“The wine will flow red, the music will play loud – and we’ll put this mess behind us.”
Wow. What is it about penultimate episodes of this show? Last year’s episode 9, Blackwater, was undisputedly the best ep of the season. Now, with this week’s action-packed Game of Thrones cutting down on the jaw-jaw in favour of the war-war, it looks like that might become a standard thing. There was violence, action and revelation aplenty as much of the previous scheming came to fruition; along the way, there was still time for a few heart-rending character moments. Oh, and another of the recently frequent weddings. Only this one decidedly did not go as expected.
Showrunners Benioff and Weiss were again on scripting duties, proving that they know at least as well as original author George RR Martin how to translate this story for the screen. After last week’s considered, narrow-focused character piece, this week brought us up to date with most of the other narrative threads in a frenzy of excitement. Along the way were some genuinely thrilling action scenes at least the equal of any you might see in an actual movie.
Bran’s party were still heading North towards the Wall, while Jon and his untrusting Wildling commandos were heading South. It was perhaps inevitable that their plotlines should draw together, as both parties ended up converging on an abandoned tower during a thunderstorm. Bran and co were using it to shelter from the rain, while the Wildlings were chasing an escaped victim of their horse-robbing activities before he could rat them out to the Night’s Watch.
The scene built from fearful conversation between Bran’s group to outright tension as their frantic efforts to shush the terrified Hodor before he could tip off the Wildlings outside were intercut with the final test of Jon Snow’s loyalty. Apparently killing Qhorin Halfhand wasn’t enough to convince them; at least, not while Orell was still holding a torch for the smitten Ygritte. Challenged to prove his loyalty by killing the unfortunate horse breeder, Jon demurred – and all hell broke loose as the Wildlings realised they’d been had.
It was a terrific fight scene (the first of many this week), the combatants slipping in the all-too convincing mud as they hacked and slashed at each other. Mind you, hard bastard though he may be, I wasn’t convinced that Jon could take out so many Wildlings, even with Ygritte’s help. Which was where Bran came in.
Having already used his mysterious powers to still the quivering Hodor, he now used them to possess the direwolves, who came tearing out of the rain to rip the throats out of the Wildlings while Jon finally despatched the loathsome Orell with the words, “you were right all along”. The look of horrified realisation on Ygritte’s face as he fled was a picture; kudos to Rose Leslie for a good performance this week. I guess she was the one who knew nothing.
I must say, I had hoped we’d keep the ambiguity about Jon’s true loyalties a little longer than this; in the books, even at this point, you weren’t sure if he was truly betraying the Wildlings or simply killing them before they could kill him. But it also led to more interesting revelations about Bran’s mysterious power to enter the bodies of animals – and now, with Hodor, people too. As Jojen told him, nobody, anywhere has been able to do that. It looks like Bran’s another of the most vital pieces in the game – not the one to win the Iron Throne, but the one to defeat the implacable White Walkers. Like Dany’s dragons, he seems an obvious weapon to use against them.
Unlike his little brother Rickon, who has seemed little more than a spare part in the cast since the burning of Winterfell. Having had barely anything to do in three seasons, Rickon was finally off this week as Bran sent him packing with Osha rather than subject them both to the dangers beyond the Wall. Proving once again that this show has a way with child actors, Art Parkinson finally got a Big Acting scene with his tearful farewell to his brother. I’m not sure he really held his own against Isaac Hempstead-Wright’s earnest solemnity, but he really did try.
It was back to yet more 300-style shenanigans over the sea at Yunkai, as the long-promised battle for the city began. Or at least, sort of began. What we saw here was another cracking fight scene, as the dodgy Daario, still smitten by Dany’s dripping nudity, led Ser Jorah and Grey Worm through a secret entrance to the fortified city. Having already despatched the two guard on the gate, the trio were then met by another roaring horde. Cue yet more hacking and slashing as they cut them down efficiently, Daario proving his loyalty in the process.
It was an excellently choreographed fight sequence, Ed Skrein, Iain Glen and Jacob Anderson pirouetting like dancers as they repeatedly hacked down their enemies. But while it was a joy to watch, it did feel a bit anticlimactic when we cut to the next scene to show them arriving back at Dany’s tent to announce that the city had been taken. What, with just the three of them? All right, so maybe Yunkai’s slave soldiers didn’t truly have their hearts in it, but I’d expected to see a bit more of a battle than that.
Still, it did at least serve to confirm (if it needed to be) that Dany and Daario have real feelings for each other. Scary, violent feelings, probably, but feelings nonetheless. And at least we finally saw the fabled Unsullied in action, as the deceptively slim Grey Worm proved himself a force to be reckoned with equipped with a spear.
But missing out on a pitched battle for Yunkai felt like a price worth paying for the ep to be dominated by the most shocking and dramatic plotline – the unexpected turn of events at Edmure Tully’s wedding to… one or other of Walder Frey’s daughters. In many ways, the season has been building up to this since the beginning, with the increasingly desperate Robb Stark now left with no allies to turn to except Lord Frey – a man he’s bitterly disappointed already by breaking his vow to marry a daughter himself, thus giving the leering old Lord a royal connection.
Like most of Robb’s decisions since last year, it turned out to be a Very Bad Idea. Probably the worst he’s had yet. Still, he’s unlikely to repeat it. Turning up at Frey’s castle, The Twins, in hope of enlisting the old git’s army against the Lannisters, it looked bad from the start, as Walder sneeringly took the opportunity to humiliate not just Robb but his wife too. Understandable, I suppose, but David Bradley’s performance as Walder made his relish of the situation truly loathsome.
