This week, I’m not going to do as much recapping as I usually do, or spend a lot of time pretending that anyone is thinking about anything but the big surprises in the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I’m not sure this will even count as a “review,” per se, but I do have a few thoughts about “The Rains of Castamere.” Let’s just talk a bit, shall we?
Back in college, my friends and I used to pass the time on long car rides by playing a game called “Botticelli.” It was a geekier and more complicated version of “20 Questions,” in which one person thinks of a famous person—real or fictional—and the others have to figure out who it is. I don’t recall all the rules and strategies of the game, but I remember that an early question was always Is this person alive or dead? And—the way we played it, at least—fictional characters were always alive.
The reason I’ve remembered this rule is that I thought it was a lovely observation about the nature of stories. For one thing, fictional characters are not subject to the same rules of finality that plague the rest of us: even a character who has been definitively killed in the text can always turn up again. Eager to be free of his most famous creation, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893, and then—after his other writings failed to find an audience—he brought the character back in 1902. Doyle spent another quarter century churning out mysteries about the Great Detective, and plenty of others have taken up where he left off. Is Sherlock Holmes alive or dead? Of course he’s alive: he’s always alive. He always will be.
But the rule of that obscure game gets it right in a larger sense as well, in a way that speaks to the glories and mysteries of storytelling: characters in fiction never really lived, and so they can never really die. Whatever happens to them in the story, they exist in a finite number of pages for as long as we’re reading about them, and they cease to exist when we close the book, and they live again when we start the story over. It is the author who invents them, imagines them, and describes them as best as he or she is able on paper, but we are the ones who imbue them with life. They have exactly as much reality as we invest in them, and all that is lost when they die is what we ourselves have brought to the table.
It’s miraculous, when you think about it: there never was a Hamlet, a Lear, a Romeo or Juliet, but people have been weeping about their tragic fates for four hundred years. In that time, millions of real people have lived unnoticed and died unmourned, but these people—who never really lived or died at all—are remembered. They come to life over and over again for new audiences who come to love them, and they die over and over again throughout the ages. They never lived, and they always die, and they are, in a very real sense, immortal.
I realize that all of this may sound a little grandiose for a discussion of a TV episode, but it’s what I’ve found myself thinking about in the aftermath of this week’s Game of Thrones. I intentionally don’t read other reviews until I write my own, but I could not resist going online Sunday night, after the final credits of “The Rains of Castamere” came down, to watch Twitter explode with shock, outrage, and grief. “WHAT THE FUCK????” was a common reaction. So was “FUCK THIS SHOW!!!” There were several variations of “I’m never watching this fucking show again!”, or the less adamant, more perplexed “I don’t know why I even watch this fucking show.” Many people felt betrayed, or manipulated, or as if they’d been sadistically tortured; many people were angry; some seemed to feel like they themselves had suffered a deep and personal loss. As when Ned Stark (Sean Bean) died in Season One, reaction videos have appeared online showing fans losing their proverbial shit over the events of this episode.
I’ve written a lot this season about how George R. R. Martin deliberately thwarts narrative expectations in A Song of Ice and Fire—and about how he undermines our sense of a just and moral universe—and you’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to rehash those arguments here (much). Instead, what I’ve found myself thinking about in the wake of “The Rains of Castamere” is what a strange and powerful thing fiction is, and how remarkable it is that so many people can become so upset about things that never really happened to people who never really lived in a world that never really existed. Why, when we have so many real people in our lives to worry about, do we invest so much emotion in imaginary people? Why do we find their stories so compelling, even when—especially when—those stories are tragic? Why, in the name of all that is holy, do we keep coming back for more?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying stories are unimportant. In fact, I’m saying that there is something vital about well-told fictions, something we crave, something that makes the inevitable heartbreak not only acceptable but necessary. Stories, in fact, speak to—and urge us to tap into—the very best in human nature, and so in that sense they may be among the most important things there are.
