By the time we get to the third season of Game of Thrones, more than ever before there is the very real sense that the monsters are winning. Throughout the first two seasons, we’ve become inured to evil men doing evil things, while our heroes find themselves in ever more desperate circumstances or, more often, dead. But season three is where the real psychopaths come to play. We experience an unceasing series of injustices.
Joffrey and Ramsay, who physically and emotionally torture everyone they come into contact with. The Slaver from Astapor, who not only, you know, trains and sells armies of eunuchs who have had their sense of self beaten out of them, but also has the utter cheek to speak condescendingly to Daenerys. Locke, who chops off Jaime’s hand for no other reason than the fact that he doesn’t like an arrogant little rich boy. And Walder Frey. Well, we’ll get to him.
In this season, we as viewers form our own list of the characters we’d most like to see dead. It’s a long list. And if you’ve seen Game of Thrones in the past, all of the most gruesome moments have a tendency to blur together in your head – it’s mind-boggling to remember that some many of them happen in season 3.
By this point, Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon are distant memories – too much has happened since their untimely deaths in the first season. But their absence is felt, as Westeros is in the midst of a long and costly war. Winter is coming, and depravities happen most often where there is no stable leadership to hold perpetrators accountable. Joffrey may be many things, but stable is not one of them. So we witness atrocity after atrocity as the war claims its victims.
We have Joffrey in King’s Landing, murdering prostitutes and seemingly doing everything in his power to be one of the most hated kings in Westerosi history. It’s clear that no one, not even Cersei, is able to control him as his petulant tantrums intertwine with disturbingly sadistic behavior. This is hardly a new development, but more than ever it seems as though patience for his antics is wearing thin. An optimist could hope that his fiancé and ultimate power player Margaery Tyrell might have a civilizing influence on him, but we all know what happens to optimists in Game of Thrones.
In the North, poor Theon is being tortured by the sadistic Ramsay Snow (bastard son of Roose Bolton) – you know you’ve journeyed into rarified air when the other demonstrably cruel characters on the show comment on how you probably need to dial it down a bit. And Theon’s made some poor choices throughout the series but oof – this goes well beyond what even he deserves.
It feels, however, as the season begins to wind down that things are potentially stabilizing, as though maybe the tide is finally turning. Robb and Talisa are married and expecting a child, and we’ve apparently seen them make amends with Walder Frey after the very awkward faux pas of Robb promising to marry one of the Frey girls and then immediately doing the exact opposite. Instead, Robb’s uncle Edmure Tully will marry into the Frey family, honor will be satisfied, and they can finally attend to that pesky war that’s been dragging on for far too long. All is forgiven. Right?
No. You fool. This is Game of Thrones.
The execution of the Red Wedding is one of the crowning achievements in a show known for its incredible set pieces. The gradual ramping up of tension as the scene plays, the growing dread and horror on Catelyn Stark’s face as she slowly realizing that things are about to go south. The doors to the great hall are casually but purposefully closed. The slow, foreboding chords of The Rains of Castamere begin to play, which Cersei had helpfully explained to us just one episode earlier is a song immortalizing the utter decimation by House Lannister of another house that had crossed them. Catelyn then notices that Roose Bolton, perceived ally but actual horrendous traitor, is wearing chainmail under his clothes.
From there, it plays out like a horror film, each moment calculated to cause maximum pain for not only the characters but for the audience itself. Each of our heroes is forced to watch the death of the person they arguably love most in the world. Robb stands helplessly by as Talisa and her baby are violently murdered, crawling over to her body, wounded, to cradle her rather than fight back or try to escape. Catelyn is forced to regard with horror as her oldest beloved son reaches out to her and is executed by Roose Bolton. The scene culminates with her standing eerily motionless, apparently welcoming death, and then having her throat cut.
Needless to say, it’s a doozy.
The nature of television has changed so much over the past fifty years, and we’re so spoiled for choice that it has seemed that the days of everyone standing around the watercooler to talk about the events of last night’s show were long gone. But Game of Thrones has captured the attention of such a wide audience in a way that few other shows are capable of, and at least temporarily brought back that communal experience of everyone watching and deconstructing the same television series together. When it comes to memorable TV moments that emotionally destroyed more or less everyone, the Red Wedding sequence stands up to almost anything else that the medium has to offer.
Season three, you guys. We’ve only reached the tip of the Collective Anguish Iceberg.