Tonight’s the night!
3. The Rains of Castamere
Season 3, Episode 9
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Nutter
The Red Wedding. It’s the most masterful sequence in Game of Thrones history, and its most horrifying. It’s hard to watch, but it all happens so fast you don’t have time to look away. It’s as gut-punching as it is in the books, even more so, and it has the same impact even if you’ve read it before and know it’s coming.
Like with “Baelor,” the episode in which Ned Stark loses his head, the Ds pepper the episode with triumphant moments so as to deflect any suspicion of impending doom. Daario, Jorah and Grey Worm single-handedly capture the slave city of Yunkai, which while a little unbelievable, is still cool to watch. I’ve mentioned fight choreography before, and what I love about Game of Thrones is how every character has a unique fighting style, and how they are informed by their personality. Jon also finally turns on Ygritte and the Wildlings and is saved by Bran and Rickon’s direwolves.
But of course the majority of the episode is spent at the Twins, where Robb, Catelyn and the Northmen have to suffer Walder Frey’s insults even before he betrays them. As with the death of Ned, everything seems to be building towards a positive outcome. Walder Frey, while dickish, appears amicable to the new marriage pact, and mostly seems to just be fucking with Robb as penance. Edmure’s bride Roslin even turns out to be the One Hot Frey, another jab at Robb. In the previous episode, Robb revealed a new battle plan to his mother: take Casterly Rock while Tywin is caught up in King’s Landing (in the books it’s a plan to retake Moat Cailin from the Ironborn and subsequently the North). Robb’s wife Talisa is also pregnant, and decides to name their unborn son Eddard after Robb’s deceased dad.
That should have been the dead giveaway: if that baby is named Ned it’s doomed. But just as in the books, despite all the hints (and there are more in the books), you don’t see it coming until the first chords of “The Rains of Castamere” begin to play mournfully from a cello. Even if you haven’t been paying attention, hearing the song triggers dread in the viewer, and from then on, it’s a downhill slide into horror. The editing in this sequence is fantastic. As Walder rambles on, Cat looks under Roose Bolton’s tunic to discover the chainmail beneath. I love the look actor Michael McElhatton gives Cat when the jig is up, a little shrug, as if to say, “what did you expect?” Once he’s slapped by Cat the quarrels begin to fly, but the show intercuts with Arya, just as it did in “Baelor.” Maybe she can save her brother, maybe she can do something! But she’s as helpless as the viewer, and watches as Grey Wind is peppered with arrows and killed.
The sequence is made more horrible than the books in a number of ways. When Talisa is presented before Walder Frey I turned nervously to my wife, thinking this meant her doom was sealed. I never really warmed to Talisa, but I nonetheless didn’t want to see her die, especially not in such a horrifying manner, with Black Walder stabbing her in the womb. In the books, Robb wisely leaves his wife Jeyne Westerling behind at Riverrun, after Cat counsels him that he has too much of his father in him to let Walder Frey insult her to her face. Not only does Robb die, but his wife and child die in his arms. In addition, Catelyn kills Walder Frey’s new wife as opposed to the books, where she kills his lackwit grandson Aegon. Frey’s cool delivery of “I’ll find another” is chilling, and it’s much sadder to see this innocent girl die than a fool that has no idea what’s happening to him.
The music hits a crescendo as Bolton delivers the killing blow to the Young Wolf, and then subsides as Cat kills Lady Frey and then dies herself. There is no music during the credits, only the solemn silence of death to accompany the trauma that is the Red Wedding.
2. The Watchers on the Wall
Season 4, Episode 9
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Neil Marshall
This will likely be my most controversial pick, as I’ve heard many people express disappointment with the ep, or confusion, or simply boredom. I loved it when I first saw it, but I definitely walked away thinking “Blackwater” was the superior battle episode. But after watching “The Watchers on the Wall” several times since, including on IMAX, I definitely think it is the better of the two.
It’s a little slow to get started, which is why I didn’t like it as much back in 2014. Every bit of dialogue in “Blackwater” feels like it’s moving the plot forward, even if it’s character-focused; it’s all very tightly written. It takes about the same amount of time in both eps for the blood to start spilling, but that time feels longer in “Watchers on the Wall.” That being said, the dialogue scenes that precede the fighting are all great, and very focused on Sam, which I think was a good idea as Jon later becomes the star of the hour. There are a lot of great lines, but my favorite is Sam explaining how he was able to kill the White Walker and become Sam the Slayer, that his love for Gilly pushed away all other thought and gave him the courage he needed. He was nothing then, but when Pyp asks why he’s scared now, Sam replies, “I’m not nothing anymore.” I’ll give the show credit where credit is due: they are a bit better at touching my inner romantic than George is.
The battle itself is amazing. I’ve heard people complain that they had a hard time grasping the sense of space but I think Neil Marshall did an impeccable job using the layout of Castle Black to his advantage. Two of the episode’s coolest shots span the entirety of the fortress. In one, we see Tormund, Ygritte and the Thenns racing up the hill to the front gate, then pan up across the yard of the Castle, up the Wall, and over the battlements to the forest below. Later, a giant shoots a guy with a giant arrow, sending him all the way down to the yard, where another battle is being waged.
