As with the past two seasons, the finale of the third season of Game of Thrones ended with considerably less bombast than its penultimate episode. (Trying to top the Red Wedding, even if they could have done so by using other pivotal happenings from the third book, would’ve been an exercise in overkill.) But, what it did do was tie up a handful of loose ends and unravel more than a few knots that will serve as ropes leading to the fourth season.
The sole concessions to the less-bombast principle I mentioned above are found at the beginning and end of the episode. We open on Roose Bolton looking down at the courtyard of The Twins, where the Stark soldiers are being slaughtered after the end of the Red Wedding. In addition to the strangling, gutting, limb-severing and stabbing going on, the Freys have mounted the severed head of Robb Stark’s direwolf on the man’s headless corpse and proceed to march it through the court. Even the fairly brutal Sandor Clegane, watching as he shepherds Arya the hell out of there, seems appalled by this bit of savagery.
Later, he seems to have grown fully fond of Arya – he’s stuck with her, but isn’t cold enough to let her starve or die. And when he sees her risk her life to murder a couple of stray Freys they come upon, he can’t help but slaughter the ones she can’t get to and says to her, “The next time you’re going to do something like that, tell me first.”
In King’s Landing, we receive positive confirmation that Tywin helped orchestrate the Red Wedding. He also readily acknowledges that Walder Frey will bear the brunt of the realm’s dishonor for the act. While in my last recap I said that Tywin’s old ways won’t hold up for long, they certainly seem intact in his scenes, where he asserts dominance once again over Tyrion, Cersei and especially Joffrey. He rebukes the king’s childish monstrosities (threatening to serve Robb’s head to Sansa at his wedding, natch) and basically sends him from the Small Council table to sulk in his bedroom.
Tyrion, for all his woe, seems to be more confident in his somewhat reduced circumstances than before – he’s even bantering with Sansa and they seem to be tentatively enjoying each others’ company. This of course is heartbreaking for Shae, forced to serve as Sansa’s handmaiden and nurse her love for Tyrion like a drink that never empties. Her story has already diverged far enough from its source blueprint that while I know where it ends in the books, I have no clue how or if it’ll get to that point, which is thrilling. The conversation between her and Varys, where she refuses his offer of money to fund an exodus from Westeros was both fascinating and excruciating – she should leave, for many reasons, but can’t.
At the Wall, we finally see some character crossover. Samwell and Gilly happen upon Bran Stark, the Reed twins and Hodor, hiding in the Nightfort on the Wall. He’s unable to convince Bran not to head north on his strange quest, but manages to arm them all with dragonglass daggers to fight the white walkers. (See, Internet commenters who said Sam was dumb for dropping his dagger in episode 8? He has like 50 of those!!!)
We also find Jon in a one-sided emotional scene with Ygritte, the slighted lover who’s come after him to kill him, and almost succeeds with three arrows to the back. But, he manages to ride all the way to Castle Black, where his brothers in arms welcome him to his true home.
Theon Greyjoy ended his arc of being the unluckiest man in Westeros not in physical pain but at the bottom of a well of psychological horror. Roose Bolton’s bastard, Ramsay Snow (finally named as such in the dialogue), twists the knife worse than ever before – eating a deliberately long pork sausage in front of him and “giving” him his new name, Reek. After defying Ramsay twice by calling himself Theon and receiving skull cracking sucker punches in response, he accepts it and breaks down in tears. Some will probably disagree with this point, but I honestly think the portryal of Theon’s torture is meant as payback for our own bloodlust as viewers. After his ill-informed savagery in Season 2, we want him to suffer. And suffer he does, in ways worse than we could’ve imagined. About halfway through the season, I had considerable pity for him.
The final humiliation of Theon/Reek also provoked the Iron Islands characters to reenter the show, having been absent since the finale of Season 2. Balon Greyjoy, now titling himself King of the Iron Islands and the North, receives his only living son’s manhood in a box, along with threats from Ramsay claiming that more pieces will be next if the ironborn don’t leave the North. Balon, having always resented Theon, is entirely unfazed and eschews the value of his own child. Yara Greyjoy, privy to this reaction, openly defies Balon and sails away to attack the Boltons and rescue her little brother.
The best scenes in this episode, for me, involve Ser Davos Seaworth. He’s long been a favorite character of mine, as a book reader, and Liam Cunningham’s portrayal of him is flawless, investing this somewhat ordinary man (by Game of Thrones standards) with extraordinary depth, vitality and genuine, unvarnished but nuanced morality. He has an emotional scene with Gendry, and several with Stannis, where he simply refuses to allow the bastard boy to be killed. When he frees Gendry and sends him on a boat to King’s Landing and the boy asks why he’s doing this, Davos says, “Because it’s right, and I’m a slow learner.” He is a rare beast in this show in that he will not allow the world to change him, because he’d already made himself into a good man before we ever saw him and also knows how to be a bad one when necessary.
Stannis knows this, and it is why he lets Davos live – even after learning of his right-hand man’s disobedience. That, and the discovery of a letter from Castle Black sent by Samwell to every Westerosi lord to warn of the white walkers. The fact that he’s the first to take the greater threat seriously outside of the Night’s Watch is major – even Melisandre seems to believe this is the war they need to fight. (Some think that she is merely changing her tune on a dime, but she has, in fact, foreseen great battles in the ice in previous episodes.)
The episode closes with Daenerys, welcomed with open arms (and crowdsurfing support, like Alexis Krauss at a Sleigh Bells show) by the freed slaves of Yunkai. Their cries of “Mhysa!” (“mother” in the Ghiscari language that most in Essos speak) are cause for celebration – and worry. Having claimed this city and its people, Dany has to watch over it, and them. If you think that’ll be easy, you’re watching the wrong show.
Now that all’s said and done on this year’s chunk of Thrones, I’d say that this has absolutely been the show’s best season yet. Nearly half of its episodes are in series-best territory, including “Walk of Punishment,” “And Now His Watch is Ended,” “Kissed by Fire,” “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” (in its best scenes) and of course “The Rains of Castamere.” Even the worst episode, “The Climb,” had its excellent moments. The series has reached a place where the world of the story is about to expand further in terms of the source material (get ready for new cities on the title sequence map, y’all). Also, the willingness of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to not fully constrict themselves to the books is what’s even more exciting. They have a roadmap they aren’t following to the letter, which, to quote The Wire, sounds like one of them good problems.
Liam Green can be reached at email@example.com.