The Red Wedding: A Study in Refrigerators
After a string of mostly-quiet episodes that felt like nothing but rising action after rising action, we finally got our payoff: The Rains of Castamere was nothing but climax after climax. And while I’m excited for Bran, worried for Jon, elated for Dany, and sorry for Arya, I’m afraid I’m going to have to put all of them aside for a moment and talk about the final scenes of the episode, because once the soul-crushing pain had subsided I realized that the Red Wedding is one of my favorite sequences in all of Game of Thrones.
True, the massacre at the Twins might not be as glorious as the Battle of Blackwater, or as cathartic as Dany’s victory at Astapor, or even as shocking as Ned Stark’s beheading. But it is perfectly-paced, perfectly-shot, and most importantly, it is true to the books as it is written and filmed from the perspective of Catelyn Stark.
It is Catelyn’s vague sense of dread that we feel when the doors of the hall are closed. Like Catelyn, we hear a hint of the Lannisters’ influence in the haunting tune of “The Rains of Castamere,” only to attempt to ignore it as simply a popular song being played during a peaceful wedding. We share Catelyn’s rage when Roose Bolton’s treachery is discovered, and her despair as she realizes that she is too late to do anything more than call out a warning as the slaughter begins. Even though the Red Wedding is ostensibly the result of the political and military machinations of three men – Robb Stark, Walder Frey, and Tywin Lannister (acting through Bolton) – we are permitted, or forced, to witness it through Catelyn’s eyes. The perspective shifts to Robb only briefly, as he crawls to his dying wife’s side. We feel her loss through him. But during Robb’s own death, we are cut off from him, viewing him from without. We feel his loss through Catelyn.
The action of the scene also favors Catelyn over all other players. She is the only one who sees the attack coming. She is the only one with the presence of mind to take cover. And she is the only one to try to negotiate with Frey, which she does by drawing not only on her instinct to protect her son but also by invoking the pride and power of the great houses she represents. In death, Robb is not the King in the North – he is a bereaved husband and a frightened son, holding Talisa in his arms and calling out for his mother just before he falls. Catelyn is not so diminished. She is a mother, yes, and she does her best to negotiate for her son’s safety. But she is also a Tully and a Stark, as seen when she slits the throat of Frey’s wife just before her own execution. If Frey had had his way, her last living act would have been a passive, helpless one – to see her son killed. Instead, she puts herself in an aggressive role, even though it is pointless and cruel, and her last living act becomes upholding her word of honor.
And unlike Talisa and Robb, whose deaths we experience through onlookers, when Catelyn dies we are still centered on her. We don’t watch her fall through Frey’s eyes or Bolton’s. With her, we wait for death, and when it comes we also feel it. While she may not have been afforded a heroic or meaningful death, the narrative respected Catelyn Stark.
Catelyn Stark was not stuffed into a refrigerator.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Talisa.
A woman is said to be “stuffed in the refrigerator” if she is killed off with little regard for her personal story and autonomy, and the narrative focuses on the effect her death has on the male characters in her life. That’s what happened to Talisa. She was dehumanized by Walder Frey when he made her stand before him and commented on her body. Her characterization never strayed far from her role as Robb’s wife and the mother of his unborn child. This is in contrast to her early appearances on the show, when she had strong personal motivations that had nothing to do with Robb. Even the manner of her death is highly symbolic – she is stabbed in the belly, as though the fetus inside her were the true target, and her death were nothing but a side effect. Both in-universe and in a meta sense, her death is meant more as a punishment for Robb than it is an ending of her life. We see her fall, we see Robb crawling toward her, and by the time he reaches her she is already past helping. We experience Talisa’s death as something that is happening to Robb instead of something that is happening to Talisa.
I might have overlooked the way the narrative treated Talisa – after all, not everyone can be a viewpoint character – except for the fact that her death was not a part of the books. In the books, Talisa’s role is mostly filled by a character named Jeyne Westerling, and she is not even present at the Red Wedding. So the graphic, dehumanizing, genderized murder of Talisa Maegyr was a show-only addition. And this is not the first time such gendered violence has been inserted into the show, as if the source material weren’t shocking enough on its own.
Talisa’s death does a disservice to her character and to the show, diminishing what is otherwise a near-perfect scene. Because when Talisa dies, I think, “Another one for the fridge.” But when Catelyn dies, I die with her. Falling back on misogynistic tropes only breaks immersion and harms the flow of the story.
Game of Thrones, your refrigerator is overflowing. May you treat all your characters with as much dignity as George RR Martin treated Catelyn Stark in her time of dying.