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Game of Thrones Watch: Blood Is Thicker

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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.