Just when it seemed like we were finished with all the horrors of the Red Wedding, last night's Game of Thrones season finale opened with another unpleasant surprise: Robb Stark's enemies parading around his headless body with his dead dire wolf's head strapped on top of it. It seemed that as Game of Thrones moved forward in a Robb Stark-less world, we were entering an even darker age for Westeros, one without the noblest of the kings waging war for the iron throne.
But after that bleak opening, last night's "Mhysa" spent time on a commodity that's increasingly rare in Westeros these days: Hope. After last week's devastatingly dark episode, "Mhysa" offered a welcome reminder that not every character in the series is as cold-blooded as Roose Bolton or Walder Frey. Yara Greyjoy defied her father's orders to rescue Theon. Davos Seaworth risked his own life by freeing Gendry before he could be burned as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. Maester Aemon offered Gilly the protection of the Night's Watch. And Daenerys delayed her own quest so she could help thousands of people who need her more than Westeros needs yet another combatant for the iron throne.
That's not to say that everyone in Westeros has turned over a new leaf. "Mhysa" was more sprawling than any other episode this season — by my count, the only major characters we didn't check in with were the Tyrells and Littlefinger — which meant we also spent plenty of time with some of the most unpleasant folks in Westeros. After a season's worth of torture scenes, Game of Thrones finally offered the (not particularly revelatory) revelation that Theon Greyjoy's mysterious captor was Roose Bolton's bastard son Ramsay. The reward for the Bolton family's betrayal of Robb? Stewardship of the north.
Balon Greyjoy, who spent the entire season licking his wounds in the Iron Islands, is perfectly content to abandon his son when he concludes that Theon no longer fits into his master plan. At Dragonstone, Stannis is willing to burn Gendry alive as a sacrifice to Melisandre's Lord of Light until Davos intervenes by setting him free. "You saved one innocent," says Melisandre. "How many tens of thousands have you doomed?"
That's a question that Tywin and Tyrion are also debating after the Lannisters' role in the Red Wedding. As Tyrion notes, the blame for the egregious violation of Westeros' social mores will fall almost entirely on the Freys. But regardless of what the greater public believes, the Lannisters aren't absolved of the moral weight of the slaughter at the Twins. "Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than to kill a dozen at dinner," says Tywin. In one sense, it's hard to argue with his sheer, cold logic. But Bran's prophetic story about the Rat King — which he told despite having no actual knowledge of the Red Wedding — heralds greater consequences to come. "He killed a guest beneath his roof," says Bran. "That's something the gods can't forgive."
And for all the importance placed on a family's name in Westeros, "Mhysa" showed that the family a person chooses is far more reliable than the family a person is born into. When Bran runs into Sam and Gilly, Sam identifies himself as Jon Snow's brother, and helps Bran and his friends get north of the Wall. When the wounded Jon Snow rides back into Castle Black, his sworn brothers rush him off to safety. And Daenerys, having liberated the slaves of a massive city, suddenly inherited thousands of grateful children.
Last year, Game of Thrones' second season ended on a note of despair, as a massive army of White Walkers marched south toward the Wall. (They're apparently taking their time getting there.) The third season ended, like the first season, on a note of uncharacteristic triumph for Daenerys Targaryen, as the newly freed slaves add yet another title — "Myhsa," which means "mother" — to a list that already includes such superlatives as "queen," "khaleesi," and "mother of dragons." In a show packed with would-be leaders, it's increasingly clear that she's the only person who's truly fit for the iron throne.
But the triumphant ending of "Myhsa" also leaves Game of Thrones with an interesting question: Where will the series go from here? I've read all five books on which Game of Thrones is based, and it was always clear to me that the TV series would follow author George R.R. Martin's original storyline from the beginning until the Red Wedding (which happens in the middle of the third book). But the remaining books — which dramatically increase the series' narrative sprawl — present unique storytelling challenges for the TV show. Every year, Game of Thrones has deviated further from its source material, and the opportunity has never been riper for the show to forge its own narrative. Will Game of Thrones ever be able to top this superlative, eventful season, which is arguably the best in the series' history? Based on the confident storytelling we saw this year, I wouldn't bet against them. We'll find out when Game of Thrones' fourth season premieres next spring.
Read more Game of Thrones recaps:
* Game of Thrones recap: The Red Wedding
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Second Sons'
* Game of Thrones recap: 'The Bear and the Maiden Fair'
* Game of Thrones recap: 'The Climb'
* Game of Thrones recap: The high price of honor
* Game of Thrones recap: Revenge is a dish best served hot
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Walk of Punishment'
* Game of Thrones recap: The women of Westeros
* Game of Thrones recap: 'Valar Dohaeris'