This post discusses plot points from the June 9 episode of Game of Thrones. During this week, I’ll publish a series of posts on a number of aspects of the third season, but in this piece, I’ll focus on the third season finale.
The title of the third season finale of Game of Thrones is “Mhysa,” the Ghiscari word for mother, and the title that’s given to Dany by the freed slaves of Yunkai at the end of the episode. But it’s a fitting title for an episode that’s substantially concerned with what it means to be family, whether you’re born into it, chose to affirm it, or build it from the ashes of your shattered life. And it’s also an hour of television that’s a powerful reminder that what happens in family, and who counts as family, always emotionally powerful questions, matters rather more in a system of governance based on hereditary monarchy, and one that begins to explore the emotional and governance risks of building a family that’s the size of an entire nation.
The nightmare of a family you’re born into, especially when that nightmarish family has become entwined with the state, is never more clear than in the small council meeting where Tyrion learns of Robb Stark’s death. “Write back to Lord Frey,” Joffrey says, thinking not of the implications for his nation, but of his personal vendettas. “Thank him for his service. And command him to send me Robb Stark’s head. I’m going to serve it to Sansa at my wedding feast.” Tyrion, who’s extended his protection to Sansa Stark at their wedding in the matter of their bedding, with help from his father, tries to intervene again, and provokes another nasty confrontation. “Everyone is mine to torment,” Joffrey declares. “You’d do well to remember that, you little monster.” “Monsters are dangerous,” Tyrion shoots back at him. “And just now, kings seem to be dying like flies.” And Tywin, once again, backs up his son, telling his grandon, “Any man who must say ‘I am the king is no true king,’” then sending him to bed without supper.
But the decision that follows, about the moment when Tywin decided he would accept Tyrion as a Lannister, and make him part of the family, is so painful it’s almost not worth scoring the points with Joffrey. “A good man does everything in his power to better his family’s position, regardless of his own selfish desires,” Tywin order Tyrion to get Sansa pregnant–he doesn’t care about the young woman’s trauma, just securing the Lannisters’ interests. And he finds himself musing to Tyrion about what those ties mean to him. “The day that you were born. I wanted to carry you into the sea and let the waves wash you away. Instead I let you live. And I brought you up as my son. Because you’re a Lannister,” Tywin tells him. Blood means overcoming even disgust.
It means less in the Iron Islands, where Balon Greyjoy, having received Theon’s preserved penis along with a letter ordering the Ironborn out of the North, disowns his boy. Actions matter more to the Ironborn than blood in a country where a man wins his precious things, his land, his manhood, and even his family. “The boy’s a fool,” Balon tells Yara, his daughter. “He cannot further the Greyjoy line. I will not give up the lands I’ve seized, the strongholds I’ve taken…My son is not a man anymore.” But that focus on merit also earns sons–and daughters–a certain amount of autonomy that isn’t afforded to Lannisters, and it offers them chances to make their own reputations. “I’m going to pick the fastest ship in our fleet. I’m going to choose the fifty best killers in the Iron Islands,” Yara declares, assembling her army in a stunning act of self-determination that few other women in Westeros are old enough enough, or have resources enough, to take. “I’m going to march on the Dreadfort. I’m going to find my little brother. And I’m going to bring him home.”
If those sections of the episode are concerned with the decisions parents make to love their children, others address the question of what happens when adults raise up monsters, and how they relate to the people they’ve brought into the world. “Ramsay has his own way of doing things,” Roose Bolton tells Walder Frey at the Twins. But at the Dreadfort, where the man who is revealed to be Roose Bolton’s son continues his torment of the man who once was Theon Greyjoy an is now the creature Reek, the connection between Roose’s behavior and Ramsay’s is more complicated. “So I’ve always wondered. Do eunuchs have a phantom cock? Next time you think about naked girls, do you feel an itch?” Ramsay muses over a sausage. “Sorry. I shouldn’t make jokes. My mother taught me not to throw stones at cripples. But my father taught me aim for their head.”
And in King’s Landing, Cersei, who may have raised a monster–though she’s raised two decent other children–through a thousand small acts instead of one large lesson, muses on the fact that, unlike Roose, who disowns his son, Cersei loves Joffrey anyway. “You want to make things better for Sansa? Give her a child,” Cersei tells Tyrion. “So she can have some happiness in her life…It was all I had, once, before Myrcella was born. I used to spend hours looking at him. His whisps of hair. His tiny little hands and feet. He was such a jolly little fellow. You always hear the terrible ones were terrible babies…Whenever he was with me he was happy. And no one can take that away from me, not even Joffrey. How it feels to have someone, someone of your own.” Having once felt that astonishing sense of possession and identification, is it any wonder that the parents of Westeros turn on their children so savagely when they prove disappointing, bound by the desperate need to continue to protecting them as family, even as they become people of their own?
