Anatomy of a Throne: “The Rains of Castamere”

Catelyn takes a hostage during the Red Wedding

HBO’s Game of Thrones brandishes a consistent and high degree of fidelity to the nearly 5,000-page-long source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but there still, of course, are differences. While most of these gaps from the page to the screen are small and detail-oriented, it is nonetheless the case that the most subtle discrepancies often hold the biggest insight into the adaptation process, into the demands of filmmaking, and into the rigors of the literary narrative.

This, then, is the anatomy of a key scene of Thrones – not because of its dramatic importance or visual effects whizbangery, but because of the telling nature of its realization.

Episode: “The Rains of Castamere” (309)
Scene: The Red Wedding

There is an assortment of odds and ends revolving around the wedding of Lord Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey that serves as garnish for the main, grizzly feast: Grey Wind, Robb’s direwolf who literally never leaves his side in the novels, snaps at the first Frey envoy outside the castle, causing him to be locked up in the pens for the remainder of their stay; the young bride Roslin is demure and polite but also constantly tearful as her husband-to-be shows her unfailing kindness; the drums in the gallery that pound through every song, appropriately or not, are secretly the signal that coordinates all activity in both of the Freys’ castles and in the lands surrounding them; the tents outside the Twins that house the majority of the Starks’ bannermen are burnt to the ground, killing all trapped inside; the blow to the back of Arya’s head from Sandor Clegane’s axe is left entirely ambiguous as to whether it was intended to simply knock her out or to fully kill her, adding a final layer of tension and desperation to the climactic scene.

These are all nice touches – well, “nice” in the sense that they help round out a completely bleak and desolate scene – but they are all obviously missing from “The Rains of Castamere.” Such an absence is unfortunate but not at all surprising, given that the series has consistently been prone to weeding out all but the most essential details of every scene, every exchange, and every action set piece, due to the dual niceties of time and money. Still, much more than other similarly pruned scenes, this one manages to deliver nearly the full brunt of the book’s original intent – and given the gravity of the material, that’s no small compliment.

Queen Talisa at the Red Wedding

It also turns out that the episode may not need all the extra goodies, after all, thanks to an ace cleverly hidden up its sleeve: Queen Talisa Stark.

In the book, King Robb’s wife – who is actually named Jeyne Westerling and has an entirely different personality and backstory – is kept behind at Riverrun at the suggestion of Lady Catelyn, even though Robb would have much rather taken her with them:

Lord Walder might well construe the queen’s absence from the wedding as another slight, yet her presence would have been a different sort of insult, salt in the old man’s wound. “Walder Frey has a sharp tongue and a long memory,” she had warned her son. “I do not doubt that you are strong enough to suffer an old man’s rebukes as the price of his allegiance, but you have too much of your father in you to sit there while he insults Jeyne to her face.”

Robb could not deny the sense of that. Yet all the same, he resents me for it, Catelyn thought wearily. He misses Jeyne already, and some part of him blames me for her absence, though he knows it was good counsel.

Talisa RobbWith her absence from the Twins, she – obviously – is spared the fate of the rest of House Stark and nearly all its bannermen. (Whether her unborn child is similarly spared is not at all known at this point in the book series; despite some desperately oblique references that may be construed as pointing towards a pregnancy, Martin doesn’t address the issue in any shape, way, or form [no pun intended]). Since Jeyne has yet, as of the end of book five, to make a grand reappearance, it may seem like showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s decision to include Talisa on the Red Wedding’s registry is only the most minor of changes – but it’s still a change, nonetheless, and one that sparks two immediate and competing responses.

On the one hand, having her be the first to be felled at Lord Walder’s hands certainly lands an extra punch to the gut – literally – making the violent scene even more so, both physically and emotionally. It may additionally serve as a stand-in for all the lords bannermen who readers, after spending a considerable amount of time getting to know them across three novels, watch be systematically cut down at the feast (a roster which includes the Greatjon, a character who featured so prominently in the first season but has since inexplicably been cut from the series. More than any other background character, his presence is the most sorely missed). And, finally, it’s a development that in no small way pays off the considerably expanded presence which both Robb and Talisa have been afforded over the course of the past two years, which is now undeniably revealed to be all set-up for a particularly nasty fall.

King Robb gets sucker-punched with a swordOn the other hand, one can’t help but question the overtly manipulative nature of the decision. Robb, Catelyn, Grey Wind, and every single Northman not from Lord Roose Bolton’s Dreadfort are all dead; is it a literal case of overkill to also include Talisa? When taken within the greater context of the ep, of almost having all the scattered remnants of House Stark be reunited – Bran and Rickon almost meet back up with Jon, while Robb and Cat almost come face-to-face one last time with Arya – there is already a certain threshold of emotional trauma that will undoubtedly leave vast swaths of the audience viscerally drained, if not outright catatonic. And beyond the question of diminishing returns, there is also that persnickety issue of necessity, which has long plagued the production in one form or another, whether it be the copious (extra) amounts of nudity or, perhaps most relevantly, the decision to consistently show infants being slaughtered (most notoriously in “The North Remembers” [episode 201] and “The Night Lands” [202]).

