There are a lot of lofty words bandied about on Game of Thrones, words that define characters, determine behavior, and justify courses of action. Honor is one of those words. Duty is another. Allegiance, justice, and right all get their fair share of play. But, in the rigidly structured Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, perhaps the most important word is family. Family is not an abstract concept, a biological relationship, or a term of affection: it's a political and economic unit, a system of government, a definer of class and custom and code. Bloodlines are borders in Westeros, and who you are is determined by one thing alone: who you are.
For three seasons, Game of Thrones has been about families: there have been a great and growing number of sub-plots, but at its heart it's been about the central conflict between two great families, the Starks and the Lannisters. This appeared—at first—to be a classic, clear-cut battle of good versus evil: from the first episode we knew that the Starks were an honest, happy, and loving family drawn reluctantly into palace intrigue, while the Lannisters were deceitful, lecherous, sibling-fucking schemers who murdered old men and little boys. Over the course of thirty episodes our view of the latter family has grown more nuanced—first Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and then Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) revealed themselves to be more complicated and sympathetic than we'd first suspected—but nothing ever challenged our allegiance to the Starks. (There might be a couple of halfway-decent Lannisters, but there were no bad Starks.) They were our heroes.
But guess what? That's all over with: as of last week, House Stark is gone. "The Rains of Castamere" was this year's real finale—the culmination not just of this season but of nearly everything that has happened on Game of Thrones since the Lannisters first descended on the Starks' happy home way back in that first episode. The war that began when Jaime Lannister threw Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) from a tower window ended brutally last week, and the Lannisters won. The story we thought we were watching is over, and the family we had invested so much in is irreparably shattered.
Anything that followed "The Rains of Castamere," then, was bound to feel like an anticlimactic epilogue, and "Mhysa" does, in a way. Since the source novel, A Storm of Swords, is being split over this season and the next, any stopping point was going to be arbitrary anyway, and certainly showrunners Benioff and Weiss could have chosen to end the season with the Red Wedding—but I think they were wise not to. As a season finale, "Castamere" would have felt like a series finale, and an incredibly depressing one at that: instead, "Mhysa" reminds us that there are still stories to be told in this world, that there is still the hope of a future that may look different than the one we imagined.
And in the process, "Mhysa" asks us to reconsider this concept of family, which has been so central that everything seemed hopeless at the end of last episode: the Starks were our family, and as a family unit they have been destroyed. But this theme of family has been evolving all season, hasn't it? As I discussed back in my review of this year's second episode, "Dark Wings, Dark Words," Season Three has largely been concerned with the family you make, not the family you're born into. The very first word spoken this season (by Samwell Tarly [John Bradley]) was "brother." The very last word we hear in the finale, shouted by the people Dany (Emilia Clarke) has liberated, is mhysa, or "mother." Neither of these words, in these contexts, refers to biological facts or the obligations of birth, but to something more voluntary, more conscious, and perhaps more profound. Blood is the old order, but new families can be found, and forged, and the ability to make these new human connections may be the most important quality a person can have in Game of Thrones.
“The house that puts family first will always defeat the house that puts the whims and wishes of its sons and daughters first.” — Tywin Lannister
The two competing, contradictory views of the word "family" are best represented by House Lannister—to the extent that one genuinely wonders how the Lannister children could have turned out to be so different from their father. To Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), his family is a political and economic and military power that he will protect at all costs, even if it means sacrificing the happiness—or lives—of the family's members. We've known this from his very first appearance—back in Season One, when he lectured Jaime on how the family name was all that mattered—but it's been shocking to discover what a truly loveless man he is. He has made it clear, particularly this season, that he really loves none of his children: he will take an interest in their lives—planning for them, or protecting them, or chastising them—only as they are of use to his house and as representatives of his name. Their individual wishes, and their happiness, mean nothing, because a family is not an assemblage of individuals at all: it is a corporation, a brand, a nation-state.
