'Game of Thrones' unleashes one of the most devastating and brutal scenes in TV history

By James Hibberd
June 02, 2013 at 11:11 PM EDT
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It happened. RW. The Scene Which Shall Not Be Named.

The showrunners decided to call this ninth episode of Game of Thrones‘ third season “The Rains of Castamere.” And that’s a fine and suitable title. But fans are always going to call it by its other name: The Red Wedding.

Tonight Thrones reached a crescendo of sorts. This hour concluded with a scene book-reader fans have alternately anticipated and dreaded since the show was first announced. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it’s one of the most shocking, brutal and disturbing sequences ever put on television.

The hour was directed by David Nutter, who’s known as “the pilot whisperer” due to his track record for shooting pilots that later go on to become successful series (examples: Without a Trace, Smallville, Arrow). He previously directed Thrones episodes “A Man Without Honor” and “The Old Gods and the New,” and will helm next week’s finale “Mhysa.” Nutter told me he prepared for this particular episode for an entire year and the prospect rather terrified him. Yet he approached it like a general over the five-day shoot of The Twins scenes and drew praise from the actors. More on the making of this episode in this week’s print edition of Entertainment Weekly, and see the end of this recap for links to exclusive interviews with the showrunners, George R.R. Martin, Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley. Now let’s take a walk down a very dark path…

Robb’s tent: “Are you sure about this?” asks Catelyn, a prophetic statement. “It’s dangerous.” Robb’s mom is worried about his plan to go after the Lannister home of Casterly Rock. Saying it’s dangerous is almost laughable — everything rebellious Team Robb is doing is dangerous. Seems Robb has learned a thing or two over the course of the last few seasons because he’s actually asking for mom’s advice. Robb and Catelyn like the plan, but it hinges on Lord Walder Frey giving them more troops. Mom gives her blessing: “Show them how it feels to lose what they love.” The shadows in this scene are outnumbered by the foreshadows.

The Twins: Lord Walder Frey passes along a ceremonial tray of hors d’oeuvres. In the Seven Kingdoms, it’s said that you cannot harm a person in your home once they’ve partaken of your “bread and salt.” You would think they could have at least picked something a bit more appetizing — bread and butter, maybe, or bread and some virgin olive oil, or hell, cheese and crackers. Like many aspects of Thrones, this custom is loosely based on actual medieval practice (Martin talks about it in our interview).

Robb begs Frey’s forgiveness for breaking his word. Frey brings out his brood of homely daughters, each looking like a refugee at a shelter for abused women. He explains Robb could have had his pick of any one of them (including a two-for-one bargain on the ginger twins). The man has so many offspring he can’t remember all their names. “Any man would be lucky to have any one of you,” Robb smoothly reassures. Frey gives his performance a sarcastic slow clap, then wants to get a closer look at Robb’s wife Talisa.

“Very pretty,” Frey says. “Prettier than this lot.” He accuses her of trying to hide her figure under a dowdy dress. “You wanted to hide her you shouldn’t have brought her here in the first place,” Frey says and gets all lecherous — moreso. “I say he betrayed me for firm tits and a tight fit, and I can respect that. When I was your age I would have broken 50 oaths to get into that without a second thought.”

It’s all Robb can do not to kill him. But what Frey is saying should actually come as a relief. Frey can’t understand love, but he can understand breaking oaths and being a perv. That’s close enough. “We’ll put this mess behind us,” Frey says.

NEXT: Dany gets a back gate tip from Daario

Yunkai: Dany’s new sellsword admirer Fabio Daario is showing her the city’s secret weakness — a back gate where he can sneak a few spies in and potentially open the front door for her army. He professes to not be motivated by slaves. “I have no interest in slaves; a man cannot make love to property,” he says, hitting Dany in her moral sweet spot. As usual, Ser Jorah the Easily Threatened bristles, his Alpha Male is being challenged by this hot young suitor for Dany’s respect (and possibly more).

