The Next Time I See You: Locating the Family in Thrones
By Tyler Davis
As the third season of Thrones concluded and “Mhysa” cut to its credits, I was struck by how Ramin Djawadi’s score continued unabated, punctuated but not interrupted by Drogon’s ascending screech. The smoothness of this sonic transition from story to post-story felt purposeful when compared to the brief moments of silence given in the wake of previous concluding scenes, as if the show was now self-consciously underscoring a heightened principle of continuity. Djawadi’s piece extends beyond the limits of the final frame, and we’re reminded that this is all but one chapter in an ongoing narrative.
The “birth” of Dany’s dragons in season one was revelatory, and the unveiling of the White Walker army in season two was shocking; these surprising moments heralded momentous shifts in the understandings of the characters present, while having significant implications for the world at large. Taken as structural choices, these scenes served as blatant, effective cliffhangers, both introducing or revealing unexpected factors within the game–factors that audiences knew would dramatically influence everything thereafter, even if they couldn’t yet see how. Season three takes a different tack. While Dany’s embrace by the formerly enslaved population of Yunkai felt perfectly at home within the thematic range of the season, the scene was deliberately without the kind of conspicuous hook fans have come to expect. Instead, the final moment signaled in every way that season three’s conclusion was nothing more than a significant dramatic beat for a tale in medias res.
While I’m unsure just how effective the scene was at universally eliciting a strong emotional response (for reasons I’ll get to), I think that its intent – one which doesn’t really attempt to seduce us with the potential ramifications of what we’re seeing, but rather state one answer to a season-long thematic question – was fitting.
A Storm of Swords is often championed as the best entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, and one reason for its popularity is that it offers countless resolutions to a swath of story that was originally intended to be one novel, but expanded to three in the telling. We’ve begun to see some of these resolutions on-screen–events like the Red Wedding being of great significance in this regard–but it’s crucial to remember that the majority of the novel’s content is being spread across two seasons. In this way, the mhysa-sequence felt more like cresting one peak from out of a range of peaks in the course of an extended hike, and less like breaking a climbing record.
Of course, there’s direct continuity between all Thrones seasons, just as there is between each novel in the series; seasons of the show aren’t cleanly compartmentalized into blocks any more than Martin’s literary narrative is. But there’s another sense in which a novel is a self-contained work with a tonal fingerprint, replete with unique rhythms ascribed to it by its author during the time of the novel’s creation. It’s for this reason that the respective effects of the fourth and fifth novels aren’t necessarily retained when we explode and recombine the chapters of both so as to place them in chronological order. Even though the events in both novels largely take place simultaneously, individual events placed in sequence may still bear the tone of the respective works they belong to, or of the differing times in the author’s life from out of which they emerged.
Similarly, there are consistencies within a given season that emerge by virtue of the limitations and characteristics of the show’s production. Each season is the product of several smaller, interlocking stages: writing phases, production phases, post-production phases. Sometimes material from one season might be moved to a later season in the way that chapters from one novel might be delayed for the next, but this does little to change the fact that what makes it to the screen over a ten-week period each year is essentially unified by the broad circumstances of its creation, and any commonalities therein. As such, it is my suspicion that the writing of the show’s third season had an even smaller ‘moment of silence’ in its wake than is usual, with great attention being paid to how the second half of A Storm of Swords could be effectively adapted without arbitrarily resetting or reframing the arcs we experienced over the last ten episodes. Season three had season four in mind from the start.
This means that many arcs initiated in season three feel as if they’ve reached points of lesser climax en route to greater climaxes. Jaime, for instance, has unwittingly embarked upon a journey of self-discovery and come out of it a changed man; when he saves Brienne, it’s a significant moment for the both of them. And yet we all eagerly await his reintegration in King’s Landing–something teased at but left unexplored in this episode. Similarly, we’ve seen Theon undergo a grueling transformation (also involving dismemberment), though the payoff is little more than a hint and Yara’s promise. Arya finally reaches her family, but does so too late, her journey culminating in a vicious, intentional kill. This concludes one aspect of her arc in that she can no longer meaningfully hold out for the solace of familial reunion, while establishing a new shift within her character: the dark embrace of a killer instinct. Jon’s relationship with Ygritte reaches a logical conclusion, but his return to Castle Black is momentary and untested. This design convention repeats itself throughout the episode, where events which serve as completely adequate moments of closure within season three’s arcs actively leverage their narrative weight to boldly push us in the direction of even more momentous happenings further up the road.
