George R.R. Martin may have made fantasy history with the infamous Season One Game of Thrones death of the purported hero, but it’s the events of this episode that have always struck me as the truly risky and shocking event, because they drastically narrow the possible endings for this series, and make it clear that this is not a series—TV or book—in which the good guys win.
In both the books and in the show, the events of the Red Wedding are obvious in retrospect to the reader, the viewer, and astute characters like Catelyn. But mixed up in the middle of it—as during a first read, for a newbie watching, or for Robb Stark—it’s a shocking turn of events. In the opening scene, Robb and Catelyn were so preoccupied with making Walder Frey agree to let them use the bridge across the river, and add his forces to theirs. It never occurred to them that he would violate the custom of hospitality.
But why wouldn’t he? Westeros is lawless—and even more so now that the chewy moral center of Team Stark has taken the big dirt nap. The king kills whores for sport, the North is overrun with Ironborn, and Tywin Lannister is governing in all but name. What’s the point of guest-rights in a culture like that, when revenge is so much sweeter and more lucrative?
Robb told Catelyn that if their bid for King’s Landing failed, they would die like Ned. And, in fact, Robb did die like Ned: utterly surprised by the treachery of those around him. And what treachery it was: the Freys started with Robb’s heir by stabbing his wife repeatedly in the stomach. That was horrific, and it wasn’t the worst part.
Robb’s death was touching, but it is Catelyn’s that sticks with me. Walder Frey was willing to sacrifice his wife (“I’ll find another”) for revenge, and Catelyn was so ruined by the death of Robb and Robb’s child that she lost all sense of scale and killed the wife anyway. She was dead, in all the ways that mattered, before her throat was slit—convinced she’d lost almost everything, and overcome with a desire for revenge that likely outweighed Frey’s own killing urge. Michelle Fairley did an incredible job of portraying that inner death without words.
And, of course, the deaths of Catelyn, Robb, and the rest of the Stark contingent (except the Blackfish, who had to take a convenient bathroom break) means major developments for Westeros, for the North, and for characters like Jon, Bran, and Rickon who don’t know yet. But those deaths also have an immediate impact on Arya, whose sense of foreboding was horribly accurate.
We know from the Hound’s treatment of Sansa that he won’t hurt Arya (aside from a necessary concussion, of course), but it’ll be interesting to see what he does with her, now that he can’t sell her—he obviously feels some duty to protect her, and I think he admires her Starkian stance on unnecessary killing, as well as her pragmatic, Tully-esque willingness to knock a man upside the head if necessary.
Arya is willing to act pragmatically, and Bran showed himself equally willing to do what he must: however unintentional his “possession” of Hodor was, he quickly got over his freak-out and possessed Summer to help Jon win the fight. Jon, of course, wasn’t willing to kill the old man in order to maintain his cover. He shares with Robb the type of wooly-headed moralistic thinking that leads to
Grumpkins and Snarks:
• Note for newbies: the bread and salt that the Freys offered the Starks are part of the Westeros custom (imported from Russia, I believe) of making the protection of hospitality official by offering symbolic food to one’s guests.
• Gilly: “You know all that from staring at marks on paper? You’re like a wizard.” Ah, if only it were that easy for us readerly types to impress others.
• I loved Jorah, Grey Worm, and Daario going all Thermopylae in Yunkai. Way to go on another conquest, Dany!
• Osha, Shaggydog, and Rickon are headed for the Umbers (whose ranks were depleted during the Red Wedding). Bran, Hodor, and Summer venture onward with the Reeds.
I feel like I should say something profound about the nature of death on this show, or the way that everything has changed now that we don’t have any good characters to root for—only characters who are less bad. But I think I’ll stick with the decision made by Benioff and Weiss, who chose to show Catelyn’s throat being slit and then cut to completely silent credits. Sometimes, silence is the only response to an event like this.
Four out of four Starks.
(Reminder: book spoilers go here.)
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)
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