North of the The Wall: Speaking of back gates, Sam tells Gilly about a secret passageway through The Wall besides from the main one at Castle Black. She wants to know how Sam knows about it. I want to know how Sam knows about it but ex-Nights Watchman Mance Rayder and all his Wildlings do not. This seems like a pretty big exception to the whole “no way to get through The Wall” rule. Sam says he learned it by reading. Gilly is so impressed she calls Sam a wizard. Sam once said he always wanted to be a wizard. He beams at her — your ignorance is hot!

Gilly checks out The Wall and said that her father told her that no Wildling ever looked upon The Wall and lived. “And here we are, alive!” she enthuses mere seconds after seeing it. Um, Gilly, let me explain what your dad meant by that …

The Road: The Hound comes upon a wagon, helps the old man fix it and knocks him out. He moves to kill him and Arya stops him. “Dead rats don’t squeak,” he says (hmm, good enough for the Thrones band name list, you think?). Arya begs him to spare his life. “You’re very kind,” he says. “Some day it will get you killed.” Even more Stark family foreshadowing. The old man starts to wake and she whacks him back unconscious — she’s not that kind.

Later, Arya and The Hound comes to within sighting distance of The Twins. Arya is getting anxious she won’t really get to meet up with her family. “You’re almost there, you’re afraid you won’t make it,” The Hound says. Arya has apparently been paying attention to this show.

South of The Wall: Jon Snow and the Wildlings come upon a horse breeder. Giantsbane wants to grab the horses and to kill the breeder. Once again there’s a debate about whether to kill an inconvenient  man. Jon Snow makes a case for letting him live. Oh these Starks and their soft hearts. Jon, can’t you try to at least pretend you’re a spy? Pick your battles! So they rush in all Braveheart and Jon smacks his sword against a rock, alerting the old man, who gets away.

Meanwhile, in nearby tower, Bran and his friends hide from the storm. The thunder sends Hodor into a Hodor-meltdown, going utterly bat-Hodor Hodoring Hodor. Outside, the Wildlings war party arrives. Once again Thrones is mercilessly teasing us — the Starks are so close to reuniting. Bran is able to get Hodor to be quiet, seemingly with his mind. For the first time Bran is able to use whatever third sight he’s developing to influence something beyond himself or to simply have repetitive avian fantasies.

The Wildlings have caught up with the fleeing horse breeder. Orell the angry warg wants Jon Snow to execute him. “Do it!” urges Ygritte. Jon hesitates … he cannot do it… he’s too nice and noble, dammit!

So Ygritte shoots the old man for him.

But that’s not going to save this situation for Jon. They know.

“Kill him!” There’s a fight. Jon pushes Ygirtte aside so she’s not fighting his battle for him. Up in the tower, Jojen urges Bran to use his power to get their direwolves to attack the Wildlings lest they be discovered. At one point Jon gives a quick look like — Wait, where did all these direwolves come from?

NEXT: Groom’s side, or bride’s side? 

Jon stabs Orell and tells him: “You were right the whole time!” So there, jerk, you can die knowing that, at least.

Orell sends his eagle down to attack Jon. This is some pretty complicated warg vs. warg, Stark vs. Stark action going on here. Jon gets on his horse and takes off. Ygritte is super pissed he’s running out on her. Can you blame her? He’s choosing his gang of men and celibacy over freedom and her.

Later, Jojen explains to Bran that although wargs exist North of the Wall, those who can go into other people’s minds — like Bran did with Hodor — do not. So Sam isn’t a real wizard, but Bran might be. Osha starts protesting going beyond The Wall again and Bran makes executive decision: Osha should take Rickon to one of the Stark bannerman while Bran, the Reeds and Hodor continue by themselves. Rickon has lots of lines and cries.

Yunkai: Daario sneaks in the back gate. He brags to Jorah he’s the “greatest whistler in the land,” which isn’t the coolest thing to be the best at, but you get the feeling Daario thinks he’s the best at everything. His whistle is admittedly pretty good. They go inside and sure enough, Daario has killed the guards and doesn’t have a drop of blood on him.

