Her Ladyship returns from orc hunting and gets straight down to business in this somewhat belated review of the season finale of Game of Thrones.
Mhysa is an ode to the outsider: to smallfolk exploited by high borns, to foreigners who have made Westeros their home without ever truly fitting in; to sons and daughters who disappoint their fathers (and their sisters); to lovers from different worlds; to strangers in their own worlds; to traitor’s daughters; to dwarves that are bastards in their father’s eyes; and to lonely little girls ruled only by Death. As the shockwaves of the Red Wedding spread outwards from where Roose Bolton observes the carnage from the battlements of Harrenhal, and Arya watches her brother’s corpse paraded about with his direwolf’s head sewn onto its shoulders, we get a lot more character and relationships than plot in this nostalgic, reflective and powerful episode that compromises on structure, but somehow manages to not make us mind so much. Let’s take a look at the best scenes.
In King’s Landing, we are pleased to discover that the show’s producers have adopted the ‘Sansa and Tyrion find common ground as outcasts’ perspective as opposed to the awkwardness and emotional torture of the books. Throughout the show’s three seasons, Sophie Turner has shown multiple times what a strong and mature actress she is, but little proves this better than the fact she is able to share a scene with a smolderingly charismatic thespian like Peter Dinklage without being bulldozed. The initial, tentative chemistry that was created in the penultimate episode becomes playful, exuberant and borderline flirtatious as Sansa and Tyrion discuss ways to revenge themselves on the society that has rejected them in an entirely unserious and whimsical way, Shae glaring at them all the while from her position at Sansa’s back.
While this will certainly please both me and my fellow Tyrion/Sansa shippers, the touching connection between these two vastly different and yet eerily similar characters is short-lived as Tyrion is dragged into a small council meeting and informed of the Red Wedding. When he returns to his chambers and calls Sansa’s name, she turns to him with tears in her eyes, the sunlight on the red shutters making her skin appear as crimson as the Stark banners set alight at the Twins. As they look at each other, one literally feels a wall slam up between them, a barrier from the outside that both seem to regret, but that both know will keep them apart forever. As Tyrion turns his back on her and walks away, the chemistry between them is like a form of magnetism, and this forceful breaking of it is almost painful.
The small council meeting itself turns out to be an unexpected continuation of the delicious treat of a scene in which Tywin seems to intimidate Joffrey simply by standing before him. Jack Gleeson is fantastic at portraying Joffrey’s obvious discomfort at the way power appears to be slipping away from him, something that all the characters present immediately sense and act upon in various ways. Two of the most memorable remarks come from Tyrion in the form of a refusal to allow Joffrey to serve Robb’s head to Sansa at his wedding feast (‘she is no longer yours to torment’) and a delightful rebuttal of Joffrey’s calling him a ‘monster’: ‘oh, a monster? Perhaps you should speak to me more softly, then. Monsters are dangerous, and just now kings are dying like flies.’ It is to Charles Dance’s eternally-improving-in-awesomeness Tywin Lannister, however, that owning Joffrey truly belongs. He becomes bolder and bolder as Joffrey’s control of the situation flounders, being the first person ever to challenge Joffrey’s favourite line (‘I am the king’) with ‘any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king at all.’ We know that Joffrey’s power is in serious trouble when Tywin does the equivalent of sending the king off to bed while the grown-ups discuss serious matters, leading into an exquisite dialogue with Tyrion once the rest of the council has been dismissed.
As we already know, Tywin and Tyrion’s relationship is catastrophic, and riddled with anger, hurt, guilt, betrayal and lots of downright nastiness. This dynamic, as well as Dance and Dinklage’s exceptionally high calibre as actors, has always ensured the excellence of one-on-one scenes between these two characters. In this episode, we are treated to one of the best. The subject is the usual one (legacy), but there is very little conflict and the scene’s dynamic is very much that of two equally intelligent men debating a difficult question together, reminding us of Genna Lannister’s assertion in A Feast For Crows that Tyrion is the only Lannister child who truly resembles Tywin. It’s quite a treat – for a while – until Tyrion makes the same mistake committed by his siblings and by Arya by assuming that being open with Tywin will be rewarded with affection. Openness is only rewarded with equal openness, however unpleasant it may be. In this case, Tyrion makes a serious and whole-hearted attempt to make his father see that sacrificing the personal life in the name of the family name is something he demands constantly, but has never experienced himself. Tywin proves the falseness of this statement by telling Tyrion how he wished to cast him into the sea on the day he was born, but chose not to: ‘because you’re a Lannister.’ Each time Tywin speaks of Tyrion’s birth in a state that does not involve anger (which doesn’t happen often), it brings him closer and closer to the memory of his wife Joanna, because he brushes against the human part of him that died with her, and in these moments, he is always at his most vulnerable. Those four words, ‘because you’re a Lannister,’ and the acknowledgment that it was that knowledge that stayed his hand, is, paradoxically, perhaps the closest Tywin could ever come to telling Tyrion that he loves him, and Charles Dance plays the simultaneous vulnerability and iron self-control and hardness of the moment with an effortless mastery of his craft, Peter Dinklage’s exquisite face telling us that a part of Tyrion, somewhere, knows what is going on in Tywin’s mind at this particular moment.
Staying with the Lannisters and the fierce, fucked-up way in which they love, Jaime and Brienne return to King’s Landing well ahead of the period given for their return in the books. When Jaime re-enters the city, he is elbowed out of the way by a merchant and called a ‘country boy,’ and for a moment that empty space where his hand used to be seems very large as he stares at the ground without comment. The encouraging smile that Brienne gives him is loaded with meaning and emotion, and perhaps even a little pity; an acknowledgment of what they have endured together, as usual without needing to speak. Jaime’s reuniting with Cersei is brief, but spectacularly acted by both Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey, the book’s mildly revolting sex scene in the sept replaced by an almost entirely silent scene in Cersei’s chamber in which the only dialogue is Jaime saying Cersei’s name from the door to get her attention.
