Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: Blood Is Thicker

  • Share
  • Read Later
HBO

Spoilers for last night’s season 3 finale of Game of Thrones follow:

“You have one name. As do I. Here only the family name matters.”

It’s standard operating procedure for HBO dramas since The Sopranos–yet keeps surprising people nonetheless–for the really big stuff to go down in the next-to-last-episode, and the finale to deal with the aftermath and look ahead to the next season. In Game of Thrones, think Ned Stark’s death in season 1 and the Blackwater in season 2.

The end of season 3, then, spent some time among the winners and losers in post-Red-Wedding Westeros, giving the audience a chance to soak in the shock, seethe at the winners’ glee, and get a reminder of the larger forces–White Walkers, dragons–well beyond the war between the Lannisters and the Starks. If the Red Wedding seemed to kill hope, “Mhysa” made clear that it didn’t end anything. And it weaved together the many, many threads of GoT’s tapestry by returning to a recurring theme: that Game of Thrones is ultimately about family.

Which–duh, right? A drama set in a dynastic feudal fantasy kingdom is obviously going to be about families, those being the organizing political structure of the society. But that makes family a complicated thing here: it is, at the same time, a group of people you hopefully love (even if not to extent of Jaime and Cersei) and also a business, a culture, a way of life. In this world, that often makes for tensions between what you do for your family and what your family does to you.

Those tensions are especially pronounced among the Lannisters, who are not as united in joyful in victory as you might think. Joffrey’s bratty gloating aside, the death of Robb Stark is really Tywin’s triumph: a hateful one, shameful, possibly anathema to the gods, but a ruthlessly effective one—in other words, it’s pure Tywin. And that leads to one of the best scenes yet between him and Tyrion, whom Tywin tells that he kept from drowning only for the sake of the family name.

That scene, thrumming with unresolved hostility, is set off by an almost tender scene between Tyrion and Cersei; there’s no fondness between them, and yet—maybe feeling bonded by their forced engagements—she opens up surprisingly to him by explaining how she can love Joffrey: he was her baby once, jolly, happy, and good. “No one can take that from me,” she says. “Not even Joffrey.”

It comes down to loyalty for Tywin and Cersei, but for very different reasons. Tywin may be motivated on some level by family love, but it’s for a kind of centuries-old, transgenerational idea of House Lannister that doesn’t show any preference for its particular members because they happen to be the ones living right now. It’s almost as if he views himself as a character already in a history book. Whereas Cersei–for all her twistedness and foul deeds–loves intensely and very specifically; she loves Joffrey and, yes, Jaime as people. Her fault, like Tywin’s may be that she loves them to the exclusion of the good of anyone else in the world, but she comes to it from a different direction.

Love of the House or love of the person: which is raging through Arya’s mind as she perforates that hapless Frey soldier next to his campfire? It may be some of both: certainly the sense is that murdering Robb Stark was a means of trying to erase House Stark (hence, maybe, the grisly desecration of parading his dire wolf’s head–his house sigil–on his headless corpse). And yet one gets the sense—ever sense that so-sad-in-retrospect first episode of the Starks together—that the Stark children have been raised as an actual loving family, and that, if anything gets them through, it will be that.

(This may be one reason it was so sweet to see Sam meet Bran briefly and call him his “brother”: it’s just such a relief for anyone we like in this world to come across an actual, honest friend.)

Sentimentality, honor, a sense of decency—that may not win you wars in Westeros. And yet they may at least help you deal with being on the losing end. We saw that as well in our visit to the Greyjoys, with Balon—a worse father, if possible, than Tywin—ready to write off Theon because he’s been captured and unmanned, and Yara taking a ship and setting sail, because he’s her little brother. (Ramsay promises Balon that there are more parts of Theon to come, but after the first, apparently, the rest are irrelevant.) We see that in Davos, who tells Gendry that he became a knight only to help his own son (who then died in the war), then frees Gendry and betrays his king because he can’t let Stannis go through with the abomination of killing his own blood. Stannis lets him live, not because he sees Davos’ point, but because the same sense of unbending larger duty that would have had him burn his nephew now tells him he must aid the Night’s Watch against the Walkers.

And that’s where “Mhysa” leaves us, murder reigning in the South, death marching from the North.

