Every week for the third season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.
Orr: It seems only fair. After Arya's brutally aborted reunion with her family last week, tonight we were offered a few literal and metaphorical homecomings. In descending order of satisfaction: Sam and Jon find each other once again at Castle Black; Daenerys adopts a city's worth of new dependents; Davos is accepted back into Stannis's embrace about five minutes after the latter sentenced him to death; Jaime (or most of him) reunites with a less-than-entirely-ecstatic Cersei; and Theon (or at least his self-described "best part") is delivered to his dad in a box. Oh, and Tywin Lannister is restored to his rightful place as the man in Westeros on whose bad side you least want to be, king or no king. (Paying attention, Joffrey?)
We've been here before, of course, in both Seasons One and Two: The penultimate episode overturns the Game of Thrones playing board—Ned loses his head, the Lannisters turn the tide on the Blackwater—and the season finale picks up the remaining pieces.
As I've mentioned throughout our roundtables, I continue to be baffled by the show's start-stop pacing. The latter half of this season consisted of three consecutive episodes that significantly pared down the number of storylines and developments (often to agreeable effect), followed by the final two, in which major twists—including the major twist of the Red Wedding—competed for attention with a variety of subsidiary narratives. It's as if showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss miscounted their seasonal allotment and belatedly realized that they had to cram four episodes' worth of plot down into two.
That said, there was plenty to like tonight. Like the season overall, it offered glimpses of both the potential promise and the potential pitfalls of Benioff and Weiss making the story their own, rather than adhering slavishly to the blueprint provided by George R. R. Martin. Take, for example, the Tyrion-Sansa "sheep shift" scene, which is not in the books. I have my quibbles with the execution (does Sansa really need to be that stupid?) but the hint that maybe, just maybe, these two relatively decent characters could find a way to be happy as husband and wife gave another layer of resonance to the subsequent revelation that his dad had just engineered the brutal slaughter of her mother and brother. That's probably going to set back the clock a bit in the whole gradual-effort-to-win-her-heart scenario.
On the other hand—and in keeping with the theme of The Many Loves of Tyrion Lannister—I increasingly dislike the portrayal of proud-but-resentful Shae, whose motivations are becoming ever more far-fetched. Let's see: Accept a large bag of diamonds to restart your life as a wealthy and beautiful woman who can pick among her suitors? Or remain a sulky, secret servant to the wife of your ex-lover (and, as such, a pretty clear candidate to be killed at any time) just because you want him to "tell you himself" that it's not working out? Perhaps it's just me, but having a gimlet-eyed, wise-to-the-world gal like Shae (also, relevantly, a career prostitute) choose Door Number Two seems a considerable reach.
Elsewhere tonight—and there were a lot of elsewheres tonight—I thought that Samwell Tarley and Bran Stark's intersecting storylines provided some of the best material either has had to date (which is not, alas, saying all that much), and it was nice to see Peter Vaughan's Maester Aemon again after a long absence. Liam Cunningham, who plays Davos Seaworth, continues to make the most of pretty much every onscreen opportunity he gets, even if his Dragonstone costars (Stephen Dillane's Stannis and Carice van Houten's Melisandre) remain decidedly uneven. And the culmination of Daenerys's soft conquest of Yunkai was both a bit underwhelming—certainly relative to her incendiary capture of Astapor—and featured substantially too much crowd surfing.
I give way to no one when it comes to appreciation of Rose Leslie's Ygritte, but her Angry Cupid act with Jon Snow felt a bit off to me. In the books, she puts an arrow in his leg during his direwolf-assisted escape from the wildlings, which took place last episode. Having her track him down to do the same at a later date (plus, um, where are all the other wildlings?) seemed an unnecessary indulgence, however striking she may be with a bow in her hand and tears in her eyes.
Charles Dance, meanwhile, was in exquisite Tywin-form taking his family back in Hand at King's Landing, and never more so than when he trained his cool, death-ray gaze on his putative ruler (and grandson twice-over) Joffrey: "The King is tired. Take him to his chambers"—where's this guy when it's bedtime at my house?
Which brings me to the interminably awaited (and widely guessed) revelation that Theon's torturer is, in fact, Ramsay Snow, the Bastard of Bolton, renowned flayer of skin and eater of pork sausages. His treatment represents perhaps the greatest departure that Benioff and Weiss have yet made in adapting Martin's novels, and I have a bone I've been waiting to pick for some time about how they went about it. (Those readers uninterested in questions about the transition from page to screen may want to skip the next few paragraphs.)
In the Martin novels, we meet Ramsay in book two. A renowned rapist and murderer, he usurped the identity of his dead manservant/accomplice "Reek" in order to escape execution. In this guise, he's brought as a prisoner to Winterfell, where he ingratiates himself with Theon after the latter takes the city. It's Ramsay/Reek who, after Bran and Rickon Stark escape, persuades Theon to kill two peasant boys, mutilate their bodies, and claim that they are the Stark heirs. (In the show, this falls to a minor Ironborn character, Dagmer Cleftjaw.)
