“You’re very kind,” says the Hound to Arya, in between bites of pickled pig trotter. “Someday it’ll get you killed.” If ever there were words to live by — or, more likely, the opposite — in Westeros, it’s these. From day one, Game of Thrones presented the Stark family as the heroic moral compass of its endlessly twisting narrative. Unlike the conniving schemers to the South, the fair-minded and merciful Starks were as sturdy as a Northern oak. Noble and unflashy, they were the Derek Jeters of the Seven Kingdoms: praised and resented for playing the Game the right way.
In a typical fantasy epic, Ned would have been the hero; the only thing heavier than his chain mail was his conscience. Way back in the pilot, Lord Stark taught his boys an important life lesson when he meted out rough justice upon a deserter, saying “He who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” But sword-swinging is a creaky and clunky way to get things done in a more modern era, one when the line of fate separating those handling the blade and those receiving it is smaller than Roose Bolton’s bar tab. Ned found that out himself in King’s Landing when his slash-and-burn truth-telling proved no match for the million pinpricks and paper cuts of gossip, power, and innuendo that did him in. (Attacking the Lannisters with outmoded ideas like “justice” is like taking on a nuclear submarine armed with nothing but a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order.) And, tellingly, there were no swords unsheathed in last night’s carnage either — assuming you don’t count dumb old Edmure’s non-metaphorical bedding ceremony. The most shocking scene on television in 2013 was a quick and brutal affair carried out with daggers, crossbows, and slithery, secondhand deceit. The Starks prayed to the Old Gods to the very end, but it was their allegiance to the old ways that cost them everything.
The events of what even a non–book reader like me has come to recognize as the Red Wedding were shocking, but I can’t say they were all that surprising. When it comes to optimism and the overall efficacy of rigid moral codes, Game of Thrones tipped its hand back when it clipped Ned’s neck. Furthermore, the story line of proud Robb Stark — a warrior who never seemed to fight any battles; a father’s son who cut off a loyal ally’s head to spite his own face — had long ago dead-ended itself into a series of increasingly foreshadowy pronouncements, the last of which, about how much he was looking forward to teaching his unborn son, Ned Jr., to ride horses, was more or less lifted directly from the shooting script of McBain: The Movie. (Also? Industry trades don’t bray about things like this unless the actor in question has agents who want to make it very clear their about-to-be-unemployed client still has some work lined up, thank you very much.) Game of Thrones proved in its first season that anyone is expendable; proving it again is no great shakes. No, what made me actually shake was the way it all went down.
Dread is an underutilized emotion on TV. This is most likely due to the shackles of serialized storytelling that, impossibly, demand both constant forward momentum and deeply settled consistency. Most shows, even the very best of them, traffic in the illusion of change, not the thing itself: The Sopranos was never really going to whack Tony, and Nicholas Brody isn’t going to be martyring himself on Homeland as long as Damian Lewis is winning Emmys. It’s hard to feel like something terrible is going to happen when the multiseason model of television remains too invested in nothing happening at all. Because Game of Thrones began its life, like Samwell Tarly’s insider knowledge of castles, as a series of marks on paper, it’s not bound to this risk-averse small-mindedness. I give the show a lot of grief for all the ways its fealty to pre-existing source material hampers the dramatic burst and bloom of a typical television season, but it’s in episodes like last night’s that the advantages are made abundantly clear. Only Game of Thrones can blow up the present like this, because only Game of Thrones already knows its future.
And so from the moment the band switched from faithful covers of Now That’s What I Call Lute, Volume 17 to a doomy version of “The Rains of Castamere” (which instantly jumps to the top of this list, right?), I suddenly felt chillier than a Wildling in a meat locker. Director David Nutter choreographed the entire massacre like a ballet, focusing not only on the showstopping leaps (in this case, of arterial blood) but also on all the small steps necessary to get there: the ominous clank of the castle door, the baleful whine of a suspicious wolf. This was horrifying, spellbinding filmmaking. And when the bolts and plasma started flying, Nutter wisely focused not on the gore but on the ferocious performance of Michelle Fairley, a lioness regardless of her banner who somehow managed to cram all five stages of grief into a four-minute scene. First came denial of what was happening all around her, then fury for what Walder Frey had done to their deal. The hardest part to watch was the bargaining: “Let him go and I swear we will forget this,” she howled as she held a knife to the throat of one of Frey’s terrified, lesser wives. Depression took her then, rooting her to the spot as Roose Bolton oozed from the treasonous shadows to stop the heart of an already shattered Robb. (How vicious was it to begin the slaughter with the violent death of another Ned Stark, albeit one yet to be born? I feel bad for Talisa. She was already offended by the bedding ceremony. Imagine what she thought of this even more savage Western tradition?)
Cat Stark’s final scream, as she slit one innocent throat in grim anticipation of having the same thing done to her own, was one of acceptance. She had spent a lifetime trying things the honorable Stark and Tulley way, trekking up and down a continent to receive a box of bones and calling it a kindness, freeing Jaime Lannister, the man who tried to kill her son, in hopes of saving her daughters. In her final moments, Cat Stark saw the world as it truly was, not the way doomed crusaders like her late husband desperately imagined it to be. “The gods love to reward a fool,” is how her drunk uncle put it, moments before stepping out to relieve his bladder — and, no, I don’t think Blackfish or Edmure were in on this; I believe the Lannisters consider the Tulleys, like the Tyrells, cobblestones to be trampled, not roadblocks to remove. But the biggest fool isn’t the man who remains unaware of his circumstance, it’s the man who grows too comfortable within his own. Robb, like most Starks, had been a fool in all the worst ways, believing that passion should be rewarded and that the truth is more powerful than gold. No one deserves a crossbow bolt in the collar, but it’s the conclusion Robb wrote for himself — or rather the one Tywin Lannister wrote for his boyish adversary, from behind a desk. This was what all those letters from King’s Landing have been about, right? If so it’s an awfully sly nod by George R.R. Martin to authorial power. While Robb plotted and played with action figures — and fans dreamed of easy victory — unsentimental Tywin picked up the pen and scribbled out exactly the way he wanted things to be.
