Every Game of Thrones season finale has a tough act to follow: the ninth episode drops a bombshell on the audience, and it’s left to the final installment to pick up the pieces and set up the action for next year. Usually, the best this kind of episode can do is make viewers forget it’s doing a lot of dramatic grunt work, making up for a lack of water-cooler chat fodder with good writing and quick transitions between characters. “Mhysa” had plenty of both, but also felt excellent by the show’s typical standards, picking up where “The Rains of Castamere” left off and exploring the Red Wedding’s implications, both personal and political.
The episode’s opening combines both: we see Roose Bolton and Walder Frey’s men slaughtering the Northern armies while Sandor and Arya slip away. The violence is on a much larger scale than last week’s banquet hall ambush, and it’s also exponentially less devastating — but then we see Arya get a glimpse of her brother’s headless corpse, complete with his direwolf’s head stuck on top. The Red Wedding thus completes Arya’s transformation from a spunky kid into something much uglier; the next time we see her, she brutally murders a Frey soldier without skipping a beat. It is to this show’s eternal credit that her dead-eyed “valar morghulis,” addressed to the coin Jaqen gave her at Harrenhal, isn’t cheesy in the slightest but genuinely terrifying.
“Mhysa” also takes us back to King’s Landing, where the news of Robb’s and Catelyn’s deaths puts the kibosh on Sansa and Tyrion’s uneasy truce. After serving as the de facto hero of Season 2, Tyrion has had relatively less material to work with lately, but a solid quarter of the finale revolves around him and his role as the unheeded voice of reason in the capital. He’s increasingly less tolerant of his family, both Joffrey’s casual cruelty and Tywin’s never-ending demands for personal sacrifice. The result is an initially amusing exchange (“Killed any puppies today?”) that goes sour after Joffrey proposes serving Robb’s head to Sansa at his wedding feast (“Monsters are dangerous, and these days kings are dropping like flies”). The confrontation with Tywin is more civil, giving us a look at Tywin’s ideology, which turns out to be more than pure pragmatism after all. The man sees himself as dedicated to the family above all else, even if that means putting a monster on the throne — or sparing his dwarf son’s life. Lastly, Varys begs Shae to leave King’s Landing for Tyrion’s safety, a reasonable request that she rejects by knocking the eunuch’s proposed bribe out of his hand. Which is interesting, considering that she begged Tyrion to leave for safety reasons in the last season finale, but I’ll forgive the inconsistency if it means Shae isn’t mad at her boyfriend anymore. The guy deserves a break.
Tyrion’s current position within the King’s Landing hierarchy makes him an interesting foil to Davos, who’s also got a tendency to give good advice that’s inevitably ignored. Davos bonds with Gendry over the terrible things that happen to little people when they get caught up in the series’ titular game, but unlike Gendry, Davos remains inexplicably devoted to Stannis. He lets Gendry go, but it’s less out of sympathy for the kid than the knowledge that sacrificing him would be a point of no return for his king. Instead, he switches tactics and joins forces with Melisandre, encouraging Stannis to heed Maester Aemon’s raven and turn north to fight the real enemy of the Seven Kingdoms: the White Walkers. Apparently, that’s what Bran’s trying to do as well, although what his weird visions have to do with defeating ice monsters isn’t clear. Either way, now that Jon and Sam are back at Castle Black and Bran’s across the Wall, it’s becoming apparent that the show is fusing three or four story lines into one giant battle against the walking dead. It’s too bad that those subplots also happen to be the least entertaining.
Back in the pettier world of human-on-human wars, one of the episode’s only big reveals comes during a post-battle meeting between Roose Bolton and Walder Frey, the two traitors behind the Red Wedding. Unique to the TV show, the conversation is a nice contrast between Bolton’s chilling, straightforward ambition and Frey’s vindictive inferiority complex (his speech sounded an awful lot like Locke’s, before he chopped off Jaime’s hand for thinking he’s better than the common folk). Most importantly, we learn that Theon’s torturer is actually Roose’s bastard son, which doesn’t make the torture scenes any less unnecessary but still lends Ramsay a little more menace. He sends Theon’s severed parts to the Iron Islands — cue the SNL references! — where his father (rightfully) dismisses his son as a fool and his sister vows to go on a rescue mission. Given her steely personality and her brother’s gross attempts to seduce her last season, this makes next to no sense. Worse, it also threatens to do away with the only interesting Iron Islands plot line of the entire book series, but that’s a matter for another season.
Because “Mhysa” covers so much ground, there are also a number of smaller scenes that likely won’t get the attention they deserve. First and foremost is Jaime and Cersei’s reunion, a 30-second interlude with a single word of dialogue that manages to communicate just how much these two have changed since they’ve been separated, especially Jaime. Even though their relationship catalyzed the events of the entire series, they’ve spent most of the show apart, and next season will give us a better look at their dynamic. Then there’s the momentary showdown between Jon and Ygritte, which awesomely ends with a few arrows in Jon’s back. Ygritte’s a skilled enough archer that she could have killed Jon, and the fact that she didn’t shows she still has feelings for him, but the standoff makes it clear that the two are now enemies. Next time she’ll shoot to kill.
Daenerys only gets a few minutes of screen time in “Mhysa,” but her scene is both the episode’s namesake and the season’s closing moment. Much can, and probably will be, written about how uncomfortable the image of a blonde woman surrounded by adoring legions of freed slaves makes many viewers. But for now, the writers obviously want us to know that Daenerys is taking on a project far beyond racking up practice conquests for her eventual trip to Westeros. Now that she’s Yunkai’s adopted “mother,” the last living Targaryen has a people to take care of — and that’s very different from leading an army.