Even setting aside the show's graphic (and to my mind unnecessary) depictions of Ramsay's torture of Theon—which take place "offscreen" in the books—there are plenty of narrative complaints that can be made regarding Ramsay's portrayal. Principally, his refabricating Theon as a broken creature called Reek (as we saw tonight) is vastly more interesting if you know that 1) he previously had a degenerate servant named Reek whom he sacrificed in his employ; and 2) when he initially met Theon he was pretending to be that servant. Of course, there are counterarguments, too (the Ramsay/Reek subterfuge is reasonably complicated, and Benioff and Weiss needed to cut where possible), and counterarguments to those counterarguments (if you had to cut something from Season Two, couldn't it have been from the Qarth subplot?).
But my dismay at the Ramsay adjustments is less narrative than philosophical. In the novels, Ramsay is both the figure who tempts Theon across a moral boundary from which he can never return (the killing of the peasant boys) and the one who subsequently punishes him for his transgressions. By cutting out the first half of this equation, Benioff and Weiss have reduced Ramsay to a garden-variety psychosexual sociopath—more accomplished than, say, Joffrey, but not appreciably different in kind. In Martin's vision, by contrast, he is a chillingly literal embodiment of the Devil: He seduces you to evil and then sentences you to Hell. This is not a small alteration.
Have I been waiting eight episodes to make that observation? Why, yes I have. How could you tell?
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming: I'd say tonight's episode provided a fitting, if imperfect, end to the season. It had its ups and downs, its clever infidelities to Martin's text and its moments when it should have left well enough alone.
Overall, I found the season to be a substantial improvement over Season Two (which was still pretty damn good), even if it failed to rise to the near-perfection of Season One (which was immensely aided by its relative simplicity). To my mind, the fundamental question moving forward will be how well Benioff and Weiss can pare and adapt Martin's ever-more-sprawling (and unlikely to be completed) opus, and on this score I think Season Three offered both reasons to be optimistic, and reasons to be less optimistic.
Before asking what you guys thought, though, let me say thanks to you both for doing this—it's been an utter blast—and particular thanks for putting up with my occasionally idiosyncratic obsessions. Thanks, too, to our readers, for more of the same, for your many sharp comments and close analyses on subjects from Pod's penis to Talisa's fate, and most of all for not telling Spencer that everyone was going to die in Episode Nine.
So, what did you guys think?
Kornhaber: What do I think? I think I'm still recovering from the massive twist Benioff and Weiss just served up: having the capstone to their show's arguably best season, and the follow-up to their most shocking and eventful episode yet, be one in which the most exciting developments revolve around the opening of mail.
As you point out, Chris, this Thrones finale was in full Thrones finale form, hopscotching frantically across plotlines to tie a cliffhanger-y bow on each of them. In this case, though, that meant not much happened—games were not changed like they were when, say, Joffrey swapped Sansa for Margaery at the end of last season. Rather, they reached their long-foreseen conclusions with that series of homecomings you mention, and the not-even-shocking-to-newbie-me reveal of Torture Boy as a Bolton Man.
But as an epilogue to the Red Wedding, the show's writers, interestingly, used all these plotlines to slyly confront a widespread viewer reaction to the carnage that had just unfolded. Last week, the two of you may have been slightly underwhelmed, and I may have been more-than-slightly blown away, but a lot of newcomers felt pure outrage. A common sentiment on Twitter: What kind of sicko was George R. R. Martin to groom a group of likable, noble, on-the-side-of-right protagonists only to viciously butcher them at the end of Season Three?
"You disapprove?" Tywin asks his son, though he may well have been addressing Thrones fans who have sat happily through three seasons of murder and rape only to balk now at the loss of Young Wolf & co. "I'm all for cheating," Tyrion says, "but to slaughter them at a wedding..."
"Explain to me why it is more noble to kill tens of thousands of men in battle than a dozen at dinner," Tywin retorts. That made me pause. The thing is, in the week since "The Rains of Castamere" aired, I've found myself more fully realizing the deep and layered ways that the slaying of the Starks was, yes, ignoble. Bran's fable about the cook who angered the gods by serving up a guest highlights one of them. And yet for how wrong these murders were, in the show's universe they fit right in. Tywin's moral calculation may even have been correct. We've known this is a brutal, loser-lose-all world at least since Eddard lost his head. Why, exactly, wouldn't Tywin seize the opportunity to snuff out our putative heroes—his enemies? Why, exactly, should we be shocked by these killings above all others?
Again and again in "Mhysa," Benioff and Weiss riff on the theme of noble and ordinary deaths—the question of whether some lives matter more than others by dint of being highborn, lowborn, unborn, newly born, Ironborn, or born a half man. Characters as diverse as Walder Frey, Shae, and Gendry air angst about how the more-privileged think they're intrinsically more valuable. Ramsay Snow strips Theon of his lordship to remind him, and the audience, that even the seemingly anointed are "just meat." Tywin shares the tale of sparing his disappointing son an early death, while Baelon Grayjoy essentially sentences his to one. And at Dragonstone, Davos and Stannis again debate the fate of a man whose blood, according to Melisandre, matters a great deal more than most. "What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?" Stannis asks. Davos's reply: "Everything."
