It’s hard to say that there has ever been a more hotly anticipated season of any show than the third season of HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy, Game of Thrones. One comment I hear again and again from people is that upon finishing an episode of Game of Thrones they instantly want more – like they had expected it to go on and it cut off abruptly. So greatly are people drawn into the world and its plot. I myself was counting down the months, the weeks, the days, from a surprisingly long time off. Basically, from the end of season 2. As one macro said: ‘One does not simply wait 306 days for Game of Thrones Season 3‘. Of course, HBO, weren’t idly letting the tension build itself. In addition to a dazzling array of posters and trailers, the cast seem to have been everywhere doing countless promo shoots, both ridiculous and sublime, including the sublimely ridiculous. They also seem to have cottoned on to the humorous creativity which infects the fans, offering the ability to create your own Game of Thrones style sigil.
Although, to be honest, all these things were just stop-gaps in my already stoked anticipation.
The question is: did it deliver?
The answer? A complex shuffle of competing shouts of ‘HELL YES!’ and ‘Eh’.
There’s no doubt, the big moments this season were big. Of all the moments in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire that stand out as jaw-droppingly shocking for newcomers and most-tensly anticipated by long-time fans, this season has an uncommonly high percentage. The previous two seasons probably contained one a-piece: Ned’s execution in season one, and the Battle of Blackwater in season two. This season we are treated to:
- Daenerys sacking her first city
- Jaime losing his hand
- The Bear and the Maiden Fair
- and, of course, the Red Wedding
All of which were unutterably delicious. This season saw the pay off for things that have been set up gradually over a long period of time, with Daenerys’s freeing of the Unsullied and raising of Astapor being one of the most visually stunning and dramatically satisfying pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Daenerys’s storyline is one of the most interesting and complex in an exceptionally interesting and complex show. And it has to be. Hers is the storyline that involves dragons, and that’s a trope of weighty cultural depth, heavy with the legends and fairytales of disparate cultures and centrally located in the modern consciousness of fantasy tales by Tolkein’s iconic Smaug in The Hobbit. I love dragons, but I know a lot of geeks who find them overused and annoying. If you want to win over that crowd, as well as the crowd of non-geeks who are watching for the sexy, violent, political drama, you need a solid foundation of plot, character, and acting of sufficient gravitas.
And they pull it off. Daenerys comes to her pivotal moment early in the season: episode 4. Having escaped from Qarth with her dragons and a modest amount of loot, Daenerys comes to Astapor, a great slaving city, famous for training the Unsullied: eunuchs of unparalleled fighting skill, endurance, and obedience. Jorah urges Daenerys to buy Unsullied, despite her entrenched ideological objections to slavery. The Masters of Astapor give her the usual spiel via translator, all the while mouthing off about her in Valyrian. Daenerys, against Jorah and Selmy’s advice, agrees to trade one of her dragons for all of the Unsullied – including those still in training.
Daenerys Kicks Butt
Up until now, Daenerys has been a beautiful young girl with a great name and three dragons, but she has had no land, barely any people, no army, few funds, and her dragons were small enough to be mere curiosities. At the start of season 3, though, we see that her dragons have grown, and so has she. Jorah and Selmy are too busy squaring off against each other to realise that Daenerys would never give one of her dragons into slavery. She is deeply opposed to slavery, views her dragons as her children, and is more than smart enough to realise that one dragon is worth more than 8,000 Unsullied when it comes to war.
In a stunning move that cements her stature as legend in the making, she waits until the Master has placed the whip of power in her hand and then reveals to the sexist pig that Valyrian is her mother tongue, and she has understood every insultingly misogynistic phrase he has uttered. She tells him that a dragon is not a slave and commands the Unsullied to kill their masters, and her dragon to roast the one who holds his chain alive. Having sacked the city, she frees all the slaves and asks them to fight for her of their own free will. Of course, they do.
It’s stunningly cinematic, worthy of a feature film. Emilia Clarke really comes into her own, and I take back every single word of doubt I voiced for her. I dare you to watch the above and not want to follow her anywhere.
Rousing stuff. Climactic stuff. Which is a little bit weird for an episode just shy of half way through the season.
Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie
If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Tumblr for a while you may be aware that I was basically referring to this season in anticipation as ‘Brienne and Jaime’s Very Bloody Buddy Movie’. Of course, in reality, this was only one thread of plot, but it forms the backbone for the middle part of the season where all the political shenanigans are working themselves out to set up the big events further down the line.
Brienne and Jaime’s relationship is one of my very, very favourite things about A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’ve basically been waiting two seasons to see it finally flower before us. It’s through Brienne’s relationship with Jaime that we get to see a side of him that we have only glimpsed before, hidden behind the shocking introduction, way back in the first season, where he pushes a small boy from a window. We’re set up to hate Jaime, and almost all the characters are colluding to encourage this impression. It’s not just that he tried to kill a child to hide his incestuous relationship, he killed a king whom he was sworn to protect. Pretty shitty thing for a knight to do, right? Yeah, it’s easy, very easy to see Jaime the Shitbag.
Except, the king he killed was a mad man known for burning adults and children alive, sparking the war that led to Robert gaining his throne. And having killed the king, with his father’s army entering the capital, Jaime could have made a play for it himself. But that never even occurs to him. He cedes the throne instantly to Robert. He never wanted it. When Cersei tries to persuade him that he should be the Hand of the King, he refuses. He has never wanted power or responsibility. Despite his bravado and insolent manner, we gradually see revealed a man who’s never really at ease in social settings unless he’s talking about war. There is a hesitancy and lack of confidence lurking under the surface. His harsh words reflect a bitter disillusionment, and one might take the time to wonder why any man might ‘take the white’ – join the King’s Guard, swear to celibacy – if he were young and rich and beautiful and the heir to Casterley Rock. There must have been some real idealism in there somewhere. What would make a man like that kill a king? What would it do to a man like that to kill his king? And to be condemned for that act from every quarter outside of his family.
We also learn that Jaime always struggled with his schoolwork. There are hints that he may have had dyslexia, but Tywin, father of the year, would brook no quarter, and forced Jaime to read for four hours a day before he was allowed to go and do what he was good at: learning to fight. And I think we see here the germ of a deep insecurity. A man who only ever wanted to do what he was good at and enjoyed, but from whom others always demanded more. With no mother and a father like Tywin, it’s unsurprising the Jaime would feel drawn to the unconditional love of his twin sister for solace (even if incest is taking it a bit far). And it’s equally unsurprising that he would run away from his father for the simple, cleanly honourable life of a knight of the King’s Guard at King’s Landing.
But everywhere he is seen through the veil of ‘Kingslayer’. And at first Brienne despises him for his lack of honour. He seems everything that she is not. And he taunts her for the strength of her principles – her strength of honour, which he feels is lost to him forever. But when she proves herself his equal as a fighter he cannot help but respect her. He has always connected best to people on this one level where he is sure of his own skill, and it creates a connection that he has never had with a woman before. In turn, the respect he accords her as a fighter is one that Brienne has rarely experienced, except from Renly, whose meagrely kind treatment sparked an unrequited love, and from Catelyn, whose bravery and respect won Brienne’s undying loyalty.
When Jaime’s (successful) efforts to save Brienne from rape lead to him losing his hand, they each open up to each other in a way neither has to any other person, and in a post-amputation fever, Jaime tells the real story of what happened when he killed the mad king. How Aerys, had commanded him to kill his own father, and for his pyromancer to destroy the city; how Jaime’s action in killing him saved a quarter of a million lives. And where every other person outside of his family had refused to hear him out, had despised him, Brienne listens. And she believes him. And she tells him he did the right thing. It’s probably the most powerful thing anyone has ever done for Jaime.
Put simply, she’s the knight that he wanted to be. She has all of the qualities that he tries to pretend aren’t important to him, are the realm of the naive and the stupid, but that he hates that everyone assumes he doesn’t have, that he thinks it’s too late for him to ever reclaim.
– glamphonic on Tumblr
Jaime doesn’t push Bran out of a window because it’s what he wants to do. He does it because Cersei asks him to: ‘The things I do for love’ he says. Jaime was a man of honour who was despised for doing the most honourable thing in a bad situation. He had always been starved of love – his mother died when he was young and his father is a big time poo – and in a world that hates him he would have done anything for Cersei, even though she never shared the honour that came naturally to him.
