Even after all of the shocks and tragedies unleashed upon us by Game of Thrones over the seasons, nothing could have fully prepared us for “The Rains of Castamere.” This was easily the hardest episode to watch; even though I’ve read all the books and knew what was coming, it still elicited a very physical reaction from me, as I’m sure it did from many others. I have anticipated this episode ever since the start of the series and, somehow, it still did not disappoint.
After three seasons, we have gotten used to the idea that the climax will occur in the ninth episode of the cycle. Even if you haven’t read the books, you expected something shocking and horrible from this episode. From the first season, we were primed with Ned Stark’s death to expect the unexpected– or, more over, to expect the absolute worst. Despite this, it’s hard to say that anyone expected what happened in last night’s episode, and for that, this show reaches new heights of television greatness.
While some people rush to cancel their HBO membership in naive protest over daring storytelling, the rest of us can sit back and continue to appreciate the magic of this series. The last scene of the episode, which depicts the so-called “Red Wedding” blood bath that book readers have tip-toed around for the last few years, instantly became one of the most memorable death scenes in television history. Maybe we expected someone to bite the dust, but not the entire Stark force: including not only Robb, but Talisa, their unborn child, his mother Catelyn, and his direwolf Grey Wind. That’s a long enough list without adding to it the countless number of Stark men that were slaughtered in the camps just outside the castle. A family beloved to this series just took a hit so great they may never rise again. Talk about a shockingly devastating episode.
It is important that the episode starts with the Starks receiving bread and salt from the Freys. The tradition of giving food in this way is called the “guest right” and dates back to the first men to settle Westeros. Guests who receive food from their hosts are then supposed to be protected from harm for the duration of their stay. Travelers will often request food immediately upon arrival; in the book, Catelyn urges Robb to take food right away so as to be protected under the “guest right.” The gods are said to punish those who do not honor this tradition.
It is no surprise that the Starks put their faith in these ancient customs. Throughout the series, they have been blinded by their own honor, unable to see the world for what it is. For the Starks, their inherent goodness has always been their greatest weakness. Since they would never betray the “guest right,” they don’t expect others to do so. Catelyn and Robb think that there are rules to this game of thrones even as the other teams continuously break them. No one’s word is as good as a Stark’s, and that will ultimately be the cause of their undoing: when a Stark finally breaks a vow, he embitters a weak-minded but geographically-powerful old man to his cause, who then begins the plotting of his demise.
Before we talk more about the Red Wedding, we’ll need to visit the other storylines of Westeros and Slaver’s Bay. First, let’s head across the Narrow Sea to Yunkai. On Daario’s advice, Daenerys sends her best warriors to sack the city from the back gates, choosing Ser Jorah Mormont and Grey Worm to join her new champion. They encounter the slave soldiers in the streets and fight them all off in one of the best, most expansive sword fights we have been treated to yet. When they return, Daario lagging behind, Daenerys looks around with concern for him, much to Ser Jorah’s chagrin. His jealousy is as plain as the blood on his face, for he, too, has brought her the city of Yunkai, only it is Daario who receives all the credit.
On their way to the Twins, Arya and the Hound come upon an old man on the road, and Sandor sees an opportunity to gain access to the castle without notice. He intends to steal the pig farmer’s horse cart and is about to kill the man to prevent him from squealing when Arya stops him. The Hound is not necessarily wrong in his instincts; after all, Jaime and Brienne are first captured by Bolton’s men when they let a witness on the road go unharmed. Jaime wanted to kill him, but Brienne proclaimed him to be an innocent man unworthy of such a fate. Brienne, like Arya and even Jon later in the episode, clings to her honor as readily as she clings to her sword. In that case, her honor bound her to a fate that ultimately led to the loss of Jaime’s hand and nearly to the forcible seizure of her innocence.
Arya belittles the Hound and says he’s nothing compared to the “real killer” she met once, referring of course to Jaqen H’ghar. Surprisingly, the Hound listens and relents. Though more than a little rough around the edges, the Hound seems to have a soft spot in his poor heart for the young Stark girls. Still, he warns Arya about her goodness, just as he warned Sansa about her own behavior in a rough-hewn effort to keep her safe from Joffrey’s abuses. “You’re very kind. Someday, it’ll get you killed,” he says to the younger sister.
