There comes a point in every fantasy story when we encounter the following scene – our beloved protagonist comes face-to-face with a seemingly insurmountable circumstance while in pursuit of their goal, and enemies are closing in all around them. With no solution or escape in sight, we the audience fear that the hero is about to meet their premature demise, only to watch as they are miraculously saved by an outside force or an extremely fortunate development. No matter what kind of devilry the villains can concoct, the good guys always prevail in the end. Ho hum.
This isn’t a criticism of the genre rather than an acknowledgment that for the most part, fantasy is predictable; the characters involved are required to see the journey through to the end because that’s what the story demands. They are protected by their destiny and therefore are immune to all life-threatening situations, at least until the conclusion. Ever since Ned Stark lost his head back in season 1, Robb Stark has assumed this role in more ways than one. While I wouldn’t consider him to be the prototypical hero due to the vast multitude of separate protagonists in “Game of Thrones”, Robb’s motivation since that dreadful event has been to avenge his father’s death and deliver justice to the perpetrators behind it. The King in the North has never been my favorite, but in my opinion he always had the most honorable intentions for waging war.
Of course, that’s the horrible truth about Thrones; the characters who are the most virtuous are almost always the ones most at risk, and that harsh reality was solidified with last night’s shockingly brutal episode. The Red Weddng is another example of just how far this series is willing to go to defy convention, and that’s what sets it apart from all the stories and shows that have come before it. Sprawled out on the ground with arrows piercing his body and his wife and unborn child lying dead in a pool of blood next to him, Robb Stark is at that moment where it appears his doom is a foregone conclusion. It can’t end this way. Not before Robb exacts his revenge upon the Lannisters, and not after the Starks have endured through so much personal devastation just to reach this point. We wait patiently for the timely save, like when Gandalf the White returned with the Riders of Rohan to bail out his friends or when Harry Potter utilized time travel as a means to protect himself from the Dementors. We wait and we wait, and it doesn’t come. “The Lannisters send their regards,” Roose Bolton whispers in Robb’s ear, right before he delivers the fatal blow and becomes the latest defector to align himself with those damned Lions, now the clear-cut winners in their conflict with the Starks.
And then there’s Catelyn, who gravely urged her son not to spurn Walder Frey, the architect behind this catastrophe and a man who is far more cunning and dangerous than anyone other than her imagined him to be. As a mother, there cannot be anything more gut wrenching than the realization that you are helpless to protect your children, but it had to be even worse for her knowing that she couldn’t protect Robb from himself as he made one terrible decision after another. That makes the opening scene even that much more heartbreaking, as Robb had finally come to the conclusion that his mother’s stern advice was right all along, only it was far too late to make a difference now. After all the hell Catelyn’s been through, the knife that slit her throat at the end seemed like sweet relief in comparison. The Direwolves of House Stark were mighty in the battlefield, but their inability to play the game, to do whatever was necessary to cement the alliances they needed and defeat their enemies in any way possible, that’s what cost them everything in the end.
It’s easy to forget that there were other Starks present in this episode, and for the first time in ages the proximity between them had shrunk to a mere few yards. I’ve already mentioned how foolish it was for this family to put their faith in morals like honor and justice, but there they were again as Jon Snow couldn’t bring himself to execute the helpless old horse breeder, and once more when Arya forbade the Hound from permanently silencing the hog farmer. Sandor bluntly observes that kindness is a one-way ticket to the grave (and he’s proven 100 percent correct later on), but Ned Stark’s children just can’t resist their natural decency. And how tragically frustrating it is to see these poor souls come so close to a much-needed reunion, only to be shoved apart by dire straits once more. If Arya was afraid to get her hopes up before this, what the hell is she going to be like now? Even Bran and Rickon, now the last male heirs to the black hole that is Winterfell, were forced to split up because it was the only way to ensure each other’s survival. It is far beyond immoral that these good people are meant to suffer this severely while a vicious little coward like Joffrey has everything go his way, so forgive me if I took some extra pleasure in seeing Jon cut down Orell. The Wildling warg is far from the worst person in Thrones, but it is a rarity to see anyone get what they truly deserve in this show.
I can’t help but wonder what Daenerys would make of all of this, seeing as her principles have indefinitely delayed her return to the Seven Kingdoms simply because she can’t abide slavery. Would she seek to punish all of the “Usurper’s Dogs” equally regardless of recent events, or would she take pity on the Starks because of the similar misery her own family experienced? Of course, she is completely unaware of the travesties taking place in her home country, only focused on confronting malcontents that we didn’t even know existed until recently. Watching her men take down yet another group of overly-arrogant slavers was satisfying, but it’s all so far removed from everything else that’s happening. After spending three seasons of watching characters we were rooting for be dispatched left and right, at this point we just all want to see the bad guys burn.
The fact that it conjured up all these thoughts proves that “The Rains of Castamere” played out less like an hour of television and more like a modern Shakespearean tragedy, and a masterful one at that. You could literally hear audiences around the world collectively crying out in anguish as the Starks were mercilessly slaughtered, and the internet still hasn’t recovered from the eruption that followed. I imagine that in the next few days, you’ll hear a lot of people declare that they are finished with this show because they can’t stand to see anyone else they love be put to the sword. Don’t worry, those same people will be watching with the rest of us next week. In a genre that’s been done to death like fantasy, being genuinely surprised is a real treat, and even though most of the surprises have been disturbing as all hell, the bottom line is that nothing delivers them as well as Thrones.
Jesse’s Rating: 10/10