Was Game of Thrones' Crazy, Bloody Showdown ... Underwhelming?

Psychic powers, bathroom breaks, and a game-changing wedding: Our roundtable on "The Rains of Castamere," the ninth episode in the HBO show's third season.
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HBO

Every week for the third season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.


Orr: The scene! The scene!

Sorry to get all Tattoo-from-Fantasy-Island on you, but it's been a long season of trying not to give away what was going to happen tonight to non-novel-readers such as you, Spencer. Did my various attempts at obfuscation—pretending that the Big Reveal would be that Cersei's a dude, etc.—succeed in maintaining your innocence?

The Red Wedding is one of the best scenes—arguably the best scene—in the George R. R. Martin novels, and anticipation for this brutal payoff has been building since before the season began: when showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss suggested that the success of the season could hinge on their pulling off (wink, wink) one particular scene; when it was revealed that the title of Episode Nine (customarily the dramatic climax of each Game of Thrones season) would be "The Rains of Castamere," etc.

In that context—i.e., expecting that my world would be utterly rocked by this episode—I confess that I feel, for the moment at least, slightly underwhelmed. The scene was bloody and shocking and certainly set a principal-character-body-count record for the show, but I couldn't help but feel that it lacked the physical scale of the last penultimate episode ("Blackwater") and the moral scale of the one before that ("Baelor").

None of which is to suggest it wasn't an extremely striking bit of television—my favorite moment was when Catelyn noticed that Roose Bolton was wearing mail and sussed out exactly what that meant—but I'll be curious to hear how it played with a relative newbie like you, Spencer, and a relative vet like you, Ross. It's a question I've been pondering since my world (or at least the portion of it devoted to watching television) was rocked when poor Ned Stark was parted from his head in Season One. Not having read the books at that point, I was completely stunned in a way that (obviously) wasn't really possible this time around.

The scene was bloody and shocking, but I couldn't help but feel that it lacked the physical scale of the last penultimate episode ("Blackwater") and the moral scale of the one before that ("Baelor").

More narrowly, we now have an answer for the spoiler-y question I posed a few weeks back regarding how the episode would treat Talisa. (Robb's wife in the books is a far more minor character and doesn't attend the Red Wedding.) My initial guess had been pretty much what wound up happening: that she would offer yet another high-shock-value Stark corpse (or two, as the case turned out) for a scene that didn't necessarily need any more. The more complex and interesting conjecture—though not without its own problems—was the Lannister Honeypot thesis, which imagined that Talisa had been in on the betrayal from the very beginning. Oh well.

Two other minor thoughts on the scene: 1) the Blackfish established pretty conclusively that there may be no more valuable life skill than the ability to time one's bathroom breaks well; and 2) from now until the end of time, any bar or party host wanting to clear out a bunch of stragglers will know exactly what to do: have a mournful cello start playing "The Rains of Castamere." It's basically Westerosian for "You don't have to go home, but we'll murder you if you stay here."

Apart from its central massacre, this episode continued what seemed like a season-long experiment in alternating between hitting the gas and hitting the brakes. Episode Five ("Kissed by Fire") put the pedal to the metal, with excellent results, and then Episode Six ("The Climb") slammed on the brakes, to comparably satisfying effect. Episodes Seven and Eight continued the relatively leisurely pace with mixed success, and now suddenly we're flooring it again—in the very episode one might have expected to devote itself primarily to one crucial, horrific storyline.

Tonight featured perhaps the best use of Arya we've seen in a while, with the prophetic, so-close-and-yet-so-far motif handled elegantly. Also, fleeting as it was, it was nice to see Sam get another not-merely-a-fat-fool scene with Gilly ("You know all that from looking at marks on a page? You're like a wizard.") We also had the sack of Yunkai and any number of perhaps-we-should-hit-the-sack glances between the phonetically compatible Daenerys and Daario Naharis. And we had one of the few near-random encounters of characters following different storylines when Bran, Osha, Hodor, Jojen, Meera, and Rickon passed with warg-radius of Jon, Ygritte, Tormund, and Orell. This subplot alone featured the revelation of Bran's superpower, Rickon's first (and perhaps only) Big Scene, and a significant bump in the road for the Jon-Ygritte relationship. Perhaps it's because Rose Leslie is so terrific and Kit Harington is so not, but I'm going to take her side in this, and pretty much any other, romantic dispute. I'm just sorry that she didn't give him the going-away present that she did in the books: an arrow in the calf.

That said, this was an episode, as Benioff and Weiss have long recognized, that rose or fell with the Red Wedding. I fear I may have been insufficiently blown away thanks to my two years of implausibly escalating expectations. I genuinely wish I could have seen the episode without knowing what was going to happen. (Where's a forget-me-now when you need one?)

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