There’s a pattern to Game of Thrones seasons. If you hadn’t noticed by now, it works like this: the season premiere reminds us of what we’ve seen and prepares us for what’s to come, the next seven episodes set up the climax, the ninth episode climaxes, and the tenth episode resolves some of what the current season has to offer and sets up some of what we’ll see next year. This formula has given us some of the best and most shocking episodes of the series (“Baelor” was the ninth episode of season one, “Blackwater” was the ninth episode of season two and “The Rains of Castamere” was the ninth episode of season three, and I’d be among the first to argue that those are the three best episodes the show has delivered thus far), but it has often meant that we’ve spent the season finale wondering not “What will happen in this episode?” but “What will happen next season?” With “Mhysa,” we get an episode solid enough to make us think about both.
Going in to this episode, we’re all still thinking the same thing: “HOLY HELL, THEY’RE DEAD! WHAT THE HELL ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW? HOW DOES SOMETHING LIKE THAT HAPPEN? WHAT THE SHIT?” Sorry, but even if you read the novels this show is based on, you know you were thinking that. Yes, the “Red Wedding,” as it’ come to be known, left an inescapable mark on where this episode goes, and the show addresses it masterfully, if briefly. First, we see the Stark bannermen being slaughtered, and their banners burned. Then, we watch as Arya (Maisie Williams) comes to understand the true scope of what’s been done to her family. Then, we see the news reverberate through King’s Landing, where Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) celebrates, Tywin’s (Charles Dance) response is predictably measured and Sansa (Sophie Turner) withdraws further into what’s increasingly becoming her own personal hell. But Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), says it best: “The Northerners will never forget this.” There’s a new power structure in the North now, of course, and it flows directly through the Lannister family, but we know this is, in part, a show about payback (After all, the war started when Joffrey and Cersei threw Ned Stark in a dungeon.), so we can’t expect the North to stay submissive forever.
Or can we? Is this new balance of power something stable enough for Tywin Lannister to consolidate everything else upon, or will the Lannisters soon suffer a slaughter twice as brutal as what befell the Starks? Even if you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the question that hangs over this entire show now. In season one, viewers were predictably rocked by Ned’s beheading. It drove some viewers away. It gave Game of Thrones a certain reputation among TV dramas. Then life went on. The Lannisters held on to Sansa Stark, Robb Stark kept fighting, the War of the Five Kings ebbed and flowed, but it seemed that Robb was destined to face down Tywin and beat him, right? Just as we rooted for Ned, so too did we root for Bobb. Then just like that, Robb was gone. “Mhysa” is an episode we must therefore watch with a certain degree of skepticism. Game of Thrones got us again. We’re back in that shell-shocked, post-slaughter mentality, where all of this show’s season finales seem to put us. We’ve done this three times now (though the events of “Blackwater” were considerably less shocking than either “Baelor” or “The Rains of Castamere,” they were still pretty damn powerful), so why isn’t this predictable yet? Why doesn’t “Mhysa” feel like we’re going through the motions, just waiting for season four to deliver unto us more enjoyable chaos?
Because, one thing this show might be better at than any other series on TV is reminding us how vast the world is.
“Mhysa” is full of new beginnings for its characters, and returnings, and reclaimings. We see Arya reach a new level of strength in the wake of tragedy. We see Tyrion gain back a little of his former fire. We see Jon (Kit Harington) and Sam (John Bradley) returning to the Night’s Watch at last, only to find a new series of difficulties awaiting them. We see Theon (Alfie Allen) breaking. We see Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) embarking on his quest. We see Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) return to King’s Landing. We see Stannis (Stephen Dillane) taking a new course and Melisandre (Carice van Houten) and Davos (Liam Cunningham) finally agreeing on something. And we see Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) become an entirely new kind of mother.
On the surfaces, these things are all interesting turns that will lead us into new stories for the fourth season. In that way, they all function well, though with various levels of intrigue (I was happy to see Sam get some time to shine, and I love that Stannis is finally being active, but I’m really just tired of Theon, and I wish we’d seen a bit more from the whole Tyrion/Sansa/Shae triangle. The nooks and crannies of King’s Landing have been a little dim this year for my taste.). But their greater importance, at least for me, is in reminding us that the world doesn’t end with the Red Wedding. The Lannisters haven’t won, but neither have they lost. At the same time, the Starks haven’t lost, even though it seems impossible that they could rebound at this point.
But more importantly, “Mhysa” reminds us that this is a series where power can pivot and shift instantly, not just with the swing of a sword, but with the sending of a raven or the breath of a dragon. One of my favorite moments from this episode is an exchange between Tywin and Tyrion, after Tywin’s casually but forcefully sent Joffrey out of the Small Council meeting and to bed. Tyrion says “You just sent the most powerful man in Westeros to bed without his supper,” and Tywin replies “You’re a fool if you believe he’s the most powerful man in Westeros.” Obviously the first implication is that Tywin is the most powerful man in Westeros, and few could argue that right now, but there’s another meaning here that I think the show wants to impose on us. It’s one that goes back to season two, when Varys famously said “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.” This is a show about power. Power as an illusion, power as a force for good, power as a force for evil, power as a means to an end, power as a tool, power as a bane. If we’ve learned anything about Game of Thrones by now, it’s that it’s a show where power is something malleable, something shifting and elusive and hard to hold for even the strongest of men. Tywin wasn’t just telling us that he’s more powerful than Joffrey. He was also telling us that someone else could be more powerful than him tomorrow.
That’s the unique agony of this show, the bittersweet, demented algebra on which it’s built. We think we really see the power, but then we realize it was just a reflection of power, or a cheap imitation, or a fleeting glimpse. It’s the genius of George R. R. Martin, it’s the genius of this show, and though “Mhysa” is far from a perfect episode, it reminds us brilliantly that we can never really know where true power lies in Westeros.