I once wrote that each season debut thrives when it finds some consolidative mechanism to wrest order from the chaos of disparate storylines, far-flung locales and seemingly unrelated character agendas. Finales work similarly in that they generally have an obligation to touch upon the show’s assortment of narrative threads without subjecting them to disunity, hopefully pushing them forward just enough that time spent feels earned, yet not so far that they feel overextended. As such, they’re strengthened when there’s a device helping the scenes cohere. The aforementioned closure-catalyst structure aided in this coherence, as did the additional running time. I was surprised that the episode was not only able to reintroduce characters we’d not seen for a season, but circle back to certain groups of characters two, or even three times. The majority of scenes felt robust, and the majority of the running time was efficiently spent.
Furthermore, it is testament to the third season’s increased thematic richness that the finale felt so coordinated, with almost every scene touching upon the concept of family in some way: familial bonds by blood, familial bonds by choice, familial bonds offered, familial bonds taken away, and all attendant obligations thereof. And while family may seem an obvious underpinning for a show built around the trials and tribulations of a dynastic society, few episodes have so thoroughly explored the variable meanings of “family” in the sociopolitical context of Westeros. Each story works at a distinct zoom-level, ranging from Sam’s bloodless brotherly embrace of Bran, to Stannis and his willingness to play father to the realm. In the broadly ranging attention it devotes to every social rung of the game, “Mhysa” came exceptionally close to what a monumentally effective episode of The Wire: Westeros might look like.
This focus was further augmented by the repercussions of and reactions to the Red Wedding–an event significant and singular enough that it changes the game for every player. Much like Ned’s death, the Red Wedding is a globally catalytic event in the story. From the standpoint of the show’s production, the change is purely structural; the removal of Robb and company frees up authorial attention for other storylines. On another level, this catalysis is deeply interwoven in the narrative itself, where its repercussions dramatically change the context all other characters have become familiar with, forcing them to adapt. Everyone must reconsider their position on the board, and the relative positions of other players.
This season began with meditations on duty and choice, and has subtextually provided countless examples of competing philosophies on service and affiliation since. In “Mhysa,” the show’s writers further their considerations of these themes by pushing them against questions of and ideas about kinship. “The Rains of Castamere” was an episode very much concerned with the devastation of interpersonal bonds involving Starks: the (beginning of the) destruction of Jon’s romantic union with Ygritte, the literal annihilation of Robb Stark’s place in the Stark lineage, the death of two Stark family matriarchs, the continued fragmentation of the remaining Stark brothers, and repeated instances wherein Starks skidded surfaces with one another without connecting. This shattering effect prompts characters in “Mhysa” to assess the bonds which remain in the aftermath of this event, some strained, some solidified, and some forged anew.
This episode was so thematically coherent that I’d like to construct a snapshot overview of the episode, with a short family-focused assessment per storyline (taken in rough chronological order):
Sansa attempts to make the most of her new family situation with poise and dignity, japing with Tyrion despite the history between her family and his, seeking common ground. This proves futile as the Stark-Lannister gulf is cruelly emphasized when she learns of her true family’s downfall.
Tyrion receives a lesson in how “a house that puts family first will always defeat the house that puts the whims and wishes of its sons and daughters first” by Tywin, the man whose greatest act of self-sacrifice involved allowing a newborn Tyrion to live for the sake of his family name, and whose children do anything but live up to the maxim he advocates.
Walder Frey and Roose Bolton muse on their respective circumstances in the aftermath of the Red Wedding, Frey evidencing the depths of his pettiness in the interests of the Frey name, and Roose indicating his uniquely distant parenting approach in the understatement of the millenium when he acknowledges that “Ramsay does things his own way.”
Ramsay Snow, Roose’s psychopathic bastard, finally clarifies his purpose in breaking Theon. Through the systematic degradation of Theon’s mental health and the physical removal of Theon’s capacity as an heir, Roose has rendered the son of a noble house into a pliable husk with a lower than lowborn name: Reek.
Samwell and Gilly encounter Bran and company, Sam offering Bran the promise of brotherhood for no reason greater than Sam’s affiliation with Jon, thereby demonstrating Sam’s rather inclusive and flexible brand of familial receptivity.