Why are we able to feel so much for people who don’t exist? This is why:
The pain we are able to feel for a Hamlet, for a Juliet, even for A Pencil Named Steve, is a strange and marvelous thing. It’s an extension of what has been called “the sympathetic imagination”—our ability to go beyond our own subjectivity and identify with the object of our perceptions—and it’s probably the only reason we’re still alive as a species. To some extent we are all trapped in our own perceptions, and everything and everyone outside us is an other, an object, a fiction: our ability to sympathize is the root of all decency and civilization. (Percy Bysshe Shelley said that “the great instrument of the moral good is the imagination.”)
Certainly, this quality is both a prerequisite for, and the purpose of, consuming fictions: that we can mourn the deaths of people who never lived is both an expression of and an exercise of our sympathetic imaginations. One of my favorites quotes on this subject is from the great German writer Christa Wolf’s examination of the classic Greek tragedies in Cassandra. Wolf writes:
“Storytelling is humane, and achieves humane effects, memory, sympathy, understanding—even when the story is in part a lament for the destruction of one’s father’s home, for the loss of memory, the breakdown of sympathy, the lack of understanding.”
For the record—though I think the books are remarkable and the show is among the best things ever on television—I am not putting either Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or HBO’s Game of Thrones in the same category as Shakespeare, or the great Greek tragedies. This is, however, an impressive and humane piece of modern storytelling, capable of tapping into the same emotions as all the great texts, and capable of invoking our sympathetic imagination in powerful, evocative ways. And the proof of that—if we still needed proof—is in “The Rains of Castamere.”
For “The Rains of Castamere” is not an easy watch: it’s a brutal, gut-punching hour of television, culminating in a climactic bloodbath that is of mythic or Shakespearean proportions. (We tend to think our art has grown more violent in the 20th and 21st centuries, but we should remember just how high the body count was in the great entertainments of old: those stages were littered with corpses.) Debates can rage about whether it was better or worse for those who did or didn’t know that the “Red Wedding” was coming, but I can say for myself that dreading this event for two seasons (I read the books after Season One) did not make it go down any easier. I honestly can’t think of a more viscerally upsetting episode of television.
And it was all the more upsetting because the episode teased us with hope. Since Ned Stark died in Episode Nine of the first season, our heroes, the Starks, have been scattered to the four winds. Neither Sansa (Sophie Turner), nor Arya (Maisie Williams), nor Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has laid eyes on another member of the family for two full seasons. Robb (Richard Madden) and Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) have been together, but they haven’t seen anyone else, and don’t know if the rest of the family is alive or dead; the same is true of Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson).
Now, in “The Rains of Castamere,” so many of these characters are so close to each other that they can virtually smell the wolves. Bran—while possessing a wolf through his new magical warg powers—even catches a glimpse of Jon Snow, right outside the tower where the youngest Starks are hiding. Arya, after so many false attempts to get to Jon at the Wall, or to her grandfather’s castle at Riverrun, is now a stone’s throw from her mother and oldest brother at the Twins. (“Don’t worry, they’re still there,” the Hound [Rory McCann] says to Arya, as they camp across the river from Walder Frey’s castle. “You check every five minutes like you’re afraid they’re going to move.” Yes, of course she does: she’s been living in this story for a while now, and she knows not to get her hopes too high.) The reunions the characters crave—the reunions we crave for them—are so teasingly close that it almost seems impossible they could miss each other.
If Game of Thrones can be accused of cruelly manipulating our emotions in “The Rains of Castamere,” it’s in this construction alone: right when we think the family might be together again, it is dealt a fatal blow. Robb dies, and Talisa dies, and Catelyn dies, and the unborn child they would have named for Eddard Stark dies as well. This is the fall of House Stark, the annihilation of Ned’s legacy. It may be slightly less thorough a destruction of a family name than the one immortalized in the song “The Rains of Castamere”—some Starks, thankfully, do survive—but it is every bit as devastating a blow. The Starks were our heroes, but there is no House Stark now: there are only survivors.
And it’s not “fair”—not in the traditional sense, the one in which we expect stories to be fair. These were not bad people, and they did not deserve this fate.