But then: More guards! We get a fight scene with Daario, Grey Worm and Jorah fending off a gaggle of attackers. I’m impressed: Ser Jorah can move, especially for older guy who allegedly smells like pee. That’s some impressive swinging. Grey Worm doesn’t exactly live up to the Unsullied’s fearsome reputation, but it’s tougher to be flashy armed with a spear.

But then: Even more guards!

Later: In Dany’s tent, she’s anxious. “How long does it take to sack a city?” she asks Barristan. Suddenly Jorah and Grey Worm return. Jorah is covered in blood, looks exhausted and jubilant. It worked! They did it! And then Dany says the last thing Jorah wants to hear: “And Daario?”

Jorah looks like: What the hell do I need to do to impress you, anyway?

Daario makes his grand entrance, steps in front of Jorah and kneels before Dany, showing him up. “The city is yours, my queen.” Oh well, whatever. He’s a tool, but at least he’s hotter than Seth MacFarlane.

The Twins: Okay can I just say? My stomach is clenching up during all these Twins scenes, even at this point.

Walder Frey brings out a heavily veiled bride for Robb’s uncle Edmure, who is braced for the worst. But … surprise: She’s gorgeous (and waaaay too young for him, but it’s not like Westeros has an age of consent, especially in Lord Frey’s castle). “I hope I’m not a disappointment to you,” she says. He gives her his cloak and has a much easier time than Tyrion putting it on her. Robb looks back at Frey, who seems amused by their surprise. Yet he’s not as amused by their surprise that he’s going to be.

Like the previous apology scene with Frey, we’re being artfully toyed with. First we’re given mounting tension (Will Frey forgive them? Will he give them a fugly bride?) and then given relief. This is setting up a pattern that will be spectacularly reversed during the reception, where the mood will start relaxed and then the tension will mount, mount, mount.

Edmure and his bride say the words, more fodder for your Game of Thrones-themed wedding: “Father, smith, warrior, mother, maiden, crone, stranger…”

Then we moved to a feast in a grand hall. Frey sprung for a band and notice Coldplay’s Will Champion is guest-cast as a drummer. Everybody is all smiles. Even Roose Bolton looks like he’s in a good mood, though once again he’s not drinking (“dulls the senses,” he says).

Frey interrupts and calls for the bedding. This is the part of the wedding we missed during Tyrion’s wedding, a part he so objected to. The bride and groom are escorted out by the opposite sex to the bedroom, where they basically get to watch them fool around.

Robb asks Talisa whether she’s having a boy or girl. Sort of a strange question. Is there any way she could know even nine months pregnant in Westeros? She says if it’s a boy she wants to name him Eddard. Oh Thrones. You’re so cruel. They kiss. Catelyn actually smiles. She smiles! Catelyn! It’s like we’re about to get a happy ending to this story. Which means you know we’re screwed.

Then a man closes the giant door to the chamber. Catelyn watches him. She looks concerned. The band begins to play. She looks more worried — are they playing “Vida la Vida” or “Clocks”? Because that would be pretty horrible.

But no. We’re at that time. The moment Thrones fans have waited years to see. Now that it’s actually here it’s like I don’t want to watch. We’re going to talk about this scene in detail, plus what it means for the show’s future.

NEXT: And you thought Tyrion’s wedding sucked

The band is playing “The Rains of Castamere,” the Lannister theme song. Catelyn knows this is very bad.

Outside Robb’s direwolf — in a cage, trapped — begins to whine. Robb’s men are getting drunk and sloppy on Lord Frey’s wine. Arya and The Hound roll up in a wagon, but they’re told the feast is over. Soldiers run into the castle past them.

The music stops. Lord Frey addresses Robb, who stands.

Catelyn looks at Roose Bolton and he gives her this look.

It’s a look that’s one of the best parts of this sequence. Like: You know what’s coming, right? Her look back to him is pure anxiety. He glances down at his sleeve — hint, hint. She pulls his sleeve back. He’s wearing chain mail. He’s dressed for a fight. You don’t wear chain mail to a wedding.

