June 9th, 2013
“Here only the family name matters.”
As Varys explains this fact to Shae, he’s being pragmatic: he’s trying to help someone whose very existence at King’s Landing threatens her own life and the life of the man she loves. Varys acknowledges that she has made Tyrion better. Varys acknowledges that hers is a true love. And yet Varys also gives her a collection of diamonds, telling her to sail to Pentos and start a new life for herself so that her love can do something good for Westeros without the threat of a single-named woman hanging over him.
It’s dark advice, advice that Shae refuses to take. Despite the fact that we just saw both Robb Stark and Talisa die for following true love over pragmatism, and despite the fact that Jon Snow just took three arrows from the woman he loves, Shae proves what many other characters have learned as well: there is still power in love even when all signs would suggest that trusting in such power will be your undoing.
“Mhysa” is about this love, which may seem strange in light of the fact that last week ended on such a foreboding sendoff for Robb and Catelyn Stark. And yet Game of Thrones needed a new motivation beyond ascending to the throne, a sense of purpose that could evolve beyond the War of the Five Kings and the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark which set it off. What “Mhysa” seeks to accomplish is reframe the actions of its characters not as part of a larger power struggle, but rather as actions designed to protect their families or to protect the realm. This is not to say that we are to support the Lannisters’ cruelty or to endorse Melisandre’s sorcery, but rather that we can shift our understanding of their actions away from a part in a larger plot and instead toward what motivated them to take those steps in the first place.
It’s an enriching move that works to build a strong foundation for future seasons, although one that has some issues retroactively making some of the season’s storylines resonate in the way intended. “Mhysa” concludes a third season that was only retroactively revealed—for non-readers, at least—to be the season where Game of Thrones could no longer be simplified to a battle between the Starks of Winterfell and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, one that did its job without necessarily connecting in the process.
My biggest concerns with the season are primarily driven by the storylines of the two Stark sons who weren’t, Theon and Jon. “Mhysa” demonstrates my issue with the two storylines nicely, in two sequences that make perfect sense but don’t mean as much as they could or should. In Theon’s case, the taking of his name by who we can now finally refer to as Ramsay Snow—more on the end of that national nightmare in the bullet points below—mirrors the episode’s interest in family and its meaning within struggles of power. Without his title, christened Reek by Ramsay, who is Theon? And without his cock, and his ability to continue the Greyjoy line, he is nothing to his father, who is perfectly willing to let him rot away in the Dreadfort. His sister Yara, however, believes there is more to family than a cock and an heir, and sails out on her own to save her brother, believing—as other characters in “Mhysa” do—that there is something more to love and family than the power one can attain from it.
The problem is that while the scene technically works, it doesn’t actually do much to make Theon’s storyline this season more than just a thin way to keep the character around and offer thematic parallels for other, more important characters (most often Jaime, whose own struggle for identity in the wake of losing his definitive body part is mostly pushed to next season given that we see only his return to Cersei before the finale concludes). And if that was its only purpose, did we need to spend as much time with it as we did? Was the amount of torture necessary in a season that was already pretty heavy on torture and darkness in other storylines? It’s the same issue I have with Jon’s storyline: while his love with Ygritte was reworked to be more about their romance, giving them a parting moment in which Ygritte somehow catches up with him alone and gets in a few arrows to express her despondence following his departure, its utility here doesn’t make Jon’s journey from Point A to Point B feel like anything more than a vessel for thematic material. And given how rather schmoopy—that’s a technical term—that material was here, and on top of the wall, I’m not sure there was enough subtlety in Jon’s characterization to necessarily make that journey as productive as it should have been. While I’m not sure we needed to see Theon’s story at all, at least not to the degree we did, I’m sure we needed to see Jon’s journey but not convinced that the journey crafted for him met the needs of the season.
“Mhysa” does with these storylines what it does with many others, reaching a logical point of resolution and giving us a bookend to say “This is what this meant to the characters and to the series.” Only Jon’s conclusion felt downright ineffective to me, the scene with Ygritte dipping too far into the well of blind romanticism, while some others enter into that all-important “serviceable” category (like Bran running into Sam and Gilly and making his way beyond-the-wall in an efficient fashion). For the most part, though, I liked what “Mhysa” did in giving characters a moment to reflect or act upon what has befallen them over the course of the season. Sometimes this was as small as Jaime walking through the Mud Gate and being so unrecognizable that he’s ordered out of the way by a mere subject. Sometimes this was as large as Davos’ ability to read helping give him the courage to save Gendry and risk his life on his ability to convince Stannis to travel North instead of South. In all cases, it spoke to what the show is about on a level that the show has sometimes missed as it gets caught up in power struggle after power struggle.
