Joffrey challenges Tywin. Bran tells a ghost story. In Dragonstone, mercy comes from strange quarters. Dany waits to see if she is a conqueror or a liberator.
“Mhysa” takes its title from the way the freed slaves of Yunkai address Daenerys, their savior. It’s an uplifting moment—quite literally, as they hoist her up on their shoulders—and that final soaring camera angle with the dragons screeching above the crowd and Ramin Djawadi’s choral piece (featuring a mish-mash, apparently, of High Valyrian) should all leave the show on something of a high note. But it must be said that many of the issues we—and other critics besides—had with last season’s finale, “Valar Morghulis,” rear up again. This exposition-laden episode—one of the most dialog-heavy of the season—attempts to wrap up too many storylines, adds some scenes that might well have been dispensed with entirely (or at least moved to the next season), and sags under the weight of so much touching of bases and tidying up of loose ends. The magic of the first season’s finale, “Fire and Blood”, has eluded the producers yet again.
The problem is a structural one, really. By attempting to make sure the penultimate episode is always especially momentous, they have—in the second and third seasons—managed to leave the final episode feeling rather light weight. It need not have been the case last year, but their handling of the House of the Undying and Qarth in general left many underwhelmed. It need not have been the case this year, either, I think, if they had not faltered in the end with the Daenerys storyline and had perhaps gone with a darker overarching note then they chose to give. We were extremely pleased with the handling of Daenerys through much of this season, especially with our personal favorite episode of the season, “And Now His Watch is Ended”, but from “Second Sons” on their adaptation choices quickly weakend her narrative. Gone was the young queen who came up with a bold stratagem on her own—a night attack on unsuspecting enemies—and instead we are left with her awkwardly dealing with Daario as he presents and executes a bold plan. We did not spend much time dwelling on anything beyond the Red Wedding in our commentary for “The Rains of Castamere,” but last episode’s story on Essos certainly felt very thin and as if a scene was missing. This seems to be the case once more with the final moments of this episode, as we go from Daenerys seizing Yunkai to her waiting outside of its walls without any real explanation as to what happened between. One more scene to establish her repeating her ultimatum or she’ll fully sack the city or some such might have been appropriate. Djawadi’s music and the final shot help elevate something that, in the end, was quite thin.
But there were a deal of things that seemed rather thin in this episode. The jarringly obvious way in which they had Walder Frey lead Roose Bolton into an explanation of what “really happened” at Winterfell and with Theon Greyjoy shocked us because it seemed such a shoddy way to dispense with a mystery they had toyed with (against, in our view, wisdom) the entire season. And truth be told, we’re not the only ones, as Alan Sepinwall (a non-reader) called the time spent on it all into question. This seems to be a case of the writers once more taking time out of the dense plot threads that provide the story its momentum to service an actor they enjoy working with, much as they did with Richard Madden last season. But as we’ve said before, the actors are there to serve the story, not vice versa, and it is perhaps getting to be high time for Benioff and Weiss to start taking this seriously. As it is, the real turn for many was Theon’s transformation into “Reek”... and apparently a couple of punches to the face are sufficient to achieve that, which feels quite hollow in retrospect. I’m not calling for more extensive, brutal torture, but it might have served to leave us seeing Ramsay Snow sharpening knives and promising that by the end of the day, Theon will only answer to Reek. Imagined tortures are always worse than what can be depicted on the screen.
Elsewhere, exposition gives way to scenes that don’t genuinely seem to tie in to the forward progression of the story, or at least seem to be scenes that could have been deferred to next season. Shae and Varys is the prime example: what does this scene truly achieve? Even divorcing book-knowledge, Varys’s motivations seem incredibly baffling given his first season conversation with Illyrio where his genuine interests and desires seem somewhat at odds with wanting someone like Tyrion around to be able to help Lord Tywin “improve the country”. The show may well hope we’ll see this as a matter of wheels-within-wheels and Varys being inscrutable, but in the end what it really turns on is Shae and her love for Tyrion and her jealousy that she does not have Tyrion all to herself. This is something that could easily have been pushed to the next season. Similarly, Davos’s discussion with Gendry about their common background seemed like it didn’t really serve any genuine point that needed to be told in the last hour of the season. I’m a confirmed fan of Liam Cunningham’s portrayal of Davos Seaworth, but the episode needed more meat on its bones and precious minutes were used up in a scene that basically reiterated details we already knew about these characters. It’s no different, truly, than the end of the small council scene when Tywin Lannister yet again lectures one of his offspring on the importance of family and duty. Yes, his revelation that he considered drowning Tyrion was a nicely emotive moment… but might this not have been time better spent more clearly laying out the upcoming season? Especially in regards to the imminent arrival of Dorne into the political scene? How the show can miss opportunities to actually hint at characters who will be coming next season is rather baffling.
