Any series built around the outsize talents of Peter Dinklage can't be accused of ignoring the little people. And yet, in its devotion to the maneuverings of the rich and powerful, Game of Thrones occasionally overlooks the plight of its pawns. Over the course of these three seasons, we've become wildly intimate with those jockeying for control of Westeros — the Kingslayers and Queens, the Lords of Light and the smoke-filled ladies who attend to them — but spent precious little time with the ordinary people who actually have to live in such a gods-forsaken place. This focus is understandable — with only 10 hours per season to service what can feel like 10 times as many characters, it sometimes feels as if David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are forced to sacrifice the depth of George R.R. Martin's novels in order to have any chance at all of communicating their scope — and it's also a key part of the storytelling: As last night's gruesome opening demonstrated, an entire army can go from the celebratory roasting of meats to getting barbecued in a matter of seconds. (In their world, as in ours, the fate of those who live in tents is all too often decided by those who operate behind closed doors.) But the cruelly unsentimental fantasy-kingdom realpolitik of Game of Thrones, while plenty admirable, isn't enough to consistently fuel the kind of fandom the show has earned. Call me old-fashioned, but it takes more than the shocking deaths of powerful, seemingly untouchable people to keep me interested. I occasionally need to be reminded just what it is they all felt was worth dying for.
Happily, the broad and bracing "Mhysa" helped provide an answer. The motivation for Westerosi, high and lowborn alike, is the same thing that fuels big dreams and bigger alcohol consumption in our own realm: family. In an unpredictable world beset by direwolves, dragons, and little girls armed with daggers, family is the anchor in all senses. It's what weighs Tyrion down, immobilizing him in a vise of paternal brinksmanship. And it's what provided the stalwart Ser Davos with ballast in order to pull himself up out of one station in hopes of something better. And family, in the end, is what can sink you. Roose Bolton stabbed Robb Stark in the heart for a crime his own mother knew he was guilty of: never listening to good advice. Yet even though Cat knew what big mistakes her eldest son was making, she was unable to act in any meaningful way; instead, her unwavering love and support doomed them both. For the majority of the characters on Game of Thrones, it's family, not leeches and fire, that provides the ability to see into a future they themselves will likely never witness. And it's these family-fueled visions of happiness and success that blind many of them to the unsustainability of the present.
(To test this theory, I'll keep my eye firmly trained on the X. Because while the dread Roose Bolton may have helped destroy one noble house, I don't have high hopes for the long-term success of his. "Ramsay has his own way of doing things," is how Roose describes his castrating crackpot of a kid with the same near-apologetic shrug Cat Stark might have used back when her own boy was a king instead of a corpse. In the Seven Kingdoms, sons are celebrated but they're hardly stable. Even high-minded Daenerys, the emancipator of the East, knows to keep her dragons chained up now and again.)
With its wider canvas and gentler tone, there was no way for "Mhysa" to match the homicidal hitching of "The Rains of Castamere," but that was also sort of the point. Monarchs and matriarchs die in epic, bloodspattered tableaus. Sometimes it can be just as interesting to stick around and see what happens to those left behind to clean up the mess. To my mind, last night worked magnificently because it did precisely what great TV needs to do, what separates its storytelling from other major mediums: It followed up a giant splash by tracking all of the fascinating ripples that emerged in its wake. And, OK, yes, it's true: As Gendry will soon learn, all vessels tend to travel a bit faster once some dead weight has been chucked overboard. But as the bad news of the Red Wedding — and the worse news of the White Walkers — spread over the continent like a flock of inky ravens, the massive world of Game of Thrones felt changed forever. Plotlines at last overlapped; a growing sense of inevitability and sadness stretched from King's Landing to Castle Black. In the same way that "Blackwater," the second season's climax, transformed the viewers' understanding of the scope of this story, the destruction of the Starks served a similar purpose for the remaining players. "The war of five kings means nothing" is how Melisandre put it, as she, like all good manipulators, retconned her prophecies to suit the new context. Or as Cutty Wise once said on another heralded HBO hour about power, pride, and loss, the Game done changed.
Not that anyone's bothered to tell Tywin Lannister. Though he was given one of his finest seated set pieces to date — sending the preposterous Joffrey to bed without his supper or the severed tongue of his uncle — I couldn't help but consider the most powerful man in Westeros differently this week. Ruthlessly securing the iron throne is unquestionably impressive. But to have done so while an army of the dead is marching from the north and an army of the free is massing in the east seems rather pointless, doesn't it? Being grand champion of the Game of Thrones at such a moment feels a bit like being the world's best polo player in 2013, or having an undefeated record in whist. Tywin's life lessons are certainly sound — "a good man does everything in his power to better his family's position, regardless of his own selfish desires" — but they aren't nearly as radical as he'd like to believe. Practically everyone on this show thinks he's a good man, and practically everyone is unable to see the selfishness inherent in his own purported selflessness. Tywin has a regal bearing and a spotless win-loss record that separate him from the piggish pique of Walder Frey, but in the end they're not so dissimilar. Both are old men presiding over blood-stained banquets, willing to sacrifice all of their guests in hopes of keeping the party going. I loved how Sansa thought the best revenge would be to hide sheep shit in the bedroom of an enemy when the people she's up against long ago lost the ability to notice the rotten stink emanating from their own homes.