Balon and Yara receive news of Theon’s torture. Balon, already having forsaken Theon due to unshakable distrust and a reaction to Theon’s foolishness, sees no reason to jeopardize his northern gains for the sake of a son who is less than a man, and who can no longer produce heirs. Yara’s sense of family seems to run deeper than Balon’s, depending either on a steadfast and indiscriminate loyalty to blood, or a more personal sense of kinship forged during her earliest memories with her brother. She vows to save Theon.
Gendry and Davos discuss the difference between those of low and high birth, bonding over their shared place of origin: Flea Bottom. Davos admits that in actively pursuing a better life for his son by loyally anchoring himself to a highborn man he respects, his son lost his life. This can be construed as tacitly supporting Gendry’s claim that there’s an underlying incompatibility between the classes, and that family makes all the difference, or as supporting Davos in his belief that some things (and some men) are worth following despite the consequences.
Varys urges Shae to depart King’s Landing, reminding her that neither of them will ever truly be called family by the highborn in a land where “only the family name matters.” He makes this request so that she might leave Tyrion behind in order for him to better serve the realm with his unique gifts, undistracted by the temptations of the heart Shae provokes.
Cersei offers a variant of Tywin’s family devotion, though in her case it stems specifically from the sense of purpose conferred by motherhood–a feeling of belonging and unity with another human being that leaves her loving Joffrey despite his monstrousness.
Arya transmutes her remaining devotion to the Stark family name into fuel for a murderous rage–the fruit of her constant reception of life lessons handed down by expert killers and men of war. In this moment, she seems to finally acknowledge a dark path of empowerment away from–and new, death-centric kinship outside of–her struggles.
Jon asserts his obligation to another family – the Night’s Watch – when confronted by Ygritte, and she wounds him in response, the world she comes from leaving her ill-equipped to understand Jon’s prioritization of abstracted values like duty or honor over the more tangible joy of living in love.
Stannis decides that the blood bond which ties him to Gendry – a “poor lad from Flea Bottom who happens to be his nephew” – is worth severing for the sake of a kingdom, while Davos asserts that loyalty to that bond, especially when it means loyalty to an innocent, is worth everything.
Jaime, a man changed by his experiences over the last two seasons, enters King’s Landing with Brienne, a woman who has proven herself kindred in knightly spirit. In returning he confronts Cersei, who immediately appears conflicted upon seeing the Jaime she knew standing before her, so clearly stripped of his old identity.
Daenerys physically subjects herself to the approval or rejection of the liberated Yunkai population, and they embrace her as their figurative mother.
The form of the question Stannis asks regarding the worth of one bastard boy’s life when held against an entire kingdom can be syntactically applied to other storylines throughout the season. What’s one King’s life (or the vow to protect said life) worth against the population of an entire city? What’s the worth of upholding strict standards of honor if endorsing or ignoring dishonorable actions confers a greater chance of achieving justice (or vengeance, or some other end)? What’s true love worth when weighed against the duty to your countrymen or brotherhood (when victory alongside your countrymen is by no means assured, and heroism alongside your brotherhood may go unacknowledged)? What’s the worth of a noble family’s life in comparison to the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers?
These questions test our moral perspectives. While it’s easy for us to sympathize with Jaime Lannister’s choice to kill a clearly insane ruler in order to save thousands of innocents (because we understandably undervalue the weight of the Kingsguard’s vow as compared to the value of innocent human life), it’s less easy for us to accept Tywin’s willingness to initiate the Red Wedding massacre despite the unignorable logic of his calculation. There’s no denying the truth of his words to Tyrion, even though they do little to comfort us once we’ve watched characters we love and respect get cruelly destroyed at the hands of petty betrayers. In summing Walder Frey’s despicable nature, it’s convenient to evoke Bran’s description of Guest Right. “The gods cannot forgive such a transgression! What a dick!” But why value Guest Right any more than we value the supposedly unbreakable vow to protect a king? Most of us have proven ready and willing to discard the latter when it suits our sympathies, as it did when Jaime told the truth of what happened on the day Robert took the city. We can always understand the importance of Westerosi customs to Westerosi people when taken in context, but we cannot reliably hide behind them whenever we’re challenged as audience members.
By way of contrast, I suspect that few of us would truly endeavor to emulate Barristan Selmy–a man sure to maintain his honor even if means defending a demented tyrant–despite our admiration for him. There’s a passivity implied in honor of this sort–a lack of discrimination in what the honor serves. Selmy is a just man, Selmy values just things, and Selmy wishes to follow a just ruler, but Selmy is not willing to constrain a ruler with his subjective values. He’s a servant. For Ser Barristan, the fact of being ruled and of serving the ruler takes primacy, and then it’s simply a matter of hoping for a ruler worth believing in.
