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State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Dragons of Yunkai: Daenerys Targaryen
Wolves of the Wall: Jon Snow, Bran Stark
Wolves of the Twins: Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark
Bears of Yunkai: Jorah Mormont
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Tigers of the Twins: Talia Stark
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Dogs of the Twins: Sandor Clegane
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins, Dragonstone is vacant, King’s Landing is silent.
The episode is in twelve parts. The first part runs seven minutes long and is set at the Twins. The opening images are a series of deeply symbolic shots of Robb Stark’s map.
The second runs two minutes and is set in Yunkai. The transition is by hard cut, from Walder Frey to one of the Unsullied.
The third runs two minutes and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Barristan side-eyeing Jorah to Sam and Gilly walking through the snowy woods.
The fourth runs two minutes and is set in the Riverlands near the Twins. The transition is by hard cut, from Gilly in awe at the Wall to the Hound and Arya riding.
The fifth runs three minutes and is in two sections; it is set in the Gift south of the Wall. The first section is one minute long; the transition is by family, from Arya to Bran and Rickon Stark. The second section is two minutes long. The transition is by family, from Bran and Rickon Stark to Jon Snow.
The sixth part runs three minutes and is set outside the Twins. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark.
The seventh runs seven minutes and is set in the Gift south of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya to Bran and Rickon Stark.
The eighth runs two minutes and is set in Yunkai. The transition is by hard cut, from Ygritte watching Jon ride away to the pyramid of Yunkai.
The ninth runs three minutes and is set in the Twins. The transition is by hard cut, from guards streaming into the square to an establishing shot of the Twins.
The tenth runs three minutes and is set in the Gift south the the Wall. The transition is by family, from Robb and Catelyn to Bran and Rickon Stark.
The eleventh runs one minute and is set in Yunkai. The transition is by hard cut, from Osha sneaking off with Rickon to Daenerys’s camp.
The twelfth runs thirteen minutes and is set in the Twins. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys to the band playing “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” It features the deaths of Joyeuse Frey, Grey Wind, Talia Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Robb Stark, killed by various sharp implements, mostly on the orders of Walder Frey. The final image is of Catelyn Stark failing spectacularly to achieve a Full Web.
So this is how they decide to split A Storm of Swords: convert the Red Wedding, which takes place in the fifty-first of the book’s eighty chapters, into their ninth episode set piece, killing three credited regulars in a single scene. In some ways it is inevitable; if you’re going to split A Storm of Swords in half (and it’s genuinely hard to see how you’d do it in just ten episodes) there’s no other event anywhere near the halfway mark that satisfies the show’s desired “big ninth episode” formula. It’s also a disastrous, crushingly ill-advised decision that enshrines the show’s worst instincts as an essential and fundamental aspect of gameplay and that will haunt the show forevermore.
We will ignore for the moment the problems that the book split leaves in terms of providing endings for characters; that’s a topic for an episode that has most of them in it, after all. (It is, however, worth noting the irony that an episode entitled “The Rains of Castamere” has no Lannisters in it; indeed it’s the first episode since “You Win Or You Die” not to feature Tyrion.) Rather, let’s simply look at the Red Wedding. Perhaps the most important thing about it, in its original conception, is the one we’ve already noted: it happens roughly two-thirds of the way through the book. It is, in other words, not actually an event that’s built to work in the context of a ninth episode ostentatiously marked “something big is going to happen here.” Instead, it is an exercise in mounting horror, told in a single Catelyn chapter that begins with a memorable description of the pounding drums of the awful musicians, an approach not shared by the show, which instead makes an ostentatious turn towards danger as Robb and Talisa’s conversation about naming their potential son Eddard is followed by the eponymous musical cue and a shot of Grey Wolf whining in the kennel.
