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Based largely off of the first half of George R.R. Martin’s behemoth of a book, A Storm of Swords (which is longer than the entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy!), the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones brings all of the plot lines, character beats, and thematic developments from the first two years to a climatic head.
And as the show’s lingering questions are answered and bombshell revelations are dropped, this column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) will help wade viewers and book-lovers both through the narrative overload that will be at hand. What it won’t do, however, is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.
Given the death, destruction, and – gasp – hope that await in the next episode, such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 310: “Mhysa”
The phenomenon of the cliffhanger season finale, for all intents and purposes, started in 1980, when Dallas’s third season ended with the now-legendary scene that launched an entire summer’s obsession and that even managed to go global in an era well before the advent of the world wide web: “Who shot JR?” It was further cemented ten years later by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s third season finale (ironically enough), “The Best of Both Worlds,” which saw an unstoppable enemy destroy an entire fleet, assimilate Captain Picard, and even threaten Earth itself. Television would never be the same again.
Neither, it turns out, would television audiences, who would start to not only expect, but outright demand, the high-stakes, end-of-the-world adrenaline rushes that season enders had become. It’s easy to see why viewers would get hooked on the rip-roaring rollercoaster rides every year, but it’s created something of a side-effect that now, over 30 years later, is starting to become more than apparent: has this development become a dependency? Or, put more cogently, is the cliffhanger closer merely a convention or actually a narrative necessity?
Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss seem to think it’s certainly the latter. “Mhysa’s” concluding shots of Daenerys Targaryen being triumphantly lifted and adored by her throngs of freed slaves is, perhaps, heavy with emotion – or, at the very least, substance – but it’s definitely short on dangling plot threads or climatic revelations. (It may very well be that the writer-producers felt that all their other storylines, such as a wounded Jon Snow finally being reunited with his brothers or Bran Stark getting access to the wild North or the Ironborn setting sail to rescue their erstwhile prince, were sufficiently suspenseful to end on a more [comparatively] sedate sequence.) Given the previous season finales, which included Dany’s dragons being born and White Walkers attacking the Night’s Watch, it was a risky move on their part – especially when considering that nearly every other television series in production for the past few decades has opted to go the cliffhanger route.
There’s no denying that the episode is a strong installment, even when taking its final moments into consideration. And much of this strength comes from the sheer level of damage that nearly each and every one of the central characters has incurred thus far, particularly Dany; she spent almost the entirety of the last season alone being victimized, whether it was being stripped of her khalasar and being forced out into the Red Waste, being barred entry into Qarth, or becoming the target of a ploy perpetrated by her host and protector, Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Though she did start off season three on much the same foot, with the Qartheen warlocks attempting to assassinate her on the docks of Astapor, “Mhysa” is a rare moment of victory for the khaleesi. To say it’s undeserved would be a lie.
It’s also a deserved respite for the viewer, who’s had to endure some of the darkest moments the series has had to offer yet over the course of the past year. The betrayal of Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, the brutal death of Ros, the systematic dismemberment of Theon Greyjoy, and the emotional wringer that has been Jon’s arc – it’s all heavy, heady stuff, pulling audience members more and more deeply into the pit. There’s a certain amount of rejuvenation that Dany’s attempted ending of slavery and the adoption of symbolic children (particularly since she’s incapable of having biological ones any longer) provides, making it one of the rare warm and fuzzy moments Game of Thrones can offer. One can’t have a more stark (no pun intended) contrast to the Red Wedding, after all.
With all this said and done, however, it still doesn’t alleviate the simple, unavoidable fact that, upon concluding this jam-packed season, the ending doesn’t resonate as much as the previous finales’.
Oh, well. At least the showrunners were brave enough to experiment.
The Differences between the Episode and the Novel:
It’s become something of a trend as of late to become the anti-trend, to feature anti-heroes acting in ambiguous ways that beget other ambivalent events and that culminate in non-traditional resolutions. And to say that Game of Thrones has consistently been trying to position itself as the head of this movement since its debut two years ago is a profound understatement.
