In my review of last week’s penultimate episode, I noted that the diffuse structure of Game of Thrones this season made me wary of the finale. Not that I don’t trust the creative team; far from it, as I think Game of Thrones made a creative leap forward this season to solidify its stance as one of TV’s best dramas. But with so many characters, and so many plot threads, and such a relatively small amount of time – even with an extra ten minutes to tell the story – I simply didn’t see how even the best of creative teams could satisfactorily tie this season together in one final episode.
So to say “Valar Morghulis” surpassed my expectations would be an understatement. Not only do I feel the episode did justice to nearly every character and subplot, but it tied them all together under a unified thematic umbrella that gave significant weight and meaning to every part of this vast, wide-ranging fantasy epic.
That’s something the show has struggled with in the past. Given that Game of Thrones deals with this many characters, and this many locations, and this many stories, and must worry about maintaining scope while balancing budget, all while fitting the monstrous story into a mere ten hours, it’s understandable that sometimes, Benioff and Weiss are so busy making the story work that they haven’t always managed to underline what this story is about. Relating a vast epic narrative is all well and good, but if there isn’t a solid, singular thematic reason for being so diffuse, then it may not be worth the effort.
And “Valar Morghulis,” more than any other episode of Game of Thrones, was crystal clear in relating the core themes of this series: Honor, sacrifice, duty, power…Martin’s story is a rumination on all of these things. The finale – and, in hindsight, season 2 as a whole – was at heart an exploration of the role these concepts play in a society pushed to the brink.
In a society such as this – splintered, at war, violent, wretched, etc. – our measure of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in an individual can be seen only when the chips are down, when the options are clear, and when people must make painful, life-changing decisions between what is easy and what is right. As we make the rounds from character to character in tonight’s finale, we see how each of them respond when given such choices, and the journeys they have taken all seem much clearer now than they were even a week ago.
This is perhaps most obvious in Tyrion’s resolution. Peter Dinklage was this season’s de-facto lead actor, filling the void Sean Bean left and then some, but just as all of Ned Stark’s accomplishments were for naught, Tyrion’s reward for becoming a better man and saving King’s Landing was an assassination attempt and a complete erasure from the history books.
Tywin is named “savior of the city and hand of the King,” while Tyrion is hidden away in a chamber, horribly disfigured from the battle. After the full depth of his family’s betrayal sinks in – not only did Cersei try to have him murdered, but Tywin and the others have conspired to keep Tyrion’s heroics unspoken – Shae offers Tyrion what sounds like salvation: come away with her across the narrow sea to Pentos, where they can live out their days in leisure. Dinklage, fantastic as always, makes it clear that part of Tyrion wants nothing more than to take her offer; he has suffered so much this season, and only sunk further than ever before as a result. Shae’s offer sounds like heaven.
But Tyrion has become, as I noted last week, a true hero, and a hero cannot run away from where he is needed. “These bad people,” he says. “That’s what I’m good at. Out-talking them. Out-thinking them. I like it. I like it more than anything I’ve ever done.” It’s one of most invigorating Tyrion moments yet; but though he frames it through a selfish lens – that he needs to stay because he enjoys this world – I believe there’s a very noble subtext to his words.
Tyrion knows that even though his deeds will never be recorded in history, he is the man for this job, the man to make this Kingdom run smoothly; he knows this because he gets satisfaction out of it, no matter what his personal cost. And if he can feel this uniquely comfortable at King’s Landing, would he not be doing Westeros a disservice by leaving? By fleeing his responsibility to live in peace? That would be the easy option. In many ways, it would be the preferable option. But given how far Tyrion has come, it is no longer the option he can live with. Even more than his speech to the troops in “Blackwater,” this is the moment where I feel Tyrion establishes himself as the true hero of Game of Thrones.
Many other characters are presented with choices between peace and duty. Also in King’s Landing, Sansa is finally freed from Joffrey’s engagement; she thinks it’s good news – and the little skip and smile Sophie Turner gives is absolutely wonderful – but Petyr Baelish assures her this is only the beginning of her torment. Like Tyrion, Sansa will live no life of luxury by staying in King’s Landing, and like Tyrion, a friend offers her an easy way out.
