Before we get started, I just wanted to say that this was one of the two big secrets that readers of the series have been keeping – the first one being the death of Ned Stark all the way in Season 1. If your friends didn’t spoil it for you, then thank them after you punch them. Because if you like this show, the “Red Wedding” episode is one of those moments that hits you like a locomotive. I know of people who quit reading the series after these chapters. If you do opt to continue, I’ll say that things get better…then worse…then different…then much worse.
Betrayal: (verb) to deliver or expose to an enemy by treachery or disloyalty; to be unfaithful in guarding, maintaining, or fulfilling; to be disloyal to.
By whatever definition you wish to use, tonight’s episode put the season’s central theme in full display. Yes, it is at its core in the events of the “Red Wedding.” But before we get there, let’s back up a bit and discuss the other happenings.
The idea of betrayal is also lurking unspoken in the plan Daario Naharis proposes to deliver Yunkai to Danaerys. He, Ser Jorah Mormont and Grey Worm will infiltrate the city through a back gate – using his still-unannounced allegiance to the city as a means of entering. But Jorah doesn’t trust the young, handsome sellsword. So he tells Ser Barristan Selmy to stay behind and guard Dany. Though it looks like they’ve been betrayed, Daario is true to his word and helps them take out the guards protecting the gate. Poor Ser Jorah is forced then to confront the very real possibility that Danaerys – the queen he loves – has chosen another as the apple of her affections. How betrayed will Ser Jorah feel if, after all he’s done, it’s Daario Naharis that wins Danaerys’ heart?
This episode focused heavily on the children of Ned Stark. Arya was brought along by Sandor Clegane to within the front doors of The Twins only to be forcibly dragged away as the Red Wedding happened. Arya, who in so many ways is the truest of Ned’s children, showed no fear in front of the man she had charged as murderer and who she laid bare with a few simple words. Some might think that The Hound’s actions – knocking her out as her family was being butchered – were a betrayal. I choose to think of it as mercy. Arya’s reaction to it all would have been to keep searching for her mother and brother and eventually dying at the hands of the Freys or the Boltons. The Hound – the self-professed killer – was a protector of life.
Meanwhile, Jon Snow was a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch who has spent most of the season pretending to have betrayed his oaths. The fact is that he never did. And that fact was obvious to everyone around him – Orell knew it and so did Tormund and Ygritte. Tormund put up with it because he liked him. Ygritte put up with it because of her growing affections for him. But when forced to kill a single old man in the middle of nowhere to prove himself, Jon could contain the lie no longer. He fought the wildlings he had shared so much with and killed Orell to escape with his life – even if Orell’s eagle got a certain amount of vengeance by ripping his face a new one.
But by his actions, he betrayed Ygritte and the bond that was growing between them. Jon, desperate to not be found out and liking the affections of the pretty girl next to him, allowed the relationship to blossom. This in spite of knowing full and well that it could not be. He could not betray the oath he had given the Night’s Watch. He was and is too much the son of Eddard Stark to go back on his word and found himself in a position where he could not choose a side without betraying the other. Maester Aemon warned Jon of this possibility in Season 1 (“Sooner or later, there comes a day in a man’s life when it’s not easy. A day in his life when he must choose). Jon chose the Night’s Watch and betrayed Ygritte. Can he live with himself for having chosen?
At the same time, Bran and Rickon were huddling nearby, trying to avoid detection by Jon’s wildling party. Jojen helped guide Bran to the moment of truth for him: embrace his powers and warg into the direwolves or be found and die. Bran’s actions helped save himself and his half-brother Jon – the same Jon they’ve been travelling to meet at Castle Black. With that destination now closed to them and Bran’s understanding that he needs to find the three-eyed crow to hone his newfound powers, a decision is made: Osha and Rickon will go to Last Hearth while he, Hodor and the Reeds will travel North of The Wall. And so the scions of House Stark are scattered to the four winds for their protection. As Bran tells Rickon, if he and Robb fall, it will fall to Rickon to ensure their house continues. It is a mighty task that is dropped on the child’s shoulders. But their world is cruel and sentimentality is a luxury that gets people killed.
And if you needed further proof of that lesson, well, the events at The Twins ought to have shown better. Let’s do the math:
In Season 1, Robb Stark needed to cross the Red Fork in order to march onto the Riverlands and break the siege of Riverrun being laid by Jaime Lannister. In order to cross, he swore to Walder Frey, Lord of The Twins, that he would marry a daughter of his and make her Lady of Winterfell. Lord Frey even had a daughter already picked out, but kept her hidden from everyone’s view. The Stark forces broke the siege and captured Jaime. However, when Robb met Talisa Maegyr of Volantis, he betrayed his oath. This was doubly-compounded by Catelyn betraying the Stark cause for the love of her daughters and sending Jaime Lannister with Brienne of Tarth south to King’s Landing. These two betrayals by the noble Starks – for noble reasons – cost them the support of The Twins and of the Karstarks. In order to get the Freys back, Edmure Tully would have to marry one of Walder’s daughters.
But Catelyn knew – hell, she warned Robb – that Walder Frey was a prickly old man who cared about only one thing: his honor. Having been betrayed by the King in the North, it should have come as no surprise that Walder Frey would enjoy returning the favor in kind. Maybe Catelyn thought that old prickly Walder Frey would not violate guest right – the ceremony where bread and salt are offered to guests and upon which a man welcomes them and takes them under his protection. If so, they were wrong.
What Catelyn and Robb never saw was the betrayal of Roose Bolton, the Lord of The Dreadfort and bannerman to Robb. Perhaps they thought that his vows to House Stark were strong. If so, they were wrong. Roose Bolton has been shown to be a practical man. Want to know the truth from a prisoner? Torture him. A bride is offered with a dowry depending on her weight? Marry the fattest girl available. He is no fool. He saw the end was in sight for the Northern rebels and chose to take the deal that got him out of it – an alliance with the Lannisters to betray his king. That he’s the man to finally end Robb’s life was the likely price for a royal pardon from the King in the Iron Throne.
The betrayal of Walder Frey and Roose Bolton seems so obvious and heinous that we forget that betrayal is a two-sided street. Had Robb not broken his oath and wed Talisa, Walder Frey would not have conspired against him. Had Catelyn not released Jaime Lannister, the Northern forces wouldn’t have been decimated and Roose Bolton would have had no cause to betray his liege lord. Had Catelyn not captured Tyrion Lannister way back in Season 1, there might have been no war at all. The honorable Starks stumbled from mistake to mistake and thought that there would be no consequences to their actions – or none as serious as what they experienced. In that case, the members of House Stark took on the characteristics of their scion, Ned. He too fumbled and bumbled through King’s Landing before being betrayed by Petyr Baelish and King Joffrey Baratheon.
So we go back to the definition of betrayal up there. To expose to enemies, to be disloyal or unfaithful. Betrayal is more than just the act. It is going back on a vow, an oath. It’s the violation of a trust that is held between people that causes intense moral, sociological and psychological trauma. It is a breaking of norms that cannot be undone. Once one is betrayed, that trust can never be healed again. In their betrayal of House Stark, Walder Frey and Roose Bolton have violated norms and traditions that were ancient in Westeros. They violated guest rights and the vows of vassals to their lords.
How can their world be made back to what it was given what transpired? Who will trust the tradition of giving bread and salt when people can be butchered at a feast? Who can trust the vow of a liege lord or a vassal when vassals stab their liege lords in cold blood? Betrayal doesn’t just take lives. It changes the way the world works. And the protections of the past are not guaranteed anymore.
In such worlds, only the most ruthless and savage can win the game of thrones.