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The Red Wedding was Game Of Thrones at its gnarly, exploitive best

Season ThreeA guide to Game Of Thrones: season three


Screenshot: Game Of Thrones (HBO)

Month of Thrones

We’re counting down to Game Of Thrones’ final season by distilling the fantasy epic to 30 essential moments. This is Month Of Thrones.

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The moment

The Red Wedding

The episode

“The Rains Of Castamere” (season three, episode 9)

Given its impact and residual trauma, the Red Wedding feels so short. Robb’s death isn’t protracted. He’s there and then he’s riddled with arrows. And Catelyn is as confused as we are. And then she’s desperate. And then she’s dead. And then we fade to black, and what did we just see? It’s perfect in that way, and a counterpoint to the Red Wedding in A Storm Of Swords, where its weight is unpacked across pages of gorgeous, agonizing prose, the kind you sit with as it unfolds. Onscreen, the Red Wedding is a thundering squall, quick enough that the casual viewer could question what they’ve seen. They didn’t really stab her pregnant belly, did they? And Catelyn, she couldn’t have gored that child’s throat. Should we rewind? Must we rewind?

They did do those things, and it’s those two moments that resonate most on rewatch, if only because they represent the two biggest changes from text to screen. George R.R. Martin’s Red Wedding is traumatic in itself, and, by virtue of us dying alongside Catelyn in her thoughts, is infinitely more emotional. But the show, knowing it had less space to breathe, sought to expand upon his cruelty. Talisa, Robb’s pregnant bride, isn’t present at the wedding in the book, while Catelyn kills not Walder Frey’s child bride, but rather the fool Jinglebell, his 50-year old grandson. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss bookend the slaughter with their revisions, their graphic nature serving as dizzying, blunt-force blows that heighten the betrayal and emphasize the depth of loss. One could catch a whiff of desperation on it, as exploitation’s been part and parcel of Benioff and Weiss’ aesthetic, but it works here, forging an airtight chamber of despair that, to this day, the show has never matched in terms of ambition and impact.

That’s not to say the show hasn’t tried to shock us into submission with their post-Martin storytelling. There’s the burning of Shireen Baratheon in season five, or the loss of Walda Bolton and her baby at the hand of Ramsey’s hounds, but those were ultimately minor characters whose deaths did little to resound throughout the story. The sheer impact of Robb and Catelyn’s loss necessitated the bold approach, and further established Game Of Thrones, at least for a while, as the show where literally nobody was safe.

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What we said then

In an essay devoted to the Red Wedding, Tasha Robinson discussed how the “death of hope” was perhaps more impactful than the slaughter of so many key characters. Robb and Catelyn, after all, were the show’s “traditional, ideologically pure ‘good guys,’” and their loss “definitively ends any hope for a glorious, clean ending where all the black hats are put in their place and all the white hats ride away triumphantly.”

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She continues:

Having [Robb] go down as the victim of a sneaky, cowardly plot is like watching Harry Potter get fatally gutshot at the Yule Ball, halfway through the books. He’s the hero; he’s supposed to win, no matter what it takes. The majority of fantasy stories are about escapism and wish-fulfillment, and about the catharsis that comes when a deserving champion punishes and defeats an equally deserving villain. The protagonists may have setbacks and disappointments, they may make sacrifices, but they don’t die ignominiously, choking on their own blood, while their enemies gloat.

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Elsewhere in the episode

It’s wild to think anything else happens in this episode, but, like we said, the Red Wedding itself is relatively short. The majority of the episode is devoted to mostly laborious set pieces involving Dany and the Yunkai crowd (ugh) and the Bran brigade (double ugh). The banter between Arya and The Hound is thrilling, though, and laden with mutual disdain. “Someday I’m gonna put a sword through your eye and out back of your skull,” she tells him, a promise the pint-sized assassin’s got one more season to fulfill. After CleganeBowl, preferably?

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“The Rains Of Castamere” also finds tensions boiling over between Jon Snow and his uneasy wildling companions, with Mackenzie Crook’s Orell finally calling bullshit after Jon can’t bring himself to kill an innocent Northerner. Jon kills Orell—man, remember Orell?—and books it for Castle Black, thus pounding the near-final nail in the coffin of he and Ygritte’s star-crossed romance.

Previously: Dany buys the Unsullied—for a dragon
Next: White Walkers walkin’

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About the author

Randall Colburn

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.