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.

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.

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 5 (“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 7 and 8 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.

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.

Was any of this spoiled for me prior to viewing, you ask? Well, kind of. It's tough to watch this show each week, and perhaps impossible to write about it each week, without some foreknowledge inadvertently seeping in. When checking spellings one time, I unwittingly glanced upon a fan page that referred to Robb in the past tense. I'd heard—maybe from commenters?—that this wedding was called “the Red Wedding.” And I knew that the ninth episodes of the two previous seasons were calamitous. Those facts led to some speculation in my mind, and one theory I had was that, in fact, Walder would kill Robb, Talisa, and/or Catelyn in revenge.

Still, that didn't prevent me from gasping, leaning forward, and filling with real sadness and dread at the episode's climax. Besides, it's not like it hadn't been foreshadowed: The manner and magnitude of the Stark slaughter shocked, yes, but the it also felt like the completion of a puzzle. Ever since Ned's death in Season One, the show has sketched out just how much Robb is his father's son, again and again making hard but “right” choices—and again and again sacrificing esteem from his allies when he does so. In this ruthless world, could the King in the North really hope to prevail by trying to be a good, honorable man who only breaks vows for love?

His comments to the mother at episode's start, and the convo with Talisa about naming their son Eddard, underlined the symmetry of this killing—symmetry that no doubt ran through Catelyn's mind in those horrid closing seconds when she stood, slack jawed, eyes vacant, presumably reflecting on the enormity of her family's ruin. Now, we're left with the weirder, wilier Starks to avenge the fallen. Four of those five (Jon, Bran, Arya... Rickon, technically), had uncommonly interesting storylines this episode, which gives hope that the show will carry on entertainingly, even with a chunk of its core cast now gone.

Speaking of entertaining cast members, it was only till an hour or so after the finish that I realized we spent zero time in King's Landing in this episode. I look forward to seeing the fallout of the Red Wedding unfold there. With these killings, Tywin's really sewn up the Risk board for himself, no? He's got the now-eldest Stark heir married to one son, the presumed loyalty of Houses Bolton and Frey, and his most effective rival gone. The seemingly less formidable Balon Greyjoy and Stannis Baratheon are all that appear to stand between the Lannisters and total rule. Boring. Daenerys, Mance Rayder, White Walkers: Would you please invade already?

Ross, are you with Chris on this great episode not being as great as the books could have allowed? And should we talk about the other bloodlettings—of the Wildlings, and in Yunkai?

Douthat: I feel bad joining Chris's camp, because it's so predictable for a fan of the book to decide that Benioff and Weiss fell short here. Of all the challenges of the first three seasons, bringing the Red Wedding to life in a way that would satisfy Martin's fans looms largest, because of all of the books' gamechanger moments this is the most impressively executed, the most wrenching and tragic and brilliantly cruel, the most difficult to re-read without hoping irrationally that this time things might turn out differently. And it occurred to me going in to last night that the structure of the show made the challenge even more difficult: In Martin's novels, the Red Wedding happens smack in the middle of a big fat book, Storm of Swords, when the reader isn't necessarily expecting a major shock, which makes it easier to build to it slowly and remorselessly, with what Slate's Dan Kois aptly describes as a feeling of “slowly dawning awfulness.” But because that book has been cleaved in two for the show, we've reached the wedding at precisely the penultimate-episode-of-the-season moment when viewers—and HBO viewers, especially—are already primed to expect the tragic and horrific. So the show had to find a way to balance foreshadowing with surprise somewhat differently—giving us Arya staring at the Twins and other moments where dread crept in, but also leaning harder than the book on the deceptively happy moments (like when Catelyn's brother realizes that he's getting hitched to a nubile Frey rather than a hag) in order to keep the twist from becoming obvious to the uninitiated.

I liked how that balance was struck overall, even if it couldn't quite live up to book's devastating momentum, and I liked a number of small details: the interaction between Catelyn and Roose Bolton (in the book, she finds the chain mail under the sleeve of a random Frey), the false hope—extinguished by crossbow bolts—when Arya hears the barking Grey Wind and you think for a moment that she might let him out, and basically everything about David Bradley's performance as Walder Frey. I also thought that the closing moment, when Catelyn tries to make Walder's latest wife her hostage, was a good example of Benioff and Weiss's stakes-raising really working: In the novels, she grabs one of his many grandchildren, and a mentally deficient one at that, and so you just know it's never going to work. That plays well with the remorselessness of Martin's approach, but in the context of the show I liked having it seem almost plausible that the hostage-taking would work, and giving Frey a chance to deliver the awesomely awful line about finding “another” before the blades went home.

So why am I, like Chris, a little more let down than satisfied? Two reasons, I think. First, because my appreciation of the climax was diminished by the fact that I didn't really like the structure of the episode as a whole: There was just too much going on (especially a week after the show did a successful weeding of its plotlines) in an hour that should have all been pointing toward a single endpoint. I understand the choice to pair the events in the Twins with Bran and Jon's near-encounter in the tower, since both were cases of the long-separated Starks almost getting back together, and they featured some effective echoes and near-parallels. (The dire wolves saving the day in the north made it easier to hope that Grey Wind might do the same in the south, and Jon ditching Ygritte was an interesting counterpoint to Robb dying with Talisa.) But did we need an interlude with Sam and Gilly this week? And given that the sack of Yunkai mostly happened off-screen anyway, couldn't all the business with Daenerys and her jealous team of rivals have been shunted into another episode as well? (Better to give us a snippet with the Lannisters, since they're actually responsible for the events in the Twins, or to finally reveal the identity of Theon's torturer, since that—spoiler alert—connects to the Red Wedding as well.) Maybe making this a “bottle episode” would have made it that much more obvious that the wedding would end in blood. But this was just a much, much bigger sequence, for the show and the story, than even the Battle of the Blackwater last season, and I think Benioff and Weiss made a mistake cluttering things up with other scenes and other places that didn't even connect tangentially to what went down under Lord Frey's roof.

And then, secondly, did we really, really need to watch Lady Talisa get stabbed repeatedly in the uterus, until it looked like her entire stomach was falling out? I know I'm a tedious broken record on the subject of the show's penchant for exploitation, and this was a case where the violence was legitimately tragic rather than (as with, say, Theon's torture) just gore for gore's sake. But building up Talisa's character in order to reveal her as a Lannister honeypot would have been such, such a more interesting path for the showrunners to take. Instead, it was all so very predictable: Her character was altered and expanded from the books because Benioff and Weiss decided that the assassination of Robb Stark, his mother and his bannermen just didn't give them enough to work with, and what was needed was to throw in the double murder (if you'll forgive my pro-life premises) of a young mother and her unborn Eddard as well. If there's such a thing as “gore-ing the lily,” you can always rely on this show to do it, and the effect in this case was to weaken the primal horror of Catelyn's fate—a mother dying in the (mistaken) belief that all her sons have been killed—by giving us a competing primal horror to focus on as well.

In sum, it was too much to expect the show to quite match the horrific perfection of the book. But in trying to eclipse the awfulness of Martin's scene, they made this adaptation more imperfect than it needed to be.