A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" season finale coming up just as soon as I sheep shift your bed...

"The true war lies to the north, my king." -Melisandre

Through three seasons of "Game of Thrones," the finales have often felt less of a conclusion to the year we've just watched than a preview of what's to come. The big events — Ned's execution, the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding — happen in episode 9, and then the finale points the way forward. The first season finale gave us the birth of Dany's dragons, the second showed the White Walkers and their undead army advancing toward the Wall, and "Mhysa" set a bunch of new plotlines in motion: Yara taking her fastest ship to rescue Theon from the clutches of Roose Bolton's bastard Ramsay Snow, Bran and his motley traveling crew entering wildling country with only Bran's powers and Sam's dragonglass artifacts to protect them, and Dany being elevated to the level of messiah by the freed slaves of Yunkai, among others.

But perhaps the most interesting scene of the finale is Melisandre figuring out what's been apparent to those of us watching at home for a long time: the clash of kings is meaningless, given the threat coming from beyond the wall. When you consider the danger the White Walkers pose — and let's ignore Dany for a moment, since she could spend quite a long time practicing her divinity over in Essos — this battle over which king will sit on the Iron Throne, who will own title to which castle, etc., almost feels like one long prologue to the actual story of the series.

Obviously, everything that's happened to this point is important, and most of it's been memorable, but a lot of it's played out like Davos' reluctant decision to be knighted by Stannis for the sake of a son who would later following his father into battle — or like Catelyn's decision to free Jaime to save her daughters, which would ultimately lead to the murder of herself and her son and daughter-in-law, while doing absolutely nothing to affect the fates of Arya or Sansa. People on this show make big decisions and sacrifices for the sake of others, and it ultimately accomplishes little — or in some cases makes things worse — because no one who isn't in the audience can see the full picture and really understand what's happening in the game.

But we do, and we can see that not only are these political battles and revenge killings missing the bigger picture — and weakening a nation that could surely use a living Ned Stark (or Robb, for that matter), an able-bodied Jaime Lannister, Stannis' navy working in concert with the Lannister and Tyrell armies, etc. — but that the ones surviving and occasionally thriving aren't the ones anyone might have expected based on the traditional standards of heroism and leadership in this world.

Yes, Tywin Lannister — a man with money, an army and an imposing aura — has a fairly tight grip of the country right now, just as Stannis (impressive military commander, true heir to the throne) looks to be a big player going forward. But if you look at some of the other characters who have survived, and are in positions to do significant things in the battles ahead, you get the likes of Ned Stark's crippled middle son and the bastard his wife never wanted, Tywin's scorned drunken son, a fat joke of a soldier who became the first man in thousands of years to kill a White Walker, and a Targaryen daughter whose only role in all of this was supposed to be as the price for her brother acquiring a Dothraki army.

Bran, Jon Snow, Tyrion, Sam and Dany (and Arya, for that matter, even if she's in less of a fulcrum position at the moment) all seemed like appendages at best to the power players when they were first introduced, but the likes of Ned, Robb (and Rob), Commander Mormont, Drogo and Viserys are all dead and gone. While some classical leader figures remain, it appears that the true war is going to hinge on the sideshow performers moving into the center ring.

Then again, this is "Game of Thrones," and I wouldn't be surprised at all if we return for next season with Benioff and Weiss (taking marching orders, as always, from GRRM's books) wiping out every last scrap of Stark DNA, having Dany accidentally choke on a pear, and revealing that the true hero of the series is Lady Arryn's well-nursed son.

But that's in the future, and this was an excellent hour-plus of "GoT." It didn't have anything as grand and baroque as the Red Wedding, but instead took advantage of its slightly extended running time — and the reduced cast we have after last week — to offer us a deeper glimpse of the power dynamics among the survivors.

