When we left off, Catelyn was in the act of recognizing the terribleness of her moment. At 37:38 in the podcast, Steven and I argued about when the band began to play the song “The Rains of Castamere,” which is associated with House Lannister, and though this may seem like an insignificant detail, I don’t think it is. So I don’t want anyone to think that I’m arguing just to argue here, because this is one of the most important moments in traditional tragedy. In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that simple plots merely contain a catastrophe — something terrible happens for which general pity is felt — but complex plots combine that tragedy with anagnorisis, or a moment of recognition.
This moment of recognition is not had by the audience, but by a character within the play; that is, it’s had by a character with whom the audience sympathizes, and through whose perspective the consequences of this catastrophe can be understood. In other words, for Aristotle, the superior play is one in which the audience’s sympathies are focalized through a perspective in a way that personalizes the catastrophe. It’s not just generally sad that these Trojans have to die, it’s particularly sad that we’re forced to watch one of them we care about realize he’s about to die. That’s the heart of traditional tragedy: it’s not the catastrophe itself (because the audience isn’t in actual jeopardy), but the sympathetic identification with the character who realizes he’s about to be killed (because that’s something the audience can actually feel) that makes a tragedy effective.
In other word: this moment is important because it’s the engine of tragedy. The audience may only realize what’s happening when “The Rains of Castamere” begins to play, but because tragedy’s supposed to lead to reflection, it’s important to determine exactly when Catelyn does. So here we go. Robb and Talisa are having a long and playful conversation that ends in her informing him that she’s carrying a child named “Eddard Stark.” I’ve animated the 33-second-long conversation so you can see that it consists of 15 reversals and one pan down:
There are a number of things to note about this sequence, including that these are shallow focus two-shots, meaning that the only two characters in focus are Robb and Talisa and that they share the frame in each of the fifteen reversals. Sharing the frame in a two-shot cements in the audience’s mind the connection between particular characters. This works when they’re strangers — but even more so when they’re already a married pregnant couple and bellies are being touched. The number of reversals means the length of each shot is a little over two seconds, which is on par with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (sandstorm chase), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (opening sequence), and Casino Royale (first 12 minutes not including precredits), i.e. action sequences in films with already very short shot lengths. If there’s a reason their exchange feels oddly rushed, it’s because it’s being filmed at the pace of an action sequence. Except it isn’t one. Which is unsettling. Moreover, that Robb and Talisa are together in the shallow focus creates the impression that they’re alone in a world that’s literally dissolved behind them. Except they aren’t. Which is also unsettling. The final shot in this sequence — the one that follows Robb’s acquiescence to Talisa’s “demand” to name his child “Eddard” — is a tender conclusion to an “action sequence” in which we’re led to believe the couple’s stopped the world and melted with each other:
But after all those accelerated reversals, Nutter slowly pans to the left to remind us that the world’s continued spinning in their “absence,” then racks the focus onto Catelyn:
It’s unclear whether she actually overheard their discussion and knows that her grandchild will be named after her beloved husband — for her sake I hope she didn’t overhear their conversation, as that would only make what follows all the worse — but the look on her face is one of happiness tinged with understandable grief. She’s just lost her husband and her father, and she believes she’s lost her other two sons and daughters too. Hers is the face of a grieving woman finding peace in what little joy remains in her world. Robb’s all she knows she has left, so that Nutter makes this shot about her is significant. The audience experiences Robb and Talisa’s happiness through Catelyn’s observation of it. She’s the character through whom Nutter’s focalizing all that follows. And it follows quickly:
A Frey — Steven identifies him as Black Walder Frey, but in this shot he’s just a blurry-hatted interruption — passes between Catelyn and Robb and heads off-frame left. Instead of continuing to bask vicariously in the happiness of the only child of which she still has proof of life, her eyes follow the Frey:
Nutter jumps to a behind-the-shoulder long shot of her watching Black Walder approach the door at 43:43:
At 43:45 the generic wedding music stops and at 43:46 the camera reverses to her in a medium shot. We can see the concern on her face, sort of, but more importantly we can see her body language. She’s clutching her scarf defensively and reflexively:
We know that we’re watching her watching Black Walder close the door, but then Nutter cuts to her point of view just in case we didn’t know whose head and heartbreak we’re supposed to be sharing:
And now we’re in her head as the doors close. We’re not in there for long, but we don’t need to be. We don’t need to see what follows from her perspective to be sympathetic with it at this point. For all practical purposes “we’re already in there.” Nutter knows this — and he knows that this scene’s going to rely on Michelle Fairley’s reaction to what she’s about to witness — so he leaves her head and straddles her shoulder again as the doors loudly slam shut at 43:54:
For two seconds all that’s heard is the background noise of the banquet. Then, at 43:57, Catelyn begins to turn and the band begins to play. Her initial glance at 44:00 goes in the direction of Walder Frey:
But her eyes quickly move upwards when she recognizes the song at 44:02:
There’s a slight thinking zoom that accompanies her recognition of “The Rains of Castamere,” not because the recognition itself or all that it entails is by any means slight, but because she’s just seen the doors shut and heard the orchestra tuning up the accompaniment to Walder and the Lannister’s end-game. She knows the credits are about to roll on what remains of her family and is powerless to do anything about it. Anagnorisis? It’s the pain of impotence. Of knowing what must be done but being utterly fucking unable to do it. She can no more stop the Lannister’s plot than Oedipus could un-murder his father or un-sire the children he bore with his mother. There’s nothing to be done now but begin to suffer. This is why the Red Wedding was equally effective for those who knew it was coming and those who didn’t: tragedy doesn’t depend on the surprise discovered in the moment of recognition so much as the intensity of the emotions that precede it. It’s the pain you feel immediately before you understand exactly why you’re feeling it. The look on your lover’s face the moment before she reveals she’s betrayed you. The crack in your father’s voice the moment before you learn your mother’s died. The labored rasp of the first and last breath you child will ever take. This is that moment and words fail it — which is why the narrative does most of the heavy lifting.
I don’t want to dwell on the horror of the events themselves, which have been discussed elsewhere by my betters, but I do want to acknowledge one last twist of the knife in this episode. It’s noted in the books that Arya resembles her father and his people, the Starks, more than Catelyn and her people, the Tullys. And throughout the series that’s generally been true: the various directors have emphasized the length of Michelle Fairley’s face instead of its width. They’ve minimized her high cheekbones by shooting her face as they do above: at a slightly oblique angle and partially shadowed, which makes it look longer than it actually is. But in the moment immediately before her death — a moment in which, unbeknownst to her, the daughter she thinks dead is but one wall removed — Nutter films her straight on:
She’s almost unrecognizable. Her grief-stricken face looks wider and seems shorter. Even when he moves into an angled close-up, by lighting both sides of her face equally he maximizes the impression of its width:
Which wouldn’t be significant except for this:
As Arya has her own moment of recognition, Nutter goes to great lengths to remind the audience that she’s her mother’s daughter. Maisie Williams and Michelle Fairley never look so alike as they do in this terrible moment. That these moments are respective and that both face them alone is something I’d rather not think about.