And placing such a huge focus on Talisa and her murdered fetus comes almost directly at the expense of another element that was so vital and so primal in A Storm of Swords: Catelyn Stark’s complete break from reality.

Finally someone took the knife away from her. The tears burned like vinegar as they ran down her cheeks. Ten fierce ravens were raking her face with sharp talons and tearing off strips of flesh, leaving deep furrows that ran red with blood. She could taste it on her lips.

The white tears and the red ones ran together until her face was torn and tattered, the face that Ned had loved. Catelyn Stark raised her hands and watched the blood run down her long fingers, over her wrists, beneath the sleeves of her gown. Slow red worms crawled along her arms and under her clothes. It tickles. The made her laugh until she screamed. “Mad,” someone said, “she’s lost her wits,” and someone else said, “Make an end,” and a hand grabbed her scalp just as she’d done with [Walder’s wife], and she thought, No, don’t, don’t cut my hair, Ned loves my hair. Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.

Catelyn gets her throat sliced at the Red Wedding

Her death wasn’t planned – she was to have been taken captive along with her brother to ensure the good behavior of the river lords – but her murder of a Frey and her descent into some sort of hallucinatory madness forced Lord Walder’s hand. It is the last raindrop in a storm full of unintended consequences or unforeseen events, which this novel had a higher concentrated dose of than any of its sister installments.

A tragic, disturbing, lingering death, though, “The Rains of Castamere” did have for Cat – in spades.

Previous installments

“The North Remembers” (201)

“What Is Dead May Never Die” (203)

“A Man without Honor” (207)

“Blackwater” (209)

“Valar Morghulis” (210) [ebook exclusive]

“And Now His Watch Is Ended” (304)

“Kissed by Fire” (305)

“The Wars to Come” (501)

“High Sparrow” (503)

“Sons of the Harpy” (504)

“Kill the Boy” (505)

“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (506)

“The Gift” (507)

“The Dance of Dragons” (509)

“Mother’s Mercy” (510)

“Mother’s Mercy” (Bonus) (510)

25 responses

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    1. I thought in the books that Jeyne Westerling’s mother had made her drink tansy tea to ensure she wasn’t pregnant. Of course, she may have just been trying to look more loyal to the Lannisters.

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    2. Laura,

      The fact that Jeyne was not gravid despite all of those efforts would strongly suggest that it was tansy tea or something like it. At any rate, if this sort of thing was being done to an incidental character, then it would be by a main character for some purpose serving the story. Alternatively, if an incidental character was doing it, then it would be to a main character. As this is an incidental character doing something to another incidental character, I think that we should take it at face value.

      Insofar as I can tell, there seem to be two main reasons for this conjecture. One is a failure of some readers to understand that the narratives are subjective: and thus two people can look at the same thing and describe them differently. The good child-bearing hips of a teenaged woman who has not given birth will look thin to a middle-aged man who’s idea of feminine beauty is a middle-aged woman who given birth three times.

      The other seems to be that people feel that the story needs a “missing heir” to be restored to the throne. However: the story already has that! (I.e., the only Westerosi lordling with a wildling nanny….)

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    3. despite some desperately oblique references that may be construed as pointing towards a pregnancy, Martin doesn’t address the issue in any shape, way, or form [no pun intended]

      I construed partially this as an “in” joke aimed at the fans. Basically, the idea that this child would be a cornerstone of the future plot (which some fans actually believed) was pretty thoroughly gutted there.

      Of course, it was primarily there for ironic poignancy. Once again, Ned Stark dies in a horrific and startling way.

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    4. FYI,

      Variety is doing a q&a with Emilia Clarke on Twitter if anyone wants to ask a question. The hashtag is #AskHollywood

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    5. the tents outside the Twins that house the majority of the Starks’ bannermen are burnt to the ground, killing all trapped inside

      To be fair, this element of the Red Wedding is depicted at the very beginning of the following episode, “Mhysa.” However, I’m guessing that this particular Anatomy of a Throne was likely written before the season finale had aired.

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    6. Wimsey,

      I definitely believe she is NOT pregnant. Jeyne Westerling’s mother had strong motivation to make sure of this. The fact that Jeyne is still alive is just a tease. While it was brutal, I think it was better for the show to make it clear that there is no possible Robb junior.