What’s most interesting to me as this third season of Game of Thrones bleeds out all around us is the way its creators — Martin, certainly, as well as his able adaptors, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — are playing with more than just television storytelling conventions. They’re playing with storytelling itself. Robb and his family aren’t just cursed for believing in fairy tales — disembowled dreams like justice and happy endings — they themselves are fairy tales. Robb was the young prince boosted by righteousness and romance. Sansa was the beautiful innocent with visions of love and lemon cakes dancing in her pretty, untroubled head. And Arya — so painfully close to her family, thankfully not quite close enough to die alongside them — was the stereotypical tomboy who dreams of becoming a warrior. Once again it fell to the Hound to disabuse a Stark of her idyllic prentensions. Arya’s idea of a “real” killer isn’t a scarred pragmatist like Sandor Clegane — who, despite the little lady’s constant proclamations, has always struck me as a pretty nice guy, all things considered! — it’s a fantasy fulfillment machine like Jaqen H’ghar. You remember him, right? He’s the face-changing Lothario who granted Arya three wishes last year then vanished in a puff of smoke. That’s not a real killer. That’s a genie. Can you imagine Martin’s version of Snow White? The wicked Queen would reign supreme while the heroine would wind up crucified in Littlefinger’s brothel. (As for Boozy the Dwarf, well, we have plenty of evidence what Martin would do with him.)
The first 40 minutes of “The Rains of Castamere” dwelled on some of the less rewarding threads of this third season, partly to sow complacency and build anticipation but also to demonstrate what it is, other than breathing, that separates some Starks from others. (The time spent with Daenarys in Essos was mostly to demonstrate how Benioff and Weiss blew their blood budget for the season elsewhere. They yada-yada’d the sacking on an entire city!) Jon Snow is a bastard, born outside of the tight web of convention that gave Ned meaning and purpose, the same fiction that Varys spoke of a few weeks back as being essential to keeping an empire from falling into chaos. While there’s enough Ned in him to save the life of the elderly horsetrader — and blow his own cover in the process — Jon’s still fluid enough in his worldview and allegiance to keep him alive for the foreseeable future. (That said, if he killed his pal Halfhand, what stopped Jon from chopping down this dude, who seemed quite content to die? Sure, Gareth is plenty annoying, but was poking him worth losing the pleasure and privilege of doing the same to Ygritte?) And Bran, though super boring, had to reinvent himself entirely. Even though he’s a little shy when it comes to public Warging, Bran can now travel much farther than he ever could back when he could walk. Chaos has proven to be a ladder for him just as much as it is for Littlefinger, even if Bran remains physically unable to climb it.
That there were two near family reunions last night was a nice expression of the episode’s central image: the literal binding of the wedding ceremony contrasted with the shattering of oaths and promises behind the scenes. (Not all broken oaths are advantageous, by the way. It was Robb’s backtracking of his promise to marry the actually quite pretty Roslin Frey that led him to such a monstrous end. The fatal mistake was breaking an oath with his heart, not with his head.) When you cut off the head of a household, there’s almost nothing that can keep the survivors together — just ask the Reynes of Castamere. The Bran-Jon and Arya-Robb near misses reminded me of the final spasms of a decapitated chicken when it appears to be walking but is really already dead. That’s probably why the real winners in Westeros were revealed yet again to be those who already possess power, not those scrabbling to claim it. Tywin Lannister and the decidedly Palpatine-y Walder Frey are fathers-in-law from hell, deeply cruel conservatives who will do anything to maintain the status quo. They’ll stop at nothing to crush a rebellion or silence a threat, no matter how barbaric. Years have taught them that this Game of Thrones isn’t really a game at all; once you start playing with your enemy instead of destroying him, you’ve already lost. It’s why Frey will sacrifice daughters and wives in pursuit of a controllable son, why Tywin will use his own children the way an interior designer uses shims. In Westeros, a family isn’t something to love, it’s something to plug up the holes in the world, a tool you use for balance to keep yourself upright and everything else from falling over.
What this grim and unsettling third season of Game of Thrones has suggested, however, is that the one enemy Tywin and Walder can’t defeat is time. Though far savvier than Ned Stark, even those vicious old coots are slowly being replaced by behavior even more powerful and unpredictable than their own. Above the Wall, armies both human and otherwise are massing, ready to unleash their contempt for those who, as Osha put it, build big, obvious castles and stay in them. To the East, Daenerys is creating a new kind of leadership, one forged in the searing flames of dragon fire and a substance that burns even hotter: loyalty born of freedom, not tradition. And while Roose Bolton seems like a man built to adapt to such a down and dirty era — he wears body armor to a reception and stabs his allies in the front! — even he seems like a fossil when compared to the wild-eyed, pointless savagery of Theon’s torturer, who at this point I have to assume is Roose’s son. (The X is the big giveaway. As is the wanton violence.) The Starks may be history, but I’m starting to realize inescapable fatalism may well be the point of Martin’s pessimistic epic; the pages of, as Gillie puts it, “very old books” is where everyone is headed eventually. No matter how many letters Tywin writes, or how many scores Walder and Roose settle, winter is still coming. It just arrives a little earlier in the North.
[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]