Hands down, this has been the best season of Game of Thrones to date, which is, to some extent, an unfair comparison, because the source material–a good chunk but not all of A Storm of Swords–is probably the strongest book to date in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. But the accomplishments of this season go beyond having some strong stories and holy-shit moments to work with. With Dany’s dragon-conquest of Astapor, the Red Wedding, and a woman fighting a bear, Benioff and Weiss drew a strong hand to begin with, but they also played it well. A few story lines wandered—cough, Theon, cough—but they largely kept a sprawling story focused by making widely separated characters feel connected, and by focusing on unifying themes and character arcs.

For Danaerys, who ended season 3, it was her journey from princess to liberator—discovering what it means to earn power rather than inherit it, and finding a meaning in her quest beyond simply serving her royal house’s glory and adding more pages to the pretty storybooks about the Targaryens. She and Stannis, are both, in their way, principled leaders, but his is a more simplistic, almost child-like idea of principle: I should be king because the throne is mine, and those are the rules! That point is where Dany started (and where Viserys ended his life). But whether it’s from character or circumstance, her battles among the slave cities of Essos have made her want to deserve the crown, not just be entitled to it; she’s learned that there is far greater power in ruling a consenting people than a submissive one.

So it ends up that, in a reprise of her conquest of Astapor, she gives the slaves of the beaten city Yunkai the choice of whether to accept her. And they give her the title that give the episode its title: “Mhysa,” or “Mother.” Sometimes you’re born into your family. Sometimes, you have to make your own.

Now for one more hail of bullets:

* OK, book readers. I know from the post-episode chatter on Twitter that this finale was a matter of some controversy; the producers split the source novel, A Storm of Swords, between this season and the next one, and apparently some people were hoping that certain shall-we-say big event from the latter part of that book would be in the finale. They weren’t. I have a lot of thoughts about all that, believe me, but there is simply no way to discuss that without getting into spoilers for non-readers. So let’s not, please. There are plenty of sites on the Internet devoted to people who have read the source books; I will not take any offense if you go there to talk about the books to your heart’s delight.

* Loved that little sweet little scene between Sansa and Tyrion early in the episode, both for the little dawning connection between them and for the fact that she doesn’t properly know the word “shit.”

* “While you hid at Casterly Rock!” Did I just cheer something Joffrey said? The world has turned upside down.

* Last week, I quibbled that I wished the episode had made clearer that the Red Wedding massacre was not just evil but literally an abomination—something inviting an eternal curse—in the religious culture of Westeros, as the books made clear; glad to see Bran’s Rat Cook story making the point here.

* How much must the GoT actors who have not gotten scenes with Conleth Hill resent the ones who have? The man, and his character, never disappoint.

* Ygritte’s shooting Jon Snow three times with arrows is the most romantic thing I’ve seen anyone do on TV in a long time. If only they did that on The Bachelor!

* I like how the show has occasionally returned to the theme of how The Wall has had the unintended consequence of making the Wildlings into have-nots, and made some southerners forget that the Walkers, and not the Wildlings, are the real enemy. Sam’s line about the Wall not being meant to keep out men was a fine reminder.

* Like last week, I’ve written this post faster and more bleary-eyed than usual to get discussion started. If I think of anything to add, or notice any egregious errors, I’ll update in the morning. In the meantime, thanks for joining me over this season of GoT; the show may be sprawling and messy, but I’ve also had more fun writing about it than any season of TV since Lost was on the air. (I’ll say it again: Brienne fought a bear!) I look forward to seeing your comments—again, your spoiler-free comments—and here’s to season 4.

38 comments
buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

Tyrion: "Killed any kittens today?" Tyrion is twice the man that men twice his size are.

JamesStacey
JamesStacey

Sorry, wrong thread. I just wanted a number to bang  Emilia Clarke. At first, I thought her cans were too small, but make a good combo with the silver hair... Overall, the show suffers from a lack of full frontal female nudity, which would greatly enhance the plotlines. Anyway, what do you expect when the books were authored by a fat guy who uses RR as part of his name? 

Tyneria
Tyneria

Daenerys is not perfect and her decisions are not always right, i didn't like the choreography in the final scene too much. She is naive as any teenager can be. For example when she tried to give a man water earlier in the season and he said 'let me die' she didn't even realize by giving him water it would prolong his death. She wants people to be free and doesn't think of the consequences that she will be responsible for all these 'children' now. Because she is a Targareyn from westeros she is white and where she is the slaves are brown skinned, im not disturbed over a storyline like that. Speaking of disturbing we have the psychopath ramsay played by a white guy, nutcases and murderers everywhere are white, and well white walkers! thats not right that these evil dudes are white lol. and im mixed race of white/Maori. People are flawed in this show, scenes and themes are disturbing but whats more disturbing is the real world we live in and what our history tells.

