(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
Even moreso than before, the third season of Game of Thrones has had to negotiate a very difficult balancing act: more characters in more locales than ever before, a whole lot of doomy portent and foreshadowing of things that may not come to pass for a very long time, and plots that advance at hugely different paces all competing for screentime. With all that considered, and with some more reflection yet needed, I’d say Season Three is roughly on par with Season One (which had issues all its own) and certainly greater than Season Two. “Mhysa” acts as an apt summation, a ridiculously sprawling, extended-length episode that spends time with every single meaningful character, even finding time to settle in for an extended chat or two, before setting up the conflicts and resolutions that may or may not be to come.
“Mhysa” an appropriately sprawling, imperfect end to an ambitious season
The one totally overt failing of Season Three is undoubtedly the unending torture of Theon Greyoy at the hands of Ramsey, Roose Bolton’s bastard. All told, these scenes probably added up to maybe 40 of the season’s 600 or so minutes, or one-fifteenth of the total screentime (that’s a rough estimate; some obsessive somewhere has probably already done more precise work in this field), and it feels very much like the story they told could have been drastically condensed. Making matters worse: Theon Greyjoy is simply not the most interesting character the show has to offer, by a long shot; that it takes us an entire season of buildup only to reach a scene in which his sister (who we’ve not seen for roughly an entire season) gets set to ride to his rescue, and…that’s it. It’s a whole lot of pomp and circumstance over characters who don’t feel all that significant in the show’s larger picture, at least at this juncture. Surely the series as a whole has significant plans for the Greyjoys, given the time commitment, but the meagre payoff we get this week makes me wish Benioff and Weiss had found a more efficient and dramatically interesting way to integrate them.
Thankfully, none of the other many (many, many) plot points rankle to nearly the same level, though nor do they reach any of the operatic heights of last week. Three seasons in, and Benioff and Weiss have now been proven to be scholars of the Wire school of season structuring: stack up denouement in the finale after letting the penultimate episode do the real dramatic heavy lifting. “Mhysa” spends a whole lot of time reconsidering the characters’ relationships to their respective notions of duty, honor, sacrifice, right and wrong, and especially family values, though some of that ground is perhaps needlessly well-trod at this point already. Take, for instance, Tyrion, who gets the lion’s share of attention this week. There’s earnest new ground struck in his scenes with Sansa, with whom he has an easy conversational chemistry, if not necessarily a whole lot else just yet. But in the extended Small Council sequence, and in his scene with Cersei, little changes. He gets to verbally bitchslap Joffrey seemingly without repercussion for the time being (again). He is told by Tywin that he is a freak who should never have been born (again). Cersei drinks some wine and remains in an inert position, plot-wise (again). Nothing wrong with the execution of these scenes – watching Dance, Gleeson and Dinklage spar remains one of the series’ greatest pleasures – but the feeling of familiarity is difficult to shake. The same is true of the final sequence, which shows Danaerys once again greeted as liberator, leader and “mhysa” by former slaves. Next season desperately needs entirely new story beats for her journey to remain compelling.
The most active region of the episode turns out to be just South of the Wall, where Samwell and Gilly encounter young Bran and his ragtag crew. It’s great to see two previously separate narrative strands finally unite – which is why it’s disappointing to see them part just as easily by episode’s end, with Bran continuing North while Samwell and Gilly trek on to rejoin his Night’s Watch brothers at Castle Black. Though it’s a little (OK, extremely) on-the-nose, the episode’s most chilling moment is easily Bran telling of the metaphorical rat condemned to eat his young for the rest of his days, simply for betraying sacred notions of hospitality. “He killed a guest under his roof. That’s something the gods can’t forget.” Game of Thrones is obsessed with the price to be paid – or not paid – for breaking oaths. Jon broke his vow of celibacy, as well as his vow to remain by Ygritte’s side, but he honored his other commitments to the Watch to the best of his (meagre) ability.
And so it falls on Season Four to at least begin to show us how the chips will fall, how judgment will break, in the matter of Westeros and its many competing notions of how to best honor oneself and one’s commitments. Arya remains committed – doubly so, in fact, especially after witnessing the barbarities committed against her brother’s body – to exacting revenge on behalf of her fallen kin. Shae remains committed to her perceived true love, even though Varys offers her a very generous way out that would almost certainly have been in everyone’s practical best interest. Stannis remains committed to Melisandre, even as Davos attempts to cast doubt on her ability to enact serious change without the kind of loss men of honor shouldn’t stand for. Bran remains committed to following his visions wherever they may lead, even though they drive him in the path of total destruction. These, and many more devotional positions exist in categorical opposition to one another, and not all can or will survive. The most fascinating aspect of Game of Thrones going forward will not be seeing who lives or dies, but whose oaths and commitments are allowed to hold meaning, either in life, or death, or beyond.