But is it too much? There is such a thing as an unspoken contract between author and audience, of course, and that contract can be broken. We trust the author to play fair with us, and not to throw in horrors and atrocities just for the sake of shock value. We assume that bad things will happen to characters we care about—otherwise, there would be no drama at all—but we trust that we are not being made to care about characters for the sole purpose of having the emotional rug yanked brutally from beneath our feet. Cheap entertainment does exactly that: there are plenty of crappy melodramas and schlocky horror movies where characters are little more than sacrificial victims used for cynically manipulative shock value. And even good shows sometimes fall victim to the temptation to kill off a major character in a surprising way, just to boost ratings, revitalize a stagnant franchise, or resolve a contract dispute with an actor. (Looking at you, Downton Abbey.)
But that’s not what’s happened here. Whether you find George R. R. Martin’s plan enjoyable—and it’s not always fun—the man has a plan, and he doesn’t betray the logic and needs of his own story just for cheap effect. (I don’t doubt that Martin’s decision to kill these characters came about in part because these characters had outlived their usefulness—but that’s just another way of saying that this is where the story wanted and needed to go.)
This is, at its core, a story about a family of decent but imperfect people trying to do the right thing in a world that puts their decency in conflict with the rigid codes and harsh practicalities of their society. Ned Stark was an honorable man, but he was also a loving man, and those two things do not always coexist easily: he made some decisions out of a sense of honor and justice, and he made others out of love and compassion, and eventually he fell victim to the realities that these guidelines are sometimes incompatible and none of them is any guarantor of success. Ned’s fate was shocking at the time, but in retrospect there was a sense of inevitability to it, a perfect logic to the path that led him, step by imperfect step, from his warm home in Winterfell to his execution at the Sept of Baelor.
And the events of “The Rains of Castamere” are devastating precisely because they are not cheap, or illogical, or unearned: as shocking as the episode is, there is a perfect logic to the imperfect path that has led Robb and Catelyn to this moment. Robb was his father’s son, in every way: he made some decisions out of a sense of justice (executing Rickard Karstark, for example); he made some out of practicality (trying to forge an alliance with the Freys); and he made some out of love (marrying Talisa [Oona Chaplin]). Catelyn is much the same: she judged her son harshly for acting out of love, and for breaking his vow of honor to marry a Frey, but she herself broke the rules by releasing Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and she did it out of love for her daughters.
In most stories, one kind of decision would be rewarded: there would be a lesson we could draw about ethics, or personal sacrifice, or listening to the heart over the head. But that’s not the way the world really works, and its not the way the world works in Game of Thrones. There is no higher power rewarding one code and punishing another, there are no random events, and there are no accidents of fate: there are just people making decisions, and then living—or dying—with the immediate and distant consequences of those decisions. Every decision Robb and Cat have made throughout the series was justifiable from one perspective, arguable from another, but they all led them here, the good decisions as much as the bad. Whether or not we find this worldview comforting, we can’t argue that it’s not consistent. The show plays fair: hard, but fair.
And it’s all so beautifully executed. (Accidental puns are so hard to avoid: let us say it’s been beautifully realized.) I said I wasn’t going to review “The Rains of Castamere,” but make no mistake: if I did, it would be to say that television doesn’t get much better than Game of Thrones, and Game of Thrones doesn’t get much better than this. Everything was working this week: even Bran’s scenes were interesting and heartbreaking. (I could have stood to deal with Dany’s sack of Yunkai in a different episode—to keep the focus on the Stark family—but we can excuse some necessary structural compromises in a 10-episode season.) The direction by David Nutter was brilliant—the slow, ominous building of tension at the Twins exquisitely measured—and the screenplay by Benioff and Weiss demonstrates once again what a mastery they’ve developed of this difficult material. Around the devastating central event we see so much that compliments the pain and reminds us what the show is all about: we see Jon Snow forced to choose between love and duty; we see Bran becoming a leader even as he’s forced to fragment his family further; and we see the righteous fury of little Arya Stark, who remains our best hope for vengeance, justice, and the fragile possibility of a far-off happy ending.
And I can’t leave off without saying something about Michelle Fairley’s performance. There is no more justice in the average awards season than there is on Game of Thrones, so I don’t expect the Emmy voters to give her work here the trophy it so clearly deserves, but damn. Her work on this show has always been wonderful, playing a character who—since Ned’s death—has had to embody the moral center of the show while not always being particularly warm or likable. As Fairley brought Cat to life, she was sometimes funny, and she was sometimes warm, and she was sometimes distant, and she was sometimes—often—cold and furious with prickly maternal righteousness.
