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Based largely off of the first half of George R.R. Martin’s behemoth of a book, A Storm of Swords (which is longer than the entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy!), the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones brings all of the plot lines, character beats, and thematic developments from the first two years to a climatic head.
And as the show’s lingering questions are answered and bombshell revelations are dropped, this column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) will help wade viewers and book-lovers both through the narrative overload that will be at hand. What it won’t do, however, is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.
Given the death, destruction, and – gasp – hope that await in the next two episodes, such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 309: “The Rains of Castamere”
It’s easy to discuss a whole cornucopia of filmmaking processes as they relate to Game of Thrones, ranging from the blocking of scenes to the production design to the background action. There is one specific, far more intangible element, however, that tends to slide right past one as he’s caught up in the drama of the episodes: history.
There are a number of items that make the HBO series historical already, whether they be the amount of location shooting or the size of the cast (both main and recurring) or the level of the ratings (for a cable series). But the Red Wedding knocks all this aside, just as it upends a number of television conventions to pull the rug out from under large swaths of its (non-book-reading) audience. This one sequence will more than likely go down as the defining moment of the series, for better or worse, and will be felt by both creators and audiences for an incredibly long time to come.
It all starts with the sheer amount of violence and gore that is displayed on-screen. Many (mainstream) critics have routinely compared the spectacle to that of a Quentin Tarantino film, commenting on its over-the-top spilling of blood, even though its depiction is nowhere near the usually-cartoony, always-gleeful sequences Tarantino slaps together in-between masturbatory fits of heavy-handed monologues (never mind the narrative, character, and thematic resonances the Red Wedding manages to conjure, which is a far cry from the emotionally vapid displays Quentin tends to spin). And, indeed, it may be an unbelievably long time before the sheer amount of deaths, let alone the gallons of blood, are matched, let alone bested, by another TV production.
But that’s not what makes the sequence anywhere near as effective and emotionally devastating as it is – all that is left up to the slight-of-hand the writer-producers pulled by stringing both King Robb Stark and the audience along for the better part of the past two years, playing up his presence in the story and his future as a character in a way that can only be called heart-wrenching (and, possibly, manipulative) in hindsight. And it’s not, of course, just Robb that shuffles off of this mortal coil well before his time; that his queen, Talisa, and his mother, the Lady Catelyn, go with him makes it all the worse on an exponential level. Add in the fact that this is the second time the series has pulled this particular trick on viewers, after Lord Eddard Stark’s murder at the bottom of season one, and the effect is made all the more impressive.
Given the literal and the figurative trauma this episode has engendered, it is most likely that television – and, more specifically, protagonists – will never again be the same.
For better or worse.
The Differences between the Episode and the Novel:
The scene where the wildlings and Jon Snow attack the old man who breeds horses for the Night’s Watch is both extremely similar and wildly (no pun intended) divergent.
In the novel, the old man is simply an old man, a traveler with no name, no backstory, and, most strikingly of all, no dialogue, even when being literally faced with his own death (which is ironic for the series, as television tends to make as many parts as possible be silent due to the huge discrepancy in pay between speaking and non-speaking roles). He is discovered in the ruins of a village once known as Queenscrown, where he had settled in for the night to wait out the vicious storm. The wildlings had a similar idea, found him and his little fire, and decide to kill him before he’s able to send up the alarm that invaders have slipped over the Wall.
Jon recoils at the thought that a man, particularly one unarmed and with no inclination to either defend himself or attempt an escape, should die for the sole crime of having built a fire to stay warm, but the leader of their ragtag contingent (who, in this version of the story, is not the congenial Tormund Giantsbane but the ever-suspicious Styr, the Magnar of Thenn) decrees that Jon should be the one to do the deed, to prove his changed allegiance once and for all. He can’t, Ygritte does, and all hell breaks loose.
The change from wayward traveler to the horse breeder of the Watch is not only an incredibly shrewd move, establishing a situation and relation to Jon Snow that can be summed up in just one line of dialogue, it is also one of the single best improvements that Game of Thrones has made to A Song of Ice and Fire’s massive, sometimes unwieldy narrative, streamlining the convoluted into the (more) coherent, the random into the (more) deliberate. The challenge to Jon’s sense of honor, the setting for his almost-reunion with Bran and his companions, and the set-up for the direwolf attack and Jon’s subsequent escape are all hit beat for beat without nearly a hitch. The only striking absence here is the omission of Ygritte’s wonderfully desperate “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” as she slits the old man’s throat (instead of felling him with her bow and arrow), but this is obviously more textural detail than structural necessity. The symmetry between the two iterations of the scene, in fact, is striking in both its simplicity and design – a rarity in the adaptation department.
There are, of course, other changes, but they essentially amount to window dressing – save for the addition of one minor-but-noteworthy element: Orell. On the page, the wildling skinchanger was actually killed by Jon in the second novel; he is one of the victims of Qhorin Halfhand’s scouting party as they sneak through the Skirling Pass (“The Old Gods and the New,” episode 206). Since he was warging inside of his eagle at the time of his death, a part of Orell remains in the animal and tries to extract revenge by mercilessly hunting the black brothers as they attempt to work their way back to the Fist of the First Men and the rest of the expeditionary force. They are cornered by Rattleshirt (and Ygritte), but Orell-eagle’s triumph is denied when Jon kills the Halfhand and joins up instead with the wildlings.
After Mance Rayder himself accepts Jon into his growing army, no recourse is left to Orell except for one (literally) out-of-the-blue attack as the former crow goes about his wildling business. Even this, however, is only a half-success: though he manages to slice open Jon’s face, he fails to take out an eyeball and is forever after forced to keep his distance. Just as with many other characters in many other locations in Martin’s world, revenge will have to wait.
Given that showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff opted to cut a goodly number of brand-new characters from season two – such as Jojen and Meera Reed, the Boy that perpetually torments Theon Greyjoy, and, of course, Orell himself – to make sufficient room for all the other newly introduced heavhitters (Brienne of Tarth, King Stannis Baratheon, and Margaery Tyrell have all obviously played much bigger roles in the overarching narrative), Jon’s flipping over to the dark side had to be abridged and otherwise restructured. But keeping Orell, who barely registers as a blip on a very crowded literary radar, actually serves a whole multitude of storytelling purposes here in season three: most immediately, the eagle’s attack proves to be a fleeting-but-memorable beat, punctuating the scene in striking fashion. The larger throughline of the Stark children and their varying levels of warging, which Bran amply demonstrates in this ep by hopping inside both Summer and Hodor, is kept alive and kicking. And, finally, Orell proves to be yet another kind of foil for Jon, a romantic rival that portends the moment when he leaves her behind, ending their relationship.
Which it most certainly will, at one point or another; this is Game of Thrones, after all, and more than anything else, it is a tale of all sorts of endings – even at weddings, the traditional time of new beginnings.
Season Three Reviews:
- 301: Valar Dohaeris
- 302: Dark Wings, Dark Words
- 303: Walk of Punishment
- 304: And Now His Watch Is Ended
- 305: Kissed By Fire
- 306: The Climb
- 307: The Bear and the Maiden Fair
- 308: Second Sons
Season Two Reviews:
- 210: Valar Morghulis
- 209: Blackwater
- 208: The Prince of Winterfell
- 207: A Man without Honor
- 206: The Old Gods and the New
- 205: The Ghost of Harrenhal
- 204: Garden of Bones
- 203: What Is Dead May Never Die
- 202: The Night Lands
- 201: The North Remembers
Season One Reviews:
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