I love how the episode opens with Sansa and Arya having such contrasting experiences. As Arya and the Hound ride away from the Twins, Robb’s body with Grey Wolf’s head attached rides out behind them, Arya waking up just in time to see what was done to her brother and her King. Meanwhile, Sansa walks in King’s Landing unaware that her family has once again suffered a terrible tragedy, slipping into a playful rapport with Tyrion as they bond over their respective ostracization. As one enjoys what could be her last glimpse of hope in an increasingly dark existence, reminiscing on her sister’s childish pranks and imagining that same light-heartedness is within reach, the other sees a definitive reminder that there is no lightness in this world, at least no lightness that she could ever count on. I thought it unfortunate we never saw the moment when Sansa learned her world had changed, seeing that moment instead through the eyes of Tyrion who now has to look her in the eye knowing his family—and not just his nephew—was responsible for her continued suffering. But we get to see how Arya responds, murdering a man for bragging of being a part of the attempt to strip her name of its meaning and honor.
The Stark Family looms large over “Mhysa,” even if their flags are being burned at the Twins and Melisandre is throwing Dragonstone’s wolf markers into the fire. The Lannisters believe they have successfully stripped the name of its power, with Sansa’s impending child the true Stark heir. And yet we know that Catelyn and Ned’s legacy holds in their four children who remain, and not just in the sense that Bran and Rickon remain as heirs to Winterfell without Tywin’s knowledge (which is interesting given that Ramsay is aware of this fact). Arya may never be Queen of the North, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t able to avenge her family; Sansa may be a prisoner of the Lannisters, but that does not strip her of every agency. While the Starks may never win the War of the Five Kings, their failure to win that war and the deaths of so many of their members does not make Jon Snow—my issues with his story this season aside—any less important as someone who is fighting to protect the realm in his family’s name (even if, like other bastards, he isn’t able to claim that name). The Night’s Watch may strip you of titles, but it reaffirms bonds of family in the sense that it unites people like Sam and Jon toward a common goal; Sam says that Bran is like his own brother not because he feels he must honor the heir to Winterfell, but because of a relationship he built with Jon on different, more human terms.
The best parts of “Mhysa” for me might not have been as strong for non-readers, given that to this point Davos has been something of a cipher. An increased focus on Melisandre made him far from our only window into Stannis, and the Dragonstone storyline has been somewhat abstract ever since they introduced it last season. However, Liam Cunningham did some tremendous work in “Mhysa” humanizing a part of this story that has often struggled, and Joe Dempsie stepped up to prove how smart bringing Gendry into this storyline was for the sake of the show’s future. Their conversation about growing up in Flea Bottom was short and perhaps “insignificant” to the larger plot, but it was decidedly human in a way that little else has been. Why did Gendry fall for Melisandre’s wiles? Because he’s a kid who’s never had sex being seduced by a naked woman and her portentous words. Why did Davos risk his life to save Gendry’s? Because he refuses to allow a magical faith to overwhelm his sense of what is right and wrong. In other words, their responses are human, their actions driven by their inherent humanity in an increasingly inhuman world, which is perhaps why Stannis—and the show—need people like Davos in the North as the White Walkers prove a greater threat to the realm.
While “Mhysa” works to reframe Davos as a hero, it has a different task for the Lannisters. On the one hand, we see Joffrey reveling in the glory of the Starks’ death, wanting to serve Robb’s head to Sansa on a platter and just being a shit in general. But then the rest of the Lannister scenes in the episode search for the humanity within the terror, and they find it in complex spaces. For Tywin it’s the fact that he sees his willingness to let Tyrion live as his own personal sacrifice, the moment in his life when he chose to allow himself to suffer in order for his family to triumph. The season has not lacked for scenes of Charles Dance interacting with his children, but few of those scenes have ever felt as though they were about Tywin, who rarely if ever revealed anything about himself in the process. While that decision informs his entire relationship with Tyrion, it also shows how from Tywin’s perspective everything he does is to protect his family in the same way that Catelyn’s choice to set someone free was for her own. The Lannisters are like the Starks, really, except that the decisions they make to protect their family or the love they share for their children have very different kinds of consequences.