Frey is saying that he hasn’t given Robb a wedding present…

Catelyn stands and slaps Bolton. “Robb!” she screams. Bolton scrambles to get away from her.

Then a man rushes forward and stabs Talisa right in her abdomen, over and over and over and over. Robb sees this and is just frozen in shock. It’s like his mind cannot comprehend what he’s seeing. This is the opposite of an action movie hero reaction and it feels so much more real.

Talisa is not in the books (Robb’s wife is a different character, and stays behind at Riverrun), yet this was the most disturbing visual in this episode full of disturbing visuals and I cannot get it out of my head. Naming the baby after Ned Stark almost plays like a sick ironic joke here.

Crossbows fire from the rafters. Robb is struck. His men are being killed. Mayhem. There’s a great overhead tracking shot soaking up all the butchery. Like the book, this all unfolds so fast.

Frey is thrilled, drinking it all in, like it’s some perverse dinner theater.

Outside: Arya sees Robb’s men being killed. His direwolf Grey Wind is trying to escape. Freys with crossbows kill the direwolf. So yeah — the doggy gets it too. The Hound tells Arya “it’s too late” and knocks her unconscious, saving her life, taking her away.

Back inside: Robb goes to Talisa. He doesn’t care about anything else at this point. Catelyn sees Frey’s young wife under a table and drags her out by her hair. Catelyn holds a knife to the terrified girl’s throat. Michelle Fairley’s voice is so ragged and full of emotion here. She pleads with Lord Frey to let Robb go and she promises they will “forget this.”

“You already swore me one oath right here in this castle,” Frey reminds her.

Catelyn begs Robb to leave, to run away and escape. Remember in addition to Ned’s death, she believes her other sons are already murdered (Bran and Rickon), she cannot bear to see Robb die as well. She swears on her honor she’ll kill the girl if Frey doesn’t let Robb go. I’m curious among the non-book readers here: Did any of you think at this point they might get away?

Frey goes: “I’ll find another.”

Robb says, “Mother…” like he wants to say: It’s okay, it’s over.

Bolton comes up to give Robb a cowardly killing blow: “The Lannisters send their regards.”

Catelyn wails. Kills the girl. There’s a moment. Catelyn looks like her soul has already left her body. Then she’s killed. And then we go to credits and there’s no music. Silence.

Okay. How do you feel? I’m kinda messed up.

NEXT: What do their deaths mean?A couple of the reasons this scene is so disturbing … well, there are many reasons … but a couple of the reasons is it’s so cruel and unfair. Robb was winning the war. It’s a wedding. They were sworn Frey’s protection. His wife was innocent. He was almost reunited with Arya. It’s all so wrong.

Story-wise, too, it feels wrong — Robb is the avenging son. His father died tragically. So he’s not supposed to die too. He’s supposed to live. Ned Stark’s death, at least, seemed to serve a larger somewhat comfortably familiar story path. The mentor-patriarch died so his kids could rise. We’re not used to main characters on TV being killed off, but we are familiar with that overall Hero’s Journey device.

But how does Robb and Catelyn dying serve the story? Does this make our Game of Thrones journey better or more compelling? This time, it’s harder to see the benefit. It’s certainly a realistic move — Robb made a series of tactical blunders. Not on the battlefield, but in the social gamesmanship arena that Tywin Lannister plays better than anybody else. You can’t accuse George R.R. Martin and the Thrones showrunners of not being fair. Frey’s betrayal was set up from the first season when Robb made that promise to a man we were told was powerful and dangerous. Looking back you can see each one of Robb’s mistakes clearly: Marrying Talisa alienated Frey, killing Karstark alienated his men (again, a great execution scene that has so much weight now that you know where it’s heading), then he trusted Frey’s proposal.