WulanKusumawardhani
WulanKusumawardhani

I really want to see how they gonna play the 'Yara rescuing Theon' part in 4th season cause that definitely another wandered story line.

geoff.clarke
geoff.clarke

I like your sense of the overall theme, James, but I was struck by the stories about the populace - Margery visiting the orphanage in the first episode, the brotherhood in the middle, and Daenarys being lifted up by the people in the last. In too many fantasy stories the common people are just fodder or the before picture before the hero finds a sword/rescues a princess/etc. 

JonEllman
JonEllman

My shock and awe at the Red wedding episode was almost matched by the final scene of this last episode. It is the most blatant, White Savior scene in the history of television. I had never picked up on that theme as Daenerys' storyline has been my favorite storyline this past season, then suddenly, like a splash of cold water, I watched the final scene and got nauseous, as I know many other black/brown viewers did (Just checked the comment thread at ONTD http://ohnotheydidnt.livejournal.com/78559344.html).  Very disturbing, kind of ruined the storyline for me.  Curious to see how the mostly white professional reviewers of the show will completely not notice that.

jsp3uk
jsp3uk

sorry, not sure what show you are watching.  the first two seasons were masterful and more importantly great television because they were NEVER BORING.  they were full of plot, always moving, always asking you to keep up.  it was fun and special to the overall experience.  this season, at least half of it anyway, was stagnant and devoid of plot.  maybe you tricked yourself into thinking more happened on the SHOW than actually did because you have read the books so you filled in the gaps with thoughts of what is coming - as a non book reader, i assure you, the gaps were prevalent and yawning.  theon spends the whole season strapped to an X.  daenerys spends 5 episodes sitting in a tent awaiting news of a sack we end up not even seeing.  don't even get me started on bran.  nobody in king's landing ends anywhere different from where they began - they just took in information for 10 episodes and acted upon none of it.  worst of all, the finale had zero cliffhangers (other than winter is coming, which we've known since day 1).  if the writers thought they could stretch one book into two seasons, i am here to tell you that they made a mistake.

shantu21
shantu21

bran meeting sam, made me genuinely happy and when he addressed him as his brother i had a sense of relief prevailing over me. well thats when i also realised that the starks are not alone. broke my heart thinking about arya, though i really hope she turns into a bad ass and kicks some frey bolton lannister butts! i am a non book reader, and somehow i would be happy if bran uses his powers to control the night walkers and leads their army to destroy all those who did wrong to the starks (just a speculation).
and MHYSA...wow! i was craving to catch a glimpse of dany, and the scene was absolutely beautiful and emotional. i was not disappointed with the episode. there were a lot of elements which satiated my GoT hunger, though it's going to be hard waiting one whole year for the next season. I am however planning to start reading the series from book 1 to getter a better perspective of characters. 

FredSmith
FredSmith

I lost most of my interest in the series after they killed the Starks.  That is like having the Millenium Falcon with Luke, Han, and Leia on board crashing into an Asteroid and dying after escaping from the Imperial battle ship before they had a chance to destroy the death star.  It took all the interest away.

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

Non--book reader here, just someone who keeps being struck by reminders of Macbeth. I know Robb wasn't exactly a kinsman of Walder Frey (who's portrayed by an actor who looks just a little but unnervingly enough like my dad---please remember my name, Dad!), but Frey otherwise seemed to be aiming for the Macbeth Trifecta ("Macbethfecta"?): killing a guest, killing a king, and killing a kinsman. As a non--book reader, I'm wondering if his acts will earn Frey the same bad juju that befell Macbeth.

To my infinite regret, Mr. The Hoobie seems to be much more innocent than I when it comes to our immediate interpretation of events on the show. Tonight: Him: "Wait, what's riding the horse?!" Me: "Oh, dear. I think it's his direwolf's head on Robb's body." "OH."

Omagus
Omagus

"I like how the show has occasionally returned to the theme of how The Wall has had the unintended consequence of making the Wildlings into have-nots"

--

I don't know if George R. R. Martin intended it this way or not, but it wasn't until I saw tonight's episode that I really noticed how The Wall could be used as an allegory for status in our world as well. Just like in Westeros, some people are put into a position where they can succeed and get ahead just by the good fortune of where and when they happened to be born.