This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
If you think about it, it makes sense that Game Of Thrones has a slight problem with premières and finales. The show’s world is so sprawling and all-encompassing that an episode that checks in on everybody (or almost everybody—the Tyrells sit this one out) is inevitably going to feel a little discombobulated. Add into that the general “Here’s where we were” feeling a season première inevitably must have and the fact that we’re more or less primed for some, well, finality in our finales, and you have a general recipe for episodes that can feel a little half-baked. And that’s to say nothing of how every season has featured a ninth episode that’s likely the best episode of the season, blowing so much else on television out of the water, an episode that’s then immediately followed by a 10th episode that seems intent on reminding you how many other plates the show has spinning other than the plates it just got done shattering.
All of that sounds like buildup to a long review full of complaints, but it’s not. “Mhysa” isn’t my favorite episode of the show or the season, but it’s probably the strongest season finale the series has logged yet, creating a real sense that one journey has ended for just about every character, then dropping just a few hints about where the journey is going in the season to come. It lacked anything as visceral as, say, that army of White Walkers and Wights shuffling toward the Wall at the end of season two, but it also had Ygritte pumping Jon full of arrows, Jaime getting back to King’s Landing, Bran and company running into Sam and Gilly, and Dany further cementing her reputation within the slaving communities of this fictional world. What I’m saying is that “The Rains Of Castamere” is an episode full of connections being torn asunder, while “Mhysa” is an episode that dares suggest some connections can be built, that there are still things that might bind these people together beyond blind self-interest. I wouldn’t call it an optimistic episode of television, but it has a hint of sun peeking out from behind all of the clouds the Red Wedding threw in that sun’s way.
On a plot level, not a lot happens in “Mhysa.” As mentioned, quite a few journey’s end, which puts it fairly firmly in the category of denouement. That’s a weird structure for the show to operate in because not only do the events of this episode occur fairly early on in a massive, ongoing story, but most of them happen well before the climax of the book they’re adapted from. The Red Wedding is a massive climax, but A Storm Of Swords doesn’t quite provide anything so big to follow it up in the pages immediately following. Thus, writers and show developers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss jerry-rig a bunch of potential climaxes. What I mean by this is they’re climaxes that point the way toward where this all might be going, suggesting bigger stories to come but also providing elements of climax within them. Take, for instance, Davos letting Gendry free, then saving his own life thanks to having learned to read about the coming threat from beyond the Wall. It offers a character denouement for the fraught relationship Davos and Stannis have had this season, but it also offers a potential climax to come—the promise of Stannis fighting a bunch of White Walkers. By adding together character denouements and the promise of things to come like this, “Mhysa” kind of, sort of gets away with not really having all that much happen in it.
“Mhysa” also succeeds by the skin of its teeth because it asks, in scene after scene, what the value of one human life is in the face of a kingdom. Now, it literally comes right out and asks this in the scene where Davos and Melisandre argue over Stannis’ respective shoulders like a cartoon angel and demon. Intriguingly, Melisandre is in the angel position and Davos the devil position, which could just be an ironic flip of the usual or could suggest the show has already made up its mind in this regard. (I find the latter option far more interesting.) Indeed, as a season, I think season three has been the most thematically unified precisely because it keeps returning to this idea, maybe because the Red Wedding has always been the season’s guiding principle. Are the deaths of Robb and Catelyn somehow less just than if they had been killed on the battlefield? Is Shae’s love for Tyrion worth a kingdom? Are the lives of those guffawing soldiers worth Arya’s desire for revenge? The third season has come back and back and back to these questions of the individual versus the kingdom, and it’s been all the stronger for it.
Which is perhaps why the season chose to end on the shots of Dany liberating the slaves. Now, on one level, this is probably where we end up because Dany’s one of the few uncomplicatedly “rootable” characters left, a character the show has explicitly told us is a great leader, in addition to showing us again and again. The series has returned to this “something terrible happens in Westeros, but Dany offers a glimmer of hope over in her storyline” template several times (probably because it’s something the novels do fairly well). Here, though, there’s another level at play. In an episode where Tyrion and Cersei openly discuss the fact that the only way the war will end is once the Lannisters have cut down all their enemies, Dany shows the power of a true leader, able to unite the people behind a cause and person they can believe in, someone who fights for good. It’s not a great one-to-one comparison, because the demons Dany’s battling are so obviously evil—slavery!—while Tyrion and Cersei are feeling their way through years of skullduggery with few obvious villains or abominable moral concepts to stab in the face. But it explicitly sets up a dynamic the show will hopefully exploit going forward: Violence in the pursuit of raw power is ultimately self-defeating. Violence in service of a worthy cause, however, is not just sometimes useful but often necessary.
