Honor and vengeance and victory and tragedy. That’s the simplest way to sum up “The Rains Of Castamere,” the spectacular and horrific ninth episode of this season of “Game Of Thrones.” So many threads, once loose and frayed, at last are brought together, and the characters do not escape unscathed. And while there are battles won and celebrations throughout, not all are victories worth celebrating. We’ve known — we’ve always known — that this world is a dark and treacherous one. Now, those depths are revealed in whole new fashion.
Yet there was also faith and victory. In Yunkai, Daenerys takes one of her biggest gambles, despite the instinctive mistrust of Jorah, her most trusted adviser, when she places the hope of her army in the hands of Daario Naharis. Daario’s flippant disregard for Jorah’s suspicion was sly and clever, but what was even more interesting was how quickly Grey Worm stepped into his role as leader, and how quickly he trusted Daario as well. All of this led to one of the more spectacular battles in the entire show, one that was swift, graceful, and almost too short. It was a beautifully choreographed scene, showcasing three distinctly different styles and their corresponding weapons, a sharp and fascinating contrast to the lumbering, bone rattling violence of the knights of Westeros. And in the end, Yunkai is taken, Daenerys continues her relentless campaign against the slaver cities, and the bond between Daenerys and Daario, one that was formed so quickly, becomes even more wickedly charged.
In Westeros, however, one of the many things that made this episode both remarkable and devastating was how close some of our splintered families came to reuniting with each other. Of all the harsh cruelties that this show has inflicted upon its characters (and forced its viewers to endure), bringing them so close to each other only to once more tear them asunder is one of the worst. For Bran and Rickon, the revelation that they were so close to Jon was totally unexpected. Their story has been the quietest of them all, and suddenly everything has changed. Bran is so much more than we realized, not just a boy with strange dreams, but rather someone — maybe even something — unlike anyone else in the world. It was when that truth was brought to light that Isaac Hempstead-Wright once again proved that he has taken great strides as a young actor. The entire sequence — the possession of Hodor, his moment of self-doubt and horror, and then the final parting with Rickon — demonstrated an impressive range and made the scene so affecting and, in many ways, heartbreaking. They come so close to their half-brother, and not only are they not united, but they are splintered even further. That said, additional kudos are due to Art Parkinson’s portrayal of Rickon Stark (remember him?), who suddenly becomes a central character and nails the sad, frustrated younger brother in tearful fashion.
Part of what made those moments with Bran and Rickon so mesmerizing was the juxtaposition of Jon and the Wildlings. Just as Bran and Rickon were huddled with their allies, Jon was beginning the inevitable split from his. The absence of mercy as they plan to murder an innocent man is only another broken link in an already troubling chain of events, and it is here where we realize that no matter what — no matter what freedoms are promised, no matter what friendship is offered, and no matter what love is given — Jon Snow’s loyalty never truly wavered. He may have had a moment of doubt, but at the same time, the lines between Jon and the Wildlings were ever becoming clearer. And in the end, it’s the life of a simple horse trader that drives the final wedge into this unsteady and uncertain union. It was there, in the pouring rain amid the ruined towers, that a brutal battle ensued wherein everyone learned more about themselves. Jon has always been a Brother of the Night’s Watch, but perhaps he held out hope for Ygritte. And even though she may have killed an innocent man to save his honor, it was that act that was ultimately their undoing.
But what truly drove us towards the merciless, devastating finale was fear. Fear and rage and vengeance. We thought we knew vengeance. “Show them how it feels to lose what they love,” Catelyn said to Robb. Join with the Freys and show the Lannisters the true meaning of loss.
She had no idea how much deeper the depths of her family’s loss could go.
It began with Arya and The Hound, which has the potential to be as entertaining a match up as Arya had with Tywin Lannister. Her furious confrontation with Sandor Clegane was as riveting as was her curious notion of mercy (knocking a man unconscious in order to save his life is so perfectly Arya). But what broke many hearts — particularly those of readers — was the look of hope and fear on her face as they approached The Twins. That was what led to that exchange, for no one knows fear quite like the Hound, and Arya knows exactly how to strip bare that wound. Amazingly, one can only think that despite all the suffering he’s both caused and endured, the unblinking, dead stare and unwavering threat of a young girl may well be what he should be most afraid of.
At last, we find ourselves at The Twins, home of the despicable and slighted Freys. There is almost no way to describe this scene other than to say that it was brilliant and devastating and tragic. It was one of the most perfectly executed scenes I’ve seen, and that’s in large part due to the buildup. To be sure, we’ve been building up to this point for weeks now, and even had a minor red herring in the form of poor Lady — no, Queen Talisa. And in that dank, grim, cave of a castle, you knew something was going wrong, just as everything seemed to be going right. The bitter and unpleasant Walder Frey (so spectacularly portrayed by David Bradley) as he subtly castigated Robb and company, his nastily flippant listing of his own kin, and his disgusting treatment of Talisa — all of this was yet another misdirect. Perhaps, we thought, he just had to get his final barbs in before the two houses join. Yet at the unveiling of his surprisingly lovely daughter Rosalyn and his hateful and knowing nod at Robb — that was when a true sense of dread set in, even for one who knew what was to come. In the thick of it, the disturbing and haughtily smarmy creepiness of Roose Bolton as he simply waits and watches like a snake. And when after all the joyous festivities are done, and Robb and Talisa have their tender moment about the child as a hopeful Catelyn looks on…
… the Red Wedding begins in earnest. And it was everything that the books promised. A betrayal would have been one thing. A betrayal would have been stunning, but not unprecedented. Yet this, this savagery, this butchery, was on an immeasurable scale. An entire army slaughtered in moments, a pregnant queen stabbed to death, a king brought to his knees and then so nonchalantly murdered by a man once thought an ally. All of this, because of a single slight over a spurned daughter. It was cruel and brutal and awful and most of all, it was amazing. It was one of the most stomach-churning, heart-rending scenes you may well ever see on television, and all the more so because everything that built up to it was crafted as meticulously and as lushly and vividly as the moment itself. And that final minute — as a desolate, broken, desperate Catelyn still tried to save her family only to see her son, her child, her king killed in front of her — that final moment was equally perfect. Praises are due to Michelle Fairley for the thankless task of portraying Catelyn Stark, who was often a source of frustration for so many viewers. In the end, as she howled in fury and despair, as she butchered an innocent young woman because she simply had nothing left inside of her, as her own throat was slit and as that arterial spray was the last thing we saw or heard, she showed us how truly great that character was.
Like the death of Ned Stark, I knew. I knew it was coming, and I knew it was coming tonight. And like the death of Ned Stark, I still wasn’t ready. “The Rains Of Castamere” likely shocked many a viewer. Everyone knew something was coming. Everyone was probably even expecting a major character to die. But no one could have expected such wholesale slaughter. Such is the world of “Game of Thrones,” my friends, You thought you knew. But now, as the Starks are broken and butchered and scattered to the winds, you realize — more than ever before — that you were wrong.