Scout Lets talk about filmmaking for a minute because I'm currently experiencing a state of destabilizing grief not dissimilar to Arya Stark's and I can't really even bring myself to consider the implications of the horrorshow we as an audience were just witness to. So instead let's talk about a consistency of craft, shall we? Way back in Season 1, I believe it was episode six but hey sometimes my memory fails me, Tyrion goes looking to a hostile crowd for someone willing to take his place in a trial by combat. Up steps Bronn, an unlikely ally, in what is to date still my favourite moment of the series. From the back of the hall comes Bronn's call "I'll stand for the dwarf."
And so commences one of the best edited and staged sword fights I've ever seen. What the director and sound editor did was take something we expect from a show with a vague medieval setting (two well-armored knights fighting with broad swords) and fills it with excitement and tension, but more importantly they make it seem real. These guys are big enough to throw these big fucking swords around but not without some difficulty and not without the people at home feeling nervous for everyone's life. The sound guys do astonishing work making us feel how heavy the swords are against every surface they touch and what it would really mean to get killed here. Victory feels hard won and the show gains gravity because we see how ugly and dangerous legends are when you're stuck in one. And we don't really know either man so the fight could go either way. You won't find anything comparable in Lord of the Rings or the bulk of 80s fantasy cinema like Krull or Ladyhawk (which I maintain must be an inspiration for the Game of Thrones crew, as evinced by a last minute aviary transformation in this last episode) because the heroes who die need to be in good enough shape to have a last word to a comrade or to have their bodies ferried down waterfalls. There is no such comfort here. If you die, you're goddamn dead because those swords don't make mistakes and neither do the show's artistic team.
The first time the show goes back on this idea was an occasion indeed. The Hound, the only guy on the show who I wager could give Bronn serious competition, finds himself in trial by combat with the shifty Beric Dondarion. Once again the direction and editing are topnotch. Shot in a cave, claustrophobic and dark except for a campfire and the fire that Beric douses his sword in. The hound's fear of fire had been established previously so with that clouding his senses the playing field is now as level as its going to be. Their sword fight is visceral stuff, having no room to maneuver and no way to see each other properly. Smart money's on the big guy because we know him and he's never lost yet, but his opponent is some kind of wizard. The camera maintains a perfect distance from the fight: close enough to be terrifying, far enough to be clear and legible. We know what's going on and that makes the hindrances all the worse and the outcome is now completely up in the air. And this is all in what feels like actual darkness thanks to the high speed film they use and the truly masterful job the Cinematographer does simulating real darkness with a few lamps (Here I'm reminded of Roland Emmerich's underrated Anonymous). And so when the fight ends and the vanquished is brought back to life via something close to magic it has the borrowed graveness of the fight we just sweated our way through. These two are too interesting to die so this is the only acceptable outcome. The writers playing fair and the filmmakers playing like pros.
The Red Wedding reverses this dynamic. The writers have been playing the long con all season long, doling out clues and half truths when it suits them. They were building our expectations for something but using enough misdirection to keep the uninitiated off the scent of The Red Wedding. Lord Boulton dicking around with Jamie was an expert touch. That guy better get his legs cut off and be forced to crawl through the desert.
I'll skip the setup, which is heartbreaking, subtle and terrifying. What I want to focus on is the lighting. Once the doors close and the band plays 'Rains of Castamere', it suddenly dawns on the audience how dark it is in Walder Frey's hall. Robb and Talisa being romantic looks wrong, because they're lit by the same ugly orange that illuminated Tyrion's post-wedding outburst an episode earlier. The scene, like the trial by combat in the cave, takes place in a womblike space, lit by that sick, vaguely organic orange color, like bodily fluid where light can't hit it. And just as the hound regresses to childhood for a moment when confronted by fire, so to does the talk of what to name a child while in this dark cavernous hall make us in the audience get nervous. This is the wrong place for this talk. There are many strands of family issues running through this scene, but the betrayal of mothers and the perversion of motherhood is the most prevalent (Talisa's unborn child, Cat's eldest son, the mother of Walder Frey's children, the offscreen interruption of Edmure during conception, the mother of five, seven if we count technicalities, believing she's lost four of them). So fittingly the heroics the show has so far shied away from, are notably absent in the most crushing moment in the entire series, and this include Ned's death.
