In “The Winds of Winter,” it is not only the season that changes. Several of the major houses and characters are, by this point, nearly unrecognizable from the start of the series, killed or altered by a vicious cycle of vengeance that has motivated the events of this story since the beginning. It all started with one act—the supposed kidnapping and rape of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen—leading Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark to seek to get their revenge by bringing down the Targaryen crown in Robert’s Rebellion. “How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar chose your aunt?” Littlefinger wondered to Sansa in Season 5, and the deaths continue to pile up to this day. This week we learned that, though many lives were lost as a result of the kidnapping or (more likely) love affair between Lyanna and Rhaegar, one very important life was gained: they had a son whom Ned raised as his own.
In the world of Game of Thrones, everyone is on a quest for revenge. With 456 deaths and counting, there are many people trying to keep faith with the dead. For them, the best way to honor the memory of the dead is to get vengeance on those deemed responsible for their death. The history of Westeros is made of up long cycles of retaliation and blood feuds among families, the present conflict not withstanding.
In “High Sparrow,” sisters Arya and Sansa further position themselves in a long game to avenge the death of the Stark family, both of them shedding some of their former selves in order to achieve this goal. Jon Snow turns down Stannis Baratheon’s offer for revenge against the Boltons in order to rule as Lord Commander. In King’s Landing, the newly-made Queen Margaery avenges the cruelty she’s long suffered at Cersei’s hand, turning the tables on her Queen Mother. Brienne reminds us of her ever-present mission to avenge the death of her friend Renly by killing the man she believes responsible: his brother, Stannis. Tyrion, on his way to meet up with Daenerys in Meeren, is involved in a plot against the rule of his own house, seeking vengeance for a lifetime of mistreatment and misery at the hands of his relatives.
The Season 3 finale, “Mhysa” (meaning “Mother” in an old language, Ghiscari), had the misfortune of following a knockout episode; anything was going to feel slow after the Red Wedding. The tenth episode of each season so far has served as a resolution to the climax of episode 9, a dénouement for both the characters and the viewers. After resolving the journeys that many of these characters have been on all season (Arya to her mother and brother, Jaime to King’s Landing, Davos back into the good graces of his king, Jon Snow back to Castle Black, Bran to the north of the Wall, etc.), the tenth episode also sets up the rising action of the next season to come: where can Arya go next? How will a crippled Jaime fit in with a Lannister family known to despise the handicapped? How will Davos cope with being in league with Melisandre and the Red God just to stay in his King’s good graces as they march on the Wall? How much will Jon Snow give away about the wildlings (and therefore, Ygritte) now that he’s at Castle Black? What, exactly, do Bran and the Reeds plan to do to save the world north of the Wall?
The format of these seasons is much more like the traditional narrative structure than the typical television show, which tends to end its seasons on the climax and save the resolution for the beginning of the next, months away. If Game of Thrones operated in that manner, the same people who bemoaned last night’s episode, calling it “boring,” would be complaining that they have to wait nine months to find out “what happens next.” The show actually subverts the traditional and (by now) cliched television plot structure with an even more traditional dramatic structure that hearkens back to the time of Aristotle. I think the Red Wedding left a lot of people chasing the high of the shock factor, myself included. However, whether it was exciting or not, the finale was no less important to the overall narrative.
All that being said, there was very little by way of plot in this episode. Still, there are several interesting threads to pick up in anticipation of next season.
The episode opens on the continued slaughter of Stark men outside the castle at the Twins. Arya, dazed from being knocked out by the Hound, awakens to a commotion. Frey men shout “King of the North!” as Robb’s headless body rides out strapped to a horse with his direwolf’s head propped on top. They call him, mockingly, the “Young Wolf” and laugh as the grotesque figure is paraded through the camp. Even the Hound appears to be disgusted by this act, and rides Arya safely away.
After fleeing the scene, Arya and the Hound ride past a band of Frey men who claim to have taken part in the butchery of Robb and Catelyn. Not only do they mock her mother’s death in an obscene fashion, but one man brags about putting Grey Wind’s head on Robb’s decapitated body. This is too much for Arya to bear. She approaches them numbly, offering an unfamiliar coin for food and the chance to warm herself by their fire.