That scene in the Small Council chambers, for instance, felt for a while like it took up the whole episode — and only in a good way. Between Tyrion again challenging Joffrey — emboldened by the knowledge that Tywin is the true power in the room, and that Tywin needs Tyrion alive to father a new heir to Winterfell — and Tywin delivering another lecture on the nature of power and sacrifice, it was among the meatiest material that Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance and Jack Gleeson have all played in a while. And Tyrion's challenge may have played a role in the terrific later scene where Varys — another outsider and (like Bran, Tyrion and now Jaime and Theon) physical anomaly who has become more important to the plot than he seemed back at the beginning — tries to get Shae to leave Westeros so she won't complicate the life of the man Varys suddenly has political aspirations for.

Other sequences weren't quite as long, but made their points with emotional economy. Ygritte's confrontation with Jon Snow was perfect; she may love him, but that won't stop her from putting three different arrows into him before he's ultimately able to ride away. (Given what we know of her marksmanship, we should also note that she does not immediately aim for targets that would kill him instantly, or perhaps even stop him from escaping.) Jaime's return to King's Landing was also brief, but effective: the scorn heaped on him by a local who thinks he's a crippled farmer is a reminder of how low he's been brought, and Cersei's reaction to him (and to what's missing about him) comes in a wave of joy, disbelief and sadness, captured wonderfully by both Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

Given that the show already ended one season with an image of Dany and her dragons — and that she's still fairly far-removed from the rest of the action — I don't know that I would have chosen the scene outside Yunkai as the closing note for this season. But I also can't begrudge Benioff and Weiss for going with it, given how gorgeous that final sequence (put together by some combination of David Nutter's crew and the VFX department) looked. Though Dany's freeing of the Yunkish slaves is a moral good, there's also something deeply unsettling about what happens here. Dany tells the former slaves that their freedom wasn't hers to give, but theirs to take — and yet they respond to this suggestion by using their word for mother to cheer for their liberator.(*) Jorah has backed Dany all along not only because he loves her, but because he thinks she's a genuinely selfless leader; yet there's uncertainty in his eyes as she disappears into the crowd, and as we see just how much pleasure she's taking from the worshipful reaction she's getting. Stannis reminds us in an earlier scene of just what can be accomplished by a Targareyan with three dragons, so we know the military threat she poses to Westeros whenever she finishes this particular crusade. But where once the idea of her coming to burn the Lannisters out of office seemed like only a good thing, this is the first time I've been somewhat troubled by Dany's response to her new power. She disappears into the crowd, but only briefly, because how could the Mother of Dragons vanish anywhere? She's held aloft, and as the camera swoops up into the sky to show the sea of humanity surrounding her, Dany is always visible because her hair stands out among all these brunettes.  She is Daenerys Stormborn, and she will not be ignored.

(*) It reminded me a bit of the scene in "Monty Python's Life of Brian" where Brian (who has been mistaken for the Messiah by the people of Jerusalem) tells the assembled crowd that they are all individuals who have to figure things out for themselves. They parrot his words back to him, then shout, "Tell us more!")

Speaking of Stannis, I've complained in the past that the show has done a poor job by him and the rest of the group at Dragonstone, but season 3 was a corrective to that,(**) particularly in its later episodes. We got a lot of time with them tonight — including that nice shot of Mesliandre and Davos positioned as the devil and angel on Stannis' shoulder as he debated what to do about Gendry — and I now have a much better sense of what makes everyone tick and why I should care about them as the story pushes forward.

(**) In general, I thought this season was an improvement over the previous ones in terms of how Benioff and Weiss arranged the narrative. There is likely always going to be too much story for them to deal with properly in 10 episodes, which will limit the ceiling for the show as a whole, but aside from the Theon story and some earlier Bran/Jojen chapters, they did a more effective job than previously of making the disparate parts of the saga feel connected and relevant to one another. Some weeks, that meant deliberately cutting from a comment in one location that linked it to another (as we got here with Bran discussing the unforgivable sin of killing a guest beneath your own roof, followed by a cut to Walder Frey boasting of having done just that); in others, it meant fewer stops on our tour of Westeros so that the places we did stop had more of an impact. We never did get another "Blackwater"-style episode set all in one location, but I was okay with that, because the show felt more cohesive from week to week.   

