Seasons are a strange thing in Game of Thrones. Unlike the dependable calendar of our world, a good Westerosi summer can last for a decade or more before the leaves change and Starbucks breaks out the pumpkin spice. On the flip side, that means the winters can last a long time too, which is probably why the Starks won't shut up about it. They have good reason -- for all they know, the coming frost might be as bad as the one told in tales. According to legend, about 8,000 years before Jon Snow was but a twinkle in his father's lavender eye, there was a winter so terrible and enduring that it lasted a generation. It is said that many people lived and died without ever knowing the kiss of spring.
If you've rewatched the series recently, you might remember part of this tale from the first season. Old Nan tells a busted Bran of a winter so brutal that mothers would smother their infants in their sleep so they wouldn't have to die of starvation (she does leave out the presumed side effect of bonus baby meat). This era, known as The Long Night, killed tens of thousands, likely much more. Those who didn't succumb to famine were in danger of being buried by dozens of feet of snow that piled up across the land. Though Old Nan may or may not have been embellishing her tale, it's tough not to be stirred by the image of tears turning to ice on the cheeks of the doomed, or kings freezing in their own castles.
And then, of course, there were the Others.
As Sam notes in the fourth book, A Feast for Crows: "The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night... or else night falls when they emerge." It probably doesn't matter. Either way, during The Long Night, scores of ghastly wights walked the woods and countrysides, killing indiscriminantly. They swept across Westeros easily, in part thanks to the fact that pretty much every enemy they killed rose again as an icy undead member of their legion.
Some of this might not come as a surprise to a fan of the show, because at this point we've seen at least part of what the White Walkers are capable of. But what they neglected to show are the fucking ice spiders.
Congratulations, you now have a new worst nightmare! Gargantuan spiders have been used to great effect in fantasy universes like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, but there's something especially unsettling about the image above. Not only are these spiders huge and gnarly, but they're being weaponized by malevolent ice zombies. If Satan had a three-way with Genghis Khan and one of those creepy lantern fish you only find at the bottom of the ocean, these malevolent arachnids would be holding the camera.
You'd think that something like "giant ice spiders" would be the product of an in-universe fable, perpetuated in Westeros after thousands of years' worth of storytellers kept exaggerating their tales. Yet, these very horrors are mentioned in three out of five books, and twice so far in the TV show. Hell, the image above is an official illustration created for an encyclopedia for the universe, the World of Ice and Fire. Giant ice spiders were almost certainly used in The Long Night, and judging by how things are going up North, that's probably not the last we've seen of them.
Though those who fought the War of the Dawn managed to beat back the forces of evil and build The Wall to keep the Others out, Westeros has grown complacent in the centuries since. The White Walkers have become a figment of myth, a scary bedtime story. We know that anyone who says that the Others don't exist are sorely misguided; anyone who believes that giant ice spiders are similarly imaginary might be making the same mistake.
The Lannisters are known for three things: their riches, their cunning and and their gloomy theme song. You've probably heard "The Rains of Castamere" before; it was the anthem of the Red Wedding, after all, and it's hard to forget the background music that played when a pregnant lady got stabbed in the baby. Since that scene is still all you can see when you close your eyes, you probably remember that Catelyn Stark realized something was up the moment that the band started playing. That's because the song is known across the land as the musical equivalent of a Lannister death threat. Despite its renown, The Rains of Castamere hasn't actually been around that long -- it was actually Tywin himself that inspired the morbid jingle.
So what's the song actually about? Well, to answer that, we have to go back in time about 50 years before the Starks first found their direwolves. At this point in time, Tywin is still an upstart -- his dad, Tytos Lannister, rules as lord of Casterly Rock. The thing is, Tytos isn't at all like the Lannisters you're already familiar with. Instead of a shrewd and devious power player, Papa Lannister is softer than a baby panda napping on a sponge cake. All of the bannermen Tytos is supposedly in charge of have made a game of seeing just how far they can push the pushover. "Twisting the lion's tail," they called it. Everyone around him seized on this weakness, asking for loans and favors they never intended on repaying. Through it all, Tytos laughed it off, like the oblivious stepdad that just wants Westeros to love him.