The lighting, the color of blood, the sound of arrows and blades cutting through flesh all seem true even if they're exaggerated for effect because they communicate hopelessness. Here again I'm reminded of films like Ladyhawk, Flesh + Blood, Lancelot Du Lac or even Braveheart, who try and sometimes succeed at showing the awful guessed-at truths of living in the Middle Ages. They have a desperation and a disgusting banality that serves them well. I mean most of Ladyhawk is silly nonsense but I'm talking mostly about the final confrontation, which has a ring of truth that's always stayed with me. It's the best moment in the film and transcends the Alan Parsons-scored lows of the rest of the film. Game of Thrones frequently nails that kind of high, in showing how bad things can be. The only film I can think of as precedent, that has this kind of guts is Lucio Fulci's wonky take on the genre, Conquest, which has an admirably bold end to its heroes journey.
The Palour of Talisa's skin after dying of her stab wounds (and by the death of her unborn child) the confused look on Robb's face and finally that last shot. Cat lets out an anguished cry we didn't think her capable of and then, more because she promised to than because she means it, cuts the throat of Walder Frey's wife, and then waits for the man in the corner to kill her. It's the ugliest moment I can remember on a show filled with them, but the ugliness is perfectly achieved. Cat's framed in that harsh orange, reminded of the lie of motherhood, her failure to protect her children, and when she falls out of frame the orange and darkness is all we see: an empty womb.
Fox Cinematography has always been one of GoT's strongest attributes but I have to fully agree with you on your comments. The entire Red Wedding sequence is a visual onslaught of blood effects, incredible sound and film editing. But somehow even as we're watching pure horror the feeling still remains in the back of our minds that everything is done for a reason. These shots were methodically preconceived. The lighting and gore effects were painstakingly checked and checked again to ensure their full power so that even amid this chaos the smoke catching torch light, the skin tones of the dead and dying, the blood's oil-like consistency, and even Cat's final plunge out of frame are all beautiful and masterfully executed.
I came across The Red Wedding three summers ago when I was plowing through the novels. The first season had aired so I had a number of familiar faces to help me understand who these people were and in a book series like GoT, with its all too real number of enormous family trees, that was essential. But more importantly it made me love these people. GoT is one of only a few shows that I truly can profess my love for its characters and thoroughly mean it. Yes, many of them are complete and total rat bastards but because they're existing in a wor'd so much more real than almost anything currently portrayed on tv or in film, I feel empathy for even the darkest hearts GoT's has to offer. Except Joffery. So when I came to the Red Wedding sequence I actually had a moral dilemma: Do I read faster, skim the gruesome details, and come out the other side with a paraphrased just the facts version of the horror that was about to ensue, or do I read slowly, absorbing every detail like I'll be assigned to solve the murder shortly after I'm done reading it? I think I wound up on the rapid page turning side of things but not for the reason I listed above. It was much closer to Shelley Duvall flipping page after page of Jack's writing in The Shining. She's desperately afraid of what she's seeing but she can't possibly stop. It'd be scarier to leave some pages unturned; to leave Jack's thoughts a mystery.
So I watched them kill and decapitate Rob. I watched Cat's throat get slit. I watched them murder Grey Wind and sew the wolf's head onto Rob's body in place of his own. The true horror of the novel is that the entire sequence retains a sickly jovial nature. It truly is as celebratory as a wedding. Once the death and destruction is dealt out they return to play. Sadistic play. And it's hard stuff to get through. I've had numerous conversations since Sunday night with fellow book readers about how even though we were so excited for the sequence to take place it was definitely something we found we weren't happy to revisit a second time. Because now characters who had existed only on the page were now right in front of us and whether we meant to or not we'd grown to love them. GoT's ultimate power is that it always remains as morally gray as life itself. And even though every being with a beating heart will do its utmost to hope, the universe finds a way to keep a balance. Even if that balance is the most devastating thing any of us could think of.
