There’s a scene in Silver Linings Playbook, one of last year’s big Oscar contenders, in which Bradley Cooper’s mentally unstable character, Pat Solitano, is reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. He ends up tossing the book through a window, following with a rant about the unnecessary heartbreak that plays out near the end of the oft-assigned reading for high schoolers. It’s bullshit, he shouts in the wee hours of the morning (I’m paraphrasing, of course). Why should an otherwise heroic and heartwarming story end with such agony?
Mental instability aside, I know that feeling. I remember it vividly. My moment occurred similar to that of the fictional Pat, both happened in the wee hours of the morning and both involved throwing a book violently in disgust with a particular turn of events. The only difference, of course, is that I don’t look much like Bradley Cooper. And the slayer of my goodwill and optimism wasn’t Ernest Hemingway, it was George R.R. Martin. Tonight, somewhere around 10:00PM in whatever time zone you reside, those of you who have never read any of the Song of Fire and Ice books found out exactly to what I am referring. And thanks to some exceptional storytelling choices by the Game of Thrones team, you really got to feel it. Like that night I put a dent in the wall with A Storm of Swords, this is one you’ll never forget.
While this week’s long-awaited (by show watchers having to wait an extra week) and long-dreaded (by book readers who knew what was coming) episode delivers final moments worth long-form discussion, I’d like to take a moment and talk about why the final shot and cut-to-silence were so effective. Perhaps it will help in some therapeutic way for those of you who are huddled up in the fetal position in the corner of the room having some sort of panic attack. Because after tonight’s episode, I was seeing Tweets like the following. And now I feel like we need to tackle this emotional breakdown together.
“The Rains of Castamere,” written by the show’s leading men (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) and directed by David Nutter (this his third episode, so a somewhat unexpected face to put on such a pivot-point for the series) lays on heavy with two themes: the escalating brutality that exists in the world of Westeros, and the sense of dread we’ve long felt that the Starks will never again be a whole family.
The first notion expands well beyond the wedding of Edmure Tully and the lone hot daughter of Walder Frey. The escalation of brutality is something seen as an expansive element in this episode. Way up north, the wildlings get down to the business of killing people, which doesn’t quite sit well with Jon Snow. Despite the love for Ygritte that’s been building for an entire season, he shows off his true colors and bails on his lady. In the process, we get our first look at some badass direwolf action which only makes the shot of Robb’s wolf dying later that much more heartbreaking. There is also plenty of killing happening across the sea, where Daario Naharis (ever the charmer) proves his loyalty to Dany by winning her Yunkai. It feels as though it rushes by as it’s intercut with what’s happening in Walder Frey’s house, but we do get forward momentum in the politics at work around the Khaleesi. And we get to see the beginnings of a battle. Surely there’s more work to be done between Dany and her crew as they move forward. And surely it will be bloody.
These moments, especially when combined with the discovery of Bran’s gift (a very cool moment that has finally made Bran’s story pop), remind us that not only is this world brutal, it’s also much bigger than what happens at the wedding. It’s important to remember, though difficult to see at this point, that there’s still so much story happening out there even as it feels like our world has come crashing down.
Why does it feel as if it’s all crumbling? Because of timing and framing and one hell of a performance from Michelle Fairley. The episode’s big finale isn’t just about characters we love dying. Sure, that happens. Even seeing characters we’ve only recently become fond of dying (looking at you, Robb’s hot wife) is hard to do. Especially when juxtaposed with further fracturing of the Stark clan. Bran and Rickon are parting ways, Arya was this close to meeting her family, then this close to dying alongside them, and now her fate is completely uncertain. And we like Arya! So unfair…
Ahem. Sorry, I get a little emotional.
The brilliance of the episode’s final moments is delivered by the show’s ability to create a haunting mood. From the moment Random Frey #36 closes the doors to the hall, something doesn’t feel right. Then the music changes to “The Rains of Castamere” (this time not performed by The National) and Michelle Fairley’s performance takes over. We see it in her eyes as she realizes that something is off. As the sense of overwhelming dread overcomes her face, it also creeps up the spines of the audience. For the first time that I can recall, the show visually captures the same exact series of emotions as the book, from the exact point of view of a particular character. We see the end of Robb Stark through the eyes of his mother, who at the beginning of this episode found herself seeing their relationship on the the cusp of being healed. The problem is that while honest, Robb Stark is also naive. And it took him far too long to figure out that his mother was right about not crossing Walder Frey. The show wasn’t shy about foreshadowing that in this episode, just as it hasn’t been shy about leading us down this path from about the midway point in this season. It’s the culmination of the dread and the brutal, unflinching way the deaths were filmed that make it hurt. It’s the capturing of the complexity of those final moments. Catelyn’s realization of what’s about to happen. Her desperate play to try and save her son’s life. Her bluff being called. Her following through and killing Frey’s child-young wife. Then the utter defeat in her eyes as her own throat sprays red all over. It’s hard to imagine a more gruesome and affecting way to kill off any character, let alone one so integral to the story thus far. It’s also hard to imagine that Fairley’s performance in this scene alone won’t earn her some sort of award consideration when votes are counted.
Based on the preview of next week’s episode, I have no doubt that there will be plenty of time to reflect upon what just happened. The shock of Catelyn Stark’s final moment and the silence that followed will be worth continuing talking about once we get some distance from it. For now, it’s worth celebrating the craft of mood-creating that went into this episode. Everything from bringing back the lively, creepy, twisted David Bradley as Walder Frey to the moment shared between Arya and Robb’s dying wolf. Every piece fit together, every moment carried weight.
I wish I could make an “It Gets Better” ad for non-readers. Those who probably feel like the heart of this world they love has just been ripped out. All I can really say with confidence is that while it might not actually get better, the show certainly will go on. Because hey, at least there are still dragons, right guys?
Next Week: The shadow of the Red Wedding (there, I said it) falls upon Westeros. Expect more reflection and perhaps more darkness. That night, it sure is dark and full of terrors.
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