In seeking Dany out so as to become a member of her Queensguard, Selmy is lucky: she seems to be the kind of ruler he has always wanted to serve. If he had found Viserys in her stead, perhaps he’d have walked away while he still had the choice. And perhaps if he had been in Jaime’s position, he’d have acted no differently. But we know the principles he avows, and we know what role he once played: when his position left him with no choice, he defended his Mad King until the bitter end of Robert’s Rebellion. What’s the worth of this inflexible brand of vow-honor against Jaime’s moral deliberations? In discarding his vows and subjecting himself to the unique scorn reserved for oathbreakers, the Kingslayer faced up to the fact that all men always have a choice. The story makes clear that everyone is an agent, even those who train themselves to serve at all costs–even those with names like Grey Worm.
So we return to Tywin’s decision: is it not true that countless lives have been saved in the short term by truncating the war, no matter how despicable we find Roose Bolton or Walder Frey? We understood Ned Stark as a good man, a true man, and so we refused to accept the tragedy he suffered without demanding a fight. We empathized with Robb’s quest for revenge and justice. Yet Robb Stark–this avenging son–was willing to break a vow for no reason greater than the demands of personal love (which we understood), only to uphold a king’s strict sense of justice when it came time to deal with Rickard Karstark’s sins (which we also understood). Our understanding didn’t imply our agreement in either case. We also understood that had Robb been lenient, he might’ve won the war. At the very least, he might’ve survived, and lived to fight another day.
Let us imagine that the tables were turned, with Robb standing to gain a great deal through an act of betrayal or dishonor. Would we care? Would we accept this act even if it meant the murder of the defenseless, as long as the defenseless were men we’ve marked as enemies, and as long as these murders helped facilitate a cause (justice writ more broadly, or vengeance) we felt was worthwhile? Remember: had Ned accepted Renly’s offer, perhaps none of this would have come to pass. There’s no doubt that possessing opportunism of the sort demonstrated in the Red Wedding would’ve served the Starks in their goals. Given what happened to them, it’s difficult to rationally disagree when Tywin justifies his choice as a way to defend his blood and minimize death: let’s not forget that Robb was preparing to march on Casterly Rock. The Lion outfoxed the Wolf.
Like Ned and like Robb, Davos understands something about making attempts at moral purity through unyielding ethical consistency. Fundamental to Ned Stark’s character (and Robb Stark’s developing character, before the development was cut short) was the idea of doing the right thing despite the consequences. Quorin Halfhand echoes this idea when he prepares Jon for the life of an unsung hero who might die alone and unappreciated beyond the Wall. To the Onion Knight, the life of a boy like Gendry is worth “everything” as compared to the kingdom precisely because Gendry’s life is small, innocent, and easily done away with. Few would notice or care about what happens to Gendry, and as such, how Gendry is treated by the powerful is a true measure of their character. As far as Davos is concerned, it’s in making the tough decision to not seek the easy path of dark magic and unjust sacrifice that Stannis would exemplify the qualities which would justify his kingship; Stannis should have the right head for the crown, and not merely the legal one. This is why Davos insists upon his similarities to Gendry, hoping to remind Stannis of the justice he has always upheld.
But in the same way that Tywin’s realistic obligations toward family and kingdom complicate our reading of the Red Wedding, the choice Stannis nearly makes indicates his willingness to supplant the notion of blood family with the larger concept of realm as family, complicating our ability to answer his question. There’s no doubt that the decision to sacrifice Gendry pains Stannis; Nutter’s framing of Melisandre and Davos as angel and devil is a classic way of visually indicating conflict, to say nothing of the season’s earlier scene where Stannis seeks counsel from an imprisoned Davos. We already know that Stannis is a brooding man whose interpersonal relationships suffer under the rigidity of his personality; though he loves his daughter, his laconic, terse attitude bespeaks a fundamental discomfort with softness and affection. But Stannis does attempt to be a fair and just ruler despite his faults as a father and husband, and he takes the line of succession seriously. When Robert selfishly took advantage of him, Stannis remained stalwart and capable, dutiful to the end. And while Renly might’ve made the more beloved king if not the better ruler, Stannis is sincerely pained and angered when he admits that his enemies have made his kingdom “bleed.” Stannis believes he has a duty to the kingdom, and an obligation to the needs of the Westerosi populace. Every moment he spends away from the throne is a moment he’s failing in his duty as the one true king. Is there not a greater “family” need at stake, then, than Gendry’s wish to live?
