Okay. Okay. Okay.
Jesus, it’s not okay. Nothing will ever be okay and no one will ever smile again. God damn.
So, anyway, for the first time ever that I recall we have an entire episode with no time at all spent in King’s Landing, and it’s…oh, fucking hell…
But so things are really moving in the Jon Snow storyline now, with his loyalties revealed and Gareth gutted and coming this close to reuniting with Bran. Bran, who it turns out is not just a warg but some sort of wereHodor, and, andandand ohfuckme that was just, just brutal…
Ahem. Arya also comes within a hair’s breadth of…of reuniting with her…ah Jesus, that poor girl…
The goddamn wolf too? Ugh.
And, uh, Dany freed some more slaves! That’s nice, right? Sure, the parts of your brain that process positive feelings are currently offline, but slavery is bad, you definitely remember that being a thing. So Dany making less slavery must be good. Well, she didn’t do it so much as sit back and let her trio of admirers do the actual work, but there was some…ah Christ…some pretty nifty action, even if it’s not on the level of Blackwater, or…or…
Yeah, you know what, fuck it. It was probably a waste to even spend the money to choreograph the action scene we got in Yunkai, because it could have depicted the conquest of the city on twice the scale of Blackwater and no one would remember this episode for anything but the sickeningly, viciously dark Red Wedding sequence.
I’m a guy who appreciates darkness in my fiction, particularly in genre fare that constantly has to contend with the inherent goofiness of most sci-fi/fantasy worlds. I also highly value (too highly, folks annoyed by my anti-spoiler pathologies might say) the ability of a work to genuinely surprise, to upend its status quo and commit to following through with serious repercussions to its world. To that end, I also generally celebrate creators who are ruthless with their own creations, and are willing to hurt them or kill them off in unusual places or ways (and indeed, this has been a consistent source of my praise for the show in the past). I’ve never understood fans who criticize folks like Joss Whedon or Ron Moore for raining misery upon their heroes at every turn. Drama does not spring naturally from happy coincidences or stable relationships, and to some extent I wonder what the point of even creating fictional characters is if you are not going to push them to their absolute breaking points.
But this episode, man, was a rare case where the abuse of fictional characters felt tantamount to actual sadism. It wasn’t shock or outrage, really; part of the reason I love being surprised by TV shows so much is that I spend so much time watching, reading about, talking about and otherwise analyzing shows that I can usually see at least the general shape of a season or episode from the early going. Most of the people I talked to seemed convinced that Robb was going to meet a bad end soon (to the point where my pathological parts started to wonder if some of the ostensibly unspoiled ones didn’t know more than they were letting on), so it wasn’t like it caught me completely off guard. I definitely knew that something bad was going to go down at that wedding, as Frey appeared way too eager to accept uncle Edmure as a consolation prize. So I was sitting there on the couch, joking with my friend at the 32 minute mark that we had about 15 minutes left until something really, truly awful happened.
So I should have been ready for this, but holy sloppy shit, I was not. I knew it was a trap, but had predicted that Talisa would get it before Robb (cue friend: “Well, technically…”), and figured that he might be captured or Catelyn killed, but I did not think the entire war for the North could come crashing down in one fell swoop like that. I’m not sure what the primary conflict of the show will be now that the war is done. I’d be more excited by that question if I wasn’t so emotionally drained right now. Stannis doesn’t seem ready to mount a full comeback and the Greyjoys don’t seem like they’re up to the challenge of conquering more than a town or two. I doubt Blackfish could rally the whole of the North in his grand-nephew’s name, and Bran needs to complete his spirit quest beyond the Wall before he can muster any sort of resurgence. I guess Dany or Mance (or both) need to hurry along their plans in order to give things more of a focus now that there’s such a gaping hole in the center of the plot.
But man, those Starks. When they lose, it is not in a squeaker. No coach’s challenge necessary to review the call on the field for this one. They are decimated in truly, utterly horrendous fashion. Even being sure that something bad was looming did not prepare me for just how many little twists of the knife they packed in to the massacre sequence. The talk about baby Ned, the lingering on Cat’s dawning realization when “The Rains Of Castamere” started playing, Bolton’s kiss off line, shooting the wolf, Arya being so close to reuniting with her family before it is snatched away from her forever…
In fact, things may have veered a little too close to repeating Ned’s demise beat for beat. It’s episode 9, the head of the Stark family humbles himself before an adversary who repays it by murdering him in front of a loved one, Arya is right there before being dragged off by a hard-edged protector, even the smash cut to black on the snipping of the neck. This was all very familiar, which made it even more maddening.
But the cruelest thing the episode does is something Game Of Thrones has proven particularly adept at; it offers a sliver of hope, an escape hatch that seems just plausible enough to fool you for a moment into thinking that it might be a viable way for the story to continue without the worst happening, right before it does. I’m thinking of things big and small, like how Ned and Theon both had the possibility of joining the Watch dangled in front of them as a way of escaping execution, or Lord Mormont seemed like he might shrug off the backstab for a minute before realizing he was dead, or the alternative Robb’s advisors concocted for dealing with Lord Karstark that he declined to accept, or how it looked like Jaime might have saved Brienne from violation without paying a price, or even down to the moment where it looked like the price might be an eye, the loss of which a great swordsman could more easily recover from than a hand.
Cat’s desperate play to stop the massacre was never going to work once you gave it the slightest bit of thought (Michelle Fairley acts the living shit out of it, though), but in the moment you so want to believe that she and her son could recover from their seemingly non-fatal wounds that you almost do, mere moments after you almost believed that Arya could release Robb’s wolf and that would make some sort of difference. This sort of thing is the real strength of Martin’s writing, from what I can tell. I’ve heard his prose style is not the most impressive, but he clearly puts thought into all the roads that could potentially be traveled, and doesn’t tip his hand by only bothering to examine the one that will be taken. Which feeds into the two greatest strengths of the series; the way that there is no one protagonist that we are manipulated to sympathize with above all others, and the genuine unpredictability that comes along with that.
On the micro scale, this amounts to managing red herrings that keep us off balance from moment to moment. In a larger sense, allowing each character the time and attention to weigh their long term options, regardless of which route they will take or even whether they will be around to take any of them, keeps us from intuiting who is going to be more important than who. When a new character pops up a couple years in to the show’s run, we don’t know whether they will be dead by the end of the episode like the Titan’s Bastard, or stick around for a multi-year arc like Ygritte, because the show does not treat one as more immediately disposable than the other.
A more “focused” show might not spend the time on scenes outlining Sallador Sahn’s plans for the queen, or Stannis’s intention to make the low-born Davos the Hand of the King, knowing that those plans will not come to fruition. Such scenes are not strictly necessary to the plot, but including them makes it harder for us to dismiss Stannis’s chances, since we expect everything we are shown to matter. Or to bring it back to this (miserable) episode, we have spent enough time on Robb’s grand plan to take Casterly Rock that it does make it subtly harder to accept that his rebellion could really end this ignobly.
But Jesus, ignoble doesn’t even cover it, does it? It would be one thing if any of the Starks had been allowed a slightly heroic death. But it’s that they’ve all been so thoroughly defeated, and died with utter despair in their hearts, that pushes things into the sadistic territory. I was genuinely left feeling like these characters’ creator somehow despised them. And it’s a complete fucking bummer. I genuinely did not sleep well after this episode.
So, congratulations, Martin/Benioff/Weiss? You shitheads.
Is it next week yet? That’s…okay, actually. I could use a little break right now.
Previous Game Of Thrones reviews can be found here.