I said last week that Game of Thrones is a humane show, one that speaks to our sympathetic imaginations and honors the subjectivity of the individual, and we can see this in the fact that the true villains of this show—Tywin, and Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), and Walder Frey (David Bradley) all—in slightly different ways—share a disregard for individual people. Joffrey is a spoiled child who thinks he's the only real person in the world, and that everyone else is just a toy to be played with and smashed to pieces. ("Everyone is mine to torment!" he says, when Tyrion tells him that Sansa is now out of his reach.) Frey, on the other hand, is more like Tywin: all he cares about is his family name—and all the insults and indignities he imagines it has suffered over the years—but he doesn't give a damn about his actual family members.
No more does Tywin. “When have you ever done something that wasn’t in your interest, but solely for the benefit of the family?” Tyrion asks him. Tywin's response shuts Tyrion up: “The day that you were born," he says. "I wanted to carry you into the sea and let the waves wash you away.” But they are using the word differently: Tyrion's question means, When have you done something for the happiness of your family members? Tywin's answer, however, is by his own definitions: he did not let Tyrion live out of sentimentality, affection, or paternal feelings, but because Tyrion was born into the nation of Lannisters, with certain inalienable rights. (In the first episode of this season, he explained that he tolerates Tyrion's existence only because "men's laws give you the right to wear my name and display my colors, because I can not prove that you are not mine.")
Tywin doesn't just devalue the lives of his family members: he thinks doing so is the reason why he wins. “The house that puts family first will always defeat the house that puts the whims and wishes of its sons and daughters first,” he tells Tyrion. In other words, it's all about the good of the Lannister nation-state, not the good of the individual Lannisters. Since Tywin doesn't value individual souls, the mathematics of the Red Wedding were simple: “Explain to me," he asks Tyrion, "why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?”
But it is more noble, and Tyrion understands that. Say what you will about the Lannister children, but they did not learn all their lessons from their father. All three children—even Cersei (Lena Headey)—are much more humane than Tywin, and when they say "family" they mean their siblings and children. Tyrion did not lead the Battle of Blackwater Bay—and become scarred in the process—to defend his family name, but to defend his actual family, who would have been slaughtered otherwise. Jaime has committed some terrible crimes, but every one of them was done out of love for his brother, sister, or children (all of whom, it's worth remembering, would also have been slaughtered.) And though I think we'd all agree that Cersei is the least sympathetic of the three siblings—in every sense—she, too, acts not for the family name but for the benefit of her actual children. ("You love your children," Tyrion told her once. "It is your only redeeming value. That, and your cheekbones.") Cersei's scene this week echoes wonderfully with the episode's title, as she tells Tyrion how her children have been the only happiness in her life, the only reason she has for living: “If it weren’t for my children, I’d have thrown myself from the highest tower of the Red Keep,” she says. Even with Joffrey—whom she recognizes has become a monster—she still feels a mother's love, still remembers what a sweet baby he was, and how it felt "to have someone of your own."
Tywin's villainy stems from the fact that he only cares about the family, not it's individual members. Cersei's tragedy is that she loves the members of her family—excepting, perhaps, Tyrion—but is incapable of loving anyone else. Jaime began that way as well—willing to kill the whole world if he and his sister could just be alone together—but his incredible arc this season has been about his development of the ability to love someone outside his family, culminating in his selfless rescue of Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) in "The Bear and the Maiden Fair." He might not recognize it in these terms, but the truth of the matter is that he could not let Brienne be raped, tortured, or killed, because she too, now, is his family. (Jaime makes only the briefest of appearances this week, returning to King's Landing, but there's a nice moment when a lower-class worker fails to recognize him as a lord, let alone as a Lannister: it will be interesting to see what kind of place Jaime has in the capital now that he's changed so much.)