But Sansa has been hardened by her time here; she is a stronger, better person than the whiny brat we met twenty episodes ago, and as we saw in “Blackwater,” she holds more power to inspire and rally the women of King’s Landing than even Cersei. When she insists to Baelish that she will not leave, that King’s Landing is her home, she’s saying those words with honesty for the first time. Her home really is King’s Landing, even if living there will not be easy. It is the place where she became an adult, where she grew up and found true strength inside her. A different girl lived in Winterfell, and this girl would not feel comfortable there, even if she would (in theory, given Winterfell’s fate) be safer.
Sansa’s sister, Arya, encounters an even tougher decision, but then again, she has always been the stronger character. Jaqen offers Arya the chance to come train with him in Braavos, the home of her deceased mentor Syrio; it’s Arya’s dream, the opportunity she never thought she would have. The Arya of season one would not have given the choice a second’s thought; she would travel with Jaqen. But Arya, as much if not more than any other character, has come into her own this year as someone who fights on for more than just herself, and so she chooses to stay in Westeros and find her family.
It’s a dangerous road she’s chosen; she has no back-up, no plan, no sense of place, no weapons, and no support; she’s a little girl in a harsh man’s world; and she has no idea how spread out her family has become. But she’ll do what she can, and given what we saw this season, I believe she’ll do it well. At the very least, as with Tyrion and Sansa, it’s the only decision that would allow her to sleep at night, at one with herself.
Theon Greyjoy is a man we’ve come to view as a ‘villain’ this year, but “Valar Morghulis” reinforced the tragic aspects of his character. He has certainly fallen from grace, but as Theon explains to Maester Luwin (in a speech hit out of the park by Alfie Allen), it’s a fall no one else could ever understand. Theon felt like a prisoner, even if he was rarely treated as such, and he’s been carrying the pain of an outsider his entire life; proving himself to the Starks would never fulfill him, because at the end of the day, he will always be their captive little boy. But he had a chance with his father and Pyke, a chance to make someone love him for real, and he jumped on it.
The monologue doesn’t only move the audience, but Luwin as well, who decides to show this boy kindness and offer a reprieve from the mistakes he has made. Theon is given the option of escaping and joining the Night’s Watch, where he may prove and redeem himself. It’s not quite the rosy, utopian choice offered to Tyrion, but it is at least a place that will fill many of Theon’s needs.
Like the other characters, though, Theon proves his resolve by denying Luwin’s offer and attempting to rally his troops with a big speech; it’s another tremendously humanizing moment, one where Theon steps into his own as a man worth respecting, if not necessarily liking. By resolving to fight for his own honor, to make a name for himself his family won’t be able to forget, he shows that he has finally found something personal and profound to fight for, even if it means death.
His men’s interruption of the speech is a decent joke, I suppose, as it subverts our expectations of how these big rally moments should go, but it also felt like a cop-out, an anticlimax unbefitting of Theon’s story. His men get off scot-free, and Theon doesn’t have to confront his crimes; for the writers, at least, it’s the easy way out, not the dramatically satisfying one. It doesn’t help that we don’t see the burning of Winterfell, and never quite understand who did it. Was it Theon’s men? Robb Stark’s? I assume it was Theon’s, but I don’t know, and given the importance Winterfell has had in this series, entirely leapfrogging its demise feels like a fairly major cheat.
But it does at least give Bran and company a very strong resolution to their subplot. Bran, his little brother, and Hodor have yet to come into their own as characters – Bran in particular feels like a rather clear weak-link at this point in the series, given his lack of significant development – but Osha has had a very compelling arc this year, one that ended in top form.
With Winterfell gone, protecting the ‘little lords’ will be more difficult than ever, and as with other characters, she has a chance to walk away and start fresh. But Osha chooses the path she can be proud of, the path where she has something worth fighting for, even if it means fighting her own people. Natalia Tena has been an unexpected highlight of this season, her talent reinforced in the spectacular scene where Osha redoubles her vows to Maester Luwin before ending his suffering.
Finally, we come to the two characters whose stories have been most troublesome this season: Jon Snow and Daenyres Targaryen. Both have been separate from the show’s main action all year (Dany for her second year in a row), and structurally, I’ve taken issue with both their arcs. There has been so little for each of them to do all year that giving us bits and pieces of their stories across multiple episodes simply made their development to diffuse. I very much like the place both characters arrive in the finale, especially Dany, but I feel those places would be so much more satisfying if the preceding material hadn’t been spread out in miniscule chunks over multiple installments.
