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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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?)

What do you two say?

Kornhaber: Chris, I'm sorry to hear that you, as a book reader, felt underwhelmed. Judging by the knot in my stomach though the episode's final act, the way my roommate and I sat in dumb silence as the credits rolled, and the symphony of "Game of Thones guhhhh whut?!" Facebook statuses that then thundered across my newsfeed, the popular reaction among series newbies was to be heartbreakingly, satisfyingly overwhelmed.

You and I agree, though, about the wedding-party ambush in "The Rains of Castamere" being an "extremely striking bit of television." Writers/showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss stacked the episode with protagonists just escaping near-death confrontations—Jon Snow's reversal with the Wildlings, Bran's well-timed psychic breakthrough, Daenerys's posse's three-vs.-many infiltration—and then gave us a main-character bloodbath defined by its awful inescapability.

You could sense gravitational pull towards Something Big from the episode's opening strategy chat. "We'll lose the war and die the way father died," Robb says of one possible outcome of his proposed campaign. Catelyn seems worried by the risks, but lets vendetta guide her ultimate judgment: "Show them how it feels to lose something they love." Dun dun dun. The exposition scenes at the Twins then radiated tense comic energy (Frey struggling to remember his female progeny's names) and foreboding creepiness (the piggish courtroom evaluation of Talisa)—until the show finally downshifted into a rare mood of tragedy.

From there out, Benioff, Weiss, and director David Nutter deserve applause for how slowly and artfully they, uh, twisted the knife. The sequence of transitional shots remains indelible even the morning after: Robb and Talisa's moment of affection gazed upon warmly by the Stark matriarch, who then turns her head to note, curiously, a guard closing the chamber doors. Cue cellos, cue whimpering dire wolf, cue the Hound perplexingly rejected at the gates. By the time we see Roose Bolton's chainmail and sick smile, it's already been made clear—something's up.

Benioff, Weiss, and director David Nutter deserve applause for how slowly and artfully they, uh, twisted the knife.

After that, savagery. I'm surprised to hear that Talisa's character in the books isn't present for the massacre; it's hard for me to imagine how she wouldn't be. If Walder Frey's mission—presumed Lannister bounty notwithstanding—is to make Robb pay, offing the wife he so publicly loved right before his eyes would seem like killing-spree priority No. 1. But maybe in the books it's Robb's mom who dies first, then? Here, Michelle Fairey's wits'-end performance made Catelyn's last stand riveting and sad; I barked a "fuck yes!" when she grabbed that hostage from under the table, hoping she'd find a way for her or her son to make it out alive. And it feels wrong to say this, but David Bradley's turn as the leering, kooky, vengeful Lord of the Twins deserves praise as well. His shrugged "I'll find another" demonstrated just how empowering amorality can be.

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