And is it any wonder that those children, or parents who have failed their own children, cling to delight in families that feel, unexpectedly, as they ought, or families they choose? Tyrion and Sansa share a rare moment of happiness walking in the garden, when Sansa exhibits a rare wild streak after two men laugh at the sight of them together. “How shall we punish them?” she asks in a tone that suggests she shares some of the impishness that’s often perceived as Tyrion’s chief attribute, suggesting a method that Arya used to employ “when she was angry with me, and she was always angry with me.” She’s caught a brief glimpse of the family she lost and appreciated too late in the husband who was foisted on her, only to have it stolen from her again. Blood, it seems, is something essential, especially when Lannisters are organizing the slaughter of Starks.
On Dragonstone, Davos finds a similar unexpected pleasure in Gendry, who challenges him by assuming he’s highborn.“I didn’t want to be a Lord,” Davos explains. “I did it for my son. I didn’t want him to step over a river of shit every time he stepped through his front door. I wanted him to have a better life.” “Does he?” Gendry, a boy whose father casually abandoned him to that river of excrement, asks. “He’s dead,” Davos confesses, killed by the very role Davos’s lordship gave his family in the Battle of the Blackwater. But Davos is able to do better by Gendry than he did by his own son by blood. “His name’s Gendry. He’s a good lad. A poor lad from Flea Bottom who happens to be your nephew,” he pleads to Stannis to save him. “What is a boy against a kingdom?” Stannis wants to know. And when Davos tells him “everything,” he’s correct as a matter of morality and bloodlines. Killing Gendry would make Stannis the Rat Cook, would make him worse than Walder Frey, killing not just a guest he’s already tormented, but betraying the bonds of blood he’s violated before in his quest for kingship. When Stannis misses the lesson, Davos takes matters into his own hands. “You know how to swim?” he asks the boy. When Gendry tells him no, Davos offers him a meager “Don’t fall out,” and pushes him off. Even if Gendry dies at sea, Davos will have saved Stannis from sin, and given Gendry the experience of knowing that someone cares for him.
In Westeros, in the aftermath of Walder Frey’s atrocities, another makeshift family’s born in the blood they take, rather than what courses through their veins. Sandor Clegane couldn’t spare Arya the sight off her brother’s wolf’s head attached to his body with spikes, and he can’t spare her the sound of ugly talk about her mother’s death. But unlike Yoren, who saved her from the image of her father’s assassination, Sandor doesn’t need to. Arya’s a harder girl now, one who’s killed the boy who tried to prevent her escape, who’s seen torture and atrocity, who’s ordered men killed through an intermediary. And for the first time, she kills because she wants to, not because she needs to, through a clever ruse with a dropped coin that leaves the Freys vulnerable. “Where did you get the knife?” Sandor asks her when it’s all over. “From you,” Arya tells him, handing the weapon she once would have kept to murder him with back to Sandor, who was once her captor, and now seems more like a partner. “Is that the first man you’ve killed?” he wants to know, and Arya learns the value of legalism in keeping her secrets, telling him the truth that yes, it’s “The first man.” “Next time your’e going to do something like that, tell me first,” Sandor tells her, assuming there will be a next time. And Arya’s “Valar Morguhlis” is an affirmation and a deadly promise. That the Hound could both be on her prayer of vengeance and the only family she has left is, in the context of this episode, much more plausible than it might have been before.
In the North, Arya’s brother Jon is forced to choose between one of his elected families and the other after Ygritte tracks him down on his mad dash back to Castle Black. “Ygritte you know I didn’t have a choice. You always knew who I was. What I am,” Jon pleads with her. “I have to go home, now. I know you won’t hurt me.” But Ygritte nocks her bow and tells him, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” before burying her arrows in him. Jon may be right that “I do know some things. I know I love you. I know you love me. I have to go home now.” But Jon was raised in a country where some obligations are higher than others, and where your will matters less than your family and your oaths. Those obligations gave him a second-class childhood at Winterfell, where family ties compelled Ned Stark to take him in, but family hierarchies meant that he was second class. But it seems that Jon has internalized more of those values than even he might have expected, and the cruelest thing he does to Ygritte is not necessarily to leave her, but to expect her to understand why he’s going. But Ygritte grew up governed by nothing but her own sense of what is right and what she wants. And Jon is the only family that she chose. Her arrows punish him, but don’t kill him, though what hope can she have for reunion?
And outside of Yunkai, Dany waits for the slaves who refused to fight for the slavers to emerge from the city. “Perhaps they didn’t want to be conquered,” Dany muses as the wait drags on. “You didn’t conquer them. You liberated them,” Jorah encourages her. But Dany knows differently, warning him “People learn to love their chains.” She forgets that caution in the moment the crowd embraces her as “Mhysa,” mother, a silver hope in a sea of brown people. It’s an image that many commentators found troubling, given Game of Thrones‘ overwhelming whiteness, and the presentation of many non-white people as barbarians, deceptive slavers, or mindless slaves. But it’s worth remembering that in Game of Thrones, the people who can injure you worst are often your family. And as joyful as that sequence was framed to be, a family conceived not in genuine compatibility or a shared vision of the world but in desperate need and a rush of affirmation contains great potential for harm. Dany, whose brother was her first abuser, and the rest of us forget that at our peril, and at the peril of a new form of governance by consent of the governed that is putting out fragile roots in Slaver’s Bay.