My God, it was so much worse than I’d imagined.
No, not the episode, though it had its problems and we’ll get to them. I’m talking about an image that made my jaw drop in horror hard enough to actually hurt. Game of Thrones‘ ability to wed image to emotion is where its greatness lies. To the extent that “Mhysa,” its third season finale, contained greatness, that’s where you’d find it.
Greatest, and worst, of all this week: The King in the North. The placement of the direwolf Grey Wind’s severed head on Robb Stark’s decapitated body is never really shown in the books, just referenced by other characters and, in one memorable instance, viewed in a prophetic dream. Somehow, Game of Thrones managed to take an image that had been haunting the nightmares of book readers for 13 years and make it even more awful. Watching that . . . thing trot along on the back of a horse while soldiers mock it – it felt not just horrifying, but obscene, somehow, as if all social norms had been overturned. As viewed with chilly bird’s-eye-view detachment by Roose Bolton, the fiery orgy of slaughter in the camps outside the Twins was already a hellscape; this man-wolf monstrosity made it feel even more like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. You could all but feel Arya’s sanity snapping when she saw it, one atrocity too many. It was as strong a culmination to the Stark storyline as you could ask for, and an emotionally resonant justification for Arya’s subsequent rampage.
Jon Snow’s story ended on a similar high note. I’m a fan of actor Kit Harrington’s performance in general, admittedly, but he’s never been given much more to do than glower – that’s the peril of the part, since Jon lives so much in his own head, which the show has no access to. Man, did he come alive when he turned his scarred face around and saw Ygritte, the woman he loves, aiming a bow right at him. His repetitive, childlike statement of “I have to go home now” radiated heartbreak, as if his life-changing dalliance with this redheaded beauty was a vacation with an end-date that had been set from the start. When she shot him full of arrows, evoking everything from Saint Sebastian to Boromir to his half-brother Robb, the visual made their mutual martyrdom at the altar of crazy love stick, and hurt.
Even scenes that were almost purely conversational fireworks stored most of their real gunpowder in what was seen rather than heard. The verbal battle royale of loyalty and loathing at the Small Council meeting was riveting, yeah, but everything you needed to know could be seen in the eyes of the participants: Joffrey’s sadistic glee, Tywin’s cool contempt, and, in the moment when Joffrey takes it too far, Tyrion’s look of “Oh my, I’m certainly curious to see where this goes.” As with most of the season, fire and light were powerful symbols, and in some scenes – Stannis backlit by the setting sun; Tyrion’s candlelit salon and the bright twilight outside its confines – they outshone the action. And you can never go wrong with a “smallfolk mop up the blood as lords cackle about their power over life or death” scene, as the chat between gloating backstabbing shitweasels Roose Bolton and Walder Frey made clear.
Was it enough to make up for the tone-deaf moments? I’m not sure. The show’s previously been careful to maintain a heterogeneous look for most of the cultures Daenerys encounters in her travels through the eastern continent of Essos, so the uniformly brown skin tone of the freed slaves worshipping the blondest possible savior figure was surprising and disconcerting – doubly so since, in the books, much is made of just how many different kinds of people had been forced into slavery by Yunkai and then freed by Dany when she took the city. This uncomfortable contrast kneecapped what could otherwise have been the most purely uplifting and cathartic moment in the series so far. Plus it gave the episode its title and was, you know, the final shot of the season – a rough one to go out on.
The “Mhysa” sequence will receive the most scrutiny, and rightfully so, but Dany’s triumph outside the gates of Yunkai came with its fair share of visual and narrative warning signs that we’re not to take it at face value. There’s that conqueror/liberator exchange between Dany and Jorah, which sounded like something you’d hear on a Meet the Press interview with Dick Cheney circa March 2003. The grinning joy on her face was carefully contrasted with Jorah’s concern; yeah, that could have been simply his regret that the khaleesi now has tens of thousands of admirers just as ardent as he, but it can also be read as fear that it won’t all be crowdsurfing and dragon flyovers forever. Add in the separate conversations between Tywin and Tyrion, and Stannis and Davos, about whether the ends (victory in the War of the Five Kings, peace in the realm) justify the means (the Red Wedding, burning some poor kid alive), and I half expected Drogon to be trailing a “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner behind him.
More troubling to me, then, was the scene in which the freshly revealed Ramsay Snow, bastard son of Roose Bolton, beat Theon into accepting his insulting new name, Reek. Was it just me, or was this a weirdly whitewashed cover version of “My name is Toby” from Roots? That’s one of the, I dunno, five most famous scenes in the history of televised drama, so it’s hard not to read it as an homage, and therefore hard not to think “Hmm, not sure the plight of the Prince of the Iron Islands justifies a note-for-note sample from a harrowing, epochal miniseries about the lives of enslaved African Americans.” Without the complicating context given to Dany’s emancipation proclamation, this scene just read like cultural appropriation.
It’s a shame that this is the final episode of the season, in the sense that more episodes would keep us talking. We could hash out the propriety of these scenes and images as they accrued context from subsequent episodes, watch them develop from puzzling or troubling moments into potentially rewarding or challenging themes. Instead they waltzed on stage just as the curtain went down, jostling for space with developments both welcome (Davos’s extended turn in the spotlight, Bran and Sam’s rendezvous) and unfortunate (the rushed reunion of Jaime and Cersei, the odd reactions of the Greyjoys to news of their missing scion Theon).
Throughout season three, the interplay between image and emotion has been balanced on a knife’s edge – often literally – and wielded with just as much savagery and precision. From the Mother of Dragons to the King in the North, it’s worth examining how and why a blow went wide, just as much as how and why it met its mark.
Previously: Red, Red, Red