(But then, sometimes, the show can’t even hint at characters who are appearing late. It was interesting to see how the Cersei and Tyrion conversation focused so much on Cersei’s children as the reason she was able to live life in King’s Landing… when the father of those children was nearby. Yes, she wouldn’t admit that her brother was her lover in that scene… but she could surely point out that Jaime’s presence in the city was a comfort as well, and helped make life tolerable, and thereby better setting up that awkward and fraught meeting at the end of the episode when her joy turns to disappointment. But I digress.)
The more I think on this episode, the more there seems to be some systemic problems with the approach the producers have made to the beats of the story. It’s the structure in part, yes: the incredibly rushed way that they get through the equivalent of Davos’s final chapter in A Storm of Swords places Stannis in a rather uglier position (batting .333—killing one of three kings with her “ritual”—seems to be satisfactory enough for Stannis on the show, whereas both he and Davos rightly note that all three must die to be convincing as to her power, or the power of R’hllor), and moreover ruins a very dramatic turn towards the end of the novel which seemed utterly tailor-made for TV. But what are they going to do now? Much as with Theon’s story, they seem to be leaving themselves with either circling the airfield in the first half of next season, or they’re going to be rushing ahead far more quickly than I would have expected, especially given the amount of material still available to them. It’s always hard to judge where they’ll take the story next season, but it seems harder to judge than usual this time, because a couple of parts of the story are much nearer the end of A Storm of Swords or even approaching the beginnings of the following entries in the series, and either they’re going to have to generate some filler or they’re going to go all in with a headlong rush that may be exhilarating, or may prove too much.
There were good things about the episode, of course: Bran’s tale of the Rat Cook finally emphasized guest right, and cleverly cut to Walder Frey dining triumphantly in his blood-stained hall, and the return of Peter Vaughan as Maester Aemon was a very unexpected, but very welcome, turn (even if it does mean it’s another example of a storyline that’s much further ahead than much of the rest of the story). So, too, was the aftermath of the Red Wedding and its personal impact on Arya Stark. While it didn’t strike the same note, in my mind, as what could have been achieved last season, it at least gives her a motivation for her vengeful murder. The comedy that follows—Sandor’s reaction and his sitting down to eat the roasted rabbit—one could have done without… and I admit, I wonder how the episode might have played if Arya’s murder was the last thing we saw. The darker note may have better-served to set the stage. But that’s another digression. Also of note are the first half of the small council scene was a fine display of acting from Gleeson, Dance, and Dinklage (the Tyrion and Sansa scene, on the other hand, seems to be part-and-parcel with making the marriage much less strained than it was in the novel, for reasons inexplicable to me). The Jon and Ygritte scene—even if it might have strained credulity slightly—nicely underscored the tragedy of their relationship, and again gave Harington scope for his character that had largely been missing in the prior season; the theory that filming in Iceland had a negative effect on performances seems increasingly plausible.
There’s one last thing I’ll address: the things we did not see that some readers were sure were going to happen. Curiously enough, our estimation of the episode and its failings has nothing to do with any of that: we were certain that one particular Red Wedding-related event was not happening this season, and that another major wedding-related se-tpiece was taking place next season. In these things, I believe the writers made the right choice in how they structured the season. The Red Wedding and its immediate political aftermath were sufficiently strong to base the finale on, and the rest of the major events could be moved into season 4. Whether the first event—I allude to it only vaguely, to avoid some major spoilers for those who read these reviews despite being unfamiliar with the novels—will ever happen on the show, I do not know; recent news suggests that at best it’s an end of the season thing. It’s just a matter of waiting on the other event, however: it is surely coming.