It seems like Tytos passed on all of his Lannisterness to his son Tywin, who even as a teenager bristled at his family name going down the chamber pot. Tywin probably figured that by the time he takes over, the Lannister name will have been sullied beyond salvation. At just 19 years old, Tywin decided to do something about it. He sent out letters to all the lords and bannermen, demanding that all debts be repaid, or barring that, a family hostage be sent to live with the Lannisters until such a time that the financial matter was settled. In other words, Tywin was reminding everyone just who ruled Castlerly Rock.
Some of the locals comply, but many others chuckle at the sight of the bill. They didn't think Tywin was serious -- and why would they? He was just a punk kid at the time. Those who scoffed at the Lannister threat probably assumed that any spawn of Tytos inherited the spine of the Wacky Inflatable Tube Man. Two families in particular, the Tarbecks and the Reynes, stood in defiance against the Lannisters. There was some back and forth for a while, hostages were taken and then swapped back, but after a year or so Tywin had enough. He sent out word to both the Tarbecks and the Reynes, demanding that they come to Casterly Rock to come clean about being such unrepentant dickwads. Both families took this as an act of war, and renounced their loyalty to the House Lannister. Like a future Darwin Award winner who just said "Hold my wine goblet," this was the last mistake either house would ever make.
Without telling anyone, Tywin -- again, not even out of his teens -- grabbed 500 soldiers and marched over to the Tarbecks. It was a god damned bloodbath. The Tarbecks weren't even close to prepared for the shitstorm headed their way. Everyone from Lord Walderan Tarbeck to his sons-in-law were decapitated, their heads impaled on spears. When the rest of the Tarbecks retreated to the castle, Tywin broke out the siege engines and destroyed the god damned castle. The Tarbecks barely had time to warn the Reynes before they were wiped out completely. All that remained of Tarbeck Hall was a smoldering husk.
Were the Reynes scared after witnessing their neighbors get snuffed out of existence? No. For whatever reason, maybe because they were the second-richest family in the land, they thought they stood a chance. Unfortunately for them, the Reynes severely underestimated how far Tywin would go to remind Westeros what happens to those who cross the Lannisters.
The Reynes tried Tywin's trick, launching an early attack to catch their foes off-guard -- but it didn't work. The Lannisters boasted a force several times larger than the Reynes, who soon lost half of their men in the ill-advised assault. At this point, the Reynes fell back to their castle, the vaunted (and damned) Castamere. Starting to put the name of the song together?
So what made the Reynes think they could take on the guys who bleached the name "Tarbeck" out of the history books? Well, the Reynes had Castamere, an epic castle that was basically an iceberg on land -- topside, the hold was unexceptional, but the other 90% of the keep was hidden below ground. These chambers, carved out of former mines, is where the 300 remaining Reynes fled. They did send up an offer of surrender, but Tywin wasn't having it. It was too late for that. The Reynes had to be an example.
Now, it would be pretty hard to assault Castamere with just men. Subterannean tunnels are no place for an army. The Reynes were banking on the Lannisters knowledge that a long and drawn out fight would be pretty costly. So what does Tywin do? He doesn't send in a single soldier. Instead, he just seals up every exit to the mines so no human could pass through. And then Tywin Lannister filled all of Castamere with water from a nearby stream. It is said that on the first night, guards could make out the wails of those trapped inside. By the second night, there were no screams to be heard.
There were no survivors. Every single person in Castamere drowned.
The Reynes, once the second-richest House next to the Lannisters themselves, were completely eradicated. Centuries of history ended, the family tree sheared, now dormant and dead. From then on, no one fucked with Tywin. Any time someone stepped out of line, the Lannisters didn't send an army or an assassin or a passive-agressive text. Instead, offenders would be met with a single bard singing the "Rains of Castamere," a ghoulish retelling of what befell a house that stood against the Lannisters. Remembering what Tywin was capable of was more than enough to put even the most staunch opponents back in shape.
As it turns out, even a song about a horrible mass murder can be pretty catchy.