Arya is not quite like the rest of her family, however; she has seen enough to know that goodness alone will not prevail, and that sometimes you have to get your hands dirty in order to survive. Like Jon Snow, she is able to balance her sense of morality with a slightly more realistic worldview than her parents and elder brother– and that, in large part, is reason enough for why they’re still alive.
Jon Snow also spares an innocent man’s life when his band of wildlings sets upon an old horse breeder’s home. Not only do they want to raid it for his gold and his horses, but they also want to kill the man in the process. They, like Jaime and the Hound, are concerned that leaving the man will mean leaving a witness. Jon argues against this, insisting that the Night’s Watch will hunt murders faster than thieves. He’s able to warn the old man by knocking his sword against a rock as they are all running towards his home, and in the end calls off Ygritte’s bow shot as she has the old man dead to rights. She releases her bow a second too late, after pausing for Jon’s imploring, and it strikes a tree. Ygritte, famed for her battle strength, would surely not have missed if not for the call of her lover. She is later repaid for the favor with abandonment as Jon flees a bloody scene of his own making.
The innocent man is eventually captured by the wildlings and Jon is ordered to kill him as final proof that he is no longer a crow. Jon, like Arya and Brienne before him, cannot seem to betray his dignity enough to follow through. At last, Ygritte, desperate to keep her lover in good graces, shoots the man with an arrow. The wildlings turn on Jon at last, and he is saved only by the assistance of his half-brother Bran, who unknowingly hides only yards away from him. Bran, a warg, is able to inhabit the body of his direwolf and use the beast to save Jon from the wildlings. He sees Jon through the wolf’s eyes, only realizing how close he came to his seeing his brother again as he watches him ride away.
Sadly, Ygritte also watches Jon ride off into the distance as he abandons her with Tormund, who was holding her back from helping the Snow boy. She has risked so much in order to be with him, knowing all along that, in his heart, Jon was not fully allied to the wildling cause. She goes against her own people, for whom she clearly still has a vast amount of respect, by knowingly siding with him in a number of sketchy situations, the old horse breeder being only the latest of many. At first, she runs off after his horse, and for a moment you almost think he might scoop her up and they’d ride off together. After all, before they climbed the Wall, Ygritte insisted that they be loyal to each other above their loyalty to either the wildlings or the crows. In the end, all she can do is watch him ride off without her, a crow after all, bound by his honor to the Night’s Watch over her.
To me, this scene, like the final scene of the episode, called back to the ninth episode of the first season (you know, the one where we thought only one Stark’s death was devastating). In it, Jon Snow was ready to leave the Night’s Watch and betray his oath to maintain no other allegiances. He wanted to aid in his brother’s campaign to avenge Ned’s death, and told Samwell Tarly as much. The old, blind Maester Aemon found out about it and shared with him his story. Once, Maester Aemon chose to honor the oath to the Night’s Watch over his duty towards those he loved: his family, the Targaryens, were all slaughtered (so far as he knew) and yet he never once rode south.
“Love is the death of duty,” he told Jon Snow. “We all do our duty when there’s no cost to it. Honor comes easy then. Yet, sooner or later, in every man’s life there comes a day when it is not easy, a day when he must choose.”
At the time, Jon was faced with his choice between his family and the Night’s Watch and, of course, chose not to ride south to meet up with his brother’s forces, in part because of this speech from the maester. After all, easy honor is never what Jon Snow has sought. Jon is a martyr for his duty, choosing a life of celibacy, starvation, and freezing weather over that of a Lord’s son (albeit a bastard one) so that he might prove to Catelyn and all the others who might judge him that he, too, is a Stark: that honor flows just as freely and purely in his veins as in Ned’s purebred sons.
Again, when faced with the choice, Jon chooses honor over his love of Ygritte. Though we don’t see his reaction, Maester Aemon’s words are sure to haunt him when he realizes what he sacrificed on the altar of his Stark duty: “You must make that choice yourself and live with it for the rest of your days.”