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    7. Laura: The fact that Jeyne is still alive is just a tease.

      I do not think that GRRM intended to tease us with this. He can only express his imagination: he cannot control what some readers imagine for themselves! Some people have faulted him for using a subjective narrative that allows “mistakes” to be made: but as GRRM keeps emphasizing, 1) this is not a documentary; and, 2) how people perceive things is sometimes more important that what they perceive.

      Personally, I admire his patience: I would have told fans off ages ago if I were him! Of course, I suppose that GRRM needs patience just to put up with his own writing pace….. 😀

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    8. Wimsey,

      Yes, I mean it teases some people. I do think that GRRM uses some slight ambiguities as misdirection. (Maybe you’re wondering about this child and not thinking about other heirs.) Which works well for the books. But I think it’s good for the show to just nip some speculation in the bud.

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    9. Aguero:
      No news today. Sad face.

      Yeah really slow day today. Tomorrow is just 1 week from the Red Carpet premiere and 3 weeks from the Season premiere 🙂

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    10. Laura: I do think that GRRM uses some slight ambiguities as misdirection.

      Oh, I agree that he leaves some things ambiguous, although I think that it is not for misdirection so much as to leave some things mysteries. The identity of Jon’s mother is an obvious case.

      In most other cases, I suspect that he just wrote something thinking “OK, here it is” without thinking “Hmmm: is there any way people can misconstrue this?” Of course, the latter is futile: as someone who writes a lot and as someone who has been an editor for multiple journals, it never ceases to astound me how people can misread things. But, then, I know that I have at least twice completely misread things that, looking back, make me shake my head!

      If you think about it, then there is almost no way GRRM could have written this that would not have let people find a way to misread it like this. After all, if you were in his shoes and wanted people to know that Jeyne was not pregnant, then how would you have written it?

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    11. Wimsey,

      Easy… have her go to the Red Wedding with Robb!

      I’m just saying he left it less clear cut, and the show left no doubt. And I think that’s a good choice in both cases.

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    12. On the other hand, one can’t help but question the overtly manipulative nature of the decision. Robb, Catelyn, Grey Wind, and every single Northman not from Lord Roose Bolton’s Dreadfort are all dead; is it a literal case of overkill to also include Talisa?

      I always thought that it was the surprise element for us the book readers. Many of us had been biting our tongues for a long time, some others were bragging around about what they knew. You can see in the reaction videos how some book readers laugh or have a smirk in their faces when the music of Rains of Castamere starts, but at the moment of Talisa’s stabbing, sullied and unsullied alike were shocked (literal wtf moment). C’mon a stab to her pregnant belly?!

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    13. FYI, a couple of Kit Harington interviews:

      1. Indepedent / Game of Thrones season 6: Kit Harington explains why he was filming in Belfast for two months.
      While appearing on the Jonathan Ross show, he was more than happy to explain why he was there so long: “I was playing a corpse. I was there for a little bit, I was there for about a month or two months, it was spread over a bit and I was playing a corpse.
      “I won’t tell you how many episodes I’m lying dead but it’s enough that I was out there for quite a while. It’s going to be so satisfying when you see it and you realise that I was telling the truth the whole time.”
      When asked how he manages to not share any of the show’s secrets, Harington replied: “I am no longer involved in the show so any secrets that are with the show I don’t actually know anymore, so it becomes very easy Jonathan. You’re looking at me like you don’t believe me. It’s going to be so relieving when people actually see the show and realise that I don’t come back.”

      2. ‘The Jonathan Ross Show’/ Watch Kit Harrington shocked into giving away ‘Game Of Thrones’ secrets by Jonathan Ross.
      Placing Harrington’s hand in the “Stone of truth”, Ross was able to give the actor an electric shock every time he gave an unsatisfactory answer to a question. He then proceeded to ask whether Jon Snow is actually dead and what will happen in the upcoming episodes.

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    14. Laura: Easy… have her go to the Red Wedding with Robb!

      Ah, but wouldn’t she have been taken hostage? Afterall, her father and mother were in on the plan, even if Jeyne was not.

      Regardless, the issue to me is whether GRRM could have foreseen people imagining that Jeyne was pregnant. I don’t think that he would have. Yes, if she had died there would be no question. (Well, actually, there would: people would imagine that her sister went in her stead!) But my point is that he did not sit there and think: “how can I write this so that people are uncertain?” He probably thought that he told us that she was not pregnant when her mother revealed that she had been on the whole plot and giving Jeyne birth control rather than fertilizer!

      GhostCR: C’mon a stab to her pregnant belly?!

      Yeah, that what was so great about it: little Ned killed by Lannister henchman (again).

        Quote  Reply

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