And then, there’s Brienne. Who is everything he ever thought a knight should be, and she doesn’t think what he did was dishonourable when she hears the whole story. And she tells him he can be the sort of man he always wanted to be.
Guys… I just have too many feels about this. If you don’t ship Brienne/Jaime I think your heart is broken.
Ahem. *coughs* Not a tear in my eye. Dust. Yeah, dust.
Anyway. Before all the feels come out, it is totally a buddy movie, I promise. Because there is also a world of BANTER, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime) Gwendoline Christie (Brienne) manage perfectly the shift between humour and tension. Particular kudos to Gwendoline Christie for managing to portray Brienne as suitably awkward whilst also keeping up her end of the banter. Honestly, it may not have had the cinematic glory of Daenerys’s sacking of Astapor, but Brienne and Jaime’s character arc provides a much needed emotional anchor, one which gets its pay off as Jaime is forced to abandon Brienne at Harenhal, where she is forced to fight a bear in parody of a popular Westerosi folk song ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’. Learning that Brienne’s ransom has not been accepted because Jaime led her captors to believe that her father is richer than he really is, Jaime returns, jumping into the bear pit despite knowing that he is now useless in a fight, his only value being that others will protect him for his ransom. It is an utter confrontation with his own vulnerability at the same time as a true act of heroism, marking a quite remarkable moment of redemption.
Of course, all of the above is drawn from the books, but the HBO team are commended for pulling off what was, for me, one of the most anticipated story arcs of the whole show.
There were a couple of rough notes. Brienne’s cry of ‘The Kingslayer!’ when Jaime faints in the bath tub, felt way forced and overdone, mostly due to poor staging and overly dramatic camera angles, but the scene leading up to it was spot on. They even managed to make Brienne’s forgetting that she’s naked (one of the most painfully unrealistic moments in the books) into an act of power. Also, the fact that Gwendoline Christie is actually beautiful, and not as ugly as Brienne is meant to be in the books, makes what is meant to be a humiliating and inappropriate act of forcing her to wear a dress lose all its power. She doesn’t look awkward in it at all, and all the ‘uglying up’ styling, which was passably effective up until this point, basically evaporates when she’s cleaned up and wearing a dress that actually suits her quite well.
Minor points, though.
The Red Wedding
No review of season 3 could go by without discussing the moment that shook the Internet, as millions of fans who hadn’t read the books tuned in for the penultimate episode to witness Robb Stark, Catelyn, the pregnant Talisa, and all of the Stark army slaughtered by the Freys (and Roose Bolton) after Edmure Tully’s wedding to Rosalind Frey.
Twitter wept. An account was set up called @RedWeddingTears retweeting all the people who said they were rage-quitting Game of Thrones afterwards (you’d have thought Ned’s death in season one would have alerted them to the stakes in this game, but hey ho). Highlights include:
@gameofthrones HBO should cancel this show as a lesson to deter treacherous writing and i don’t care if its in the original book
— Victor M (@ogevictor) June 4, 2013
И стандартное: GAME OF THRONES IS THE WORST SHOW EVAR. I QUIT I QUIT I QUIT. FUCK YOU HBO. FUCK YOU LIFE. YOU SUCK
— Darya R (@acute_delirium) June 3, 2013
RIPS OUT INTESTINES AND HANGS SELF W/ THEM I HATE GAME OF THRONES
— ♥ theon gayjoy ♥ (@ereborn2bewild) June 3, 2013
how the fuck am i suppose to go to school and work and function after that game of thrones episode, fuck im shaking and crying
— Niccolò Rockiavelli (@Everyones_Niggy) June 3, 2013
Meanwhile, on Youtube, countless people videoed their friends reacting:
Red Wedding: To betray, shoot, stab, dismember, eviscerate and humiliate a foe in a place of false safety”
So, I think we can assume that the episode had the desired effect. Honestly, I have difficulty connecting with people who want to quit a show because it generates a strong emotional reaction for them. I kinda wish I hadn’t known it was coming, because that kind of punch to the gut is what I want from fiction. I don’t know why, but I think it’s relatively normal for humans to feel that way. Something about tapping into shared emotion at a fundamental level. Being moved by terrible things somehow makes us feel less alone.