Some detractors have stated that these scenes with Stannis effectively assassinate his character due to a purported lack of visible conflict; the willingness to sacrifice Gendry shouldn’t come so easily, they say. Here’s the thing: it doesn’t. While Stannis does seem to have made up his mind, I read no glee or ease in his decision to sacrifice Robert’s bastard son. Instead, I think Thrones purposefully complicates every possible moral position vying for supremacy in the map room, including the one which seems so obvious to us: killing Gendry is wrong, right?
It’s certain that the kingdom is suffering. If Stannis is the true king, then his gnawing need to assert control over the chaos is noble and understandable. Furthermore, Melisandre’s powers have proven expedient, and Robb Stark did die despite a lack of proof as to whether the Red God had anything to do with it. What reason does Stannis have to distrust the woman who has proven herself on more than one occasion? Davos did lead the naval attack on King’s Landing, and in Melisandre’s absence the fleet was consumed by wildfire. Would things have turned out differently had she been in attendance? It’s impossible to know; she clearly understood that Matthos would die by fire well in advance, but the extent and clarity of her foreknowledge is left a mystery. One would presume that if she knew exactly what would happen, she’d make a more persuasive argument for her inclusion, but we cannot be certain. Davos is right that Gendry is an innocent who deserves to live–indeed, the realm is comprised of hundreds of thousands of people even less exceptional than Gendry, all of whom deserve the chance at life. But is it not also possible that Davos is being shortsighted in his strict adherence to the moral precepts which guide his pleas for mercy? At some point, a utilitarian sensitivity to numbers begins to matter, and Tywin’s argument grows in strength.
In the end, Stannis, Melisandre, and Davos reach an agreement–each for a different reason–in the interests of the kingdom: the Night’s Watchmen need help, and Stannis must heed the call. The acceptance of this duty resonates because we’ve been given a privileged look at the rise of the White Walkers for three seasons now, all while the minor players ignored the threat encroaching from afar. When Stannis changes his direction, it brings a chill to the air–suddenly the show is threatening a major, unexpected unification of storyline. The speed with which Stannis assumes this new responsibility isn’t an indication of a fickle nature, but rather the expression of an underlying obsession with the part he believes it’s his duty to play. For Stannis Baratheon, duty trumps all. That this particular duty is ostensibly not in conflict with Melisandre’s predictions is a moment of black humor for the king, especially when Davos, his life secured for the moment, is now “part of the army” whose god he rejects–the same god that just spared his life.
Mhysa is an Old Ghiscari word for “mother,” and it is fitting that Daenerys parallels Stannis in her broader parental relationship to the realm. But where Stannis fundamentally abstracts the people of Westeros into a faceless, superstructural mass well worth the price of one boy’s life, Dany repeatedly insists on more intimately understanding the individuals who follow her. She gives the Unsullied their freedom, their choice of name, and the choice to follow. She liberates Yunkai, and then offers its people the choice of allegiance. She does this not from afar, but at ground level, entering the teeming crowds herself. Earlier in the season, she’s so moved by the plight of a dying slave on the Walk of Punishment that she attempts to slake his thirst with her own water. In each instance, Dany is refusing to enforce a binary distinction between individual and collective. This feels revolutionary.
Stannis fights for his crown because he believes it is rightfully his, and further believes that adopting the obligations of the crown–even if he hasn’t won it yet–follows from his choice to fight. There’s a sense in which Stannis, like Selmy, isn’t willing to question the order of Westerosi rules–only the means by which they are satisfied. But since season one, Daenerys has transformed from a leader imitating her brother’s entitlement (recall her exhausting “I will take what is mine with…” mantra from season two) into a leader defined by the principle of free choice, thereby earning rather than claiming her power. Thus far, this approach has proven so successful that Thrones verges on endorsing Dany’s methodology through the veneer of plot armor; no other seemingly “moral” character has had such monumental success in so short a period of time. Even so, her acceptance by the Yunkai population stands as a bold thematic statement given the season’s focus on these perennial questions of duty. Like Mance Rayder or Beric Dondarrion, people follow Dany because they want to–because she inspires allegiance.