Do I think this worked entirely? Not really. Game Of Thrones’ Achilles’ heel is that it sometimes feels like a show more deeply thought than felt. It’s capable of moments of astonishing emotional power and raw intensity, but it also often feels like it’s being held at arm’s length so the audience can examine it like a particularly gorgeous puzzle box or bauble. I’m not trying to suggest this is a problem with the show. Indeed, that intelligence of construction is one of the reasons it can be so viscerally satisfying to watch and why moments like the Red Wedding or Jaime’s speech about how he acquired his nickname are even more powerful than they might be in a series with more constant emotional directness.
But that can stunt the series when it reaches for emotional moments it hasn’t really laid the groundwork for. Dany’s freeing of the slaves has always been an abstract concept up to this point, a necessary checkmark on her march toward great leadership. When she freed the Unsullied, we’d seen the Unsullied a couple of times and they were right there on screen. It gave the sequence where she commanded Drogon to burn that one dude a tremendous amount of force. Here, though, the slaves are such an abstraction—and Dany disappears from so much of the finale—that when we cut to her at the very end of a 70-minute episode, the temptation is to say, “Oh, right. She exists!” (For what it’s worth, I found the Stannis scene a more effective cliffhanger for this weird half-finale.) The slaves come out and greet Dany as “Mhysa”—or “Mother”—and it’s a fairly effective and moving moment (up until she goes crowd surfing), but it also feels like a rough repeat of the Dany freeing the Unsullied storyline without telling us anything new about her. She has kind of a crush on Daario? Don’t care. She hates slavery? Already knew that. Her dragons are awesome? More please.
Because “Mhysa” is effectively an in medias res finale, that means it’s filled with these little moments that essentially repeat character beats we’re already aware of. The basic bones of a story usually end with a character returning to their starting position, having learned something or changed somehow, and “Mhysa” is straining to do this all over the place, the better to give this season a sense of cohesion as a unit and not just half of a book that’s been adapted for screen. There are places where it works, like when Jaime and Cersei look upon each other for the first time in ages, and there are places where it doesn’t, really, like Tyrion, who’s been stuck in a holding pattern far too long, particularly for an actor of Peter Dinklage’s caliber, or Theon, whose story is essentially resolved by a character we haven’t seen in over a year saying she’s going to do something at some point in the future that might return him to his homeland but certainly won’t give him his penis back, or Walder and Roose, who just turn up to snivel and be evil again, which, believe me, I’m in favor of, but isn’t exactly Captain Dramatic Satisfaction. This is a show that will always have to deal with the fact that its short game will necessarily hold less weight than its long game, but that doesn’t mean the short game has simply disappeared. I appreciated much of what “Mhysa” was trying to do while also finding it frequently clunky.
Better, then, were sequences that took characters and pushed them off cliffs they’ve been standing on a long time. Arya, with the help of the Hound, came upon some of the soldiers responsible for the deaths of her brother and mother, and she stabbed the shit out of one of them. (The Hound took care of the rest.) Was it the first man she’d killed? Yes, she said. The first man, and one could sense a much more dynamic season coming for America’s favorite Stark bargaining chip. Similarly, Varys offered Shae her freedom—perhaps at Tyrion’s bidding—and she recommitted herself to a cause that seems impossibly lost. (Here was a moment where the character did something new, but against such overwhelming odds that it taught us anew just how much they were willing to sacrifice to get what they wanted.) Jon finally admitted to himself and Ygritte that his love for her was real, just in time for her to shoot him full of arrows over his betrayal (a moment given such power by the wonderful Rose Leslie, who’s buried deep on this show’s bench and constantly delivers). Bran and Sam had the unlikeliest of connections and pushed each other in fascinating new directions.
During that scene where Walder and Roose twirl their mustaches together, two cleaning women are scrubbing up the stains from the Red Wedding, the blood from where Catelyn, Talisa, and Robb’s bodies fell. Ho, ho, ho! laugh Walder and Roose. They have found themselves in such strong positions, with only the Blackfish escaped from their little plan. David Nutter’s camera keeps those bloodstains in the background of most shots. One reason for this is fairly obvious: Seeing those bloodstains lets us remember just what happened here recently. But another is more guarded by the series’ heart: They’re just bloodstains. Robb and Catelyn are dead, yes, but only Tyrion seems to understand that the blood they spilled will eventually be avenged. The North may have calmed for now, but it won’t be calm always. Is one life worth a whole kingdom? Not if you take that life in vain, because the kingdom forgets. Bloodstains, after all, aren’t very easy to get out.