The twins’ faces are heart-breaking and their expressions extremely subtle. From Jaime’s side, we see both the fulfilment of his dream to return to Cersei and his fear. Looking at her, he almost seems to be begging her: ‘I’ve changed, but I’m still me and I still love you.’ From Cersei’s side, we see her happiness that he is back, but also a kind of horror at how much he has changed. In the books, that moment of realisation on Cersei’s part is the beginning of the end for them. We also know from the books that Cersei always lets Jaime come to her rather than running to him; a central feature of their relationship and a sign of the control she has over him. From the exertion of this kind of manipulation even at a moment like this, we get an insight into just how utterly dreadful Cersei is; and from Jaime’s failure to walk towards her (a distinct change from the books), which shows an unwillingness to be controlled even by his twin, we can see that once the high emotion of this moment is over, things are going to collapse pretty quickly.
Meanwhile in the Riverlands, an unexpectedly dazzling transplant of a scene takes place, in which Arya, clearly numb with grief but running on adrenaline and bloodlust, approaches a group of Frey soldiers in the woods, having heard one of them boasting about sewing Grey Wind’s neck onto Robb’s shoulders. With the same thinking-on-her-feet audacity that she demonstrated in the books while escaping Harrenhal, Arya, seeming innocent, soft-spoken and a little stupid, offers the soldier Jaqen’s iron coin in exchange for a place by the fire, letting it slip artfully through her fingers. As he stoops to pick it up, she rips his throat out with a knife concealed in her hand, the Hound dispatching the others and cursing that she inform him the next time she chooses to kill someone. As Arya admits that this is the first time she has killed an adult, and the Hound confiscates the knife that he had failed to notice was missing from his belt, Arya’s blood-drenched hands do not shake at all. She picks up the coin and whispers ‘Valar Morghulis,’ this reference to Jaqen intensified by the stirring playing of his leitmotif in the background, taking us back to the almost-primal intensity of the connection between Arya and Jaqen in season 2, the fire in Arya’s eyes as she says the words while staring, exhilarated, at her red hands, only making the role of death in Arya’s character, and her future as a Faceless Man, seem larger, closer and righter. Maisie Williams portrays this numbness and kinship with Death with astonishing realism; making us wish for the umpteenth time that somebody would just give this girl an Emmy and be done with it (yes, I’m still mad that Maisie hasn’t been nominated for the second year in a row. Open your eyes, people!)
Meanwhile in the North, Bran finally bumps into Sam and Gilly, and is awarded the duty of informing audience members stupid enough to still not understand guest right after what happened last week, of precisely what breaking it means, in a haunting monologue in which he tells the story of the Rat Cook to Hodor, Meera and Jojen. We’ve commented a lot on Isaac Hempstead Wright’s acting this season, but in this episode, he gets even better, his voice resonating, rising and falling with all the cadences of a master storyteller; his scenes with Sam and Gilly only reinforcing the tragic, Frodo-like sense of purpose that he feels in going beyond the Wall in spite of his own fear. Last week, Bran acted like a grown-up; this week, he has to be one, and the adultness that emerges from this very young child is inspiring and emotional to watch.
In other Northern matters, I was delighted to discover that the producers were not, after all, going to let Jon reach the Wall without Ygritte trying to kill him, inserting a wonderfully moving scene in which Jon, desperate and on the run, encounters Ygritte, who contemplates him from across a stream, her bow trained expertly on him. The pain of their separation, and of their failure to stay together despite their love for each other, is strikingly and movingly evident. It is surprising, therefore, that Rose Leslie carries this scene almost entirely by herself, Kit Harington’s Jon being unusually pathetic and whining in a performance worthy of Mills and Boon. The divine Miss Leslie delivers such a superb performance, however, that we soon forget all about him as she literally acts the shit out of him, loosing arrow after arrow; the pain and heartbreak on her face so overpowering that the arrows might as well be piercing her own flesh. It is an excellent scene as is: better acting from Harrington would have made it a masterpiece.
And finally, we join Daenerys Stormborn, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons, as she waits before the gates of Yunkai to receive the slaves that she has liberated. When Missandei addresses the slaves and states that it is to Daenerys that they owe their liberty, the latter once again demonstrates her uncompromising idealism by contradicting Missandei, telling the slaves that they owe their liberty to none but themselves. Just as it took only one Unsullied to begin beating his spear against the ground, it only takes one slave to cry out ‘Mhysa!’ before the others take up the call. The script is once again expertly and classily idiot-proofed, informing us with great emotion and subtlety that the word means ‘Mother’, and Daenerys descends into the midst of the crowd, where she is hoisted onto the shoulders of the slaves and touches the hands and shoulders of thousands of them as though to bless them. Though not quite as remarkable as the scene from the books, which is conducted on horseback with the word ‘Mother’ roared out in half a dozen different languages, it is considerably more intimate and humanistic, the removal of Daenerys’ horse serving as a further destroyer of the unjust barriers that Daenerys has spent most of her queenship fighting against.
This season of Game of Thrones has been extraordinary, flawlessly recreating and adding certain scenes and unforgivably fucking up others. As the season finale, Mhysa ties up most of the plot’s loose ends, reminds us what has been so great about the show over the past eleven weeks, and beckons to us of greater things to come.