Bran, hidden with his travel-weary band in a tower overlooking the scene, learns not only of Jon Snow’s presence, but also of his superior ability to put himself into the minds of animals and humans alike. When Hodor grows agitated over the storm and the threat of wildlings below, he cannot be calmed until Bran inhabits his mind and forces him to settle. Many wildlings are known to have the ability of a warg, including Orell, who possesses an eagle just as Jon Snow kills his human form. However, Osha and Jojen Reed insist that no one has the power to possess another person, only Bran. Crippled as he might be in his own body, Bran has unlocked a very powerful gift– one that no one can claim to share.
With newfound confidence, Bran takes charge, ordering that Rickon and Osha split off from their group so that, should anything happen to Robb or Bran, a Stark heir may live. This proves to be a prescient move, given later events. Still, it’s a difficult scene to watch. Just as two different groups of Starks get closer than they have been since Season 1, they get ripped even more asunder than before. As difficult as the Red Wedding is to watch, one of the most tragic aspects of this episode is how close Arya gets to reuniting with her mother and brother, only to have them ripped from her just as she reaches the castle gates. The same goes for Jon Snow and his long-lost brothers Bran and Rickon. Not only does Jon flee before they can reconnect, but Rickon leaves his brother in search of the home of Great Jon Umber, the first man to declare Robb the King of the North.
As king, Robb has won every battle. He’s inspired loyalty from his men, ruling in the image of his deceased father with honor and respect for all, even the Lannister hostages that his bannermen so foolishly executed. He was true to every word he ever made, except for the one word that would cost him his life. “What is honor compared to a woman’s love?” Unlike Jon Snow, Robb chose love over honor when it came to his word to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Not even the promise of his uncle’s hand in marriage could assuage the grievance that this did to old Walder Frey’s pride. Frey’s castle is old and decaying, much like himself, and little could restore glory to its dilapidated halls than the promise of a king and queen among them.
When Robb arrives with Talisa, his mother, and his troops en route to Casterly Rock, the presence of the wrong queen is an added insult to the old man and his wounded ego. Though Edmure Tully is pleasantly surprised by the beauty of his young Frey wife, the ceremony and reception are both tense affairs with plenty of not-so-thinly veiled insults from Walder Frey.
However, it’s not until the musicians begin to play the infamous Lannister song “The Rains of Castamere” that something seems truly amiss. Catelyn, always perceptive, grows suspicious of this choice. As it says in the books, “[The musicians] began to play a very different sort of song… no one sang the words, but Catelyn knew.” Those words tell of how every man, woman, and child of the House Reyne of Castamere were slaughtered by Tywin in revenge for their lord’s rebellion against the Lannisters. The song is a harbinger of doom for the Stark family, who meets a similar fate for daring to mount a revolt against Lannister rule.
After all, Robb is declared King of the North after his father is murdered by the Lannisters. Their whole goal is not to unite the entire Seven Kingdoms under Stark rule, but to secede the North from Lannister rule and enact revenge on them for Ned’s death. “Show them how it feels to lose what they love,” Catelyn urges Robb when he asks whether or not he should attack Casterly Rock. They are perhaps as foolish as the Reynes to suppose that they could be successful in this, and in the end, it is Catelyn who again learns what it feels to lose what she loves.
Even as someone who knew what was going to happen, the scene of the Red Wedding is so plainly tragic and violent that it was nearly impossible not to have a physical reaction to it. It was this scene that every book reader imagined the moment they heard HBO had picked up the rights to portray this story on screen. It is such a devastating scene that George R.R. Martin, the original author, declared it the hardest he’s ever written across the first five books.
A particularly heartbreaking addition to the television version is Talisa’s gruesome death, added perhaps as a special surprise to anyone who read the books and thought they knew exactly what to expect. Talisa and her unborn child are both killed with several graphic stabs to her waist, forever putting to bed the hypotheses that she was a Lannister honeypot all along, writing letters to Tywin instead of her mother. In the world of Game of Thrones, Talisa and Robb get no heartfelt goodbye; one of his last living memories will be of the light going out of his wife’s eyes before he, too, can join her. In the books, Robb’s wife is not at the wedding, for she stays behind in Riverrun to avoid aggravating her husband’s already-tenuous relationship with the Freys. So, seeing Talisa die, especially in that manner, was a real shock.