Both essentially had short-story arcs this year, where they encounter a single, increasingly complex obstacle and take a single (albeit significant) step forward. Given the size of the cast, I think that’s a rather elegant and intelligent solution – in theory. But as I said, splitting a short story across ten hours dilutes the impact of the development.
Jon Snow’s major action – killing a brother of the Night’s Watch to infiltrate Mance’s fortress – comes clear out of left field when we haven’t seen him for three weeks, and Dany’s emotional journey loses some of its poignancy when we’ve had so few truly significant scenes with her all year. I feel both stories would be so much more powerful if Beinoff and Weiss had given each character one standalone, centric episode, devoted the whole hour to their story, and then picked their arcs back up on a weekly basis in season 3.
Dany’s reunion with Drogo would hit home in much more meaningful ways at the end of an all Dany hour, where we see her courage and leadership tested over and over, and Jon’s first kill would be so much more bittersweet if we saw where he started and stopped all in one sitting. Would it be an unconventional choice? Absolutely. But Game of Thrones is an unconventional show, and with the size of the cast, they must start getting structurally creative to stop the show from feeling too diffuse.
All that being said, Dany’s material was the heart and soul of “Valar Morghulis,” and I loved every last second of it. This is the complex, fascinating Dany I loved watching in season one, and seeing her reflect on the losses she experienced in the past as she resolves to move forward in the present was a stirring experience.
Alan Taylor’s direction of the fantasy sequence in the House of the Undying was awe-inspiring, first as Dany walks through a wintry vision of the Throne Room, then as she finds herself beyond the wall, all of it silent save for some beautiful music by composer Ramin Djawadi. Wordlessly, we see Dany’s contemplating her various responsibilities and desires: the kingdom, her dragons, and of course, the life she couldn’t lead with her love, Khal Drogo. Getting Jason Momoa back for the finale was a brilliant move, and Emilia Clarke’s longing, heartbroken performance was the emotional highlight of the hour.
Once again, a character is given a choice between the life they want and the life they need to live, and like the best of our heroes, Dany chooses the latter. By closing the door to her past, she can finally look to the future, and Clarke was absolutely spectacular illustrating a Dany who has decided to seize power. Ordering her dragons to finally breathe fire, locking the King in his own vault, ransacking the palace…yeah, you don’t want to f*** with Daenyres Targaryen, do you? It feels like we’re finally nearing Dany’s entry into the Westeros fray, and as hectic as things have gotten in the seven kingdoms, I don’t think a single man calling himself King is prepared for what Dany and her dragons will unleash.
And she’s not the only deadly force Westeros is unaware of. In a delightfully chilling cliffhanger, Sam is left behind to watch an army of the undead – White Walkers – march past him. We’ve seen a few of these creatures in the past, but not like this; these Walkers are organize, disciplined, deadly, and lead by an unbelievably intimidating King. I don’t know how much it cost to illustrate that character, but his skeletal features, terrifying facial expression, and fathomless blue eyes made for money well spent. In fact, the entire army couldn’t have been cheap, but if there’s a sizable cost for ending Season 2 of Game of Thrones with a visual scope befitting that of the overall story, so be it.
It’s too late at night and too early after the finale for me to say exactly how Season 2 stacks up as a whole, but my immediate reaction is that this year marked a dramatic, well-earned improvement over Season 1. And I absolutely adored the first season. But those episodes were primarily set-up, an introduction to a new, vast, foreign world, and Season 2 paid off rather spectacularly on promises made last Spring.
The best is clearly still yet to come – if nothing else, we have to see when Arya will speak the words “Valar Morghulis” – but the opening stages of the War of the Five Kings did not disappoint. The story moved forward this year in major, undeniable ways, and even if the season as a whole wasn’t as structurally sound as the first year, I feel these last ten episodes took us deeper into the characters and their world than ever before. And this finale provided such sterling pay-off on every character arc and the prevailing themes of the season that if anything, I’m happier with Season 2 tonight than I was after “Blackwater.”
One thing is for sure: the wait for season 3 will be even harder than it was for season 2. In a year full of awe-inspiring accomplishments, that one may be the most significant.