And it’s on this thematic level that her scene works. The emotional power of the Yunkish acceptance is admittedly diminished by the interchangeable characterization of the people of Yunkai. We’ve not had nearly enough time to understand their plight as anything more than a supposed replication of what we saw in Astapor. Dany’s sack of Astapor was more fully realized, and thus more resonant. Further, the performance of the crowd was rather less than impassioned, meaning that the correspondingly intense visuals–while competently crafted–felt a touch incongruous. One additional scene motivating this moment of judgment would have gone a long way toward remedying audience complaints, I suspect.
As a result, season three’s parting shot felt distinctly intellectually arranged rather than emergent and affecting; Dany’s triumph sits comfortably as a thematic capstone to the season, but slightly more lopsidedly as an emotionally involving magnet meant to further invest us in her arc on account of its standalone, cinematic power. Again, this is forgivable because the conclusion very much feels like the beginning of the next leg of a journey, and less like an ultimate destination being reached. Thrones hasn’t begun exploring the long term implications of Dany’s choices, and this hopeful moment felt earned in the context of her overall arc, if not the Yunkai story itself. If it’s an odd note to go out on, it’s because Dany’s previous conclusive beat at Astapor was so emotionally riveting, and because the season itself has been defined by moments of great pathos.
When Dany was lifted onto the shoulders of her Yunkish supporters, I was reminded of the image of a wounded Jon being carried to safety by his fellow Watchmen. Jon’s return to the fold seems more essential than ever given his knowledge of the approaching threat, and given Mormont’s absence. And while Snow’s immediate vulnerability may distract from the obviousness of his necessity in the short term, I think there’s an implicit need for men like Jon to quickly fill the power vacuum at the Wall. In this way, both Dany and Jon can be seen as being chosen by the people in their path as much as they choose paths for themselves. Dany left her remaining hope for the life she wanted with Drogo behind in the House of the Undying, and Jon turned from Ygritte to honor his duty to his brothers (just as he once chose the Wall rather than fight by Robb’s side). In either case, a more immense affiliation is preceding personal desires. When Jorah stares at Daenerys with concern written across his features, what does his expression convey? He’s certainly worried for her safety, but he also laments that what’s awe-inspiring about her is precisely what makes her uncontainable and beyond his personal reach. To the extent that she is a symbol for others, she is above him, inaccessible.
Like Dany, Sam is capable of marrying an interpersonally humanistic strategy with his overarching obligations. This is made easier by the fact that he receives considerably less attention, but take his offer of brotherhood to Bran, for instance, or how he makes a case for extending the protection of the Night’s Watch to Gilly. Like Tyrion, like Davos, like Daenerys, like Jon, Sam is a character whose acute understanding of his own familial lack has blessed him with the capacity to understand the needs of those from whom he has little to gain.
What I most liked about Sam’s presence in this episode is how his respectfulness and magnanimity have quietly led him to make startling connections with the bigger story. This was achieved in the context of a rather redemptive arc, where the young man who failed to do his “one job” became Gilly’s hero, the only living slayer of a White Walker, someone capable of offering the promise of family to Bran when Jon wasn’t able to, and the impetus behind Aemon’s decision to boldly request help from the realm, thereby altering the trajectory of a king. This time the ravens counted. And at no point in this process has Sam felt out of character, and at no point has his story felt bolted on in service to an overwritten or forced authorial agenda. His is the tale of an unlikely hero naturally emerging, and providing much-needed cohesion between scattered storylines in the process. Sam is the narrative glue of the far north.
Like Sam, Theon is one of countless Thrones characters burdened with the unpleasantness of an awful father. But where Sam’s separation from family has provided him with the opportunity to become a man, Theon’s attempt at winning glory for his family name has led to his irrevocable separation from manhood and family. Emasculated and broken, his identity bleeding out through his wounds, Theon’s degradation by Roose Bolton’s bastard son (who clearly revolts at the idea of trueborn nobility) is a testament to the consequences of “choosing wrong” in matters of family. Further, Theon’s erosion hasn’t just left him with one name (to match the other lowborn characters of the show: Gendry, Shae, Varys, etc.), but a name lower than any other: Reek. He has become a golem of meat, automated by the threat of further pain, located well beyond the recollection of hope.