At the end of last season, Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie were able to escape Harrenhal with the help of Jaqen H’ghar, the Faceless Man. When she met him outside the castle, he offered to take her to Braavos to join the Faceless Men. This group of religious assassins holds many powers, as he was able to show her, but most of all they would be able to help her deal with the many names on her hit list (Joffrey, Cersei, Tywin Lannister, Illyn Payne, the Hound…). At first, she was tempted by the deal, but then stated that she needed to find her brother, mother, and sister. Jaqen left her with “a coin of great value.” If she ever wanted to find Jaqen in the future, she need only present that coin to a Braavosi and say “Valar Morghulis” (All men must die).
After spending all season trying in vain to get to her mother and her brother, Arya is finally ready to present that coin. She uses it as a trick to get the Frey man to lower his defenses, dropping it on the ground and then pouncing on him with a dagger, stabbing him repeatedly in the neck. That this act is morally questionable hardly registers for us as viewers, as we are too busy cheering her on. As his partners point out, the Frey man was unlikely to have been the one to actually strap the head of Grey Wind to Robb’s body. Arya murders the man for much pettier reasons than she’s accused the Hound of doing in the past. This is an all new Arya: the honor of Starks be damned. After seeing how far it has gotten the family, you cannot help but forgive Arya for choosing to hang up her mantle of righteousness, nor can you help celebrating her transformation in the process. Those Frey guys were slimy anyway.
The Hound comes to her rescue after the remaining Frey men surround her and her little dagger. In the end, he doesn’t tell her not to go murdering again, just that he wants her to give him a heads up next time so he might help. D.B. Weiss (one of the show’s creators and writers of this episode) rightly observes, “There’s something kind of weirdly sweet about that.” The Hound, for all his faults, has shown his own brand of kindness towards the Stark girls. In a world of so little heart, his understanding and rough sympathy for Arya is more touching than perhaps it should be, considering their friendship now appears to be based solely on a mutual appreciation for the art of killing and getting revenge on worse men. It is worth noting that, though the Hound features prominently on Arya’s hit list, she managed to steal the dagger from him and chose not to use it against him, though she clearly had opportunity (he did not even realize it was gone). I am most excited for how this father-daughter version of a Bonnie and Clyde-like duo plays out next season.
Like Arya, Tyrion collects a list of people who have done him wrong, though his intentions for revenge are much less violent. With a shared dislike for the cruel people of the capital, Sansa and Tyrion seem to be getting along at last. Sansa encourages him to get even with two men who laugh at the sight of him standing next to the statuesque Stark girl, sharing a trick called “sheep shifting” (“shift” because she doesn’t know that the actual vulgar word for dung is “shit”), which is where you sew sheep’s dung into someone’s mattress. As she tells him about the sheep shift, she takes a seat, meeting him eye to eye for perhaps the first time. While she would not bend for him to cloak her at the wedding ceremony, she is now eager to meet him at his level. This simple move is symbolic of their growing affection, which never features prominently in the books but is a nice touch for the show; after all, Tyrion is very kind and likable, though too often guilty by association.
It’s not hard to see why Tyrion gets pulled into such negative characterizations when he shares blood with a bunch as loathsome as Joffrey, Tywin, and Cersei, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible. Lannister scenes continue to be some of the most entertaining of the series, despite the fact that most of them play out as simple conversations around a table.
In this particular case, the Small Council is called to meet about Robb Stark’s death. Joffrey is practically twitching with excitement when Tyrion arrives, prompting his uncle to ask rather coincidentally, “Killed a few puppies today?” Joffrey is all too happy to announce that instead of mere puppies, three wolves have been slaughtered. He gleefully states his intention to serve Robb’s head to Sansa at his wedding to Margaery Tyrell. Varys and even Cersei are appalled at the thought. Cersei tries to explain away her son’s statement as a joke, which only prompts him to reassure everyone that he is absolutely intent on abject cruelty. “Everyone is mine to torment.”