Unlike his siblings, Tyrion—somewhat ostracized from his own family since birth—has always had the ability to form genuine connections with other people: since the series began, we've seen him make real friendships with people as varied as Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), Yoren (Francis Magee), Bronn (Jerome Flynn), and Shae (Sibel Kekilli). Now, he has Sansa (Sophie Turner) to care about as well: marriage is one of the ways new family relationships are forged, and though their marriage was unwanted (and remains unconsummated) she is part of his circle of concern now: her happiness and well-being matter to him. We get a brief glimpse of how they might be happy together, as the couple (and Shae) share a teasing, playful conversation at the beginning of the episode, commiserating over their mutual familial burdens. ("You’re a Lannister, and I am the disgraced daughter of the traitor, Ned Stark,” Sansa says, jokingly.) But of course those family ties are the very wedge between them: when she learns the Lannisters have murdered her family, whatever tentative connection they'd begun to synthesize is shattered. He does care about her as an individual—as he proves when he protects her from both Joffrey's cruel whims and Tywin's cynical breeding plan—but the way in which he is able to see her as family will always be at odds with the more rigid, heartless concept of "family" that puts their houses at war.
Interestingly, we see these same themes play out in the ancillary characters around them. “I love that girl, I would kill for her," Shae tells Varys (Conleth Hill). Shae has assumed a big-sister's role to Sansa, even as she has watched Sansa take the role Shae herself would like to have as Tyrion's wife. Varys understands that, but points out that Shae—a girl without a name—had no hope of ever living happily ever after with the son of Tywin Lannister. "I have a name," Shae protests—asserting her personhood, her value as an individual—but Varys makes the distinction clear: “You have one name, as do I. Here, only the family name matters.” Connections born from love or affection or friendship will never have the same weight in the old order as those formed in blood: “We break bread with them," Varys says, "but that doesn’t make us family.”
"He’s your son. He’s my brother. He’s a Greyjoy.” — Yara Greyjoy
And we see variations on this theme play out, in slightly different ways, throughout the episode. The story of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) has always been about the question of blood-family versus found-family: born a Greyjoy but raised among Starks, Theon seemed to prove it is nature, not nurture, that matters. At Winterfell, he was a "shark on a mountaintop," and his shark nature eventually expressed itself in no uncertain terms. Last season, he committed terrible crimes against his adopted family in the name of his birth family—but it has also been clear all along that Theon's evil stems from some very human emotions: insecurity, and an absence of identity, and a need for affection. He talks a good game about "the family name"—touting the legend of the Iron Islands at every turn, and trying to rally his troops with the promise of being immortalized in song—but what he really wants is the love and respect of his birth father. He was torn between the two views of family—needing both blood and love—and neither was enough without the other. This season he has been tortured mercilessly, and in the process realized that he should have been satisfied with the love he got from the Starks, the brotherhood he was offered by Robb (Richard Madden), the lessons he learned from Ned (Sean Bean). "My real father lost his head at King's Landing," Theon told Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon) earlier this season, recognizing too late that family is not always about bloodlines.
Balon (Patrick Malahide), another father in the mold of Tywin Lannister, seems to have some small affection for his daughter Yara (Gemma Whelan), but will never care about Theon beyond his usefulness. Sent Theon's dismembered manhood in a box, Balon writes him off: Theon is not a man now, Balon says, and can't further the Greyjoy line, so he's of no use to the family. But, just as the Lannister siblings are different from Tywin, Yara is different from Balon: last season, we learned she did have some sisterly affection for Theon—she has fond memories of him as a baby, as Cersei does of Joffrey—and now she plans to rescue him, insisting that Balon see him as an actual member of the family. "He's your son. He's my brother. He's a Greyjoy." Again, she uses the word family differently than Balon does: to mean bonds of affection, not bonds of blood or nation.
“If you're his brother, you're my brother too.”— Samwell Tarly to Bran Stark
Before we move on, let's look at the story Bran tells his fellow travelers this episode: the story of the Rat Cook who served a king his own son, and now is condemned to haunt the Nightfort consuming his own children. “It wasn’t for murder that the gods cursed the Rat Cook, or for serving the king’s son in a pie," Bran explains. "He killed a guest beneath his roof. That’s something the gods can’t forgive."