And on a serious note, this was a very sophisticated presentation of a blood bath. No, I’m serious. I don’t know why people who will grant Shakespeare as a great genius decry violence in shows like Game of Thrones. There’s a difference between blood presented for pure titillation and blood presented as a grim confrontation with reality. A lot of the plays we count as truly great are revenge tragedies. Hamlet has a body count of nine. Titus Andronicus is his most gruesome at fourteen, as well as rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism – it was his most popular play during his lifetime. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is famously bloody, as is his White Devil – in one production I saw fake blood ended up literally dripping off the stage. I couldn’t find an exact figure for it, but The Revenger’s Tragedy is widely thought to be the bloodiest of the genre, with one reviewer writing: ‘the body count of Revenger’s Tragedy makes the deaths in plays such as Hamlet seem like an adolescent squabble’.
And that’s what this is: a tragedy. Anyone familiar with the genre could not help but see the visual and stylistic references. It perhaps sits somewhere between classical tragedies (like Oedipus Rex) and Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedy, but both are evoked. I can’t have been the only one who noticed that the set dressing for the Frey stronghold turned remarkably Elizabethan once the wedding started. The spartan stone castle was suddenly clad in oak panelling and tapestries. And the layout of the set with the dais for the wedding party’s table was reminiscent of a stage – complete with galleries above, just like the galleries of an Elizabethan theatre, to which our attention is drawn when crossbowmen fire down upon the wedding party from above. In this context the excessive bloodiness of the scene feels right at home and calls on centuries of literary discourse about death, and our voyeuristic interest in death. I wrote my exam piece on Shakespeare about the relationship between revenge tragedies and the spectacle of hangings in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The playwrights were conscious of the similarities between plays and these obscene spectacles. People would rent out rooms with good views of an execution; issue programmes of the day’s hangings, much like theatre programmes; sell snacks to the audience… It’s one of the reasons the play-within-the-play is a recurring feature of the revenge tragedy, calling the audience to reflect upon their own behaviour and fascination with death.
Death is one of the most central themes in literature because it comes to us all. And it is a large emotional part of life before it comes to us ourselves. I would imagine that everyone who is old enough to watch Game of Thrones has known death, probably death in the family, so the family dramas that usually form the central part of both classical and revenge tragedy ring home for all of us. And the centrality of family is emphasised from the start. We begin with a scene in which Robb and Catelyn come together again, having been estranged, are bonded by their shared desire to avenge Ned – Robb’s father and Catelyn’s husband. The scene is also set at a wedding – a joining of families. And as Catelyn pleads for her son’s life she calls on the honour of both her families: the Tullys and the Starks. Moreover, the centrality of motherhood to Catelyn’s character has been emphasised throughout the season, as she makes ritualistic doll-wreaths to protect her sons Bran and Rickon, who she thinks are probably dead, and she regrets never being able to accept Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard, properly into her heart as a son. It all leads up to the final tableau, as she seizes Walder Frey’s unfortunate wife and holds a knife to her throat, begging for Robb to be spared. Who could not but feel her agony, admire her strength – Michelle Fairley, who had always played the role with intensity, taking it up to a new and as yet unseen level.
Her stillness and inarticulate cry at Robb’s death, before her own throat is slit, thus seem wholly appropriate, where the oft trotted out cry of ‘Noooooo’ has been rendered silly in other shows. Even the realistically spurting blood that is usually forgone in modern cinema, as audiences (who have rarely seen arterial blood spray) find it implausible, works in the context of the revenge tragedy.
Granted, the Red Wedding lacks the trope of a ghost sending a protagonist on a quest of vengeance, but I think the scene between Catelyn and Robb at the start of the episode, considering Ned’s death, spurring them on to accept the Frey deal in the name of revenge, can be seen as a symbolic ghost scene. Certainly, the ghost of Ned’s death hangs over the event, and the outrage it prompted eerily echoed in the excess of grief evinced on the Internet for the Red Wedding.
