Even if you aren’t a “Game of Thrones” fan, even if you have only the most peripheral sense of the HBO drama as being about dragons, medieval sexytimes and Peter Dinklage acting sassy, rumbles that something major happened on this Sunday’s installment surely reached you via social media or Monday morning watercooler weeping at the office. “The Rains of Castamere,” directed by David Nutter and written by showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, was one hell of an episode centered around an incident known as the “Red Wedding” that separated out those who had read the books and braced themselves for what was coming from those unprepared for the slaughter that took place. (A viral video compilation of reactions to the scene makes for a very entertaining watch.)
The episode is the ninth in a ten-episode season, a slot that has come to be the place where “Game of Thrones” unveils its most heart-stopping developments. “Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of season two, was an epic installment centered around the Baratheon army’s attack on King’s Landing, while “Baelor,” which occupied the same spot in season one, ended with the execution of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the character who’d until that point seemed the closest thing the show had to a hero.
“The Rains of Castamere” not only provided what has to be the dramatic high point of the season, but also another reminder that no character can be counted on as a secure through line in the bloody intrigues of Westeros — and that no character can be counted on to survive. If Ned’s death was upsetting, the killings in this most recent episode were even more so in their brutality and the way they shook up expectations about where the show is headed.
In fact, what made the Red Wedding sequence particularly wrenching is that it was played as a comfortable lull in action that was escalating toward some other end right until it wasn’t. Good things were happening: Robb Stark (Richard Madden) had finally reconciled with his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) after a long altercation following her freeing of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) last season, and he had a plan — to attack and take the Lannister home of Casterly Rock while Tywin (Charles Dance) was away at King’s Landing; a difficult battle but a winnable one.
His wife, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), was pregnant, and though he didn’t know it, his sister Arya (Maisie Williams) was on the verge of being returned to her family, camped not far away as the hostage of Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann). Even his uncle Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), who’d been sulking about having to marry a Frey daughter in Robb’s place, was pleasantly surprised by his pretty new bride. And when it started going to hell, it did so quietly, all the better to showcase the shock of Robb, Catelyn, Talisa and many of the Northern lords biting the dust.
TV dramas have been offering up different challenges to the idea of a likable protagonist over the last decade — there have been the antiheroes of “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos” and others, who’ve brought into question our investment in characters who aren’t lovable rascals but genuine criminals. They have been shows like “The Wire” and “Treme” that have made their communities the center, shifting focus so that different stories and people slide into and retreat from prominence. And “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” have, in their third seasons in particular, made their grand themes — survival in the apocalypse and a battle for dominance — the constant, with characters getting freely ground in the gears of the story as it moves forward. It demands a shift in how you watch these shows, because ultimately they are not the tales of Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies) struggling with her fears about being a parent once again in a world filled with dangers, or of Robb learning to be a good leader on his way to avenging his father and taking back the North.
Obviously they’re not — those two are dead, as are others, lovable and otherwise, in both series. For “The Walking Dead,” this can have a numbing effect in terms of the personal dramas, as hope for a future or even a place to rest keeps getting lost along with more lives. (It’s a series consumed by PTSD.) Talking to the Hollywood Reporter last month, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan pointed out that this also means the show could theoretically go on forever, as it’s less and less about a coherent group of people and more about a shifting gathering of ragtag survivors in the dusk of humanity: “We hope that zombies live forever, and we’ve just begun to find out what the post-apocalyptic world is like, so that we’ll be sitting here at the Barclays conference in 2022 discussing the fact that ‘Walking Dead’ is not over.” He’s not being entirely serious, but he has a certain point — “The Walking Dead” has killed off children and a pregnant mother, it could quite possibly lurch on even with the death of Rick (Andrew Lincoln), passing the torch along to whomever’s left behind as they search for a moment of safety.
We expect death on “The Walking Dead” — it’s there in the title — which, along with certain issues of characterization can soften the blow of people being offed. It’s a central part of the show’s universe, and its characters are all participating in a gruesome marathon with no end in sight, in which all they can really hope is to stay alive as long as possible. But “Game of Thrones,” despite its sprawl and the immensity of its ensemble cast, treats its characters as more precious — they expect to live, and they act like it, even as they have to constantly and perilously scrabble for position on shifting ground. They’re knotty, difficult people who come with histories and strong personalities, and even the real bastards among the lot, like Tywin Lannister, aren’t easily dismissed. They don’t come across as disposable, but they’re also not load-bearing when it comes to the narrative — like life, the series will go on without them, being told from none of their points of view exclusively.
The show is about the giant scaled “game” that is the battle for the Iron Throne, but it requires you to invest in the human pieces moving about the board, doing battle on the field or in court and sometimes losing in a terrible fashion. In that way, it isn’t just able to maintain the power of its horrific moments, it’s also about sounding that constant but unsettling note that success in its world is not about being the most moral or the most honorable — it’s about strength, and smarts, and trust, and most awful of all, luck. The Starks deserve vengeance, but that has ever less to do with whether or not they’ll actually get it. In once again giving its narrative a brutal shake, “Game of Thrones” provided a reminder that it’s not the story of one family avenging a wrong, but one of a sometimes mercilessly broader scale in which the betrayal of dashing young lord, his mother, his wife and his unborn child is the latest bloody gambit.