Obviously, this story finds a deliberate echo in Walder Frey—we transition to his scene immediately after—and it even reflects on Tywin, and Balon, and other parents who are willing to sacrifice the children of others and are therefore condemned to consume—metaphorically—their own children as well. But the larger way this story reflects the overall theme of this episode is important: yes, it is about the rights of guests within your house to expect safety, and how violating those rights—as Walder Frey did—is an old taboo. (Incidentally, the god of the Old Testament agrees with the gods of Westeros on this point: despite common belief, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed not for any sexual practices but for an unforgivable failure of hospitality.)
But if we think about this taboo further, in the light of this episode's themes, we see that the obligations of hospitality are to treat guests like family: to bring them into your house, to share your food, to make them feel at home. We've seen this idea expressed in other deep connections that have been forged between unrelated characters on the show: when Brienne swore her oath to Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) back in season two, Catelyn swore her a sacred oath back: "I vow that you shall always have a place at my home, and at my table," she said, extending to her new ally the rights of family.
And so this is the answer to Tywin's question about why murdering 12 people at dinner is worse than killing 10,000 on the battlefield, and it may be the most important theme that Game of Thrones is tackling: the importance of being able to invoke your sympathetic imagination (as I discussed last week), and extend your concept of "family"—your circle of concern and empathy—beyond yourself and your immediate relatives. If there's any hope for these characters—for any characters—it is in this very humane idea.
Through the end of last season and all of this season, Bran and Rickon (Art Parkinson) have found a new family, composed first of Osha (Natalia Tena) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn), and later joined by the brother and sister team of Jojen (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Meera (Ellie Kendrick) Reed. Now, this voluntary family gains a new member in Sam Tarly (John Bradley), and though it's a brief encounter, this is an important moment. New connections based on friendship and shared experiences are one thing, but now we see how the distant members of voluntary families can find each other, and transfer the arbitrary connection to extended family members. "I'd be dead if it wasn't for Jon," Sam tells Bran. "If you're his brother, you're my brother, too." This is the sort of thing that always happens in the old order—members of blood-families sworn to other blood-families automatically recognize their allegiances and duties—but it happens here with these new, chosen families, forging alliances based not in blood but affection.
Sam is a perfect representative of this theme, for he is one of the gentlest, most humane characters in Game of Thrones. Born (like Tyrion) to an old family name that didn't want him, he has always been on the side of found families, and he has always championed individual personhood over the nation-state mentality of the old order. Last season, for example, when everyone else seemed content to treat Craster's wives like cattle—because the ways of Craster's tribe had always been accepted—Sam spoke up for Gilly (Hannah Murray): "I can't steal her," he told Jon Snow. "She's a person, not a goat." Earlier this season he was shaken to the core after the people he thought were his new family—his brothers in the Watch—left him behind to die when the White Walkers attacked: Sam may be a coward, but he would never leave his family behind.
And so he chose a new family, in Gilly and her son, and when Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) challenges him on this, Sam is ready to defend his decisions: Sam has not betrayed his vows; he has not slept with Gilly (however much he might want to), but he has brought them into his circle of protection, and he rightly feels that doing so was an extension of his duty, not a violation of it. They are sworn to protect the realms of men, he argues, and that includes Gilly and her son, and by extension all humanity. ("We didn't build five hundred miles of ice wall, seven hundred feet high, to keep out men," he says.) In other words, we're all family. Aemon accepts this explanation—informing Gilly and her son that they will be guests of the Night's Watch—and it is a marvelous moment of adaptation: brothers in the Night's Watch are not allowed to have families, but there is room, it appears, for this new kind of family. To reinforce the point, Gilly announces that her son will be called "Sam."
“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” — Ygritte
Interestingly, the one person who can't seem to reconcile all of the various demands of his different families is Jon Snow: as it is for Theon Greyjoy, this has always been at the center of Jon's story arc, for he too was of but not in a great family. In the first season he was forced to choose between his birth family and his new, adopted family at the Wall—between his brothers by blood and his brothers by choice—and now he must make another impossible choice, between his brothers in the Night's Watch and the woman who is—to all intents and purposes—his wife, Ygritte (Rose Leslie).