In the end, “Mhysa” hits all the same problems that “Valar Morghulis” did, and once again it’s partly due to the structure of the series, partly due to the deviations that the show-runners decided to take, and partly due to their persistent desire to shoe-horn every single character into the final episode. If they simply address that last one and wrap some storylines sooner, they’ll go a long way to making the season 4 finale stronger, I suspect.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: Part of Arya XI, Tyrion VI, Bran IV, Davos V, Davos VI, the beginning of Jon VI, and the end of Daenerys IV:
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Walder and Roose: As neither are POV characters, this conversation does not exist in the novels. That said, the details of Ramsay holding Theon were already known at this point in the novels. Walder does not need a new wife at this time in the novels, as Lady Joyeuse was not killed, as previously noted. Bolton is indeed named Warden of the North and given control of Winterfell in the novels.
Ramsay and Theon: Theon being renamed to Reek was a process that seems to have taken more extensive, sustained torture and mutilation. In the novels, Reek was the name of Ramsay’s servant who participated in his atrocities until he was killed by Rodrik Cassel and his men, at which point Ramsay assumed his identity and was taken prisoner. He pretended to serve Theon Greyjoy after he took Winterfell, until finally revealing himself when he led the Bolton garrison that slaughtered the northmen besieging Winterfell and then taking Theon prisoner.
The Greyjoys: In the novels, Theon’s fate is unknown to the ironborn until much later than what’s shown in the series. A “piece of prince” is indeed sent to them, but it involves a strip of flayed skin, and the fact that Theon has been gelded remains unknown. More notably, Asha does not in fact set out to rescue Theon in the novels in this dramatic fashion, and instead thinks on it only rather later when she learns her brother is still alive and then she does so not for altruistic reasons, but rather as the only means available to her to wrest control of the Iron Islands. Even then, the plan—such as it was—involved travel overland to the Dreadfort, rather than an arduous sea journey around the whole of Westeros. Last but not least, by time in the novels Balon Greyjoy is already dead—he predeceases Robb, in fact.
Gendry and Davos: Davos’s origins in Flea Bottom are accurate to the novel. Gendry’s presence at Dragonstone is a significant change, however, and so this conversation is not from the books.
Shae and Varys: Shae’s motivations and feelings towards Tyrion are significantly different in the novel, as is Varys’s attitude towards her; she is never offered the opportunity to become independently wealthy if she leaves the city.
Cersei and Tyrion: In the novels, Cersei and Tyrion do not share such intimate confidences as they do in the series. That said, Cersei never suggests—even in private thoughts—that she might ever have contemplated suicide because of her unhappiness in King’s Landing. Her love of her children is, however, accurate to the novels.
The Hound and Arya: This scene is invented, but seems very loosely inspired by a similar scene of Arya knifing someone to death later in A Storm of Swords, with a touch of her final scene in A Clash of Kings when she uses Jaqen’s coin to distract a guard at Harrenhal whom she then kills in cold blood. In the novels, the Hound and Arya do come across a mortally wounded soldier who escaped the slaughter at the Twins, and the Hound personally gives him a merciful death asArya watches. It is not mentioned, but in the novels Catelyn’s body is thrown into the river. This aspect of the Red Wedding’s aftermath is particularly relevant to Arya in the novels, as in the immediate aftermath Arya dreams of herself in Nymeria’s skin swimming into the river to drag Catelyn’s body to the shore in an attempt to save her and make her run with her pack.
Jon and Ygritte: In the novels, Jon is hit by arrows—possibly Ygritte’s, but possibly not—as he escapes initially. The confrontation shown in the show is invented and not from the books.
Samwell, Gilly, and Aemon: Samwell and Gilly arrive at Castle Black much later than show in the TV series, and the scene as shown is not from the novel. In fact, there is no question in the novels as to whether the child is Samwell’s or not, at least not around Castle Black. It should also be noted that the Wall is 300 miles long in the novels and, we believe, in the TV show; we suspect an error on the part of the writers, or at least an error on the part of the characters (hard as it is to believe that bookish Samwell would make such a mistake, or that Maester Aemon would let it slide). Finally, Gilly’s child is not named, as wildling custom is to avoid naming children until they are older due to high infant mortality. Letters are sent warning the realm of the dire plight of the Watch, as well, but the letter in the novel is largely focused on Mance Rayder’s vast host rather than on the Others.
Jaime in King’s Landing: Jaime’s return to King’s Landing in A Storm of Swords happens much later than depicted on the show, and is significantly different in its details. His meeting with Cersei, in particular, is quite torrid and passionate. While Cersei reacts negatively to his more haggard appearance and the loss of his hand, it does not keep them apart.