WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!
From top to bottom, opening sequence to end credits, season 3 of Game of Thrones has coaxed from 10 episodes a story arc that successfully demonstrated how much the idea of “the realm” means to the series’ overall narrative and how so many of show’s characters, whether they know it or not, are driven by similar concepts.
While it lacked the devastating emotional impact of last week’s ‘The Rains of Castamere‘ – or, really, the last ten minutes detailing the horrifically violent “Red Wedding” – it was the discussion between Varys and Littlefinger in ‘The Climb‘ that seems to have been the true turning point for the season, in terms of laying out precisely what it is everyone is so up in arms about
And amazingly, through all the death and destruction pertaining to House Stark, the symbolic dismembering of Jaime and Theon, and the masterful (and apparently extremely persuasive) letter writing of Tywin Lannister, the main thrust of the season has been to better define the meaning of the realm. To illustrate that while the land connecting these kingdoms may be vast, the realm is not so immeasurable that a single menace cannot threaten its very existence.
For its part, ‘Mhysa’ doesn’t hesitate to get into the very notion that characters are oftentimes ruled by his or her devotion to an elusive thing or concept. Like Varys and Littlefinger and their attachment to the notion of “the good of the realm” or, conversely, “chaos [as] a ladder,” abstract thoughts and intangibles bring these individuals equal amounts of pain, pleasure and a thirst for more, through which they define themselves and build their hopes and dreams. Things like: oaths, love, happiness, power, title and, most poignantly this season, a family name that means something and is, for the time being, sustainable.
It may be Tywin’s wish to ensure the Lannister name continues to live on and instill something in the hearts and minds of those who speak it, but it’s Varys who recognizes the larger good to be done with such a remarkably powerful word. When he speaks to Shae, urging her to take a small pouch of diamonds and to make a new life for herself far away, he’s insistent that Tyrion is the man in whom the realm should stake its future well-being.
Harsh truths regarding Shae’s upbringing and future prospects in King’s Landing aside, Varys is offering her a way out; all she must do is ignore the pull of her love (a powerful concept) for Tyrion and understand that with her sacrifice, an incalculable amount of potential good could come about for the realm.
That’s a lot of potential good that can come of such a significant sacrifice, but as we see, Shae may not be the kind of person to believe the needs of the many necessarily outweigh the need or desires of a single person. In that regard, Shae sees the world like Ser Davos, who, as we learn, comes from a place that’s probably not too far off from where she was brought up – and it certainly isn’t far removed from Gendry’s upbringing either.
In Davos’ freeing of Gendry, we not only see the dichotomy between those who would take a single life in order to “save” tens of thousands, and those who believe a life, no matter how small, has reason to be allowed to continue. But we also see how those who might sacrifice an innocent life for the good of the realm, more likely than not, have a rather significant stake in the game – should the cards rule in their favor.
The vast and growing schism between the powerful and the powerless seems to be the other concept Game of Thrones is eager to present to the audience. As was seen in season 3, power is a notion that seems to be universally recognized, and while those holding on to it will do anything to maintain their grip – men like Roose Bolton, Walder Frey and even Tywin Lannister – there are still those with whom the idea holds little sway. And while it was first suggested that the Brotherhood Without Banners might be the bastions of this great insolence, it was eventually revealed that they, too, readily answer to the man (or unseen being) they believe to hold all the power. Instead, the true audacity lies within the characters who have been thought by everyone else to be so small and weak (or far away) they hold little importance to those in power.
On one hand, there is Arya Stark‘s slaying of a soldier taking credit for mounting a dire wolf’s head on Robb Stark’s body. Sure, she had the Hound to back her up, but the way she dispatched the man suggested a level of aforethought that likely would have been present had she been wandering the amazingly populated woods of Westeros on her own. On the other hand, there is Daenerys Targaryen, her dragons and her army of Unsullied who have recently liberated the enslaved people of Yunkai.
On the far side of the world, Game of Thrones deftly and rather marvelously demonstrates a level of unity that’s largely unknown to the embattled kingdoms on the other side of the sea.
But winter is still coming and with it comes unspeakable horror and almost certain death. As Davos (and in their own way, Varys and Sam) argues, unless the kingdoms can rally together and unite against a common and mighty foe, there’ll soon be no realm for anyone to be fighting over.
Game of Thrones season 4 will premiere in 2014 on HBO.