This crisis was inevitable from the moment he met Ygritte, but—significantly—what ultimately set it off was Jon's inability to act inhumanely. Ordered last week to kill an old man, Jon couldn't do it, which is just the sort of inconveniently decent impulse for which the Starks are famous. Killing the old man would have been thinking like Tywin Lannister, and sacrificing one life cruelly for the greater good. (After all, on paper what was this one life worth, a life that was almost certainly forfeit anyway, when doing so might save countless more lives?) Tywin would have simply done the math, and slit the throat, and felt completely justified—but it's to Jon's credit that he couldn't do it.
But now this difficult decision means surrendering not just his undercover role inside the wildlings, but also giving up the genuine happiness and connection he's found with Ygritte. "It's you and me that matters to me and you," Ygritte told him earlier this season, speaking for the new world order in which people can choose their families—but Jon can't do that either, and this may be a moral failure on his part. He might have at least asked her to join him—forging a new synthesis of his families the way Sam has done—but it doesn't occur to him, and for that reason alone he probably deserves what he gets: to have his ass shot full of arrows. (I was amused to rewatch the season premiere, and rediscover the following exchange between them on the subject of freedom.)
Jon: "When I'm free, will I be free to go?"
Ygritte: "Sure you will. And I'll be free to kill you."
If nothing else, Ygritte is a woman of her word. A spokesperson for the rights of individuals—she's been championing the cause of personal freedom since Jon met her—she would never support placing the needs of the "state" over the desires of people the way Jon does. If he didn't love her, that would be one thing, but admitting that he does makes this an unforgivable betrayal.
“We're not really people to you, are we? Just a thousand different ways to get what you want.” — Gendry
The obligations of family, and the question of the value of individual lives, are also relevant to the goings-on in Dragonstone this week. Davos (Liam Cunnningham), who is haunted by the loss of his own son, now bonds with the prisoner Gendry (Joe Dempsie), who accurately describes the way too many lords (Tywin, Balon, Joffrey) see those who fall outside their nation-state families: "We’re not really people to you, are we? Just a thousand different ways to get what you want.”
But Davos—another of the most decent people in Westeros—does see him as an individual: in fact, he sees himself in him. They discover they have a lot in common: they're just "two boys from Flea Bottom, in the castle of a king." Again, it is a connection that is not based on blood, just in a mutual recognition of kindred spirits and decency.
It's enough: enough, anyway, for Davos to argue the boy's case to Stannis (Stephen Dillane). "His name's Gendry, and he's a good lad," Davos says, insisting that his king see Gendry as a person. And Davos also has the argument of family blood to bolster his case. "A poor lad from Flea Bottom, who happens to be your nephew." But Stannis makes the same argument that Tywin made, about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the individual: "What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?" Davos, speaking for what I'm increasingly convinced is the major theme of the show, answers him: "Everything," he says. If an individual life isn't valued, then none of the rest of it means a good goddamn.
Davos makes the choice to value one individual life over the needs of the nation-state, and betrays his king by setting the boy free. It's the same choice other good people have made throughout Game of Thrones: it's the choice Ned made when he erred on the side of sparing the lives of the Lannister children; it's the choice Catelyn made when she bargained Jaime's life for her daughters; it's the choice Dany (Emilia Clarke) made when she spared the life of Mirri Maz Durr (Mia Soteriou). These are not always smart decisions—Tywin is right about that—but they are always the right decisions, and the heroes will do the right thing over the smart thing every time. ("Because I'm a slow learner," Davos says.)
The soul of Stannis Baratheon is still up for grabs: he stands with the angel of Davos on one shoulder and the devil of Melisandre (Carice van Houten) on the other. Davos has faith that Stannis is not an evil man, and here his faith is rewarded: warned that the White Walkers are on the move, Stannis and Melisandre both make the right decision: to forgive Davos, and to recognize that protecting the realm—the realms of all men, as Sam would say—is more important than squabbling over the throne. Ironically, it's Melisandre who makes the observation that really brings this chapter of Game of Thrones to a close: "This War of Five Kings means nothing."