Now that the season has concluded, it’s easier to speak about Theon’s arc without worrying too much about spoilers. Many people reading this already know that Theon disappears for the entirety of book three and appears again later on, the majority of his torture having already occurred off-page–his transformation into ‘Reek’ already completed. The show was inevitably going to experience difficulty adapting this material. The catch is this: the torture had to be shown in full so as to ground the depths of Theon’s transformation, and yet keeping Theon in place–tortured without end–doesn’t make for compelling television. For this reason, I think the first half of Theon’s seasonal arc was more effective; the conclusion he reaches about family – where he admits that his real father died in King’s Landing – was remarkably resonant. Thereafter, we probably could have done with fewer torture scenes, or at least shortened ones, although it’s difficult to know exactly how a diminished focus on Theon’s psychological abuse in the short term would play out in the long term. Picking and choosing is also difficult, as each scene is effective when taken individually. This is a place where D&D’s advocacy for marathon screenings after the show’s conclusion makes sense. When the boundaries between seasons are dissolved, intraseasonal pacing problems become harder to detect.
That said, the unexpected reappearance of Balon and Yara presented a satisfying consequence of Theon’s suffering (and usefully characterized Ramsay’s sociopathic game with plausible political motivations). Yara’s decision to seek out and save what’s left of her brother is the episode’s truest example of blood devotion; her dedication to Theon hinges on little other than the memories of the smiles he gave her when he was a small child, and is in no way weakened by the dangerously foolish choices he made as a young man. To Yara, Theon is Balon’s son, and her brother–this truth is irreducible.
The irreducibility of familial love is also seen elsewhere, namely in Cersei’s description of her feelings for Joffrey. “Mhysa” devoted some time to the parents of monstrous children, but where Roose Bolton’s characteristic detachment and moral neutrality leaves him with little feeling about Ramsay’s unique way of doing things, Cersei’s motherhood doesn’t prevent her from acknowledging the devil her son has become. Despite this, Joffrey once offered her a purpose–a place for her to invest her affection and attention without fear of reprisal or need of secrecy. Joffrey was her most reliable escape hatch from a loveless marriage, and a source of self-definition in a family (and world) that primarily attributes mere biologically functional value to women.
In regards to Cersei’s motherhood, it’s not reasonable to interpret Joffrey’s malignance as solely a function of his upbringing (though it no doubt played a role), for both Myrcella and Tommen are universally described as sweet children. And there was a time when Joffrey, too, was sweet. These memories sustain Cersei–even Joffrey cannot take them from her–and so she provides one of the episode’s true examples of absolute loyalty to family (or a subsection of family), and in many ways parallels the matriarchal intensity of Catelyn Stark. Time will tell if her investment in Jaime is as unconditional as her investment in her son. In any event, it is clear that none of Tywin’s children view family at the same level of abstraction he does, each of them more susceptible to their whims and wishes, even if it means loving the monster-king that lowers the family name even as he rules (the same monster born of an incestuous union Tywin, legacy bearer, must convince himself is a lie).
The Stark children, now motherless, are very much subject to their own whims and wishes at this point. One of the most striking visuals in Thrones history must be that of Grey Wind’s head mounted on the decapitated body of Robb Stark–strapped to a horse, lit by the hellish fires of a burning army, mocked and disrespected. Before this, Arya is knocked out in order for the Hound to safely extract her from the nightmare unfolding in The Twins. It’s telling, then, that she wakes to something even worse: the confirmation of everything brutal, uncaring, and horrible concentrated in one ghastly image. Arya’s story has worked like this for quite some time, where each act of extrication from unfavorable circumstances leads to something more terrible, disappointing, or heartbreaking. So when she kills the Frey soldier upon hearing of his participation in the travesty that befell her family, she does so because she wants to, and because she needs to assume the mantle of the destiny her lessons have been pointing toward; Arya craves this scumbag soldier’s death, and sees it as a valid consequence of his choices, and of her will. This is her agency.
This is the same Arya who once attended “dancing lessons” with Syrio Forel in the chambers of the Red Keep–who once learned that what you say to Death is “not today.” Remember, then, the image of Ned watching his daughter train, the sounds of war and killing superimposed over his appreciation like a prophetic spectre, or a relevant memory reminding him that a time might come when these lessons of his daughter’s won’t remain trivial diversions or methods of channeling her precocious disposition, but the difference between her life and death. There’s a strange and disturbing abstraction going on here, where Arya embraces the memory of her dead masters–and accepts the role of death dealer–in silent kinship with them. Her remaining affiliation with the Starks provokes this response and is testament to the girl she’ll forever remain (in some inaccessible, interior way), but change is upon her.