Stannis and Melisandre respond to the news from Castle Black by recognizing that they need to completely shift their focus going forward. I don't imagine this will be the case for every corner of the series, based on how Cersei reacted to the last such communique from Commander Mormont. But if the established powers can't always change course so quickly, "Game of Thrones" as a whole can. Earlier in the episode, Stannis, Davos and Melisandre argue over the value of Gendry's life compared to the lives of everyone in the Seven Kingdoms, with Stannis and Melisandre insisting the boy's life isn't worth all those others. I have no idea what's coming next, but after these first three seasons, I would not be the least bit shocked if I found out that Davos' decision to put Gendry into that rowboat is one of the most important of the entire series. He's a lowborn bastard with two different kings looking to kill him, but who knows what he might become down the road?

Some other thoughts:

* Theon's captor is finally identified as Roose Bolton's bastard Ramsay, though there had been hints of this in past episodes (the other soldiers even call him "bastard" during Theon's brief, illusory escape from captivity). That revelation, however, does little to justify either the mystery of the previous episodes, or the amount of time we've spent watching Ramsay torture and mutilate Theon. Yara mounting a rescue mission, against her father's wishes, is interesting, but the other Theon material from this season could have been dealt with in a fraction of the time, rather than inviting us to wallow in his misery and pain.

* We saw Arya stab a boy during her escape from the palace in season 1, but she is technically being accurate when she tells the Hound that this is the first "man" she's killed. What a fascinating pairing these two could turn out to be, especially now that Arya seems to have embraced the murderous future that both Jaqen and Melisandre have seen in her. Her uttering of "valar morghulis" while pondering the Braavos coin was more symbolic than anything, as Jaqen told her she had to give it to someone from Braavos first to get the help she desired. Certainly, if she wants to learn how to kill, the Hound has lots he can teach her.

* Speaking of teaching, Davos' literacy has improved by leaps and bounds since Stannis' daughter started teaching him, and it comes in handy when he's on the verge of being executed by his king.

* Poor Sansa. There was that brief moment in the gardens where it seemed like she was making peace with being Tyrion's wife, and even finding ways to enjoy his company. After news of the Red Wedding, I imagine it will take an incredibly long amount of time before she is remotely comfortable around him again.

* We get confirmation that Blackfish escaped the Red Wedding, and also that Theon's men died even after turning him over to the sadistic Ramsay, who chose to flay them instead. RIP, Finchy.

* If, like me, you love Hodor saying "Hodor" and couldn't imagine an episode improving on last week's panicked "Hodor"-fest, then you were both surprised and rewarded by his scenes at the Night Fort, where he both let his name echo down the well and smiled with enormous delight at discovering that Sam knows him and his name.

* It seemed back at the end of season 1 that the great majority of the force at Castle Black was joining Commander Mormont on the mission to find Benjen and the others, but there's a fairly robust population when Sam, Gilly and later Jon Snow arrive. Nice to see Maester Aemon again, and apparently running things until a new commander can be appointed.

* Finally, going forward there will be no comments on these reviews. I spent the better part of three seasons trying to make this a safe place for people who hadn't read the books to discuss the show without being spoiled, but the Little Dutch Boy can only keep his finger in the dike so long before other leaks start breaking through. I want to thank those of you who've read the books and refrained from giving things away — either explicitly, or with "guesses" on things like the identity of Theon's captor — for those of us who haven't, but after last week's comments began filling up with major spoilers for things that haven't happened on the show yet, it became time to shut it down. Going forward, I'm going to open two message board threads for each episode: one for people who have read the books, and one for people who haven't read them. That way, each group is kept separate from the other, and I'm kept out of it altogether, and therefore my commentary isn't influenced by what I know (or think I know) about what's coming next.

For those of you heading to the message boards now, let me ask you, as always, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com