Reading the Red Wedding forced a visceral reaction from me. I physically threw my copy of the novel across the room. It hit the wall so hard, that one of my roommates came to check on me. And having seen the horror onscreen I feel guilty admitting that my initial reaction had nothing to do with Rob, Cat, Grey Wind, or any of the Stark's banner men. It was because of Arya. Since the very beginning she's been my favorite of all the great characters in the series. Many people (myself included) often say that Sansa has the shit end of the stick but I put it to you now that Arya's situation is no less dire. She's just got a more adaptable disposition. I blew through most of the sequence because I had to make sure Arya wouldn't see it. I needed her to be okay. Then she takes an axe to the back of the head. The ultimate low blow taken in the novels that I thank the maker was left out of the show, is the possible death of Arya Stark. The Hound hits her in the back of the head to save her in the show and it's a hopeful drop in the bucket during the massacre. But in the novel the scene is told from Arya's perspective and she doesn't see it coming. And then she disappears from the novel for about 300 pages. That's the reason I threw the book. I couldn't believe I'd just watched someone who'd been through so much attain no sense of closure or revenge. All of the adults who've died have done so in some way because of their own actions. I couldn't believe I'd finally encountered one of the very few innocent (I'd call her that) people in this universe because killed for no reason. So I must thank the show's writers for not trying to drive an extra nail into the Stark coffin. I don't think I would've been able to take it again. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire episode waiting for the scene to begin and when Roose Bolton has Catelyn pull back his coat to reveal the chain mail he'd worn in preparation I got goosebumps all over. Even knowing it was coming couldn't stop the reaction I had. My jaw was on the floor. I couldn't make a noise if I tried. And that's when you know you've adapted material the right way. When even the initiated can't help but shake with rage and sadness as they're forced to watch as they lose their loved ones all over again.
Scout Portent. The finale of Game of Thrones is all about portent. Not much happens because after the nation suffered collective heartache (and much worse in some cases) they couldn't do much more but stand back and stare with the rest of us. That doesn't mean the show was coasting, by any means. There are unforgettable scenes. What will probably stay with me is Tyrion and Tywin discussing their relationship as frankly as they know how to. "I wanted to take you out into the waves and drown you." Happy Father's Day! But there's also the truly tragic scene of Cersei admitting that when she looks at Joffrey she no longer sees the child she once loved, who once was her whole world, and she his. Realizing that we're now stuck with the Lannisters, for better or worse, moments like this go a long way toward making sure we understand all 360 degrees of their personalities. I can't be the only one who was immensely moved by Jamie finally walking into Cersei's bedroom. Like Jean-Pierre Denis and Wes Anderson before them, the writers of Game of Thrones have made me super ok with incest on screen. You gross bastards.
But all this, touching as it is (and The Hound essentially taking over as one in a long line of short-lived father figures for Arya is nothing if not Insanely touching), is calm before one hell of a bloody storm. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one is safe, so, while it's comforting to watch a few loose ends tie themselves up, we know that ultimately even though we have to wait a year before the story starts again, in Westeros, it'll only have been a day. And in a day, anything can happen and nothing is safe.
Fox Game of Thrones has this great method of using their finale to cool down. Even though they've become formulaic in having "the shit" go down in episode nine of all three seasons it becomes almost essential (The Red Wedding being the best example of why) that we have an hour with these characters where we can be as close to sure they won't die as possible. It's an incredibly ballsy move on the writer's part to utilize a finale for something other than grandiose dramatic gestures. They treat finales in very much the same way that they treat premieres. They need to let viewers know exactly where everyone stands so that they can spend the next tortured ten months ruminating on exactly what that position will lead to. Especially working with the storyline presented in the current novel being adapted. It's an 1100 page story with enough ups and downs for several season's worth of climactic episodes. One of my favorite parts of the third season was how restrained the writers were about not letting themselves get overexcited with their finale. Instead they utilize patience to set up all the pieces again after so viciously knocking them down.