Bran has also given himself over to something abstract, but what makes his transition unique is the extent to which it involves his willful separation from family. Locked in a holding pattern earlier in the season, Bran’s story has strengthened in recent episodes, first with his near-connection with Jon, then in his decision to let Rickon go, and finally through his refusal of Sam’s offer of surrogate brotherhood. The implication is that where Bran’s going, immediate personal ties are dangerous liabilities. The more Bran’s story connects with the mystical forces mobilizing within Martin’s world, the more compelling it becomes.
The show has not yet made clear what Bran’s role is, or even the extent of his powers; I’m of the opinion that Benioff and Weiss will begin to take additional creative liberties with the depiction of Bran’s oracular capabilities in upcoming seasons. This should go a long way toward making him feel more integrated with the greater conflict, while also allowing him to serve as a vehicle that further exposes the mythic structure of Westeros. The final visual of his small party making its way through the tunnel leading beyond the Wall and into a deadly unknown is one of the episode’s strongest.
I return to visuals. Beyond its improved thematic unity, season three is remarkable for its heightened devotion to visual storytelling. But if there’s one request I have of the showrunners, it’s that they expand their cinematographic arsenal. The Wire also involved a huge cast and tens of webbing storylines, so an extended montage was employed at the conclusion of each season in effort to make sense of the show’s great complexity in an especially resonant way. Thrones should aspire to lyrical editing of this caliber.
I must admit that I’m not a sucker for year-long cliffhangers, so I wasn’t bothered by this season’s choice to avoid something surprising. If interseasonal cliffhangers deliver, then the information they veil would probably have been better used earlier anyway. If they don’t deliver (or deliver in terms different than those they introduce; see the transitional scenes between seasons two and three for an example), disappointment invariably follows.
Perhaps what people find most troubling about the focus Dany assumes at the end of “Mhysa” isn’t that the scene felt unmotivated or flat, but that the show has done such a good job of representing and complicating the motivations of its other characters–even cold men like Tywin Lannister. Dany feels important, but not central. In the wake of Ned’s death and now the Red Wedding, the idea of privileged protagonists seems unnecessary–illusory. So if the strength of cinema rests in its distinctly audiovisual storytelling language, then I eagerly await sequences which depict the tapestry of Thrones in full. The showrunners have proven that they can nimbly dance between scenes, that they can write without cumbersome and obvious exposition, and that they can carefully intensify the show’s thematic richness within individual episodes and even entire seasons. I now believe they’re ready to tackle extended visual sequences which last longer than one of Littlefinger’s monologues.
It’s almost a shame that “Mhysa” is so effective at what it accomplishes, because that familiar desire for more returns with a vengeance when we begin to speculate where these threads will lead. In season three, Benioff and Weiss have continued to elevate Thrones, and while the refrain of book purists everywhere holds that any deviation is to be denounced, it’s clear that the show’s narrative is in capable hands. Upcoming seasons should entail further deviations from, consolidations of, and rearrangements within the source material, but I believe that this is necessary for the show to play to its strengths as novelized television (and not as a televised novel).
Season three affected an international audience in a way few shows manage. Perhaps more than anything else, “Mhysa” leaves us with a grasp of where these characters are, what motivates them, and why. And perhaps more than other shows, it is this profound and consistent sensitivity despite its scale–this perpetual capacity to understand its characters while they contend with a complex and inelegant reality–that transfigures our memories of Thrones the further we travel alongside it, deepening the echoes of those verses we thought long concluded, the song’s call carrying on.
The next time I see you, you’ll be all in black.
First lesson: stick ‘em with the pointy end.
I know we always talked about seeing the Wall together, but you’ll be able to come visit me at Castle Black when you’re better. I’ll know my way around by then, and we can go out walking beyond the Wall, if you’re not afraid.
That’s what men always say when honor calls. It’s what you tell your families. Tell yourselves. You have a choice. You’ve made it.
A Note: I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to WiC for extending this opportunity. It’s been a real pleasure writing these each week, and they’ve served as a worthwhile exercise in strengthening my own appreciation of the show’s adaptation process. Thanks also go out to my readers, and to those of you who’ve offered incisive and thought-provoking opinions in the comments section. Lastly, thanks to the cast and crew responsible for the show–it’s a joy. Onward to season four, champs. All the best.