Despite his claim, Joffrey is unable to successfully rise above the power and command of his grandfather. At first, Tywin belittles Joffrey after the boy threatens Tyrion (though there is no love between father and son, they at least can share in their mutual contempt for the king): “Any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king. I’ll make sure you understand that when I’ve won your war for you.” Joffrey, who is the only one in Westeros who still believes that his father was Robert Baratheon, snaps back feebly that Robert won the real war while Tywin “hid under Casterly Rock.”
Tywin did sit back idly, ignoring King Aerys Targaryen’s calls to arms during Robert’s Rebellion until the Baratheon who would be king had secured a sure victory at the Battle of the Trident. This move was of course not due to cowardice but to shrewd calculation, a finer point that Joffrey seems incapable of understanding. Tywin managed to back the winning side without much consequence to himself and his people. Quietly enraged at Joffrey’s insolence, Tywin literally puts his grandson to bed. Though he insists that he is not tired, like any petulant young child would do, Joffrey does not need to be dragged from the Tower of the Hand.
“You really think the crown gives you power?” Tywin asks Tyrion when they are finally alone, pointedly referring to his own unparalleled reach, as evidenced most recently in his orchestration of the Red Wedding. So many men have been fighting for the crown in the past three seasons. Five men in particular have laid claim in the War of Five Kings, but after the losses of Renly Baratheon and Robb Stark, only three remain, each of them weaker than the next. Tywin is right; it is not the crown that gives power, but the man who lends his power to the crown. Absent a strong king, true power lies elsewhere, and the vacuum of power is filled in other ways. So long as Joffrey remains the weak and ineffectual king he is, Tywin and the Lannisters will reign.
For aiding Tywin in his plan to cut short the Stark campaign, Robb’s bannerman Roose Bolton has been named the Warden of the North. The right and responsibility of the wardens is to control the regional armies. For a long time, the Wardens of the North were the Starks. In the West, of course, is Tywin Lannister. The Warden of the South is Mace Tyrell, Margaery and Loras’s father, and in the East is Robin “Make the Bad Man Fly” Arryn, whom we have seen little of in some time because House Arryn has stayed out of the war. Eventually, Tywin hopes that Tyrion’s son of Sansa Stark will be Warden of the North, thereby securing half of Westeros under strong Lannister influence. “One way or another, you’ll get that girl pregnant,” he commands Tyrion, who gallantly refuses to rape his young wife.
When he does go back to see Sansa, wanting to break the news about her brother and mother’s deaths himself, he finds her by a latticed window looking out at a view that is not dissimilar to that of a jail cell. Her face is red and swollen from tears. The good footing they found is now lost, and Tyrion is once again guilty by association.
At the Nightfort, Sansa’s brother Bran shares a story with his companions of a cook who, after disliking the king for some reason, killed the king’s son and cooked him into a pie to serve to him. According to the tale, the gods turned the cook into a giant white rat who could only eat his own young. Bran insists that it wasn’t for murder or for cooking the son’s meat and serving it to the father; rather, he was punished for killing a guest beneath his roof. “That’s something the gods cannot forgive.” We don’t know if his visions have provided him knowledge of Robb’s death, but at least this story further explains the sheer atrocity that was the Red Wedding: a shockingly unprecedented move in a lawless society that tries to maintain some order with the promise of a “guest right” and all the protections it affords guests and hosts alike.
Later, Samwell Tarly and Gilly meet Bran and his companions after they enter the Nightfort from the secret passage Sam found in his books. It’s amazing that Meera pounces on Sam before the direwolf does, but it’s Summer who gives Bran’s identity away, since Sam is well acquainted with Jon’s own direwolf. Sam bravely offers to help Bran in whatever way he can. Though he hesitates to take him beyond the wall, he eventually relents.
Sam is surprised to find out that Jojen knows about the White Walkers, since everyone else south of the Wall remains in not-so-blissful ignorance of the impending doom. “The Night’s Watch can’t stop them. The kings of Westeros and their armies can’t stop them,” the Reed boy says, knowingly. Sam immediately understands that they believe the crippled Bran is the one to stop the White Walkers and is unable to convince them otherwise. Before they depart, Sam gives them each dragonglass daggers and arrowheads, which he uncovered north of the Wall and was smart enough to take with him. As Bran and crew trudge down the long passage beneath the Wall, there’s a great shot of the light on the other side in the distance, with Summer’s form outlined against it as he leads the way into the unknown (also known as Season 4).
