So: this was it. If you’re a book reader, this was the episode you’ve been waiting for since the day Game of Thrones came on the air. If you’re not a book reader, this is the episode your book-reader friends haven’t shut up about since the series became a hit. And now that everyone’s had a few hours to accept that, yes, the last ten minutes of that episode really did happen, it’s time to process just what makes “The Rains of Castamere” so significant beyond mere shock value.
The Red Wedding is, for obvious reasons, extremely important in terms of pure plot — two major characters were just removed from a cast that often feels bloated, and one side of the enormous war that’s ripping Westeros apart is all but finished. Roose Bolton’s loyalties, or lack thereof, have come out into the open, and Walder Frey declared for the Lannisters with a dramatic flourish that would be admirable if it weren’t so damn evil. Westerosi drinking song refresher course: as Cersei told us a few weeks ago, “The Rains of Castamere” is about the bad things that happen when you cross the Lannisters, making it the perfect soundtrack for betraying and slaughtering their main adversaries.
But despite fans’ anger and shock (see: Twitter and Facebook, 10:01 pm), the Red Wedding is also a key example of why viewers love Game of Thrones. Unlike almost every other fantasy epic since Lord of the Rings, both the book series and the show are unafraid to follow through on their own internal logic. In a world with people as vindictive as Walder Frey or as ruthless as Roose Bolton, the King in the North can win every battle and still lose the war. The truly sick part is that at this point in the game, viewers should know better than to believe Robb and Talisa would survive the wedding and start a happy family. From Bran’s fall to Ned’s execution, Game of Thrones has let us know from day one that its characters do what makes sense from their own twisted perspective, not what we’d like them to do as (relatively) objective outsiders. And from the minute spiteful old Walder Frey gives Edmure one of his prettiest daughters over one of his umpteen granddaughters — poor Mary! — we should have smelled a rat. Game of Thrones doesn’t pull its punches, and ultimately we as an audience have to respect its refusal to baby us.
As for the 75% of the episode that wasn’t taken up by protagonists getting axed, Bran’s storyline finally gives us a reason to care with the revelation that the younger Stark is a “warg.” Like the wildling Orell, Bran can possess animals with his mind; unlike Orell or any other warg, Bran also has the super-creepy ability to possess humans, or at least the simple giant Hodor. All of this comes to the fore when a panicked Hodor almost gives away their location to Jon Snow’s group of wildlings, forcing Bran to calm him down and fend off the wildlings. After streamlining the group by sending Rickon and Osha to one of the Stark bannermen, Bran and the Reed siblings then continue their journey towards the Wall. And now that there’s finally a reason to care about that journey beyond Jojen’s smug, cryptic mini-speeches, I’m actually looking forward to seeing them again.
Bran’s newfound powers prevent what might have been a very bloody reunion with his half-brother Jon, creating an interesting parallel with Arya: even though the audience would have liked to have seen the scattered Stark children cross paths with their estranged family members, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t. Unlike Bran, however, Arya now has to live with the knowledge that she’s lost her mother and brother as well as her father. The closest thing to family she’s got at this point is a fugitive knight she just threatened to stab through the eye. Fortunately for us, Sandor and Arya have an excellent rapport: they’re both brutally candid and relentlessly cynical, Arya likely more than ever once she wakes up. They’re the show’s resident odd couple now that Jaime and Brienne have split up, but their relationship feels less like a clash of worldviews and more like a meeting of the minds. Arya’s well on her way to ending up as damaged as the Dog, and although it’s sad, the two understand each other in a way that’s fascinating to watch.
Halfway across the world, Daenerys Targaryen enjoys another victory this week, although the emphasis is more on her budding interest in Daario Naharis than the conquest of Yunkai. Her scenes are disappointing, and not just for their distinct lack of dragons and screaming slave masters. Daario still feels too cheesy and too untrustworthy to be a true match for Daenerys, who comes off more like a middle-school girl dealing with her first crush than a savvy warrior queen. Maybe that’s the point, but I hate the idea of a woman as independent and straight-up badass as Dany getting thrown off her game by a ridiculously pompous sell-sword who happens to be physically attractive. Luckily, Daenerys ends the episode with another city under her belt, but I’m not looking forward to her inevitable romance. Give the limited screen time to the dragons, please.
Back in the North, Jon’s true loyalties are finally ripped out into the open. In a well-executed callback to the series’ very first episode, Jon is asked to behead a farmer so he won’t rat out the wildling raiding party, just like Ned once beheaded a deserter for giving up his watch against the wildlings. Jon can’t do it, and after Bran-as-Summer comes to the rescue, he’s forced to leave Ygritte behind and make a break for Castle Black. The whole scene needed to happen in order to get Jon back to the Night’s Watch, but the likeable Tormund Giantsbane ordering Jon’s murder without missing a beat was a nice touch, as was his confrontation with Ygritte. Now that the star-crossed lovers are firmly on opposite sides again, we know for sure that their romance won’t end well — but then again, we never should have expected it to.