More broadly, the Red Wedding is part of a larger structure within the book based around the spell cast by Melisandre with Gendry’s blood (although it’s not Gendry in the books but another of Robert’s bastards), which is followed, over sixteen chapters, by the deaths of Balon Greyjoy, Robb Stark, and Joffrey Baratheon. The first of these, in the show, is removed entirely, apparently set to post-date Stannis’s death, but it is of course the Red Wedding’s immediate twin, the Purple Wedding, from which it is separated by a mere five chapters, that is most significant. The show maintains this structural parallel in its fashion, but the fact that the two events are separated by ten months and eleven days instead of by seventy-five pages changes the relationship between the two events significantly. But more broadly, the Red Wedding in the book is the product of huge amounts of careful foreshadowing in which snatches of Tywin’s plotting flicker around the plot, almost all of them excised from the show.
What the Red Wedding is manifestly not, in other words, is Ned Stark’s death redux. And the efforts to make it so involve stripping an event interesting mainly for its larger structural concerns down to its most superficial spectacle. Killing the show’s nominal main character who had been plastered on all the posters and who was played memorably and well by Sean Bean is one thing. Specifically, it’s a trick; a bid to establish a reputation that “anyone can die” that is in no way actually true. In fact, it uses a single well-chosen and well-timed death to create this illusion, and then pays it off by masking the fact that numerous characters (most obviously Tyrion, Jon, Daenerys, and Arya) could not possibly actually be killed off. And so here the Red Wedding becomes the crass counterpart to that; lacking the ability to do a death of comparable size, they go for three smaller ones for no reason other than that that’s the sort of thing that happens in ninth episodes.
Because the truth is that the Red Wedding isn’t actually all that shocking. Catelyn, Robb, and Talisa are eminently disposable characters. Talisa isn’t even in the books. Robb is a character who has awkwardly suffered from being upjumped from supporting cast to main character ever since the first season, never been significantly developed, and always been hobbled by the limitations of his actor. And Catelyn has visibly been reduced to nothing this season, her story to Talisa about Jon Snow’s childhood illness being the only moment all season where she’s been given an actual scene, largely revealing the extent to which her importance to the books at this point is purely due to her being a viewpoint character. It is possible to imagine a reader of A Storm of Swords for whom Catelyn was their favorite character, although they’d surely be in a minority. But the idea that anyone’s favorite character died in “The Rains of Castamere” seems ridiculous.
But perhaps the truly revealing fact comes when one considers the consequences of the Red Wedding compared to Ned’s execution. The latter changed numerous plots in more interesting ways by removing the easy ways for the Lannisters to stabilize their power and giving numerous characters immediate problems and motivations based on it. The Red Wedding, on the other hand, seems largely to slow things down. The Lannisters’ rule is not just more secure but seemingly entirely secure. The North is now run by the Boltons, which will prove interesting mostly for the sheer number of ways it finds to be unsatisfying. Any chance of Sansa and Tyrion’s marriage doing something interesting is completely torpedoed. Westeros is by and large less interesting in its wake.
And this, to be clear, is not simply a problem of the show. Most of these underlying problems are just as present in the books. Under its genuinely clever and effective structural tricks, the Red Wedding is a deeply cynical moment that serves two purposes, neither of them admirable: it clears out some plots that weren’t working and it ensures that nothing is going to resolve itself for four more books. It would be one thing if the narrative space created by the clear-out were interesting. But instead this marks the point where A Song of Ice and Fire fully commits to its plan of focusing on an ever expanding spaghetti of subplots instead of actually paying off its most interesting promises and concepts.
But whatever the flaws of Martin’s original, the show exacerbates them badly, stripping away everything but the underlying cynicism. In Martin’s hands the Red Wedding is a move of cynical brilliance in service of questionable larger goals. In Benioff and Weiss’s, however, it becomes nothing but an exercise in the spectacle of seeing awful and violent things happen – a several minute sequence of torture porn accomplishing nothing besides generating the annual “Game of Thrones does shocking twist” headlines. About the best you can say for it is that at least they had the sense not to do Lady Stoneheart.