Better, then, to look at the people who turn toward uncertain futures or reach out across gaps to each other, rather than constantly tearing the world apart. Tywin tells his son that the Lannisters succeed because they always put the Lannisters first. But where does that leave the family in the face of a coming army that will rip the kingdom from stem to stern? Where does that leave the family when it’s forced to defend a boy king who’s so self-evidently evil that even his mother realizes it at this point? Where, in short, will anybody be when they try to go it alone in this world? Game Of Thrones sometimes seems as if it’s a series about disruption, about men who tear each other apart in their quest for power. But it’s also quietly about what happens when people reach out to each other on a more intimate level and build unexpected bonds. Game Of Thrones season three didn’t end on bloodshed. It ended on people reaching out for a woman who gave them hope. And even if that didn’t quite work, it suggested more than ever that this series is building toward something hard-won but ultimately beautiful.
Finale grade: B+
Season grade: A
- What up, Podrick Payne? Nice to see word of your accomplishments precedes you.
- Adaptation choice I liked: Keeping Grey Wind’s head stitched onto Robb’s body mostly in shadow struck me as the kind of thing that could have looked too goofy if we got a good look at it. This really matched the eeriness the image on the page produced in my head when I read it. (I also liked the choice to have Arya see it, which I don’t believe actually happens in the book, where I believe this all plays out as the Lannisters telling each other what happened.)
- Adaptation choice I didn’t like as much: I loved that Arya scene as a self-contained unit, but it’s basically an homage to a moment in the book that couldn’t be done because the character she killed in that scene is already dead in the world of the series. So while it’s a good scene in and of itself—and Maisie Williams is tremendous and weirdly creepy in it—it loses some of the power of the book scene. In general, I’ve always been most curious about the adaptation choices in the Arya storyline, the one place where it feels like a bunch of changes were made for non-budgetary reasons that ended up making the story have less impact than it did on the page.
- In general, I enjoy when the Lannisters get together and shoot the shit, and this episode did not disappoint in this regard. Plus, as I discussed with David over IM after the episode ended, there were a surprising number of laugh lines in this episode, and they were almost all thanks to the Lannisters. I’m going to miss that when all of them are killed by Hodor. (SPOILERS!)
- Speaking of Hodor, having him give away the game of who the Bran Stark party of four was to Sam and Gilly was a nice touch. I also enjoyed having him play around with echoes.
- Book Sansa is not a character I enjoy spending time with all that much, but I’ve come to find Sophie Turner’s work as the character this season a lot of fun. Her confession that “shift” was the vulgar word for “dung” was funny, and she and Dinklage make an unexpectedly great team.
- Hey, remember when Littlefinger was on this show?
Here be spoilers!:
- Of course, he mostly had to sit this season out so we can get more fun from him in the seasons to come, which I am looking forward to. I love Littlefinger, particularly when—okay, perhaps especially when—he has horrifying designs on other characters.
- I would have bet anything Lady Stoneheart would pop up in the final scene of this season, but then Michelle Fairley booked a gig on Suits, and I knew she’d be sitting at least some of season four out. That leaves the question of just when she’ll pop up, particularly since the timeline gets so weird here in a bit. My best guess: Last scene of the season première, at which point she’ll disappear for roughly half the season before re-emerging toward its end. (You can do that with Lady Stoneheart, and Fairley will fit into Suits very well.)
- That scene where Shae tells Varys she’s not going was a real gut-punch for me, knowing where this is going. Though of all the characters killed on page whom I could see living (and, clearly, I spend a lot of time thinking about this), Shae would be atop that list, simply because in the book, she’s barely a character and here, she’s got an arc and everything.
- Also, I’m already dreading losing Charles Dance. Tywin has to go for Tyrion’s arc to work, but man, Dance brings so much to that guy.
- All right: How the fuck is season four going to work? I think it seems safe that the Battle of Castle Black will be the ninth episode, but I have no idea how the season is structured beyond that. Dany’s book three storyline has maybe three episodes of story left in it (not that this has stopped the show before), and other characters’ arcs are around two-thirds done as well. So does season three get even more stretched out? Does a bunch of book four and five get collapsed in there? And if so, what’s that season finale look like? See you next spring!