It’s been a sort of tradition for GoT to go big in the 9th episode, then make the season finale a quiet and reflective one – but I’d adjudge that to be only partly true here. No doubt there was some serious reflection on the awful events of the Red Wedding – from the gloating to the grieving – but there was an awful lot of important stuff happening, too. Although one really big thing a lot of us were expecting to happen didn’t, but that’s a subject for next March (and not the comments section to this post).
“Mhysa” took the opposite tack to the one we’ve seen the last few weeks with their relatively narrow focus. Instead we had a broad and far-reaching episode, touching base briefly with almost every major character in the story (indeed, I think Littlefinger was the biggest name who didn’t get a glimpse). I think that’s a wise move for a season finale, and due to David Nutter’s brilliant direction the ep didn’t feel disjointed or rushed in the slightest. There’s no way I can do my usual recap on all the major threads, so I’m just going to hit the major high points (and a few low).
Themes: For starters, family is everywhere, and so are bad fathers. From Roose Bolton to Walder Frey to Balon Greyjoy to the magnificent bastard Tywin Lannister, bad Dads are omnipresent. So is their influence – in Samwell Tarly, Brienne of Tarth, Gendry and Ramsey Snow. There are good Dads here too, like dear old Davos Seaforth – a humble man from Flea Bottom who took a Lordship he didn’t want to try and help his son, who died following him into battle. And memories of good Dads passed on, from Arya.
The family theme runs deeper, to the subject of the family name – something that means everything in a feudal society like Westeros. Tywin uses it to justify every atrocity he commits, Balon uses it to justify abandoning his son to torture and death. Every scene Varys appears in is seemingly great – seriously Conleith Hill is a clear standout even among this cast – and his moments with Shae speak to this theme of “what’s in a name?” Varys always manages to couch his actions in context of what’s good for the Kingdom, and he’s consistently said what he told Shae – that Tyrion is one of the few men with both the character and position to influence it for the better. It’s true, but a sad comment on the state of affairs in King’s Landing and elsewhere.
New (old) faces: It was great to re-acquaint with some characters we haven’t seen in an age, like sweet old Maester Aemon and Pyp of Castle Black, Balon Greyjoy (anything but sweet, but Patrick Malahide is never less than spectacular in any role) and Yara. This storyline continues to look quite different than the books, and Yara’s rescue mission is uncharted waters for book readers. Also, the torture scenes with Ramsey and
Theon Reek continue to be one of the rare misfires of the adaptation, far worse than they were in the books (and they weren’t one of the better parts of the books).
Goodness still lives: In its way, I found this episode truly heartwarming because it took great pains to show us that genuinely good, kind people still exist in the brutal terror of a world. GoT has more right bastards in starring roles than almost any series, but it also has achingly good characters. Davos is a remarkably noble man, by birth or no – he shows it over and over again. “What does the life of one boy mean against an entire kingdom?” a furious Stannis asks after Davos covertly frees Gendry before Melissandre can burn him. “It means everything.” Davos replies. It’s everything you need to know about the man, right there.
Again – and at long last – Bran’s arc truly shines. This arc is full of good and noble souls, from Bran himself through to the Reeds, and Osha, and even Hodor. And this week it ran up against another of those good souls – two, actually – in Sam (I guess now his leaving the dagger behind isn’t so great a sin) and Gilly. I was thrilled the “Rat Cook” story made its way into the narrative, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright nailed the telling. It sheds a good deal of light on the Red Wedding and just how grievous a sin against all Westeros holds dear it was. Sam calling Bran “Brother” was a great moment – but somehow, what really got to me was when Bran was sadly telling Sam how he couldn’t go to Castle Black to be with Jon. When Hodor put his arm around Bran’s shoulder, I don’t know why but I lost it a little bit. That small gesture coming from that character was the epitome of the old parable of one candle, lit against the darkness.
There are several other fine moments in the episode, starting with Ygritte showing her love for Jon by pumping three arrows into him. I also loved Sam’s speech to Aemon, reciting his oath and reminding the old man that The Wall wasn’t built to keep out men (something most in Westeros seem to have forgotten, including those who need to know better). Seeing Sam with a subtle confidence upon his return to Castle Black was really gratifying. Tywin giving Joffrey smackdowns is something that never gets old, and it’s always interesting to see Cersei and Tyrion realize they have more in common than either would care to admit. And of course, we see Arya take a very important step – a first step on a long, dark journey – though at a different time and in a different place than she did in the books.
As we head into Season Four, it’s fairly easy to see from this episode where the main building blocks of the story are. Danerys’ thread continues to leave me pretty consistently unmoved and this episode’s scenes were no different, but there’s no denying she made big strides this season both personally and strategically. Aemon’s 44 ravens were a crucial moment, most obviously the one that found its way to Stannis via Davos. Jaimie has returned home a very different man than he was, Tyrion and Sansa have been sundered anew by the Red Wedding just as they were beginning to connect, and the other surviving Stark children are scattered to the four winds – each following a very different path, but alive, and with them the family name. The Starks are in retreat, Winterfell is in ruins, and much has been lost that can never be regained. But the Starks are Lords of the North, the night is cold and holds many terrors, and winter is coming.