It was a tense scene, with Robb stayed from defending his wife at swordpoint by the more levelheaded Catelyn, while Clive Russell’s Brynden lurked broodingly in the background. Roose Bolton was there too, looking as untrustworthy as usual. And finally, this week, we got an answer to the question of just where his loyalties lie.
Even at this point, it looked like things might go off without a hitch – except for the intended one. But things took a very dark turn indeed at the reception, when the doors of the hall were swung shut and the musicians, previously so jolly, started playing a sombre rendition of the Lannister anthem ‘The Rains of Castamere’. So sombre was it that they had Coldplay’s Will Champion on the drums – he’s the one on the right:
The tune heralded Walder Frey’s true intentions, intentions that Catelyn Stark realised just too late – a wholesale slaughter of those who’d ‘betrayed’ him, as he threw his lot in with their enemies, the Lannisters. I’ve seen some wedding receptions go badly, but never quite as badly as this.
And it all started with Robb’s wife Talisa; as I’d guessed it might when they started waxing wistful about her pregnancy. That was the cue for her to be repeatedly and graphically stabbed in the stomach before the horrified King in the North, just as he too was pierced by arrow after arrow.
It was a truly horrifying sequence that served to underline (as if you could forget) that in this show, any character, no matter how important, can die at any time. And Roose Bolton finally confirmed that he too had sold out to the Lannisters, delivering the coup de grace to Robb with a vicious stabbing and the hissed words, “Tywin Lannister sends his regards”. I guess we now know what was in those letters Tywin’s been writing all season.
In the novel, this ‘Red Wedding’ is a truly horrifying event, foreshadowed by an unsettling sense of dread even when things seem all right on the surface. Benioff and Weiss caught that perfectly here. Foreshadowing abounded; early on, Robb speculated that, “we’ll lose the war, and die like my father – or worse”. And Arya, still travelling towards The Twins with the cynical Hound, was warned that this was the nearest she’d been to her family since her father’s death. And that, when things seem nearest is just when they’re at their most precarious.
True enough. Not only were Robb and his wife cut down, so were all of his bannermen and his Army of the North, waiting patiently outside with their ‘allies’. They too were massacred before the horrified Arya, who also saw her brothers beloved direwolf slaughtered with arrows.
Catelyn Stark was the last woman standing, but not even she could sway the loathsome Walder by threatening his wife (“I’ll get another”). And so it was that the King in the North met his final end, as his mother howled. It was another astonishing performance from Michelle Fairley; a shame we won’t be seeing any more of her. She ended up with her throat cut after cutting the throat of Walder’s wife, and the screen faded to black. The credits ran, for once, in complete silence. No matter how shocking the events in previous episodes, there’s always been some sort of music at the end; the silence here served to underline the emotional punch of the events.
The Big Acting Moment
Quite a few this week. As mentioned, Michelle Fairley made her swansong as Catelyn Stark truly memorable. She’s been a formidable presence, and the show will miss her. Which makes her senseless death all the more shocking.
But the rest of the Big Acting Moments really belonged to the show’s talented child actors. Art Parkinson’s Rickon, finally given something to do, was a little overshadowed by Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Thomas Sangster. But the ever-brilliant Maisie Williams was on top form as Arya, sparring with the Hound and even getting him to back down from killing the luckless innocent whose cart he’d just stolen. For all that they keep swearing to kill each other, these two are a priceless double act. That Williams can convincingly face down the immensely tall Rory McCann just makes her that bit more awesome, after having held her own against Charles Dance last year.
Sex and violence
No sex this week, astonishingly (though lecherous Walder wouldn’t stop talking about it). They probably didn’t have time for it amidst probably the greatest amount of violence the show’s ever had in a single episode. All right, probably more people were killed at the Battle of Blackwater; but these were people we actually knew.
And the most graphic violence was saved for them. Yes, there was plenty of spurting blood, hacked limbs and impaled stomachs in the fights between Jon and the Wildlings, and Dany’s men and the Yunkish. But the gore was shown mostly in long shot, and for a split second. The orgy of explicit gore was saved for characters we cared about, starting with the truly shocking repeated stabbing of the pregnant Talisa.
All of this may face the charge of being ‘gratuitous’. But while that’s often true enough of this show, the violence here felt dramatically necessary to emphasise the horror of the situation. It ended with two similarly graphic throat slashings, firstly Catelyn’s hostage’s, then her own.
This was a storming, shocking episode, the intensity of its violence equalled by the dramatic shocks of who the victims were. It looked like Brynden got away, and there was no sign of Edmure after he was escorted to the bedchamber; but Robb, Talisa and Catelyn are gone. Less violently departed are Rickon and Osha, heading for the Umber stronghold of Last Hearth. Though if Lord Umber was among the guests at the Red Wedding, they may not find any help there.
In an ep full of faithful renderings of memorable set pieces from the book, the Red Wedding was the standout – as indeed it is in the book. I knew it was coming, and it still shocked me actually seeing it; I can’t imagine how much more shocking it would be for a committed viewer who didn’t know what was on the cards. I must admit, I thought Benioff and Weiss would leave it to the last episode, as the seasosn cliffhnager. After seeing this, I can sort of understand why they didn’t – it’s just too dark and down beat an ending. If this had been the season finale, a lot of viewers might have assumed it was the end of the story as a whole. Next week, though, they’ll have to go some to top this.