Sam and Gilly head on to Castle Black and meet with Maester Aemon Targaryen. The blind man agrees to let Gilly stay at the castle and orders that Sam send ravens to all the major kings and lords of Westeros to warn them of the creatures that have been spotted north of the Wall. “Dark wings, dark words,” indeed:
“To all the lords and noble men of Westeros,
The Night’s Watch implores you to heed our warnings. Winter is coming, but not as we have seen for hundreds of years past. Only one man has returned from North of the Wall, the only man left from my company of brothers with news of sights I never thought to report.
The White Walkers have risen again and they ride through the northern lands beyond the wall, taking our fallen and making them their own kind. An army of their dead marches forth hundred, perhaps thousands, who can only be killed by fire. Prepare your defenses my lords. They are coming.
Aemon, Maester of the Night’s Watch, Castle Black”
The note is soon received by Ser Davos on Dragonstone, who as the newly literate Hand, goes through the messages for King Stannis. He holds on to it until later, when he uses it fortuitously to his own advantage. In the meanwhile, he argues with Stannis and Melisandre over their intention to execute Gendry. The two of them use the atomic bomb defense, claiming that the life of one can and should be weighed against the lives of the many. Davos, who bonds with Gendry earlier in the episode, finding a bit of his deceased son and himself in the boy who came from nothing, believes strongly that the ends do not justify the means. Meanwhile, Stannis, who took the news of Robb Stark’s death to mean that the red priestess was successful in her technique of throwing the Gendry-filled leeches into the flame, believes that sacrifices must be made in order to achieve greatness. He justifies this view by reminding Davos that magic helped Aegon Targaryen conquered the kingdom when he used dragons to overcome his troop deficiencies, which Stannis himself suffers from. “A great gift requires a great sacrifice,” reminds Melisandre. What is the life of one against a kingdom?
Watching Stannis alone in his stone fortress, you can’t help but feel that he has no right to lead, and it’s amazing that a good man like Davos remains loyal to his cause, despite everything. We rarely see him with any of his people, the ones he claims to be fighting for. He is a sad, weak, and lonely man who uses his religion and sorcery to conjure up a campaign for a crown that would be meaningless upon his head, so little support does he have.
However, when Davos faces the charge of death for helping Gendry escape Dragonstone, he bargains for his life with the one chip that might promise a real victory for Stannis: an impending war against the White Walkers. “This war of Five Kings means nothing. The true war lies to the north, my king.” In recent history, the lords of Westeros have failed to support the Wall in every way imaginable, hence why the once-great and proud tradition of defending the Wall has fallen upon murderers, rapists, and outcasts, and most of the castles along the line have been abandoned. Davos implores Stannis to save the kingdom from a doom they do not yet comprehend, to fight a war that might truly be the battle of Good versus Evil Stannis so desires. This is the only opportunity Davos sees to recast his beloved king into the good man he once knew.
Melisandre quickly comes around to the new strategy, saying that suddenly Stannis’s divine right is to protect the kingdom when others will not, and it makes sense from a tactical standpoint. He has not the troops nor the allegiance of the people of Westeros. A successful campaign in the north when no one else would take it could bring him the hero status he so requires in order to claim dominion over the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Davos manages to live, despite his treasonous release of Gendry and continued blasphemy against the Red God, by reminding the king that he is the only one who is capable of rounding up all of the pirates and sellswords necessary for such a campaign.
Melisandre, amazingly, agrees. She is surprisingly practical for a religious zealot. Melisandre, like Roose Bolton, is cold and calculating, acting not with passion but with careful tact: even her supposed passions are deployed with precision (as the virginal Gendry can attest). She is anything but vindictive, particularly towards Davos, who has defied her every step of the way. This alone proves that she both wants and needs Stannis to succeed, and will not let anything stand in the way of it– not even her own pride, which is the weakness of so many others. Everything she does is in the name of R’hllor, the Lord of Light. Throughout this scene, the setting sun shines directly into their dark castle and surrounds them with yellow and orange light, making it feel like the Lord of Light is truly among them.