Catelyn, who knew something was up when she heard “The Rains of Castamere” play and saw chain mail hidden under Roose Bolton’s shirt, begs desperately for her son’s life. The great tragedy of Catelyn’s last few moments is that she believes almost all of her children to be dead, and then is forced to watch her eldest son get stabbed through the chest by his own sworn bannerman. As Bolton drives the blade through Robb, he says, “The Lannisters send their regards” (remember, Bolton is married to a Frey woman and commands several Frey men– he makes for a likely, opportunistic broker between the disgruntled Freys and Lannisters). Though Jaime said the same thing to Bolton before they parted ways (“Tell Robb Stark I’m sorry I couldn’t make his uncle’s wedding. The Lannisters send their regards.”), this plan has Tywin written all over it.
With nothing left to live for, filled with hate and revenge, Catelyn grabs Walder Frey’s wife and holds her hostage at knife-point. She desperately tries to exchange the woman’s life for her son’s, not knowing or realizing how disposable Frey’s wives and daughters are to him. When Bolton kills Robb once and for all, she lets out an Emmy-award-winning scream (seriously, look out for Michelle Fairley to be nominated for this one) and throws all Stark and Tully honor to the wind. Unlike her daughter Arya and adopted son Jon, she executes an innocent without feeling or emotion and stands there dead before a blade is put to her own neck.
“It hurts so much, she thought. Our children, Ned, all our sweet babes. Rickon, Bran, Arya, Sansa, Robb… Robb… please, Ned, please, make it stop, make it stop hurting… Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.” – A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin
Just outside the castle, Arya lets herself smile to see her brother’s direwolf. She’s been so afraid that she wouldn’t get to see her family, despite being so close. As the Hound noticed earlier: “You’re almost there and you’re afraid you won’t make it. The closer you get, the worse the fear gets.” For a moment, she believes that it is at last time to reunite with her mother, who has not seen her since she was a little girl. So much has changed for her since then, but Arya has fought and struggled just to get back to her mother. Seeing the direwolf, she finally lets herself let go of the fear, but only for a moment. Just as quickly as Maisie Williams lets the smile cross Arya’s lips, she dashes it all with concern and confusion as Frey troops draw their weapons on her brother’s men. Then, the final blow comes when she witnesses the execution of Grey Wind, locked in his pen and shot with crossbows much in the same way his owner was sealed and slaughtered in the Great Hall.
From the beginning, the Stark family has been beloved by viewers and readers alike. Now, with only a few strokes from a spiteful and relatively insignificant Lord Frey (aided, of course, by the conniving Tywin Lannister), any hopes of the great House Stark rising again have been dashed. Robb, Catelyn, Talisa, Robb’s unborn heir, and the vast majority of his remaining troops have been slaughtered, like House Reyne before them: now the rains weep o’er his hall, with no one there to hear.
However, as they like to say, “The North remembers.” This is not likely to be something any of us forgive, and less likely something any of us forget.
Other thoughts on “The Rains of Castamere”:
- “You have a very suspicious mind. In my experience, only the dishonest people think this way,” Daario says to Ser Jorah when the older knight questions the younger man’s siege plans. Don’t forget, we learned a while ago that Ser Jorah was supplying Robert Baratheon with intel on Daenerys in order to potentially earn himself a pardon for his illegal dealings in the slave trade, which got him banished from Westeros. Clearly, he now seems to regret that deal, but in recent weeks we have been repeatedly reminded of his treachery. How long until Daenerys finds out?
- Samwell Tarley and Gilly also get a nice, but brief scene together. Sam tells Gilly of his plan to take them to the Nightfort, a huge castle that was abandoned after it became impossible to maintain. Though it is on the other side of the Wall, he knows of a secret sally port called the Black Gate that will lead them through the Wall and into the Nightfort. The path has gone unused for centuries on account of no one knowing where it is. However, Sam claims to know how to find it. When Gilly is shocked, he explains that he read about it in a very old book. “You know all that from staring at marks on paper?” she says. “You’re like a wizard.” Sam gives a special smile at this remark, since it is a sweet callback to Season 1, Episode 7 when he told Jon Snow, “I always wanted to be a wizard.”