Alliser Thorne gets a moment to shine and I love what the D’s did with him. Thorne is a dick who hates Jon, but at the end of the day he is a brave and experienced Black Brother, and rallies his men with an inspiring speech. Jon fighting the Magnar is awesome but my favorite fight is Thorne vs. Tormund, especially the moment in which the former is forced to swing his sword around a railing to get better reach.
The best shot in the episode is undoubtedly the 360 view of the Castle. Djawadi’s score builds to a climax as Jon surveys the fighting and jumps into the fray, then turns into a down-tempo version of the main theme as the camera pans and shows all the different characters engaged in their various skirmishes, ending with a medium shot of Sam. It’s a shot that displays the magic of the visual medium so perfectly, starting with one character, checking in with the rest, before settling on another before the cut. Say what you will about GoT, the quality of the filmmaking cannot be disputed.
Now, I will say this: I don’t like Olly. As Harry Plinkett would say, a dumb kid “is the kiss of death for your movie.” It was fine when he was the sole survivor of the Thenn attack, but did he really need to be developed just so he could shoot Ygritte? Ugh, and that little nod he gives Jon after he does it… you can’t not laugh at that, and it almost deflates the emotional moment that follows. Thankfully, Leslie and Harrington’s performances wash the image of Triumphant Olly out of your head and get your tear ducts started. The slow-mo shot of Jon cradling Ygritte as the battle winds to an end in is another highlight of the ep.
I get that this episode isn’t for everyone, but I think it’s one of the best-written and directed installments to date. It’s a self-contained story that’s easy to follow with characters you care about (though I understand if not everyone cared that much about Grenn and Pyp). It’s episodes like this that challenge cinema as the reigning champion of audiovisual entertainment.
Season 1, Episode 9
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
The moment Ned Stark dies, everything changes. It’s the moment you realize this isn’t your average story. Protagonists aren’t supposed to die, especially not heroic ones, but Ned does. It’s not what you want to happen, but it’s what would happen, and that philosophy is what separates the fictional deaths of A Song of Ice and Fire from those in most other stories.
LOST, the show that will haunt me forever, is a great example of a story that uses death for cheap shock value. Very few of the deaths on LOST ever felt meaningful because they didn’t feel natural. They felt like the Gods that are the Writers extending their hand to machinate as they saw fit, and not as the story saw fit. The only death from LOST that felt earned was Charlie’s; nearly every death in ASOIAF is earned, and none more so than Ned’s.
Ned’s death was spoiled for me and still this episode had me on the edge of my seat. We have become so attuned to the Hero’s Journey that we subconsciously expect stories to go a certain way, and when they don’t it can be frustrating or traumatic, but it doesn’t lessen the story’s value. I was told Ned would die but not how or when and the structures oldschool storytelling had placed in my head made me believe he would survive his imprisonment and die heroically several seasons down the line as he fought side by side with Jon at the Wall. That would be a fitting end for a hero like Ned, but life is not black and white like that, and GRRM set out to tell a fantasy story that is more true to the harsh realities of not just the Middle Ages, but life in general, than something like Lord of the Rings (which I also adore, but for different reasons).
My wife gasped when Illyn Payne’s sword fell even though Ned was surely a goner by that point, condemned by the King, on his knees, the executioner striding towards him. But even when the situation is that dire, we always think the hero will get out of it somehow, and Martin and the Ds use these expectations to their advantage. A close-up of Arya’s hand tightening on Needle tells the audience Arya will save her dad even though she clearly won’t, because she’s a child and that’s preposterous. After Joffrey calls for Ned’s head, Varys and Cersei rush to counsel him to the contrary, and you think, maybe they can talk him down, even though obviously they can’t, because he’s a psychopath. “The king does as he likes,” Joffrey later says.
And like with “The Rains of Castamere,” the rest of the episode’s happenings make you think the story is building to a resounding victory for the heroes. Tyrion survives his first battle, one that turns out to be a ruse so Robb can capture Jaime. With a Lannister as a hostage, surely Ned is safe, we think. While not triumphant, events on Essos are worth noting, with what I consider to be the show’s creepiest scene (Shadow Baby a close second): Mirri Maz Dur’s blood ritual. The POV shot of Jorah carrying Daenerys inside the tent as Dur’s voice ululates, mixing with those of demons, still gives me chills.
The last time I watched Ned’s execution scene it really stuck with me, and I think it’s the saddes thing that’s ever happened on the show. It just feels so true to life, and it’s the prime example for why the deaths on Game of Thrones can be so much more gut-punching than other stories’. First Ned shames himself by lying and going along with Cersei’s plan, claiming responsibility for Robert’s death. That would be bad enough if he was allowed to take the Black as promised, but instead he dies a traitor, a blemish that will haunt his name and his family’s for generations to come. The moment that always gets me is the last few seconds of Ned’s life. The sound fades away and he looks out into the crowd and sees that Yoren has pulled Arya off the statue of Baelor. At least she won’t see me die, are what I imagine his last thoughts would be, and it’s just so tragic yet beautiful that in those final moments, Ned is allowed some small comfort.
Then the blade comes down and you see it just start to enter his flesh before the smash cut, a move I think was very classy. Then Arya sees the doves take off and we fade to black. It’s haunting and sad, just as the death of a loved one is in the real world.