For the first time in a while, we head over to the Iron Islands and drop in on the world’s most cuddly family, the Greyjoys. As it turns out, Theon was turned over to Ramsay Bolton (the torturer now named) by his own men. Now that Ramsay’s father, Roose, is the Warden of the North, his son plays an integral role in maintaining their power in the northernlands. They do not take too kindly to the continued presence of Greyjoys in their midst, and since “Ramsay has his own way of doing things,” he has sent a package to the Iron Islands with an ultimatum: remove your troops from my land or continue to receive choice bits of Theon in a box. As always, I won’t even discuss the scene between Ramsay and Theon because I’m still protesting its inclusion (you only ever hear reference to Theon once– once— in the whole of the third book, and it occurs right before the Red Wedding, when people have more important things on their mind). However, it’s clear the process of dehumanizing his prisoner has been successful, now that Theon has a new name: Reek.
Despite the fact that his lone surviving heir is now incapable of furthering the Greyjoy line (or, rather, because of that fact), Balon cannot be shaken from his disinterest in his son. He won’t withdraw his troops from the North, thereby sacrificing his son up to certain torture. Yara bravely declares to go after her brother, and is seen on her ship setting sail to rescue him with fifty of her best men. She is a great warrior, well-respected among them despite her gender, but what’s even cooler about this scene is the fact that she chooses to go at all. After all, she hates her brother and thinks him a weak fool (and boy, is he); but, like the Lannisters, Yara has pride in her blood and is willing to put family above all else. She, too, sails off into the distance (and into Season 4).
Back in King’s Landing, Varys meets Shae looking out at the sea. He compliments her, acknowledging that Shae and Tyrion genuinely love each other, and that Shae has reformed Tyrion at least in some small measure. When she complains about his marriage to Sansa, Varys again comes to the Stark’s defense: “She is a sweet young thing. None of this is her fault.” (Sometimes the viewers need that reminder, too.) Shae, who obviously feels kinship enough with Varys to open up to him, counters immediately, “I love that girl. I would kill for her.” Sansa may have lost the protection of her direwolf, Lady, when Joffrey and Cersei had her beheaded back in Season 1, but it’s clear she’s acquired a fiercely loyal lady-in-waiting in her stead.
Varys hopes Shae will leave King’s Landing, and gives her diamonds to help her set up in another city, Pentos. He is banking on Tyrion’s goodness and influence over the corrupt court. “Tyrion Lannister is one of the few people alive who can make this country a better place. He has the mind for it, he has the will, he has the right last name. You are a complication.”
Varys wants the best for the country, as evidenced several times before. The first time we learn hints of Varys’s shady motives is when he meets with Ned Stark in the dungeons of King’s Landing. Though he could have freed Ned, he didn’t, but offered him a way out: if he forgave Cersei and the Lannisters for the multitude of wrongs done, she was likely to let him live, since Varys thought her smart enough to realize the value of an obedient wolf. Ned, of course, refused to forgive the Lannisters of anything and was prepared to die (until Varys reminded him of his daughter Sansa, who was and still is at the Lannisters’ mercy). When Ned demanded to know what Varys truly wanted, the man replied, “Peace… I want you to serve the realm.” Now, he wants Tyrion to do the same, but Shae’s continued presence in the capital is only going to enrage Tywin. Naturally, Shae does not accept the bribe.
Cut to Tyrion drinking, the one habit Shae hasn’t broken. As much as Cersei hates Tyrion, and vice versa, the two of them sure do seek each other out a lot. Like true siblings, they may want to kill one another, but they also love each other. More this season than ever, they share a strong connection of loneliness and disappointed dreams. Both have been proclaimed a disappointment to their father, and nothing they do seems to work in the way they hope it will. Their world has become programmed against them. Tyrion has Shae’s stubborn jealousy to contend with, while Cersei’s beloved son turns a cold and murderous shoulder to her.