I'd like to say that I unequivocally side with Davos against Stannis, with Tyrion against Tywin, with Yara—who pledges to rescue Theon—against Balon. But Martin, Benioff, and Weiss's great triumph is in how thoroughly they've communicated, in Davos's words, "the world has got so far bent." By the end of Thrones' third season, we've seen the extent to which making choices based on love, or notions of honor, or ideas of fixed morality, can make one vulnerable—and as Robb sadly learned, vulnerability can have horrifying consequences. At least at this point in the series, realpolitik seems like not only the practical philosophy, but often the more righteous one too.
That could shift, though. Even relatively little happened in this episode, the finale's many raven-delivered tidings of foreboding did impart a sense that change is coming. Thrones' storylines to the north of the Wall and to the south of Westeros have inched closer and closer to the mainland. Jaime's back at King's Landing, having been fundamentally altered in more ways than one. And Roose Bolton may be shaping up as an even more fascinating villain than Tywin. After all, he's kind of like Tywin, but creepier: even more strategically laconic, brimming not with scorn for his lessers but rather with clear-eyed opportunism. Plus, he—or at least his son—skins people, not deer. Here's hoping the next person this betrayer betrays is Walder Fray. Would that be the moral outcome? Who knows. Transfixing? Totally.
Ross, your thoughts?
Douthat: Gentlemen, it's been the greatest of pleasures, and I'm grateful that unlike poor Theon we've all come through this season in one piece. Since you both have covered the finale's details so rigorously, I thought I'd use my last raven-carried missive to step back and ask: What is this tangled, bloody story actually about?
The strongest critique of "Game of Thrones" is that having peeled away some of the oversimplified good-versus-evil mythos from the fantasy genre and substituted a darker realism instead, its story ends up just going in grisly, increasingly depressing circles: The strong devour the weak and are devoured in their turn, the surprise of seeing characters we love perish becomes a kind of predictable narrative crutch in its own right, and each new installment brings nothing save (as one critic put it, in a review with some spoilers for non-book-readers) "a repetition of intrigue, treachery, and the stab in the back."
Of course, the story does actually promise to have some sort of endpoint, even if neither the novels nor the show have reached it yet—the moment when the "real war," as Melisandre put it last night, will finally be joined, and some sort of Tolkienesque clash between White Walkers and dragons and whomever else will eclipse the bloody power plays of Lannisters and Boltons and Tyrells. But I don't think I'm alone in doubting that either Martin or Benioff and Weiss regard the story of warring nobles the same way Melisandre does—as just a long digressive prelude the real magical action that will kick off whenever the Wall is finally breached.
Rather, I think the creators of this world are trying to tell a story about statesmanship, justice, and what it takes to be a good king, a good queen, a good lord. The game as we've been watching it doesn't need to continue forever, and nor does it only end when the more magical conflict takes center stage. Rather, it will end (or be suspended, at least) when someone, or several someones, manages to rule Westeros wisely and well.
So far the story has offered multiple models of how would-be rulers might approach that task, and all of them have proven insufficient. We were conditioned to root for Ned Stark and then his eldest son, both the embodiments of aristocratic honor, but the events of the show have provided a clinic in why honor without wisdom, guile, and cunning is just a sure path to the grave. The Stark lords were basically innocents abroad, and their guilelessness delivered the kingdom into the hands of the Lannisters, who began as cardboard villains but are now much more interesting because we understand their choices better: Their (literally) incestuous approach to politics is less high-minded than the Winterfell Way, but infinitely more effective.
But the Lannister Way, too, has its limits, as Tyrion and Cersei's conversation this week suggests: If you treat everyone outside the family as an enemy, you'll eventually have to kill them all, and if you decide that the ends always justify the means you'll end up empowering true savages (like the Boltons, fils and pere) and you'll find yourself vulnerable to the wiles of men who don't even have families to feel loyalty toward (like Littlefinger, now offstage but no doubt still plotting his ascent). So there has to be an alternative. Is it the Tyrell Way, which involves buying the people's loyalty with bread and circuses and beauty? Varys's attempts to serve the common good from the shadows? Stannis's constant seesawing between Melisandre and Davos's competing views of political morality?
More likely, the alternative is what Jon Snow, Tyrion and Daenerys—our three true protagonists, I think—are all groping toward: Some kind of balancing of honor and morality with ruthlessless and guile, in which vows are betrayed provisionally (as Jon did with Ygritte) in order that they might ultimately be fulfilled, the interests of family are served by serving the interests of the realm (as Tyrion did last season, and as Varys hopes he'll have a chance to do again), and the desires of ordinary people are served but also harnessed (as Daenerys is trying to do with the ex-slaves of Yunkai and Astapor) to the sovereign's political purposes.
But none of them are on the throne just yet. And that last shot of a crowdsurfing Daenerys, now the "mother" of a hundred thousand slaves, was ecstatic but also appropriately ambiguous: an image of her growing power, but also a reminder of how power can seduce and corrupt long before true statesmanship is learned.