You can, however, accuse the showrunners of successfully striving to make a horrible scene even more horrible. Throwing Talisa into the mix — pregnant, no less — and Catelyn taking a young woman hostage (it was one of Frey’s sons in the book). Both moves seemed designed to make The Red Wedding more tragic. And is more tragic better? It’s certainly more emotionally powerful. Usually in film and TV that means better. Yet in the aftermath of this scene it’s hard to feel good about the creative choice.

Another thing to notice: Love comes at a very high price on Thrones. There’s a David Foster Wallace essay titled (ironically enough) “Hail The Returning Dragon, Clothed in New Fire,” about how love used to cost something — way more than a sushi dinner and a box of Trojans. For many centuries, love was very risky and often fatal.

In that regard, tonight’s episode is historically correct for the medieval-ish sensibility of the series. The few people enjoying romantic love in Thrones are all paying a steep price — Jaime arguably started this war with the Starks by pushing Bran out that window to protect his forbidden love with his sister. Jon Snow is twisting himself into knots sleeping with the enemy. Tyrion is certainly putting himself at risk at risk by his relationship with Shae (and putting her even more at risk). Love costs. Sometimes it costs you everything.

But hey. There was that old man with the wagon The Hound spared. He’s survived, right? So we got that going for us. Go wagon guy! Maybe he can avenge the Starks.

So how does the Red Wedding change the game? Let’s run it down:

— Robb’s quest is over. The Stark family is, for the moment, finished as a source of real power.

— Roose Bolton said the Lannisters “send their regards.” I think it’s fair to assume Tywin was pulling the strings here. Remember Tywin writing those letters? The show played those scenes of Tywin making his kids wait while he scribbled for light humor. Doesn’t seem as funny now, does it? But it’s a masterful addition by the showrunners, having beats that play as humor the first time you watch the show, then as ominous foreboding the second time. They did the same thing with Frey not remembering one of his daughter’s names in this hour — amusing at the time, but it’s foreshadowing about how he doesn’t care about his women and will later let Catelyn sacrifice one of his wives. At any rate: This means the Lannisters have solidified their hold over the Seven Kingdoms — again.

— Arya is in huge trouble once more (not to mention, devastated beyond comprehension). Without Robb Stark to buy her, who will The Hound sell her to?

— Dany has one less rival for the Iron Throne, as does Stannis and any other contenders.

— Roose Bolton — this lord we barely heard of until a few episodes ago is now a power player. One colleague was confused about Bolton’s role in this so I’ll try to fill it in. He is, obviously, the same Stark bannerman whose men captured Jaime and Brienne. We don’t know exactly when he decided to join the Lannister-Frey conspiracy. But his decision to release Jaime back to his father a couple episodes ago gave him a vested interest in the Lannisters winning and may have tipped his decision.

— After she hears about this, Sansa is most definitely never having sex with Tyrion Lannister.

Here’s what I am sure of: Thrones deserves some Emmy glory for this episode. The Ds for writing, Nutter for directing, Fairley and Madden. The Emmys rightly took notice of Peter Dinklage right from the start. Hopefully they’ll spread the love this year. It will be a tough fight on the best series level since it’s also the year of Breaking Bad‘s final episodes and that show is long overdue to win. But to paraphrase The Boy: If you think Thrones hasn’t been kicking serious ass this season, you haven’t been paying attention.

Thanks for your patience while I filled this post out semi-live along with posting and tweeting our other coverage below, then continued polishing it Monday. The showrunners and Martin had some really interesting thoughts about the episode, while Fairley and Madden gave glimpses at the emotions behind the scenes. Sound off below: What did you think of The Red Wedding? [Final update: June 3, 2:30 p.m.ET)

THE RED WEDDING FULL COVERAGE:

‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners talk The Red Wedding

Robb Stark shocker: ‘Game of Thrones’ actor talks heart-breaking twist

George R.R. Martin must-read interview! Game of Thrones author on why he wrote The Red Wedding

— Michelle Fairley interview: Why Catelyn made her shocking decision

See EW’s Red Wedding invitation

HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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