Cersei’s treatise on motherhood is the first major hint to the meaning of “Mhysa,” as she notes that she has to love Joffrey and her other—completely unseen this season—children because without them she has nothing. She could not love the man she loved, and was forced to fulfill the goals of her family at the cost of her own. Her children were her support system, the thing that kept her fighting and which gave her a reason to sacrifice herself (since doing so for her father or for “the family” in abstract would never have held the same meaning). She didn’t know Joffrey would turn out to be what he was, but he is still what for so long gave her purpose that she could never simply turn her back on that. It reminded me of Catelyn’s story of Jon Snow’s illness earlier this season, a story about how she refused to mother a boy who needed a mother out of pride, and how that had haunted her. Catelyn’s desperation in her final moments wasn’t simply out of grief, but rather out of a sense of emptiness: believing that every one of her children could be dead, she had nothing to live for. Cersei still does, even if living for them means something different than it would have for Catelyn.
“Mhysa” ends on the most unorthodox of mothers. Daenerys has always been known as the mother of dragons, but in the finale’s final sequence she becomes the Mother of the people of Yunkai. If Astapor affirmed her leadership, gaining control of the Unsullied and the army she would need to prove herself, Yunkai proves that she is a also a leader of the common people. Despite being on the other side of the sea from the warm, she’s establishing the parameters necessary to win it: she has the army, and she has proven her ability to win over the people who she intends to protect with that army. That it’s all happening far away from Westeros remains a barrier, and you could argue the show doesn’t do enough to suggest where precisely Dany might go from this point forward. However, Dany isn’t thinking about power as she crowdsurfs her way through the people of Yunkai; she’s thinking about purpose, something that is arguably more important than power in the grand scheme of things. It’s also something that some could have felt was lost when Robb Stark’s campaign to bring down King Joffrey was brought to its tragic end at the Red Wedding.
It’s plentiful in “Mhysa,” although how effectively it will be read that way is a different story. Moreso than the series’ other season finales, “Mhysa” doesn’t just move pieces into place or introduce an exciting event that we’re anticipating seeing unfold next season. It moves pieces into place, sure, but then it takes a moment to announce why they’re there, and what being there means to them and to the story at large. While many storylines remain vague, others—like Stannis’ march north to Dragonstone—are heralded. If we were to take “Mhysa” at its word, I’d say Benioff and Weiss has a strong understanding of what drives these characters and how they will in turn drive this story; that understanding could show some cracks if we take season three as a whole into account, but I don’t know if any of those annoyances went beyond the surface to challenge the foundation of this adapation, one that felt almost baldly apparent as the third season came to a close.
- I had a lot of people ask me who was torturing Theon, and every time I told them the same thing: the show is clearly keeping it secret for a reason, and it will be revealed in time. However, as the season went on I also started warning them the reveal wouldn’t be all that exciting, and it really wasn’t: I get why they kept it a secret, I do, but I definitely think Bolton’s motivations ended up feeling too much like blatant exposition to make Ramsay’s identity anything more than a footnote.
- I’m still not sure if the show is as thematically rich musically as I’d like, honestly, but the two operatic pieces for Dany this season—“Dracarys” and then tonight’s “Mhysa”—are fantastic, and Djawadi deserves an Emmy nod.
- And thus begins the most interesting question: when will the show return to the characters it sent away from the central storylines solidified in this hour? Littlefinger? Osha? Gendry? That’s a question that book readers are likely to ask as much as non-readers at this point.
- Help me out here: while we learned the Blackfish escaped definitively, didn’t Walder say that Edmure simply spent his wedding night in the dungeon? Did they not kill him? I was a bit confused on that point.
- “I know how this must look”—I laughed really hard at this line, but I wonder how many people forgot that Maester Aemon was blind and didn’t get it at first. It’s been a while since we saw him, after all.
- Speaking of Aemon, I have questions about how fast ravens would travel from The Wall to Dragonstone. Lots of questions.
- I may or may not be back to talk some book spoilers for the readers later this week, but thanks to everyone who’s been reading along for another season of Game of Thrones reviews – this is really the only show left that I review week-to-week here at Cultural Learnings, and it’s always gratifying to be able to engage with such an engaged viewership on both the reader and non-reader side of things. Looking forward to Season Four, both on-screen and off.