Game of Thrones: ‘The Rains of Castamere’

Some shorter thoughts than I intended to write, because Busy.

Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form nominees

Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 3, Episode 9: ‘The Rains of Castamere’

Renowned for its… colourful… ending, I think this is also a strong instalment overall, but not without some reservations.

I’m ambivalent about Game of Thrones in general. It’s undeniably well-crafted, and it’s a rarity to find a serialised fantasy epic on television, let alone one that aspires to drama rather than knockaround action. It’s largely told through long, dialogue (or even monologue) heavy scenes that rely for their interest on shifting alliances and the nuances of political machinations. It boasts a raft of strong characters (most of them reprehensible human beings) who can command your attention.

On the other hand Game of Thrones is serialised to a fault, its cast of characters so numerous and so widely dispersed that in any given week only around half of them get screen time, and those have to jostle for elbow room, with barely enough time to incrementally advance their storyline. This episode it’s the turn of:

* Robb Stark’s bid to take Tywin Lannister’s Castle, Castelly Rock, by allying himself with Walder Frey.
* Daenerys Targaryen’s assault on the City of Yunkai.
* Sam and Gilly’s journey south towards the wall.
* Arya and the Hound’s journey to Walder Frey, arriving just too late to meet Arya’s family.
* Brand, Rickon and Hodor’s journey North towards the wall, passing but not interacting with John Snow.
* John Snow and the Wildlings progress south of the wall.

That summary may also give some sense of the ‘moving around the map’ quality of much of the storytelling. However, this is the penultimate episode of the season, traditionally where something actually happens on Game of Thrones, with the finale acting more as an epilogue for the season and a prologue for the next. It’s rare in any normal week for a storyline to reach a pay off (and when they do it may well be in the kind of anti pay-off that greets the Stark family this week) but this episode sees a number of threads converge, resolve or move into a new phase.

The main one, and let’s face it the reason for the Hugo nomination, is the tale of Robb Stark, self-proclaimed King in the North, avenging his murdered father, his new wife expecting a child, on a clear long term trajectory that — is abruptly cut short. The misdirection begins right from the start of the episode, when ‘fantasy’ maps and talk of reinforcements, battles, and traps all speak of a campaign to be resolved on the battlefield, perhaps even in the season finale. The repellant Walder Frey (played with gusto by David Bradley in his second Hugo-nominated drama this year) is just a stepping stone on that journey, a humiliating tribulation at worst. It’s played as farce, undercutting epic tropes through venality and comedy. Right until, with a masterful and gradual reveal, it turns into a prolonged massacre. The actual gore is reserved for a few key moments, which are visceral and shocking: a pregnant woman stabbed in the belly multiple times, throats of key characters slashed with Monty Python-esque gouts of blood. It’s unrelenting, all the more so because it plays out over several beats, and right to the last there’s hope that Catelyn’s desperate gambit may pay off and at least one of the Stark family may walk away. They don’t.

It’s perfectly done. The gore is used in service of the story and doesn’t bother me, except in the ways that the makers mean it to. But I have very mixed feelings about throwing away years of character and story like this. Playing against the expectations of traditional epic story shapes is the show’s stock in trade, but grand gestures of this kind need to be made sparingly and carefully. Otherwise the utter shapelessness of the narrative risks turning it into an soap opera treadmill where all triumphs and and tragedies are swiftly overturned and there’s no-one and nothing to root for. Maybe that’s the point. But ultimately it’s tough to stay invested in that kind of narrative.

My wife argues that this is simply being true to the sweep of real history, where characters live and die on whims, for noble and trivial reasons, but are at least true to themselves rather than, as in soap operas, changing to serve the latest sensationalist development. I think this is spot on. Thrones aims to present an alternative kind of history which is every bit as cruel and arbitrary and surprising as the real thing. But I think, for me, when history is dramatised there’s usually a sense of selecting a satisfying narrative out of the larger sweep. Game of Thrones often feels like just the larger sweep, dumped, in its entirety, in front of us, without the filter of an author. Clearly that’s not accurate: a series as dramatic, violent, political and salacious as this is very much crafted by an author to entertain. It’s not the boring bits of history. But in other ways it feels unfiltered, unshaped, sprawling and a little unsatisfying.

Without dwelling in depth on the other parts of the episode there are several strong moments and interesting developments, and the way that the characters’ paths cross always defies expectations (even as it feels slightly like a contrived way to keep them on separate tracks). Arya’s thread is particularly strong as she becomes ever more hardened by events.

Although the show often exposes a lot of female flesh and certainly tends to have a male eye in that respect, the breadth and diversity of female characters is notable. (Diverse in character, that is. Ethnically the show is pretty darned white.) From Daenerys to Arya to Catelyn to Talisa to Gilly to Ygritte to Osha there are enough significant women in this episode alone that each can be a rounded, flawed person, rather than a token role model or a subservient afterthought to the men.

Technically the series is exceptional. The world is real and lived-in. CGI is used superbly to create a sense of place through unshowy, convincing establishing shots (aided immesaurably by location filming across the globe). The costumes are detailed, the sets are smoky and grimy, traditions like the wedding ceremony have a sense of cultural history, and different soldiers from different cultures use different fighting styles. It’s as immersive a setting as you could hope for.

With reservations, then, I think this is a remarkable piece of television.

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