My heart was racing for the entire final act. The eight of us sprawling around the lounge stared in sheer disbelief at the events taking place on screen. We sat quietly through the silent credits, speechless, not really knowing how to process what we had just seen or knowing what could be said. One of the guests was still teary-eyed 20 minutes later. Heck, I got a little teary myself. And that was how we watched last night's Game of Thrones.
(Warning: MAJOR spoilers from last night's Game Of Thrones follow. I can't say this strongly enough - if you haven't watched the latest episode of Thrones yet, do not read any further.)
The Rains of Castamere actually started calmly enough - in hindsight, settling us into a sense of comfort. The early scenes at The Twins were funny, with David Bradley stealing the show as Lord Walder Frey. Wary viewers probably thought that showing us the salt-n-bread ceremony was a giveaway that something was up, but most (like me) probably assumed it was a symbol of peace between House Stark and House Frey.
The last 20 minutes, though, turned an already exciting episode into a landmark hour for the show.
One of the biggest problems with Game of Thrones is the sheer scale of the story - the writers are forced to service so many characters that we end up jumping all over the map and spending only a few minutes with everyone. But like Blackwater (Season 2 Episode 9), The Rains of Castamere narrowed the focus down. A few welcome diversions across the Shivering Sea aside*, the stories here had a common thread: the Stark family.
Even before we made it to the Red Wedding**, we'd already spent considerable time with Arya, Bran, Rickon and Jon. It's been a series of near-misses for the Stark family - starting with Bran (Isaac Hampstead-Wright), via direwolf Summer, spotting Jon Snow (Kit Harington) outside the windmill, but missing any opportunity to say g'day. And splitting the family up further, by sending Rickon off to live with House Umber, got the emotional ball rolling.
The most heartbreaking moment came, though, when Arya (Maisie Williams) rolled up to the gate of The Twins just as the murderous plot inside was getting under way. As disturbing as the sight of Talisa (Oona Chaplin) being stabbed in the belly multiple times might have been, it wasn't until Arya realised what was happening, as Frey forces killed direwolf Grey Wind, that the emotional weight of her near miss, and of the episode at large, really hit home.
Ultimately, the family element is what makes the Red Wedding such a powerful moment in the story and for the show. The Starks, including Jon Snow, were torn apart by circumstance - and as much as we want to see the family reunited, the circumstances seem to get worse over time. The death of Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) was shocking, but it was the desperation in her voice preceding it, begging for the life of her son Robb (Richard Madden), that made it such a powerful scene.
The Red Wedding itself will probably go down as one of the greatest television moments ever aired - brilliantly written and performed by all involved, and well directed by David Nutter in his third run behind the camera. It was intense and it was heartbreaking, and - like Ned's death in Season 1- redefines what to expect from this magnificent show. It reaffirms the fearlessness of Game of Thrones. An incredible experience as a viewer and as a fan.
So where does this leave us as we head into next week's finale? Well, as far as I can tell, the Lannisters have pretty much locked up control of Westeros, with House Bolton taking over control of the North. House Stark is a non-threat, with Bran heading north of the Wall, Arya stuck on a perpetual road-trip with Clegane, Sansa stuck in King's Landing, and Rickon on his way to a life of obscurity. Jon Snow has real trouble ahead, with the Wildlings baying for his blood. And Daenerys has even more strength, having sacked Yunkai. It'll be interesting to see where the show goes next.
The term "game-changer" is thrown around too often, but it's hard not to apply it here - The Rains of Castamere, and the Red Wedding, has shaken up a large group of characters, and the storyline of the show as a whole. As I say, an amazing feat of storytelling, and one of the most intense scenes, and episodes, I've ever experienced as a viewer. Game of Thrones has raised its own bar yet again. I can't wait to see what happens next.
What did you think of the latest episode of Game of Thrones? Do you agree with my take on it? Please share your thoughts below - and remember: this review is about the show, not the books, so please don't post spoilers for anything that hasn't yet happened on the show. Any comments that do will be deleted.
(*) It was all excitement in Yunkai, too. The plot moves along nicely for Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), while Ser Jorah Mormont gets to show a little disdain for their new ally - I loved Iain Glen's subtle look of disappointment after Dany asks after Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein), who is still alive (to Mormont's obvious displeasure).
(**) As I read the scene: House Frey and House Bolton aligned with House Lannister, breaking their oath of hospitality and killing Robb, Catelyn and Talisa Stark, as well as their army and bannermen. Bolton assumes the title of Warden Of The North. Edmure and Brynden "Blackfish" Tully are presumably still alive, likely as hostages to control House Tully. Arya, meanwhile, gets to add several hundred more names to her list. By the way has anyone else noticed that Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) looks like Vladimir Putin? Uncanny.