“He once told me that being a lord is like being a father, except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them.” — Robb Stark, speaking of Eddard Stark
This question of family, as I've suggested, is larger than it appears: it is not simply a matter of bloodlines and dynasties, but of the need to recognize the essential humanity in others, to allow them the same inalienable rights of personhood that you afford to those closest to you. It is, at its core, the capacity to care about other people, even when you're not obligated to. And so, in that sense, it is the most important thing there is.
And in a show called Game of Thrones, a show largely concerned with the matter of leadership, the question of what makes a good ruler is rarely discussed but always present. We never hear any of the would-be kings discussing the good of their people. In making the case for why they should be on the Iron Throne, the actual rulers and the pretenders to the throne all use those other words: "rights," and "honor," and "justice." They fight for their houses—their genetic nation-states—but not for the betterment of their people.
Ned Stark—who remains our moral compass in Game of Thrones—was different, as Robb explained to Talisa (Oona Chaplin) last season:
"He once told me that being a lord is like being a father, except you have thousands of children, and you worry about all of them. Farmers plowing fields are yours to protect, charwomen scrubbing the floors are yours to protect, the soldiers you order into battle…He told me he woke with fear in the morning, and went to bed with fear in the night."
For Ned, ruling was being a father: it was being the patriarch and protector of a large and diverse family, every member of which you treasured and worried over and mourned as if they were your own children. Stannis takes a step in that direction this episode, but of all the would-be rulers on Game of Thrones, the only one who shares this humane approach to leadership is the only woman in contention: Daenerys Targaryan. As with all heroes, her basic decency has cost her terribly—as it did with Mirri Maz Durr—but it has also led to some of her greatest triumphs, as when she set free the Unsullied. Now, she takes the same approach to the slaves of Yunkai, granting them each the full right of personhood: "Your freedom is not mine to give," she tells them. "It belongs to you and you alone." As it was with the Unsullied, her reward is a leadership role based not on power or name but on love: she treats them like she herself would want to be treated, she treats them like family, and so they become her family, by choice, calling out in one voice to call her mhysa, or "mother."
Just as the chosen families are a new and perhaps stronger bond than the dynasties based on blood, this is a new and potentially more powerful form of leadership. No, the history of colonial intervention is not a promising one, even when the colonials are welcomed as liberators. (And yes, that one white face in a sea of brown is a troubling image.) So we shall have to see how this all plays out in future seasons. But for now, with the War of Five Kings all but over, it's the Queen who gives us hope that leadership can be based on the recognition that all people are family. It's too early in this epic story to be naming a victor, but for now, in the endless game of thrones, this may be what winning looks like.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- I think the one major scene I skipped over was Arya (Maisie Williams) taking some small revenge for the murder of her family. It's an awesome, satisfying scene, and her interactions with the Hound (Rory McCann) are very funny. ("Next time you're going to do something like that, tell me first," he says.) At the same time, however—as much as Arya embodies our hope for revenge—there is something sad in seeing this sweet little girl become a killer: our hope for Arya as the heir to the Stark legacy can't just include our desire for revenge in the family name, but also the slim hope that she can somehow retain the Stark decency—retain, in short, her humanity.
- I also skipped over the scene in which Ramsay Snow—at last, I can use the name!— rechristens the wretched Theon "Reek." Theon has failed and betrayed both his blood-family and his found-family, and so now is left with no family name at all, and no place in the community. He is, truly, alone.
- Finally, thank you all for bearing with my very long-winded (and frequently late) posts this season, and contributing your unfailingly thoughtful comments. I figured out recently that I've written what amounts to a decent-sized book (upwards of 80,000 words) on Game of Thrones so far, and I'm still finding things to say about it and new avenues of thought to explore.