Cersei is a southern version of Catelyn, a fiercely protective mother who does not always make the right decisions in her steadfast efforts to protect them. She lives only for her children– “even Joffrey.” She reminisces about how he once was, back when he was an innocent babe in her arms, before he was murdering prostitutes for sport. Tyrion listens sympathetically and asks, “How long does it go on? …Every time we deal with an enemy, we create two more.” Next season, perhaps, we’ll see the true cost of the Lannister’s sinister dealings in the North.
Cersei, at least, need not be lonely much longer. Her brother and lover, Jaime, returns to King’s Landing and is unrecognizable not only to the people of Flea Bottom but also to his own sister, who can hardly see him for the stump where his hand once was. (Flashback to Season 1, Episode 2, where Jaime said: “Well, even if [Bran Stark] lives, he’ll be a cripple, grotesque. Give me a good, clean death any day.”) Brienne looks on him sympathetically as they enter the town gates as just another travel-weary band of nobodies, but she’s not there to give him comfort when he meets his sister. Jaime’s famed Lannister confidence and swagger is gone along with his hand, and Cersei is horrified.
In one of the most painful scenes of the series, Ygritte manages to catch up with Jon Snow on foot. She holds an arrow trained on him and looks ready to burst into tears at any moment. “I know you won’t hurt me,” he says to her, a bit hopefully. “You know nothing Jon Snow.” (Is this really the last time we’ll get to hear the famed phrase?) “I do know some things. I know I love you. I know you love me.” She starts to cry, but her aim is unwavering. She shoots him as he turns to go– not once, but three times. A woman scorned, right? Perhaps. However, remember: Ygritte is a great shot, as we know from the seemingly-insignificant (at the time) deer hunting scene a few episodes ago. She hits him in the back and the legs, hardly in critical areas, and watches him ride off.
This is as great a love scene in all of Game of Thrones. Though she could have killed him, Ygritte chooses not to. Yet, why does she still shoot him if she loves him? Remember, Ygritte is a wildling, born and bred. In the wildling tradition of marriage and courtship, the men are expected to literally steal women away. It’s meant to be a very violent and aggressive occasion, but not just from the man’s end. The women, upon their capture, are supposed to put up a fight all along the way. This ritual celebrates not only the strength of men, but also the woman’s own independence and might. The men normally try to steal women from far away clans and bring them home to strengthen their own.
In his own way, Jon Snow came north and stole Ygritte from her clan, and then brought her south again to his own lands. However, he has no intention to take her any further, and it’s unclear really if she would want to go. What is clear is that they love one another. What if Ygritte shot Jon as part of this ritual of wildling marriage? What if she expected Jon to grab her and drag her to Castle Black with him? When he rides away without her, she bursts into tears, utterly heartbroken (and heartbreaking to us as viewers).
Outside of Yunkai, Daenerys is positioned with her troops at the ready as the people spill forth from the city. They are on edge, unsure of how they will be received. As Daenerys points out, “People learn to love their chains.” When Missandei starts to give a speech about their savior, Dany interrupts to play semantics with her words, insisting that she cannot give the people their freedom, but that they must take it for themselves. Everyone starts to shout the old Ghiscari word for “mother,” Mhysa, the title of the episode. She begins to walk through the crowd, unconcerned for her own safety, and the people hoist her up on their shoulders like she just won the championship match.
As the camera pans back from her ecstatic face, and we take a dragon’s-eye view of the scene outside the walls of Yunkai, we see thousands of people forming a radial symmetric organism around Daenerys at the axis. Beside them are the troops, still perfectly organized into rows of rectangular formations. In one shot, we see the three-pronged attack strategy of Daenerys Stormborn. First and foremost are the dragons, swooping high above everyone. To supplement these mystical creatures are the actual land forces, fierce fighters who have been bought not with gold, but with their freedom and her respect. Finally, the radial circle of freed slaves represents not only the support of the people, but more importantly, the justification for the state she intends to set up… eventually. When she gets to it.
We’ll just have to wait until next season.
