This one was, for me at least, unquestionably the best episode of Game of Thrones so far. It juggled plot, character development, action, horror, heartbreak and the highest possible drama better than ever before. It also does not get sidetracked by trying to cover too much plot.
It doesn’t have as narrow a focus as “Second Sons,” but it only follows six of its ten primary plotlines – Robb and Catelyn Stark, Daenerys, Arya and the Hound, Jon Snow, Bran Stark and Samwell Tarly. The latter only has a single scene, showing that he and Gilly have reached the Wall and will finally be in (relative) safety. (Also, we get the super-adorable moment of Gilly saying that Sam is “like a wizard” because of his vast knowledge. It’s a bit silly, but also tender.)
There have been some complaints online about Bran’s story being boring, or having an unclear path. Tonight was the payoff of the patience necessary to get through earlier bits and pieces of his plot. He accidentally realized his talent as a skinchanger, meaning he can control (and see through the eyes of) animals and men alike. His new companion, Jojen Reed, who knows something of this mysticism, is nonetheless baffled by this, having never seen a skinchanger control a human.
Bran goes inside simpleminded Hodor’s head to calm the man during a thunder-induced panic attack and controls his direwolf, Summer, to attack the wildlings who have turned on Jon Snow. His gift is something that has to be protected, but that he also can’t understand it. He decides to head further north with Hodor and the Reed twins to hopefully find the “three-eyed crow” that’s haunted his dreams, while Osha and Rickon Stark head to find safe haven elsewhere.
This moment provides some connective tissue between plotlines that Game of Thrones sometimes lacks. Jon and Bran both know that the other is alive, even without directly seeing each other. Jon is told to kill an old man the wildlings come upon and can’t do it. He is attacked as a result, but Bran (as Summer) comes to his rescue.
Daenerys’s conquest of Yunkai gives us the most thrilling action of the episode, as Ser Jorah Mormont, Unsullied Captain Grey Worm and Daario Naharis sneak into the city and slaughter the poorly equipped Yunkish troops. Most of the violence we see on Game of Thrones is utter brutality (which we’ll get to later), and while this scene wasn’t pretty, it was nice to see a pure-action, violence-as-ballet sequence. It gives us some escapist excitement.
Arya can’t quite shake her urge to hate (and plot the death of) her captor, Sandor Clegane. However, when he drops his line about kindness being likely to get her killed, you can see her take it to heart while still resisting the lesson on the surface. The ill-matched pair commandeer a wagon full of salt pork from a random passerby (who Arya prevents the Hound from killing, but still knocks unconscious). They now have a ruse to get into Edmure Tully’s wedding at The Twins’ home of House Frey, where her eldest brother and mother are waiting.
It’s fascinating that both of this series’ most shocking episodes to date contain Walder Frey. We last saw him in the penultimate episode of the first season, where we’d witnessed the execution of Eddard Stark, when Robb Stark pledged to marry one of Frey’s many (many, many) daughters.
Frey has only grown nastier since then, both because Robb broke that pledge and because he is simply a foul, venal man. Frey is obsessed by the idea that he has been passed over by the world and that his only legacy is the absurd multitude of children – legitimate and bastard alike – that he’s produced, none of whom are particularly likable to anyone or skilled at much of anything, beyond the occasional good soldier. To quote a line from the books, spoken by Tyrion (who was missing from this episode!), Frey lives to “brood over the many slights he thinks he’s suffered.”
Robb endures the man’s barrage of quips and verbal, sexual harassment of his chosen bride, Lady Talisa, because he mistakenly believes it’s the worst he has to endure. He is dead wrong.
The scene where he learns how wrong he and his entire noble worldview have been all along is arguably one of the most shocking ever shown on television. Frey’s men lock Robb, Catelyn, Talisa and many of Robb’s soldiers in the banquet hall and slaughter them in an extended sequence that had me reeling and sobbing through its entire duration (not afraid to admit it), even though I’d read the books and knew it was coming.
One of Frey’s sons stabs Talisa to death in the stomach, crossbow archers disguised as musicians fire down on them all and the Frey soldiers in the hall itself make sure Robb’s men are throat-slit, gutted and otherwise butchered. The same goes for many of the Stark soldiers out in tents on the grounds of The Twins.
But, even that wholesale massacre doesn’t prepare you for the final knife twist. Catelyn Stark, wounded in the shoulder by an arrow, offers to sacrifice herself if her son can live, threatening to murder Frey’s wife if further bloodshed occurs. Frey is not only too petty to walk away with his gruesome prize, but has agreed to kill Robb on behalf of Tywin Lannister (that’s who Tywin was writing to all that time). And after simply rebutting Catelyn’s threat on his wife with, “I’ll find another,” he signals Lord Roose Bolton, who has long since abandoned loyalty to the north, and Roose stabs Robb in the heart, saying “The Lannisters send their regards.”
Catelyn keeps her promise and cuts Frey’s wife’s throat from ear to ear with a scream of feral rage, and the last death we see is hers. Michelle Fairley, who has played Catelyn Stark to a fucking T, even to the point where she’s been an unlikable character to many (an idea I never really agreed with). She gave the best performance I’ve seen on television so far this year that was not given by Peter Dinklage, as Tyrion, or Hugh Dancy (on Hannibal).
The Red Wedding, as this incident will come to be known, may well alienate many of the show’s more casual fans, who can only take the deaths of so many characters who we grow invested in through the quality of the storytelling and acting. But what it proves is not that anyone we love can be killed, which we already knew, but that death is most guaranteed to anyone who upholds any sort of status quo.
The honorable and often naive Starks are only the most extreme example. Other characters are upholding different sorts of outmoded ideas, including Tywin Lannister and Roose Bolton and Walder Frey, the men who believe they’ve asserted their dominance through this act. These people believe power is theirs by default because they’ve always had it. They can’t imagine losing it. The only characters with any real chance are the adaptable ones – Tyrion, Jaime, Daenerys, Jon Snow, Samwell Tarly, Bran and Arya Stark, even (possibly, this is up for debate) Cersei. And even they have no guarantees in a world like this.
Liam Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.