Besides the obvious concerns of this becoming the new status quo (unless showrunners start attempting the anti-anti-trend in the next wave of productions), there is another side effect to this development: Thrones constantly tries to eschew the cliché moments or beats that traditionally clog shows’ narratives. How successful the series has been is entirely open to debate, as storylines such as Robb Stark’s courtship of Lady Talisa or Dany’s missing dragons have continued, even a year later, to be controversial changes from the source material due to their highly conventional nature (Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series has famously – or, perhaps, infamously, after the Red Wedding – attempted to steer clear of predictable waters).
“Mhysa,” however, makes all of the other inventions by Dan Weiss and David Benioff look mild by comparison, and it manages to do so with just one small scene: Jon Snow’s final encounter with Ygritte.
In the novel, there is no such tearful farewell (though Benioff and Weiss still attempt to put the anti-trend development in there by having the scorned lover feather her betrayer with arrows, something which would never happen in the soap operas that the new material was scooped directly out of). Jon simply sees the opportunity to grab a horse and does so, never looking back. It’s only later, after hours of hard riding, that he realizes there’s an arrow in his leg, which may or may not be from Ygritte; he can’t be certain in the light and through the haze of pain. He stops to remove the arrow and wash the wound, which makes him nearly pass out, and then he heads north to Castle Black, to warn his brothers of the impending attack.
It’s this last setting that the writers mined for their new stand-off between the two lovers. And though there undoubtedly was the burning desire to pay off the expanded dialogue in previous episodes about Jon promising not to betray his wildling lover, the scene still comes off as clunky and not just a little heavy-handed – not to mention nonsensical. How did Ygritte find him and the others didn’t? How was she able to take off after Jon and not have Tormund think that she was similarly betraying him? How can three arrows not be overkill?
It may seem like a disproportionate response to single out one small, specific scene so thoroughly, but it’s actually quite representative of the mentality that has guided the showrunners through all their additions or alterations to Martin’s work. Rather than having Catelyn Stark be the one to convince her husband to ride south and take up Robert Baratheon on his offer to be the Hand of the King, it’s Eddard himself, slave to his unfailing sense of duty (“Winter Is Coming,” episode 101); rather than Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon be the one to order the deaths of her late husband’s bastard children and even make the attempt on Tyrion’s life, it’s her sniveling son, Joffrey. And then, of course, there’s the transformation of Jayne Pool into Talisa Maegyr and the reason for Robb’s marriage to her, trading the more conceptual honor for the more marketable passion.
There are, obviously, differing levels of success to these various amendments, and it may not be entirely fair to judge them solely on the basis of how their tenor or even their intent holds up to the creator’s. But when something comes off as contrived – particularly after the unpredictable, emotionally devastating twist that was the Red Wedding – it sinks faster than a cast-iron anchor.
Such results make the other brand-new sequence in the episode something of a nerve-wracking proposition, as well. The development of having Yara Greyjoy sail off against her father’s will, particularly with 50 of their best men and one of their fastest ships, is not only the single biggest break from the book contained in the entire third season, it is a potentially open-ended throughline that can literally go in any direction. Will Benioff and Weiss decide that a “high-octane” plot device is in order, a la Dany’s missing dragons in Qarth? Or will it be a season-long waiting game meant to spin the wheels of the Greyjoy family and Ramsay Snow, just to keep their characters “in play”? Considering that (a) Yara should be busy holding Deepwood Motte and that (b) Theon shouldn’t be in the fourth season at all, the potential for conventionality is the greatest that it perhaps ever has been on the show – as is also the possibility of narrative damage.
Considering the lack of a proper cliffhanger ending in the finale, this pins-and-needles waiting will have to suffice for an entire year.
Season Three Reviews:
- 301: Valar Dohaeris
- 302: Dark Wings, Dark Words
- 303: Walk of Punishment
- 304: And Now His Watch Is Ended
- 305: Kissed By Fire
- 306: The Climb
- 307: The Bear and the Maiden Fair
- 308: Second Sons
- 309: The Rains of Castamere
Season Two Reviews:
- 210: Valar Morghulis
- 209: Blackwater
- 208: The Prince of Winterfell
- 207: A Man without Honor
- 206: The Old Gods and the New
- 205: The Ghost of Harrenhal
- 204: Garden of Bones
- 203: What Is Dead May Never Die
- 202: The Night Lands
- 201: The North Remembers
Season One Reviews:
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