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Game of Thrones recap: The Red Wedding
The HBO drama dazzles and devastates with a shocking bloodbath of an episode
 
RIP Robb Stark.
RIP Robb Stark. HBO/Helen Sloan

Let's be honest. You're not here to read about Sam and Gilly's adventures north of the Wall, or Bran's ability to take control of Hodor's body, or even Daenerys sacking a second city on her slave-freeing tour of Essos.

We'll check in with everybody else next week. Let's talk about the Red Wedding.

Game of Thrones has always been playing a longer game than most shows, but it's staggering to think how much time and attention the show has spent to prepare for this episode's gory finale. In "Baelor," the ninth episode of season one, Catelyn brokered a deal with Walder Frey: In return for his loyalty and safe passage across the river, she agreed that both Arya and Robb would marry into the Frey family. More than a season later — and after weeks of simmering sexual tension — Robb broke his promise and married Talisa in "Valar Morghulis," the final episode of season two. Over the course of season three, we've seen Catelyn slowly warm to her new daughter-in-law, and seen Talisa get pregnant with a child that represents, both symbolically and literally, the future of the north.

And then, in less than 10 minutes, it was all over, as Walder Frey and Roose Bolton turned on the defenseless Robb Stark and his family, slaughtering all of them — and the rest of Robb's men, who believed they were camping with allies —­ without any mercy. (To be fair, some may have escaped the bloodbath; it was hard to tell in the chaos, but I'm fairly sure the Blackfish wasn't present when the attack started, and it's similarly unclear whether Edmure was killed or captured during his bedding. I suspect Game of Thrones will clarify those points in next week's season finale).

This was a bold and emotionally shattering episode of television; much like Ned Stark's death at the end of the first season, it evoked a palpable and overwhelming sense of horror, which I found it hard to shake after the episode's end. (And apparently, I'm not alone; in the hours since "The Rains of Castamere" aired, I've received a half-dozen texts and emails from friends who are every bit as shell-shocked as Robb Stark was by the suddenness and cruelty of the scene, and a Twitter feed collecting aggrieved reactions to the episode has already amassed more than 3,000 followers).

The thing that makes Game of Thrones' twists so effective — beyond the obvious, visceral horror of seeing a character you've spent so much time with get brutally slaughtered — is the way that the show uses our unconscious understanding of story structure against us. It's hard to imagine what Game of Thrones would be like if Ned Stark hadn't been killed, but at the time, the show seemed to be setting up an equally plausible narrative: Ned is sent up to the Wall as penance for standing up to the Lannisters, where he re-teams with Jon Snow and plots his next move in the game of thrones. But instead, to the surprise of everyone — including the show's characters — Ned ended up beheaded on the steps of Baelor, his story cut off before it reached a proper ending.

The moment was shocking because for centuries, audiences have been trained to understand the arc of dramatic narratives. When Ned Stark tells Jon Snow in the second episode of the series that he'll reveal the truth about Jon's mother when they meet again, we assume they will meet again; otherwise, why would the show bother to set up that plot point in the first place?

The answer, of course, is that that's how life works — and, perhaps more to the point, how death works. People die suddenly, and with all kinds of things left unsaid and undone. In life, this is not a profound or surprising observation, but in fiction — especially fantasy fiction — it's revolutionary, because overarching storylines tend to play out as one big puzzle in which every narrative detail is carefully engineered to fit.

And now, 20 episodes after Ned Stark's death, Game of Thrones used the same trick to equal effect by introducing a red herring: The idea that Robb Stark would attempt a siege on Casterly Rock, the home base of the Lannisters. The show once again used our lifelong expectations about storytelling against us. If Game of Thrones was a normal show, this is the moment at which its writers would be looking to top the spectacular Battle of Blackwater Bay, which played out in the penultimate episode of the second season, with an even bigger battle. In a normal show, having made peace with Walder Frey in "The Rains of Castamere," Robb would have rallied his troops and marched on Casterly Rock for a massive, heroic attack on the Lannisters. Sure, he might have died in the battle — but if he did, he'd die at the height of his glory, delivering a final, powerful speech, or killing a dozen soldiers before he finally succumbed to his wounds. And even if Robb had died, he'd have had the promise of an unborn heir to carry on his legacy and his family name after he was gone.

What did Game of Thrones give us instead? A pregnant woman being repeatedly stabbed in the belly. A rasping mother desperately (and unsuccessfully) pleading for her son to be spared. A snarling, captive direwolf being shot to death by crossbows. And the definitive end of the King in the North, Robb Stark, who spent his dying moments learning that he'd been outmaneuvered by Tywin Lannister.

It was — and I mean this as a compliment — one of the most unpleasant things I've ever seen on a TV show. The slow build was excruciating, as Catelyn slowly realized that there was something deeply unsettling about the wedding. When the band launched into "The Rains of Castamere" — a musical tribute, as Cersei explained, to the power and mercilessness of the Lannister family — it was already too late. Arya, who'd never been so close to reuniting with her family, lost her chance to be with them again for good. Robb defeated none of his enemies before his own death, and his final word was a plaintive "Mother" to Catelyn before he was gutted by Roose Bolton. Even Catelyn's "hero moment" was empty, as she took revenge by killing Walder Frey's young wife, who was presumably innocent in the betrayal — and who Walder didn't care about anyway.

The War of the Five Kings, which began when Robert Baratheon died in Game of Thrones' first season, is now down to three: Balon Greyjoy, who hasn't reared his head all season; Stannis Baratheon, who's at Dragonstone licking his wounds; and Joffrey Baratheon, whose grandfather Tywin just earned him a brutal and decisive victory, despite the fact that none of the Lannisters even appeared in the episode.

Game of Thrones' title comes from a quote by Cersei Lannnister: "In the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." The quote has never been more accurate than it is at the end of "The Rains of Castamere" — or more devastating in its implications.

Read more Game of Thrones recaps:
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Second Sons'
* Game of Thrones recap: 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair'
* Game of Thrones recap: 'The Climb'
* Game of Thrones recap: The high price of honor
* Game of Thrones recap: Revenge is a dish best served hot
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Walk of Punishment'
* Game of Thrones recap: The women of Westeros
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Valar Dohaeris'

 
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticPOLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.

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