Ever since we lost Ned Stark, Game of Thrones has been turning into a more and more chaotic show, in which horrific events befall various characters in a seemingly random fashion every week. This one loses a hand, that one gets crossbowed to death. So why do we keep watching it? Are we just sadists? Masochists? Spoilers ahead...
Seriously, we signed up for last night's episode, by sticking with the show after Jaime Lannister's hand and countless other atrocities, large and small, which we've witnessed these past few years. Last night, an unspeakable massacre happened, seemingly out of nowhere, in an episode that I'm tempted to call "One Wedding and Four Funerals."
It's Edmure Tully's wedding day, and Robb Stark's uncle is convinced the worst that could happen is that he'll be stuck with one of Lord Walder Frey's ugliest daughters. Instead, he gets a beautiful daughter — and his wedding guests are slaughtered, including Robb, Catelyn Stark, Talisa and poor Grey Wind.
Obviously, even on the surface, this isn't random. The episode builds up carefully that Walder Frey is still piqued by Robb's failure to marry his daughter as promised. And Roose Bolton, who sent Jaime Lannister home, has made a deal with the Lannisters. But it still feels like it comes out of nowhere, in some fashion, because up until the last moment you feel as though Walder could be satisfied with Edmure as a replacement groom. And it's not like a battle, or like the sort of obvious trap that Ned Stark walked into. The Starks and Tullys are under Walder Frey's explicit protection, and he still does this.
And more to the point, this isn't a slaughter that leaves us with hope for some future pay-off. Maybe Arya Stark, who witnesses some of it, will grow up and get revenge on her increasingly long list of targets. Maybe Rickon Stark will become a great leader. Maybe there will be some karma. Maybe Daenerys and her dragons will eventually show up and burn the Freys and Lannisters, along with a lot of other people. But when Ned Stark was beheaded, we were offered the comforting possibility that Robb Stark would avenge him — and now, in fact, we're seeing how that turns out. This time, there's no such comfort.
So why do we choose to watch Game of Thrones, now that it's turned into a carousel of death, torture and mutilation, culminating in last night's Red Wedding? A couple of reasons, maybe:
1) We know that none of this is entirely random, and we're seeing the results of decisions people have been making all along. Which makes it worse, in a way, but more fascinating.
2) The rising climate of violence only makes the small acts of kindness or mercy that we keep seeing more vital and significant. In this episode alone, there are a couple of attempts to spare an old man's life, one of which turns out okay.
So taking the first one first, we don't have to reach that far back to see how the Starks are bringing this destruction on their own excessively proud heads. Sure, it begins with Catelyn Stark making a promise to Lord Walder Frey, that Robb Stark later breaks by marrying Talisa. And then Catelyn letting Jaime go, and Robb beheading Rickard Karstark. But you don't have to reach that far back, at all.
The crux of this latest episode is the scene, at the beginning, where Robb asks Catelyn's advice on his plan to attack Casterly Rock using Walder's army. The last time Catelyn gave her son advice (about not sending Theon home), Robb ignored it — and paid a huge price. So this time, he aims to listen.
And Catelyn carefully explains exactly why attacking Casterly Rock is a stupid idea even if they get Walder's army: if they don't take the castle immediately, they'll be caught between Tywin's armies and the sea. (And remember, we've heard over and over that Westerosi castles are built for long sieges.) And then Catelyn's own character flaw takes over, and she tells Robb to go ahead and do it anyway, so the Lannisters know what it's like to lose what they love. In other words, it's a strategically terrible idea, but it appeals to Catelyn's spiteful nature.
At this point, of course, it's probably too late to call off the wedding, even if they decide they don't need Walder's armies. Starks and their honor, etc. But in theory, they could just send Edmure on his own, and still go home to Winterfell in one piece. Or maybe not. In any case, this scene perfectly dramatizes why Robb's war has long since become pointless and he should have gone home while he was still winning. Winter, after all, is coming.
Small but major acts of mercy
And meanwhile, there are a few significant acts of mercy and kindness in the episode — plus, Osha talks movingly about how the Starks took her in instead of killing her when she attacked them, and how little lord Bran means the world to her as a result.
On their way to Edmure's wedding, Arya Stark and Sandor "The Hound" Clegane have a falling out over whether to kill an old pig-farmer who's also traveling to the happy occasion. Arya convinces the Hound not to kill the old man, but the Hound warns that her kindness will get her killed. Later, she taunts the Hound with his fear of fire, and says some day she'll put a sword through his eye. He responds by saving her life, after the wedding massacre.
Why does the Hound agree to spare the old man? And why does he save Arya, after she gives him the thousand-yard stare and talks about burning his face and stabbing his brains out? It's not clear — maybe he just doesn't want to be alone, or maybe he thinks Arya still has some value as a hostage. But it seems as though something about her insistence on sparing the old man makes an impact on the Hound, who already had a soft spot for her innocent sister Sansa. Maybe he wants to save Arya because she showed mercy to the old man?
And meanwhile, Jon Snow blows his cover as a spy in the Wildling camp — and also possibly throws away his relationship with Ygritte — to save the random old man who breeds horses for the Night's Watch. First, Jon tries to talk Tormund, Orell and the rest out of attacking the old guy, and when that fails, he strikes his sword on a rock to alert the man and give him a chance to flee. At last, when they catch the guy and Jon is told to kill him — with Jeor Mormont's sword Longclaw — he can't do it.