We also see Robb’s hubris. He should see, really, that going back to the Freys cap in hand when he has slighted them so thoroughly is a really bad plan. But he’s the Young Wolf. He’s never lost a battle. In the classical style, the Red Wedding forms a requisite catharsis. And although Robb was, for many, a favourite character, he was set up to be a little too perfect. The handsome young man and brilliant tactician, his one flaw being falling for the wrong woman, perhaps pride in thinking he was above marrying a Frey… in the literary game he had been set up for a fall. People call George RR Martin names for murdering favourite characters, but I’m not sure he’s as harsh as people think. The really interesting characters – the Tyrions, the Aryas, The Daeneryses – the flawed characters who make the compromises necessary to survive, but still retain a humanity and charm to keep us on their side… they seem to be doing quite well.
Doubtless I am tempting fate to say such a thing, and I’m by no means convinced anyone is immune from not making it to the end, but I’m not terribly surprised that it’s the Ned and Robb Starks of this world that have popped it. Or, at least, I wasn’t surprised by Robb after Ned had gone that way.
I honestly think
‘The Rains of Castermere’ The Red Wedding is a brilliantly crafted piece of theatre – not just in the original writing of George R R Martin’s books, but in the direction, scripting, set design, and acting of the actual episode itself. It’s like a little play within a series – a set piece – after the old revenge tragedy tradition. And it provides a concentrated microcosm of the themes of the wider series. Whilst there is some voyeuristic enjoyment of scenes like this, the enjoyment is parasitic on the horror. I’m willing to bet that the majority of people who swore off Game of Thrones after the Red Wedding will be back again next year after they’ve digested the event. In part because they will digest the event. It’s an event that demands to be digested and considered. It forces reflection because the emotions it provokes are so intense. It provides a counterpoint to the glorification of violence we see exemplified in the sub-plot, as Daenerys’s three best fighters – Jorah, Greyworm, and Daario – showcase their fighting skill in a striking piece of choreography. Because, for some reason, that kind of violence, which obfuscates the pain and death and gore it causes, is permissible, where as the raw horror of a blood bath like the Red Wedding is repugnant.
Surely violence should be repugnant. Surely we should wince and look away. I’m puzzled by people who want to see violence cleaned up (except for in kids shows, because, as my friends who are parents tell me, kids can find that stuff pretty upsetting), especially as they tend to be the same people who think we are becoming desensitised by violence on telly. We’re desensitised by santised violence. By violence only ever presented as cool and bloodless. No, I’m not saying every episode should be a Red Wedding, but anyone who thinks the Red Wedding glorifies violence needs to have their internal sensitivity to violence checked, because all those reactions above? That great outcry such as I have never seen in response to television before? That’s people who are shocked and awed and were confronted by the fact that the underlying message of Game of Thrones is not and never has been ‘violence is cool’; rather the message in unequivocally ‘war is awful’.
OK, that’s a lot of praise and in-depth analysis. Let’s take a breather before the close to return to the ‘eh’ that I mentioned in the beginning. Because, believe it or not, this was not my favourite season. It has most of my favourite moments (and I haven’t even covered all the brilliant stuff between Tyrion and Sansa and what’s been going on with Arya becoming a murderous little revenge driven terror*), but it also has the worst pacing. Between the really awesome moments are a lot of scenes that stand out against those moments as somewhat grey and unexciting. Most of the scenes at Riverrun are required to set up the Red Wedding, but seem to crawl by in comparison to places where things actually seem to be happening. Granted, this is only a low note in the context of general Game of Thrones quality, and you need some quiet moments amongst the burning cities and Red Weddings, but, for instance, the Brienne/Jamie banter scenes do this much more effectively than the Riverrun scenes, despite the wonderful Tobias Menzies bringing such colour in incompetence to the role of Edmure Tully.
In this way I’m hard pressed to rate this season over season two, just because season two was consistently good value. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that season three of Game of Thrones was a fantastic bit of television with some Internet-shaking drama that sort of throws down a gauntlet for all other television shows to take up… if they dare.
*Just a quick sidenote, there, as it relates to the Red Wedding, I think Arya’s witnessing of the events of the Red Wedding form a crucial part of the message as outlined above. Because, unlike, for instance, Hamlet where the cleansing pile of bodies leaves a sense that order has been restored, Game of Thrones presents the more realistic picture that violence begets violence. Revenge only ever leads to more revenge, and Arya’s story arc is all about the forging of a revenge driven character. That list she repeats to herself? That’s not just a list of people she wants to kill, that’s a list of people she wants to wreak revenge on. In hurting her they stoke the desire to hurt others.