A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I can always tell what's going on beneath a dress...
"We'll lose the war and die the way father died — or worse." -Robb
Well, that was a hell of a thing.
Like the death of Ned in season one, Robb's murder was one I unfortunately knew was coming, as some people on the internet just can't help themselves from sharing the exciting things they know that others don't.(*)
(*) Full disclosure: a commenter to last week's review mentioned Robb's death (but not that of Cat, Talisa or all the others), and it was deleted as soon as I saw it, which means none of my writing this season was colored by that knowledge. But even if he hadn't, the number of people on Twitter earlier this evening either telling me they expected me to be emotional after watching or saying they couldn't bear to watch would have been a big tip-off that one or many major deaths were coming. And as the episode progressed, it became clear to me just how many people were likely to die in these specific circumstances.
In the case of "Baelor," the execution of the execution was so flawless that it ultimately didn't matter that I knew what was coming, especially since the show had been foreshadowing Ned's end for quite some time. Knowing what's going to happen and seeing it are two very different things, especially when it involves such an important character, so indelibly played by Sean Bean.
In the case of "The Rains of Castamere," the execution (by Benioff and Weiss, and by director David Nutter, returning after helming two episodes late last season) was just as impressive. This was slaughter on a massive scale, orchestrated brilliantly by Walder Frey and Roose Bolton, and the "GoT" creative team made it every bit as impressive as was plotted out by those men and Tywin Lannister. And placing Arya once again at the site where Starks are murdered — albeit without quite the proximity she had the last time — felt like one extra twist of the knife.
But though the scale was bigger than it was in "Baelor," the impact on me wasn't the same. It's not just that Ned's death was a defining moment for the series, signaling that anyone could be killed at any point, but that Ned was such a compelling character. He repeatedly made bad decisions once he came to King's Landing (and inspired the whole Stupid Ned Stark meme) and was ill-suited to any peacetime job beyond warden of the North, but he was also a man with charisma, and a code that drove many of those bad decisions in ways you could understand, and he left a dramatic void even as the plotting of the Lannisters had largely passed him by.
Stupid Robb Stark, on the other hand, made bad decisions but without the consistency of the old man, and certainly without the screen presence. And Catelyn caused a lot of this trouble in the first place by taking Tyrion prisoner, and then badly undercut Robb's campaign by setting Jaime free without promise of anything. Michelle Fairley brought more to the table than did Richard Madden (she also, in fairness, was given more to work with than he was most of the time), but ultimately I won't miss either of them, nor Talisa. I feel bad for Arya, and for the general balance of good vs. evil on the series. But where Ned's death felt shocking (even though I knew it was coming) because the series was getting rid of what had been its central character, the wedding massacre felt more like the series pruning the cast of some inessential characters in the splashiest way possible.(**)
(**) In that way, it takes me back nearly 30 years to the "Moldavian massacre" cliffhanger ending to a "Dynasty" season, which also involved violence at a wedding. In that case, viewers had to wait months to find out who died, and it was a pair of minor characters (one of them played by Billy Campbell; medical science in the mid-'80s wasn't good enough to save him for a life of wheelchair basketball). Robb and Catelyn were more important in the grand scheme of "Game of Thrones," but other than Theon's never-ending torture, no storyline this year has made me more eager for the globe to start spinning me off to another location.
But if Robb was both foolhardy and dull, he was still a major player in the game. His death — and the death of the pregnant Talisa, coupled with Tyrion and Sansa's wedding and the mistaken belief that Bran and Rickon are dead — leaves the Lannisters with a tight grip on the whole of Westeros, including the North. We know there are still threats from the White Walkers, from whatever magic Melisandre is working, and from Dany, should she ever put her anti-slavery crusade on pause and hop a boat to King's Landing, but for the moment, it's a very good day to be a Lannister, and a very bad day to be any kind of Stark affiliate.
And Nutter shot the hell out of the entire wedding sequence, long before things turned violent. The decision to cut to black immediately after Catelyn's throat is slit, followed by a silent roll of the credits, gave the hour an extra mournful heft, even if I didn't particularly grieve her loss or that of her son or daughter-in-law.
If I had gone into this episode completely unspoiled, would I feel more gobsmacked right now? Possibly, though Benioff and Weiss have been foreshadowing something bad for a few episodes now, and the long close-up of Cat as the doors closed and the music shifted from something upbeat to a dirge ("The Rains of Castamere," in fact, which is a song associated with the Lannisters) was a clear signal bad things were on the way.
The creative team put "The Rains of Castamere" together as well as they could have. But the writing for these characters previously (whether by Benioff and Weiss or from the source material) means that I'm more interested in what's going to come as a result of this bloody mess than I was by what actually happened inside that great hall.
Some other thoughts:
* Though it would have been easy to just set the entire episode at and around the Twins, some significant events took place in other parts of the globe, including Dany's forces successfully conquering Yunkai and Jon Snow revealing his true loyalties to the wildlings. Though it would have been easy to decide that all the time and money for action sequences should go to the massacre, I was impressed by how well staged the fight scenes were outside the windmill and inside the walls of Yunkai. On the latter, the show has been telling us how impressive Jorah, Daario and Grey Worm are, and here it was absolutely believable. I don't know that I loved the transition from them appearing hopelessly outnumbered to Jorah wandering into the tent to tell his khaleesi that victory is theirs, but I can also believe that those three would have carved through as many Yunkish guards as was necessary to make it to the main gate.
* And, unsurprisingly, Jorah is not at all happy to see the connection between young Daario and Daenerys.
* Loved the fight at the windmill, particularly a dying Orell taking control of the bird to attack Jon Snow some more. Pretty rough of Jon to leave Ygritte behind, even if it might not have been physically possible to take her away from big man Tormund at that moment.
* And in the other part of that fight, we learn that Bran is more powerful than any other warg, with the ability to even take over the mind of a human — albeit one as simple as Hodor. A great, tense scene, as well as a reward for people who like to hear Kristian Nairn say "Hodor" a lot. (I'd like to think that Hodor's inner monologue, once Bran took over, was still just "Hodor. Hodor. Hodor.")
* Rickon is a character the show hasn't done a whole lot with, but the parting of the brothers was still tough emotionally because we saw it mainly from the perspective of Bran.
* Arya to the Hound: "Someday, I'm going to put a sword through your eye and out the back of your skull." I might like to see that one day.
* That's two direwolves dead (Sansa's and Robb's), two traveling with the surviving Stark boys, one (Jon Snow's) somewhere north of the Wall, and one (Arya's) AWOL.
* I'd planned to wait until morning to write this review, but the events of this episode caused me to push it ahead of "Mad Men" in the queue. No idea what next week will bring, and please no hints. Which of course leads us to...
UPDATE: Okay, now people are just including spoilers to be obnoxious, so comments are shut down for this review, and possibly for any future writing I do about this show. You want to talk about this episode on HitFix, you can do it on our message boards. There's a message board discussion thread for people who have read the books, and for people who haven't read the books.
Sorry, folks. Can't be helped.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com