The next generation of Lannisters aren't nearly as blinkered, but they're just as stuck. Any scene between Tyrion and Cersei brings out the best in this show, a testament both to the delicacy of Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey's performances and to Game of Thrones itself for making such scarred and scabrous characters the most sympathetic of the lot. From Tyrion's vantage point, the cycle of dealing with enemies by creating new ones is as repetitive and exhausting as the daily chore of drowning sobriety in goblets of wine. ("I suppose it will go on for quite some time," his sister purrs when he drunkenly wonders when the suffering might end.) As for Cersei, she knows exactly what she is and what the future has in store for her. She's the besotted mother of an incestuously conceived monster; the only pleasure she's ever gotten defied the laws of nature. When Cersei speaks of family being the only thing that keeps her from suicide, it sounds like a curse far worse than death. Has her dark worldview won me over or has the misery of Westeros beaten me down? Whatever the reason, the mere suggestion of seeing this wicked Queen reunited with her mangled brother-lover had me smiling like Podrick in a whorehouse. On Game of Thrones, even the happy endings can make you feel terrible.
The groaning wheels of fate and family seemed determined to grind everyone down this season, but at least the Lannisters have a sense of humor about it. The same can't be said for the remaining Starks, who appear all too willing to play their parts with grim acceptance. Though she's now cast in one of the greatest road-buddy comedies of all time ("He's a giant death machine with a fear of fire and a love of pork, she's literally a child; together they are [record scratch] The Hounds of Love!"), Arya stopped smiling weeks ago. She's become less like a person and more like a pint-size blade with no purpose other than bloody revenge. (This doesn't seem like the greatest strategy, as those in Westeros with one-track minds tend to be among the first to lose their heads.) The same stubbornness can be seen in Bran, who is traveling beyond the Wall because he "must." I'm sure the little Warg has plenty to accomplish among the Wights, but I wish George R.R. Martin had left this obsession with mystical destiny in the bin with the other fantasy clichés he so wisely abandoned. And Jon Snow fulfilled his own promise by surviving the most emo breakup in history, forcing his aggrieved girlfriend to play a literal cupid ripped from the punny title of a Fall Out Boy song. Even Theon, though not truly a Stark, has been reduced to what his sausage-slicing captor refers to as "meat," mere grist for the unceasing mill of plot. (At least the best part of Theon still had one more trick up its, uh, sleeve. I haven't seen Lonely Island produce a dick in a box like that since Saturday Night Live.)
These characters all clearly have more to do, but forgive me if the Starks feel like old news. What I loved about "Mhysa" and what made me feel very optimistic about Season 4 (a cruel nine months away!) is the way it hinted at the roles still to be played by those who have made their own way in the world, free of courtly obligations or kingly names. The wonderful scene between Varys and Shae was one of the first times I can remember involvement in the Game of Thrones being presented as a choice. In exchange for diamonds, Varys offers Shae the chance to "start a new life, a good life, far from here." His reasons are oddly pragmatic and almost touching: He actually thinks Tyrion is someone capable of making Westeros "a better place." But jewels or no, Varys can't give Shae something she already has: free will. Whether she's emptying Sansa's chamber pot or mooning over her precious Demon Monkey, Shae will always be a "complication" because that's precisely what free agency implies.
As Game of Thrones moves forward, the players worth watching will be those untethered from the game board, the former pawns who, like Shae, take pleasure in the ability to make their own bad decisions and live or die with the consequences. This was made plain by the season's rather odd closing image, the sight of bottle-blonde Daenerys re-creating R.E.M.'s video for "Drive" atop a massive, multicultural crowd of liberated slaves. (That these former captives call their champion "Mhysa" — mother — was a fascinating echo of Cersei's own view of parenthood: "No one can take that away from me how it feels to have someone of your own.") And it was there, too, in Samwell Tarly's humanist interpretation of the seemingly strict oath of the Night's Watch, as the former laughingstock used his own smarts and experience to transform a promise to protect fancy lords from harm to a vow to defend all living things from the walking dead. (The man who heard Samwell's story? Why, that was old Maester Aemon, né Targaryen, Daenerys's forgotten uncle and a man who knows a thing or two about the ability to change history by stepping away from it.)
But by far my preferred hero for this new reality is Ser Davos Seaworth, the fingerless hand of an uncrowned king. The old Onion Knight has been swimming in rich people's shit since the day he was born, and it has taught him a few things about how to stay afloat. Gendry is wrong about Davos — they were practically neighbors! — but he's right about the way the high-born see the subjects of the land they're so desperate to rule: as "a million different ways" to get what they want. Success and goodness are just questions of scale on Game of Thrones, and I'm not talking about Stannis's daughter's face. Tywin wonders why it's "more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner" and Melisandre curses Davos for saving Gendry at the expense of "tens of thousands" who are now doomed. But even before he could read, Davos was smarter than any of the noblemen he's been forced to serve because he knew what they never seem to acknowledge: Life is savage and short and every miserable second of it is worth savoring. No matter what Tywin Lannister believes, being feared and being remembered aren't the same thing as immortality. Songs may be written about ruined families like the Starks, but they won't be around to listen to them. This bold and brutal third season confirmed Game of Thrones as the bravest show on television for its willingness to kill anyone, in any way, at any time. But what could make it the best show on television is a new commitment to the tough decisions and humble bravery of the wretched, lucky souls left alive.
[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!]