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Game of Thrones Watch: So Close. So Far.

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Spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones below:
“You’re almost there. And you’re afraid you won’t make it. The closer you get, the worse the fear gets.”

A confession: although I did not see last night’s Game of Thrones in advance, I knew what was going to happen. Everyone you know who read the source books, who cryptically told you, “Oh, just wait,” after Ned died—they knew what was going to happen. It is perhaps the single scene of the books (to date) we thought of first and most often when we learned HBO would make Game of Thrones into a series.

If you had no idea what was coming, if it’s any consolation, I don’t think that knowing made it any better. “The Red Wedding,” as it is known in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, was delivered in an episode that was brutal, heartbreaking, impeccably well-constructed, horrifying, and appropriately cruel. It was, like the betrayal itself, ruthless and efficient and left no doubt about the finality or ugliness of the crime.

Yet showing the Red Wedding—the brutal massacre of Robb, his mother Catelyn, and (in an addition to the books) his wife and unborn child—may not have been the cruelest thing that “The Rains of Castamere” did.

The cruelest thing, really, was that before more Starks met an untimely end—and the Stark war effort was seemingly quashed—the episode brought the long-suffering Stark family closer together than since Ned Stark made a huge mistake and went to King’s Landing. Arya came within steps of her brother and mother’s corpses; Bran was literally a shout away from Jon Snow, the half-brother he was on the road seeking. Yet by episode’s end, Arya was bereft and the Hound’s prisoner, and Bran sent Rickon away while he went off on his quest. In a series with a cast of dozens, “The Rains of Castamere” refocused on the central family (all but Sansa anyway), teased us with the idea that the Starks might be partially reunited, then ended with them more deeply separated than ever.

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The episode was a nightmare, and it played out like one, beginning with a sense of vague anxiety that turned real and inescapable. That conversation between Arya and the Hound earlier highlights it: as he intuits the fear she’s feeling, it’s as if he’s describing an anxiety dream, one of the one in which you find yourself running slower the closer you get to your goal, or the closer your pursuer gets to you.

In this case, the bogeyman is the larger forces arrayed against the Starks. There are too many, their tentacles reach too far, and while Robb can push his pieces around on his battle map as much as he likes, the masterstrokes happen off the board—in this case, the Lannisters have gotten to his ally Bolton, who tells Robb as much as he finishes him off. The title of the episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” is the mournful song the wedding band starts playing as the bedding ceremony turns into a bleeding ceremony—and it’s also, as we learned earlier, a ballad that tells of the cruel ends met by people who cross the Lannisters. Robb, as we’ve heard before, may have won every battle he fought—but he’s lost the war, and is definitively outplayed in the game of alliance, treachery, politics, and back room dealing, the game of thrones.

The butchery would have been staggering regardless, a brutal reminder that when season one told us, through Ned, that no one is safe on this show, it really meant it. But I was really impressed with how director David Nutter realized it on the screen. This was unpretty violence, an inglorious mob hit, carried out without poetry or the chance for glorious ends. The closest Robb and Talisa get to a heartrending goodbye is his watching the light go out of her eyes.

It’s ugly in the best sense of the word. One thing Game of Thrones is always great at is showing war and violence for the unromantic thing it is, so it’s not surprising it should dash the hope that this story would end in a glorious Stark military victory.

And Michelle Fairley’s fantastic performance captures the horror, with the edge of desperation, anguish, and madness of a woman who has lost her sons (she believes all of them), lost her grandchild, may have lost her daughters, and for all she knows, is witnessing the extinction of the house she belongs to–all through the petty act of a crude old man. It’s pointless, as is her cutting the throat of Frey’s wife–but she does it, and the blood gushes out sloppily and the woman dies, and quickly her own throat is cut, and the blood gushes out sloppily and she dies.

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All this is unromantic and ignoble, like the shooting of a trapped wolf in a stall. And it was an excellent touch, letting us see the carnage in that way, through Arya’s eyes (though again, she was spared seeing the death of another parent directly). We knew Robb as a handsome avenging son, and Catelyn as a long-suffering matriarch, but it’s Arya who’s the emotional connection to the story, and her survival in this way is more heartbreaking than the deaths themselves.

Arya will wake up from the merciful hit the Hound put on her. But the nightmare isn’t over.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* I have no quibbles with the way the Red Wedding was adapted from the books, but for non-readers, one aspect that was underemphasized here was the ceremonial offering of bread and salt when the Starks and Tullys arrive as guests. In the books, this is not just a symbol of hospitality but essentially a religious offering: to harm a guest once they’ve eaten your bread and salt is an unholy abomination. In the book, in fact, Catelyn urges Robb to eat as soon as the arrives at The Twins, to ensure this protection; I wonder if it was cut so as not to foreshadow the ending too heavily.

* I’ve given the other stories short shrift, for obvious reasons, but Bran as a warg = much more interesting Bran.

* Besides the obvious sense of foreboding in the episode, there were some interesting parallel stories of mercy (or the lack thereof): Jon refusing to execute the old man (and did Ygritte plant her arrow in the tree on purpose?); Arya insisting that the Hound spare another old man (and knocking the old man out, to spare him, much as the Hound would knock her out later).

* And more foreshadowing: “We’ll lose the war and die the way Father died. Or worse.” “Show them how it feels to lose what they love.”

* After all this, Dany’s taking of Yunkai seemed like kind of an afterthought, but it did give us some scenes of large-scale swordplay badassery of a kind Game of Thrones generally doesn’t.

* Talisa’s mild horror at watching the bedding ceremony is, in a way, an inversion of the early scenes in which Dany witness the bloody celebration at her own Dothraki wedding–but here, it’s the Westerosi who are being seen, from outside eyes, as barbarians. As it turns out, not without justification.

* “I can always see what’s going on beneath a dress”: should we take from this that Robb wanted to hide the further offense of Talisa’s being pregnant, and that Walder Frey saw through it?

* “You know all that from staring at marks on paper? You’re like a wizard.” The one thing, as Sam once told us, he’d dreamed of being. At least someone besides Walder Frey should get what they want this episode.

* Rather than make you wait too long for this post—again for obvious reasons—I rushed it out faster than usual. If anything new occurs to me, or if something I wrote strikes me as especially stupid after sleep, I’ll update later.

The usual request/demand, this week more than ever: no spoilers of future events (or possible events) from the books. Thanks for playing nicely.

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