Is Jon being a loyal Crow, or just a good son of Ned Stark, who won't kill an unarmed man who's done nothing wrong? In either case, Jon chokes and Ygritte tries to spare him by shooting the old man. Unfortunately, that's the absolute wrong thing to do, because now he's a proven crow and she's on his side. Ygritte already revealed a while back that she knows Jon is still a crow deep down, but she hopes his loyalty to his lover will supersede any loyalty to the Night's Watch — and now that's put to the test.
Ygritte fights for Jon Snow, along with Bran Stark's direwolf Summer (more on that in a moment) — and he abandons her, jumping on a horse and galloping away to warn the Night's Watch about the coming attack. She's left holding the bag, with Tormund giving her an "I told you so" look.
Jon is basically willing to throw everything away to save that old man — just as a few weeks ago, Brienne's choice to spare another old guy led to Jaime Lannister and herself being captured, and Jaime losing his hand. So when Sandor warns that a live rat can squeal, he's not just being paranoid.
The Flipside of Roose Bolton
Maybe the saddest thing in this episode is Catelyn Stark sitting next to Roose Bolton making polite small talk with the flayer-in-chief, not knowing that their last supporter has already made a deal with the Lannisters. This is what it looks like when your people abandon your losing cause.
Meanwhile, though, we see the flipside of that, with Daenerys' growing number of lieutenants, all of whom want to be her right-hand man. Jorah Mormont, who got into this mess because he sold people into slavery, tried to help her buy a slave army and has now found himself helping her to free the slaves all across Essos. Worse still, he's no longer the one man she can rely on, because she has Ser Barristan, Grey Worm... and Daario Naharis, the turncoat sellsword.
Jorah, Grey Worm and Daario go to capture the walled city of Yunkai, which involves some subterfuge and a lot of bitchin' swordfighting between the three amigos and a ton of Yunkish guards. As thrilling as all of that is, the real action is more to do with Jorah trying to shore up his position.
First Jorah tries to convince Daenerys that Daario (who only just betrayed his two captains) is not to be trusted. Only to have Grey Worm say he trusts Daario, after all. And then Jorah successfully talks Ser Barristan out of coming along on the heroic mission, on the not-unreasonable grounds that Barristan should guard the Queen. And at last, when Jorah manages to make it back to Daenerys first with the news that they took the city, her first words to him are to ask about Daario. Sigh.
Of course, if Jorah wants Daenerys to be great, then he has to know that she's going to outgrow him eventually — or if he's going to remain her right-hand man, then she has to stay small, and ineffective. He's just not Hand of the Queen material. But he's too vain, or too selfish, to recognize this.
And that's a particularly clever juxtaposition — even as the Starks reach their low point, Daenerys hits a new high. But you can see, at her apex, how the pieces are already being put into place for her future downfall. (This isn't a spoiler, just an observation.) The decisions you make on your way up help to determine how you fare on your way down.
Oh, and a side note — in a season that's had tons of stuff about arranged marriages and treating women like pieces of meat (sometimes literally), the misogyny in this episode is particularly awful, and deliberate. From Walder Frey exhibiting his daughters (and not knowing all their names) to Talisa standing before Walder so he can ogle her tits, to Roose Bolton talking about marrying a fat wife so he could get the biggest dowry, to Walder watching his wife's throat cut without a flinch — this show is rubbing our faces in misogyny on purpose, to show how it's part and parcel of the larger brutality.
Two kinds of magic
And finally, there are two kinds of magic in this episode — the kind Tyrion would understand, and the kind he wouldn't.
Samwell Tarly is a motherfucking wizard, because he reads lots of old books and knows secrets. Including a secret passage through the Wall. Imagine how valuable that information would be to Mance Rayder — or to Bran Stark, who's trying to get through the Wall right now. Jon Snow wouldn't have had to climb 700 feet straight up. I love the look on Gilly's face when she realizes that just reading old marks on a page gives you this kind of power.
Preserving culture and knowledge is a kind of magic, especially in a land dominated by people who only obsess about the recent past, or only think about the present.
Meanwhile, Bran Stark is getting a handle on his Warg power, which lets him enter the mind of his direwolf Summer when he's dreaming — and in this episode he jumps into Hodor when Hodor is Hodoring up a Hodor and possibly about to get everybody Hodored. Bran's power is nothing without the ability to control it, which is why Jojen's teaching is so important. But it's still a greater Warg power than anybody has seen, and it's greater than Orell, who dies and wargs into an eagle at the last minute.
Now that Robb is gone, Bran and Rickon are the last surviving Stark boys, and they go two different ways in this episode, representing two ways forward for the Stark family. Bran is heading full speed ahead towards mysticism, seeking out the three-eyed crow and learning to harness his incredible powers. Meanwhile, Rickon (who gets more lines in this episode than he's had in forever) is being sent to live with the Umbers, who will teach him to swing a sword and prepare him to be the lord of Winterfell — Ned Stark's son.
In the middle of so much death and horror, the episode offers us two kinds of hope for the Stark family, one rooted in magic and the other in conventional martial skills. And both of them only possible because the Starks showed kindness to a Wildling woman who attacked them in the woods, when they were still at the height of their power.
This show, and the books it's based on, manages to surprise us with hope as much as it does with atrocities — and maybe that, after all, is why we're so addicted to it.
Images via WICNet Tumblr.