful and the scope of it was inconceivable, but it wasn’t quite the shock that Ned’s death was. Was I still shocked? Holy hell, yes. DAMN I thought Filch was awful when he was at Hogwarts, but that was nothing compared to what he’s like now.

Harry Potter 8: The Re-Filchening.

But the one thing I absolutely didn’t see coming… was the direwolf. Catelyn was shot and Robb was shot and Talisa was stabbed repeatedly in her gut and my hand was over my mouth to stifle my screams (even if you see it coming, you just can’t imagine how horrific it’ll be). But when they cut to outside, and Arya senses something is terribly wrong and runs to the direwolf, I was begging her to get there. And she didn’t. When the dog rolled onto the ground and she saw its face as it died, I lost it. Tears. Everywhere. We had just seen how powerful those animals were (and perhaps the warg scene was there just for that foreshadowing), and to watch the light go out of its eyes was devastating. And then we cut back to the Red Wedding, and I began to think that Catelyn had a chance. That she was going to watch her son die, that she was going to slit the throat of Walder’s wife (which elicited no more than a “meh” from him) and then her punishment would be to go on living, having witnessed all of it. The camera slowly pans in as Catelyn looks like she’s had a lobotomy: she just stands there, eyelids heavy, mouth agape, like her mind just can’t take all of this pain and horror. And then, silently, Walder’s guard steps up and with one movement, slits her throat, and she falls. Fade to black, silent credits.

One of the most powerful moments I’ve ever seen on television.

And, just as she did two seasons ago, Arya arrived just in time to find out that one of her parents has been killed, and before she can do anything, a large man has grabbed her and stopped her, probably saving her life.

They have totally turned her into Batman.

So, tell me how the scene on screen compared to the books. Were you disappointed? Pleased?

Christopher: I was very pleased—if that’s a word I can use to describe my reaction to such a horrific scene. I think they did an excellent job in dramatizing it. They made a handful of changes, all of them minor and none of which affected the scene adversely. If anything, some of the changes were to greater effect: for one thing, in the novel it’s not Walder Frey’s wife that Catelyn threatens and kills, but his grandson—a simpleton who has been given the role of court jester and renamed Jinglebell. It is utterly unsurprising that Walder Frey is indifferent to his idiot grandson; it’s a whole lot colder when he says of his young wife, “I can get another.”

The other significant change is that in the novel Robb is more circumspect and does not bring his wife with him to the Twins. Thus, the fact that they went for Talisa first should not have surprised me as much as it did … but I was shocked, horrified really, for when the Frey henchman stabbed her repeatedly in the belly, it was one of the most brutal moments I have seen on this show—and that’s saying a lot, I think you’ll agree.

I’ve spoken to a handful of people today who have read the books, and the consensus seems to be that knowing what was coming created its own unique tension leading into the last ten minutes. Speaking for myself, as soon as we were past the actual ceremony and into the feast, I could feel my stomach start to clench up in anticipation. I rewatched the episode this afternoon, and tried to see the massacre scene as if I hadn’t read the novels. I found myself deeply impressed with the pacing; the first go around I didn’t notice it as much, as I was just bracing for the midden to hit the windmill, but on returning to the scene I was struck by how well they built the tension. At that point, you didn’t need all of us GRRM fans gleefully saying “just wait!” And you didn’t need the copious foreshadowing that you pointed out … just a few hints, and Catelyn’s wary expression as she senses that something is amiss. And when the song starts playing … I’d forgotten that in the novel the signal to start the killing was “The Rains of Castamere.” It’s even more haunting to hear it on the show, that mournful threatening melody, and Michelle Fairley does a lovely job of registering the slow realization of their danger.

"Waaaaaiiiiit a minute ..."

I’m with you on the direwolf. The cut from Catelyn’s face as the song starts playing to where they’ve penned up Grey Wind—with the strains of the melody still audible—reminds us of how vulnerable Robb and the others are. We’ve already seen direwolves come to the rescue of one Stark son, but the camera tells us now that that won’t be repeated. Grey Wind’s agitation mirrors Catelyn’s.

In an odd way, the killing of the direwolf gave the scene its finality before Robb and Catelyn died. At this point there isn’t really any hope that they’ll live—the shocking death of Ned Stark in season one taught us there are no miraculous rescues on this show—and the cruel and efficient slaying of the animal who is Robb’s protector and the symbol of the Stark family reminds us of that fact.

It was a hugely powerful ending. Catelyn’s final despairing cry and her vacant expression as she allows her throat to be cut was heartrending. Even knowing how it ended, even having girded myself beforehand, it was devastating. I sat in the silence of the credits digesting it all.

One last thought: in the novel, the death blow is dealt to Robb Stark by a nameless Frey who says “Jaime Lannister sends his regards” as he slides the knife in. On the show, it was Roose Bolton who finishes Robb off, saying, “The Lannisters send their regards.” In the novel, the Boltons aren’t in the thick of the betrayal, but Roose is happy to let it play out and claim the North for himself. Here, he’s the co-architect of the scheme with Walder Frey, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in it—letting Catelyn realize that he is wearing armour under his clothes, and thus revealing his complicity.

Did I say he and Walder were co-architects? Perhaps I should be more specific—they were sub-plotters. The true architect, of course is back in King’s Landing. Remember when I said those letters Tywin was writing would play a major role later?

Any last thoughts, Nikki?

Nikki: Just this afternoon I was sealing an envelope (everyone I know has a birthday this week, it seems) and suddenly stopped and thought, “Oh my god, Tywin’s letters. He was orchestrating all of this.”

I joked on Twitter that last night’s episode had two camps: the one going, “OMG! OMG! SOB!” and the other saying, “BWOOHAHAHA! WE HAVE WAITED FOR THIS MOMENT.” But like I said above, I certainly believe you when you say that as a reader, the suspense and adrenaline were probably almost unbearable, while we non-readers were watching all the other stories, “Oh look, Hodor’s talking! And oh hey, Rickon’s talking, too!! Ooh, they killed Orell, and did you see—” and the readers are going, “OH BLOODY HELL ENOUGH WITH THIS JUST GET TO THE BLOODY RED WEDDING THIS IS KILLING ME.” So perhaps there’s a bliss to our ignorance.

But no longer. As soon as next week’s episode is over, I’m reading these books. Chris and I have already discussed doing blogs where I read and discuss with him, our own book club of two. I just can’t take it anymore. GRRM is a mastermind, a genius, a sadist, a very evil man, and I want to read his words before I see them transformed for the screen.

I just can’t imagine what the fallout for this will be, but DAMMIT I can’t believe after next week I have to wait a whole year. Argh. Bring on the books, baby. 


Question Mark said...

1. I may have to stop referring to Joran as "poor man's Commander Riker" and start calling him "British Adam West." There's jusssssst enough ham in his performance to make me believe in an alternate reality where Glen solved crimes in London and then went back to stately Mormont Manor to live with his aunt Harriet.

2. All of the book-readers I knew were like, "Oh man this episode will be awesome," so I knew that something was coming. I didn't quite expect something on this level, however...what a stunner. Now I feel bad for suspecting Talisa was really a spy or double agent for the Lannisters all this time.

3. Probably not a good omen for my fantasy baseball team, since I named it 'Kings In The North.'

4. We'll probably discover this next episode, but are we to presume that Edmure and Blackfish both lived? Edmure will probably return after getting his rocks off and be horrified, though Bolton and Frey will probably just point out there's nothing he can do, so he might as well throw House Tulley in with the Greater Lannister Area. Whereas Blackfish, I suspect, will be harder to convince.

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