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More often than not, a season finale is seen as a chance to pull out all the stops and give fans something to talk about around the water cooler in the morning: the coming together of two star-crossed lovers, the death of a fan favorite, or a cliffhanger that puts everything on the line. Game of Thrones doesn’t play by those rules. For the past three seasons, the season’s penultimate episode has been the one to get people talking, with the finale reserved for setting the chess pieces for the next season (save for ending each year with a Dany-related scene - often spectacular in nature).
Taking into account pastThrones season finales, the lackluster (dare I say even boring) third season finale "Mhysa" is par for the course. Following after something as momentous as The Red Wedding, the episode feels almost sterile, with little heart or emotional impact. "Mhysa" spends most of its time moving the plot of the show forward, but is awfully light on characterization or connecting with the audience.
One of the episode’s bright spots is its abundance of Tyrion. There must be something about Tyrion that makes characters spill their inner thoughts around him, because both Tywin and Cersei are particularly chatty in his presence this week. Tywin takes the early dismissal of a small council meeting (due to yet another fit thrown by Joffrey) as an opportunity to lecture Tyrion on priorities. It seems that not only do Lannisters always pay their debts, they also are expected to put the needs of the family name over the wants and desires of self and others. When Tyrion questions Tywin on the topic, Tywin informs his son that Tyrion’s owes his own life to that mantra, as Tywin was planning on drowning the infant Tyrion in the sea, but thought better of it because Tyrion was still a Lannister. Nothing like a heart to heart with dad to lift one’s spirits!
The other particularly interesting scene, at least from a character development perspective, sees Tyrion and Cersei share a surprisingly open conversation about their place in the Lannister clan. After some goading from Tyrion regarding her upcoming nuptials to Ser Loras, Cersei admits to Tyrion that she has spent most of her adult life unhappy. The only happiness she's ever had was while looking at and spending time with her children - even the now-abhorrent Joffrey. Cersei urges Tyrion to allow Sansa that same happiness. It is a surprisingly touching moment between siblings who are so often throwing verbal jabs at each other, and what a rare treat to see both Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey together in a serious and genuine moment.
Aside from those few moments, the bulk of the episode is focused on making sure the characters are in position for next season. Stannis appears to be headed to The Wall to protect the realm from the White Walkers (as Melisandre has declared them to be the real evil facing Westeros), Jaime returns to King’s Landing with Brienne, Jon returns to The Wall alive (despite Ygritte shooting him with three arrows in what has to be one of the most satisfying responses to a break-up ever on television), Bran is moving beyond The Wall, Arya appears to be rethinking Jaqen H'ghar’s offer from season two, and Yara (who returned to the screen after an entire season away) decides to rescue Theon (who is slowly being broken by Roose Bolton’s bastard Ramsey). Even Dany’s final scene (which, in past seasons, has served as an explosive ending point for each season) feels staged and cliché. While her heart is in the right place (although she might be basking a bit too much in her role as liberator), watching throngs of freed slaves call Dany “mother” isn’t the same as seeing her emerge from fire unburned in season one.
While characters need to be placed for their future storylines, it shouldn’t be at the expense of interesting storytelling. And, knowing what other stories are still to be told from A Storm of Swords and beyond, I cannot help but think of the other ways the show might have set up what is to come in a more engaging manner. Game of Thrones has accomplished some truly great feats of storytelling this season. It is a shame to see it end its year on such an uninspiring note as this.
-- While several actors had strong years, the season three co-MVPs have to be Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie. Jaime became a sympathetic character thanks in no small part to Coster-Waldau’s work, and Brienne became one of the show’s strongest characters (and a worthy foil for Jaime) due to Christie delicately balancing Brienne’s insecurities with her compassionate heart. Now that they have arrived in King’s Landing, I’m dreading the moment when the pair will inevitably part.
-- If only all of Bran’s storylines this season were as interesting as they has been the past two episodes. It took the show quite a while to get Bran to where he needs to be for season four, often plugging him into episodes without much of a purpose. Sometimes it is better to just let a character sit out for a few weeks, rather than churn out a story that is without a direct purpose.
-- We finally received the identity of Theon’s torturer: Ramsey Snow, the bastard of Roose Bolton. While I understand that the show wanted to keep Theon on screen and in the minds of the audience, I felt that the Theon story was, without a doubt, the season’s biggest misstep. While I try not to compare the show to the novels too often (they are different mediums, and different stories, despite how closely the show follows the novels), this is one instance where I feel the show should have stuck with the novel’s version of events and kept Theon off screen until the show reached the material from the fourth and fifth novels. Far too much time was spent following Theon’s torture (without naming the torturer, which confused several people I know who have not read the novels), that it ultimately seemed as if the show was showing us the torture for the sake of shock value and not with any character development in mind. The transformation of Theon into Reek is important for the story, but there has to have been a better way to go about depicting it than what we saw during season three.
-- Ultimately, season three offered strong acting, great writing, and terrible heartache - both for the show’s characters and for its fans. Season four will have a lot to top (particularly in terms of body count), but I am confident the writers, directors, and actors will be up to the challenge. After all, Joffrey’s wedding is coming up, and we all know how often weddings go as planned in the land of Westeros.