For some viewers, this complexity may lessen the impact of her death, but for me it intensifies it a thousand times: she was no idealized angel of motherhood, but a strong, difficult, complicated woman, fierce and formidable and utterly real. I liked Robb Stark, and I think Madden did wonders with Robb’s arc from boy to man to reluctant king, but Robb was never Martin’s most interesting or fully developed character. It’s Catelyn’s soul-destroying grief at her son’s death that makes us mourn Robb here, and it’s Fairley’s wrenching performance that makes Cat’s own death almost a relief. (Watch the way, after Robb dies, she makes her final, futile gesture of revenge in killing Frey’s wife, and then turns to absolute stone in despair: she does not even flinch, let alone protest, when her throat is slit. The camera lingers on her still, stony form for what seems an eternity, and we are almost afraid to look too closely at the pain she embodies. She has lost everything she ever lived for, and nearly everyone she has ever loved, and she impatiently welcomes the knife that is so cruelly, agonizingly slow in coming.)
This is not easy stuff, but it is glorious and powerful and emotionally stunning. Stories are important, and storytelling is humane, even when the story is about the breakdown of humanity. The characters on this show are painfully, sometimes fatally human, and the pain and outrage and emotional turmoil we endure by investing so in their stories is a remarkable and rewarding thing. It’s easy to get angry at the authors for their cruelty, but we should honor the genuine pain they can deliver as a mark of their craft and as a sign of our own humanity. It’s easy to make fun of the fans crumpling into wailing balls of despair on YouTube, but then it’s we who are being cynical and heartless, we who are suffering a failure of sympathy, of understanding, of imagination.
Stories matter, and our ability to feel something real in response to something imagined may be the most important thing there is. I don’t know if Benioff and Weiss had any of this in mind when they wrote the (otherwise unnecessary) scene this episode between Sam (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray)—in which Gilly marvels at how much Sam has learned just from reading books—but I like to think they did. “You know all that from staring at marks on paper?” Gilly wonders. “You’re like…a wizard.”
These characters—those who are still alive in the story, and those who are dead—were never really alive at all. All they ever were was marks on paper, and the fact that we feel so much for them is nothing short of magic.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- There are elements to all of this that are not yet clear to those who haven’t read the books: my commenters are usually very good about avoiding spoilers from the books, but I wanted to remind everyone to be careful about discussing future plot developments.
- In thinking about whether anything in the Red Wedding was gratuitous, the one thing I genuinely can’t decide about was the stabbing of Talisa. It’s not in the book, but that’s my least objection. (In general, I think the way they changed that character and storyline for the show was a massive improvement.) But it was absolutely horrific, and perhaps in a way that erred a little too far towards horror-movie gore. I do think they would have sacrificed a little of the impact and symbolism if she’d simply been stabbed in the heart, or had her throat cut, but I’m not sure they shouldn’t have gone that way anyway.
- As I mentioned above, this is the first time all season I’ve been interested in Bran’s storyline. For one thing, this is the first time anything interesting has happened to Bran and the others all season, but it’s more than that: they finally gave those characters some emotional content to work with, and my investment level shot up about 300 percent.
- It was clever to include the scene of Robb and Catelyn discussing the siege on Casterly Rock. Obviously, it was a nice bit of misdirection—creating audience expectations for a major storyline that will never happen—and it gave the two of them a nice, non-maudlin moment of reconciliation and forgiveness. (Robb asks his mother’s advice, and admits that he made a mistake in ignoring it earlier.) Most importantly, however, it’s just good writing: too often, characters foreshadow their own ends by wrapping things up too neatly before they die, but this show is realistic enough to recognize that people often die in the middle of planning other things.
- That moment when the title song starts playing, and all Catelyn’s steadily growing anxiety and dread suddenly crystallizes on her face, was breathtaking, and all the better because the show trusted the audience to recognize the moment for what it meant.
- Maisie Williams breaks my heart. Seriously, I can’t even talk about it.
- Season finale next week? Already?