Other thoughts from “Mhysa”:
- As awesome as that final shot was, the last scene was a little heavy-handed and uncomfortable, to put it mildly. When the slaves spill out of the city to surround literally the whitest girl in Westeros and Essos, we add yet another work of fiction to the pile of countless “White Savior” stories. The show has, for some unknown reason, chosen to depict many of the more “tribal” and “primitive” societies of Essos as having darker skin. There’s not really a reason why the show could not have written a more diverse crowd of slaves to call mesmerized after their uber-blond savior. Also, the fact that they act like an unthinking hoard gravitating to Daenerys, uttering only one simple word in a primitive language, doesn’t help, and calls to mind the historical justifications for colonization in human history. All of this when, in fact, the books make a fairly big deal out of the variety of different people enslaved by the Yunkai and freed by Daenerys. Anyway…
- Thanks to Tyrion, we have a new rallying cry to pull out at the next party: “It’s not easy being drunk all the time. Everyone would do it if it were easy.”
- Tywin: “A good man does everything in his power to better his family’s position, regardless of his own selfish desires.” Tyrion: “When have you ever done something that wasn’t for your interest but solely for the interest of the family?” Be careful what you ask for, Tyrion. As his example of a time when he did not act out of his own selfish interest, Tywin chooses to share with Tyrion his wish to commit infanticide upon him. He let Tyrion live only because he was a member of the Lannister family, but not because he wanted him. Geez, Tywin. Twist the knife a little more this season, will you?
Like a few others in this series, Roose Bolton is very calculating and unpredictable. Though he once served Robb quite faithfully, as soon as the tides of favor turned against the Young Wolf, he made a shrewd but not altogether honorable move to back the winning side. “He ignored my advice at every turn,” Bolton points out as-a-matter-of-factly, walking over the blood that still stains the Frey’s Great Hall. It’s not hard to imagine a situation where Roose would have stayed a loyal subject, but the winds of favor turned against poor Robb Stark, and a rational, dishonorable Bolton immediately made his play. Walder Frey toasts him, saying, “Here’s to the Young Wolf!” Drolly, Bolton replies in his best Alphaville impression, “Forever young.”
- Viewership spiked between seasons two and three, guaranteeing many more seasons to come. HBO is all too happy to continue one of their most successful shows ever. In fact, this season Game of Thrones became HBO’s most successful show since The Sopranos. Approximately 13.6 million people watched each episode this season, compared to the 14.4 million average that watched The Sopranos (impressive considering there was no DVR or streaming back then, though you have to wonder how many thousands of people are watching Game of Thrones through more “undocumented channels,” shall we say). Anything that is good news for HBO is good news for us. Now, let’s just cross our fingers that George R.R. Martin puts out the last two books of the series fast enough so that the television show doesn’t lap him. There are several potential problems on the horizon for the show because of George’s tendency to take forever to write each book, and they are discussed by the showrunners, HBO, and George R.R. Martin himself in an interesting, but terrifying article on the show’s future. George’s denial of the problem is most troubling.
- Filming for Season 4 will begin in July. For book fans, Oberyn Martell, known as the “Red Viper of Dorne,” is currently being cast. (Dorne is the desert-like area of the Seven Kingdoms where Myrcella Baratheon, Cersei’s daughter, was shipped off to last season as a part of an elaborate marriage pact orchestrated by Tyrion.) This means that the fourth season will likely take its material largely from the second half of the third book in the series, A Storm of Swords. In case you want to prepare some summer reading, you may also want to go ahead and finish books four and five. A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons both occur simultaneously to one another in terms of the story chronology. If they move some pieces from later books into the next season, as they are likely going to do at least in some measure, then you will want to have read both books. As always, spoilers abound on the internet. Be very careful what you search for on Google, as before I finished book five I was spoiled in a big way simply by typing a character’s name in the search box. Game of Thrones‘s greatness is derived in part from its shock value, as the Red Wedding proved once again. The best way to preserve that experience is either to read the books or avoid general searches on the internet (ditto comments sections on anything Game of Thrones related– commenters are the Flea Bottom of the Internet).
- Thank you to all my readers for another great season! Your support has meant a lot to me. I appreciate the many conversations that this has started, and hope we will continue them together next season!
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.”