And they partook of his salt and bread.
Oaths are meant to be sacred: after all, a man is only as good as his word. But a world in which oaths are meaningless and void is a terrifying place without logic, justice, or order. On this week’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones (“The Rains of Castamere”), we see the ramifications of breaking one’s word. Just as Robb Stark (Richard Madden) betrayed his vow to Walder Frey (David Bradley), promising to marry his daughter in exchange for Frey bannermen, so too does Walder Frey betray the most sacred oath of all, that of hospitality.
This week’s gut-wrenching episode hammered home the dramatic stakes at play within HBO’s Game of Thrones, one that perfectly captures the bloodshed of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and their underlying notion that no one is ever truly safe. That goes for kings and queens, mothers and children, the old and the unborn.
In a series that’s already rife with whiplash-inducing plot twists, the Red Wedding is one of the most unsettling, horrific, and terrifying moments, not least because it lulls the audience into a false sense of safety. By eating Walder Frey’s bread and salt, the Starks engage in the age-old custom of hospitality. To betray one’s guests in one’s home is a most grievous sin, yet that’s just what Walder Frey does to enact a most terrible vengeance against the King in the North and his clan, murdering Robb, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and their men at the wedding feast, transforming this bawdy celebration into a bloodbath from which no one escapes.
That includes Robb’s wife, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), a character based somewhat on Robb’s wife in the novel, Jeyne Westerling. The source of this enmity between the Freys of the Crossing and the Starks—Robb chose to marry her rather than fulfill his obligation—Talisa is the first to be killed by the Freys, daggers plunged repeatedly into her belly, annihilating both her and the unborn heir to Robb’s throne. It’s gruesome and disturbing, and captures Walder Frey’s desire to destroy everything the Starks have built. In the novel, however, Jeyne is not pregnant with Robb’s heir (there are implications that her mother has been treating her with herbs so that she won’t conceive) and is not even at the Twins, instead left behind at Riverrun. (Jeyne is later pardoned by the Lannisters and promised a nobleman as a husband, indicating the Westerlings played a part in Robb’s betrayal and assassination.)
For those hoping Robb and Catelyn somehow manage to survive, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings: they’re dead. House Stark is now dust, the Stark children scattered across Westeros, Winterfell in ruins, and the hope of the North in tatters. (To make that sink in even further, we’re forced to watch as the Freys slaughter Grey Wind as well.) The Lannisters, it seems, have won the war, thanks to help from the Freys and from turncloak Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who switched allegiances along the way this season. (A few clues that Catelyn too late picked up on: Roose’s desire not to drink, the playing of the Lannister ballad “The Rains of Castamere,” and the fact that Roose was wearing chainmail under his finery.) The Lannisters send their regards, and they always, as we know, pay their debts.
If you’re a viewer who somehow managed to remain unspoiled about this latest twist, congratulations for having restraint and not peeking ahead to see what was going to happen to the King in the North. For those of us who have read the novels, the Red Wedding was as big a shocker as the beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) was in Season 1 of Game of Thrones, the sort of insane reveal that displays just how dire life in Westeros truly is: this story is no fairy tale, nor will it have a happy ending. (Among the novels’ readers, the Red Wedding is almost synonymous with “plot twist that leaves you screaming with rage and depressed beyond words.”)
In Martin’s novels, the good too often die young and the wicked go unpunished. For a narrative that is, at its heart, about the pursuit and retention of power, it’s essential for these types of events to unfold as they have, for Ned Stark to hold onto his honor only to be killed at the whim of a mad child-king, for Catelyn and Robb to be betrayed by their host and their allies at a wedding banquet, of all places. Life is brutal and short, and the titular game is always being played.
Talisa’s pregnancy seemed to be a change that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss implemented because they wanted the shock and horror of this sequence to be felt even more keenly as Talisa is murdered while carrying Robb’s heir and because she wants to name him, if he’s a boy, Eddard after Robb’s doomed father. Their relationship is sweet and tender—and also passionate, as we saw repeatedly—a meeting of equals, of a young king and a selfless battlefield healer. Robb is punished for choosing love over his duty, of putting himself before his responsibilities as a ruler and a strategist, a decision that leads to the destruction of all he holds dear. (In the novel, this plays out slightly differently, as Robb chooses to marry Jeyne because he has deflowered her after she comforted him when he learned of the “death” of his brothers. What follows at the Red Wedding is even more tragic because it stems from the fact that Robb couldn’t keep it in his pants.)
It’s impossible not to feel Catelyn’s burning rage as she attempts to save Robb by holding Walder Frey’s young wife hostage, a ploy that backfires entirely when Walder calls her bluff. (She does still kill his wife, a moment that’s translated from the book, where she kills Walder’s mentally challenged relative.) Watching her son die in front of her, Catelyn has her throat slashed open, an arterial spray of crimson that leaves no uncertainty about her fate. Most cruelly, it appears for a split second that Catelyn can talk her way out of the situation, but in truth she and Robb were dead the moment they set foot in the Twins. Her final moments are slick with blood and bitter defeat.
(Even more depressing is how close Maisie Williams’s Arya is to reuniting with her family. She arrives at the Twins just as her mother and brother are being slaughtered and bears witness to the slaying of Grey Wind. As much as the Red Wedding is a shock to the viewer, its impact is compounded by the heartbreak of Arya Stark, who once again must shoulder immense loss and a feeling that she’s always too late to save her loved ones.)
The Red Wedding is a necessary moment for the longevity of the series, a truly stunning turn of events that throws viewers off balance once more, making us wonder who will be the next character to face death and leading us to question whether anyone on Game of Thrones has any chance at long-term survival. As terrible as it is to lose Madden’s Robb and Fairley’s Catelyn—whose final moments are alight with the fire and gritty determination that we’ve come to expect from her—those deaths count toward raising the narrative stakes. They’re every bit as important and vital as Ned’s death or the blade slicing downward on the sword hand of Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). They’re permanent and palpable signs of the frailty of human life, of the transitory nature of all living things. And, most important, these moments will reverberate sharply through Game of Thrones, for they remind us that, though this game may have rules, those rules can and will be broken.