The most dazzlingly, incandescently and brutally perfect episode of the season, as episode nine unfailingly is on Game of Thrones, The Rains of Castamere is flawlessly-structured, beautifully written, gut-wrenchingly horrifying and brings us one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s greatest showstoppers: the Red Wedding. Interspersed with this stupendous reminder of what happens when you cross Tywin Lannister are titanic human struggles taking place just south of the Wall, and Daenerys’ conquest of Yunkai, across the Narrow Sea.
The writing in this episode is nothing short of genius, and it is not remotely surprising that it took both of the show’s formidably-talented creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, to write it. The build-up to the Red Wedding is perfectly executed, not a scene or a word out of place, and the writers display a Peter Jackson-like brilliance in idiot-proofing their work. The Walder Frey of the books’ scorn at Robb’s insistence that his household partake of bread and salt is replaced with a ceremony in which servants move around offering these to Robb’s men while Lord Frey drawls out an incantation taking them under his protection, and the entire sorry business of Robb’s marriage to Talisa is dragged up in great detail. None of this is excessive or too obvious, and by the end of it, we’re almost convinced that Lord Walder is satisfied with things as they stand. Our sense of ease (or hysteria, for those of us who have read the books), increases throughout the ceremony and the wedding feast, in which the bride proves lovely, the wine copious and the guests raucously cheerful in exemplary Westerosi style; Catelyn chatting animatedly with the Blackfish and Robb with Talisa. As the hall doors are closed following the bedding, however, and the musicians intone the first haunting bars of The Rains of Castamere, terror wells up in our throats as Cat rises to her feet; knowing, but not allowing herself to believe. The abominable butchery of the slaughter is cruel, savage and almost impossible to watch, not because of the prodigious quantity of blood that is spilled or the number of principal characters that die (the gods know we’re used to that), but because of the way the love the characters have for each other emerges as they die; Robb rousing himself after being peppered with quarrels to clasp his hand to Talisa’s bloodied stomach; Catelyn finding the strength to seize Lady Frey and threaten to cut her throat after being brutally shot herself.
This leads to a deeply affecting and fiery final showdown between Cat and Lord Walder as she demonstrates the ‘woman’s courage’ that Brienne spoke of in season 2; simultaneously pleading for her son’s life and threatening to gut her hostess; begging an incapacitated Robb to stand up and flee. The desperation on her face cannot be described, and when Robb’s throat is cut, the scream that tears from hers roars out all the grief and loss that this extraordinary woman has endured since the first day we met her. Through this unhinging of the emotions that Cat has suppressed for so long, and through her slicing the blade across Lady Frey’s neck as casually as she would swat a fly, it is Lady Stoneheart, not Catelyn Stark, who is staring blankly at us as her throat too is cut.
As these central characters die, however, the rest of the Twins is in uproar; Frey men slaughtering Stark men in their droves, the free availability of wine doing little to allay the ensanguined confusion of the butchery. And at the gate, getting her heart torn out of her chest, is Arya, watching from the shadows as her brother’s men are massacred and his direwolf is killed, the hope in her eyes dying right in front of us as her childhood disappears. Maisie Williams has a terrific episode, not merely during the Red Wedding, but in other scenes demonstrating Arya’s complexity and the repeated blows that are dealt to her belief in goodness through her conversations with the Hound. Williams and Rory McCann have great chemistry, and each has an equal ability to use the other’s secrets and fears against them. Arya’s treatment of Sandor is absolutely fearless, rubbing his fear of fire in his face, and spitting at him, while trying to prevent him from killing a pig farmer he is robbing, that he’s a coward who chooses easy victims rather than the great killer he thinks he is: ‘I know a killer. A real killer. You’d be like a kitten to him. He’d kill you with his little finger.’ Being an ardent Arya/Jaqen shipper, this reference to him gladdened my soul. It was the only moment in the episode that did so.
Meanwhile in the North (Queenscrown, to be exact), Jon and Bran’s paths almost cross in the famous storm scene that leads to Jon’s leaving Ygritte in rather unconventional fashion as he refuses to kill an old man the wildlings are stealing from. Though I must confess that I missed Ygritte’s beautiful, blazing cry ‘I am no crow wife!’, the show’s sprinkling of sugar on the scene by making Ygritte attempt to defend Jon in the resulting dance leads to seeing his desertion from her perspective. We have commented on Rose Leslie’s mastery of facial expression before, but here she outdoes herself, her face horror-struck in the most painful way; her beautiful eyes wet, but not with tears. In the nearby castle, Bran, Osha, Meera, Jojen and Rickon are doing their level best to calm Hodor, who is terrified by the lightning and refusing to be terrified quietly. The knowledge that the wildlings below will almost certainly hear them makes everyone rather pricklier than is practical when dealing with Hodor, and these heightened emotions lead to Bran’s first waking experience as a warg as he warps into Hodor’s mind and quiets him down. He then does the same with Summer and Shaggy Dog, who turn on the wildlings and allow Jon to escape them. Isaac Hempstead-Wright plays this scene with just the right mix of fear and exhilaration at this glimpse of what the power in him could mean; all the doubt that has been plaguing his young mind replaced by calm, adult knowledge that the three-eyed crow is beyond the Wall and must be found at all costs. This newfound adultness also leads to his decision to send Rickon with Osha to the Umbers at the Last Hearth, thus ensuring the survival of another male heir to Winterfell should Robb fall (oh, my sweet summer child). The scene in which Bran and Rickon say goodbye is incredibly moving, and is all the more so when we consider what’s happening on the other side of the continent.
Across the Narrow Sea in Yunkai, Daenerys makes her preparations to sack the city and free the slaves. Daario’s presence makes everyone uncomfortable, a feeling which is not much assuaged by Grey Worm’s reluctant statement that he trusts him. The actual conquest of Yunkai is quite different from that of Astapor, relying on suspense to be convincing. The show succeeds spectacularly, if rather conventionally, in this area, showing us nothing of the fighting but a brief skirmish through a back door in which Ser Jorah, Grey Worm and Daario fight bravely, but disappear behind an unexpectedly large wall of guards. This puts us into Daenerys’ shoes as she calmly but desperately questions Ser Barristan on how long it takes to sack a city, only to be interrupted by the return of the men themselves. I was flabbergasted at my own relief to see Ser Jorah alive, and take this as a sign of the show’s brilliance that I could unconsciously have begun to care for a character whose death in the books would not cause me a moment’s concern. I was pleased to the point of being stunningly annoyed with Daenerys when her relief at his survival seemed to pale in comparison with her relief surrounding Daario’s. But no doubt this is the entire point. Daenerys has a new commander, she likes him and he’s simply not likeable.
A grandiose testament to the genius of George R.R. Martin and to that of the people who devote their lives to adapting him, The Rains of Castamere is the greatest episode of season 3; absolute, unequivocal perfection from start to finish.