kimberlee rossi-fuchs looks at the end game of season two…
By zeroing in on just the Battle of Blackwater and those immediately affected by it last week, the Game of Thrones’ writing staff left themselves with a huge amount of ground to cover in this week’s finale. While “Valar Morghulis” was a largely satisfying and successful conclusion to the season, when compared to last week’s more streamlined and focused “Blackwater,” the episode occasionally felt bloated and its pacing sometimes rushed, as the writers sought to wrap up the storylines of all of the season’s major players and set the stage for what’s to come in season three.
Stannis’ defeat has served to shake things up in King Joffrey’s court and, fittingly, our first glimpse of this new regime is of a steaming load of horseshit dropped from Tywin’s steed as the Lannister patriarch rides victoriously into the Red Keep. Joffrey reinstates Tywin as Hand of the King (thus displacing Tyrion) and sets aside his betrothal to Sansa Stark in favor of new ally and Renly’s widow, Margaery Tyrell. Margaery has made clear her intentions to be THE queen at any cost and as someone who is both more cunning and worldly than Sansa, it will be interesting to see how her relationship with the equally cunning Cercei and the cruel, bullying Joffrey play out next season.
Despite the success of his brilliant wildfire strategy and rally of the disheartened Lannister troops, Tyrion finds that all of the accolades of the victory have gone to his father instead. Still in rough shape from his battle wounds, he awakes to find the gloating, unfriendly face of Maester Pycelle looming over him. Stripped of his title, his friends in the court dismissed and replaced with Tywin and Cercei’s chosen officers, and relegated to cramped, squalid chambers, Tyrion’s been demoted and declawed in humiliating fashion. Despite his recent downturn, Varys, one of his few remaining allies, declares his actions weren’t wholly unrecognized, promising “The king won’t give you any honors, the histories won’t mention you, but we will not forget.” Varys also smuggles in Shae, who, shocked after removing Tyrion’s bandages and revealing a gruesome facial scar, asks him to flee Kings Landing with her. Though he remains vulnerably in love with her, Tyrion refuses because he’s discovered his identity through his political prowess. “These bad people are what I’m good at,” he tells her. “Out-talking them, out-thinking them. I’m good at it.” Well aware of how precarious his situation now is, Tyrion’s faith in his own cleverness keeps him right in the lion’s den.
More so than any other character, Theon has often been portrayed as a foil to Tyrion this season, a polar opposite – ego-driven and inept whereas Tyrion is capable and typically judicious – whose story arc nonetheless has the same trajectory, with both men ending up much lower than where they stared. Theon finds himself under siege at Winterfell, surrounded by five hundred angry Northmen with only twenty of his own to bring to battle. Maester Lluwin proposes an escape via the Night’s Watch (taking the black seems to be a last hope often floated before doomed characters on the show), but once again, Theon forges ahead, admitting he’s dug himself too deep to do anything else. The next morning, he attempts to rally his men for an assured suicide mission, appealing to a desire for glory and immortality via songs and histories that simply means nothing to the steely Ironborn. It’s a completely tone-deaf speech and the total opposite of Tyrion’s blunt appeal to his men’s survival instincts last week, as Theon isn’t rousing them to fight for their lives, but rather to die for the sake of his reputation. Not surprisingly, they don’t go for it and his speech is cut short by a blow to the head from Cleftjaw and Theon is tied up and unceremoniously dragged away from Winterfell.
Daenerys’ storyline, which has been frequently disappointing this season, concluded in pretty stellar fashion and we finally got some hot dragon action. As was often the case with her scenes this season, Daenerys’ experience in the House of the Undying is significantly different than how it unfolds in A Clash of Kings, but the changes largely work, particularly the return of Khal Drogo, an emotional trap sprung to keep her content in the warlocks’ fortress forever. Her visions once inside the House provided some striking visuals, particularly the eerie silence of the snow-covered Iron Throne. Best of all, for the first time since last season’s finale, we see Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal together as Daenerys shows Pyat Pree their new trick, “Dracarys.” Though the dragons are still the size of cats, they lit the warlock up like a torch and one can only imagine how dangerous they’ll become as they grow larger. Also satisfying was Dany’s revenge on Xaro Xhoan Daxos and her duplicitous former handmaiden, Doreah, sealing the traitors away forever in Xaro’s empty vault. Also, I laughed at the Dothraki joy at finally being allowed to raid Qarth’s wealth and jewels (which will pay for Dany’s much needed ship).
Beyond the wall, Qhorin Halfhand sacrifices himself by starting, then purposely losing a swordfight with Jon in front of Wildling captors. By killing his own Night’s Watch brother, Jon earns the tenuous trust of Ygirtte, the Lord of Bones, and their band of Wildlings. Now that they view him as one of their own, Jon heads into season three as an undercover agent, trying to determine what the King Beyond the Wall and his thousands of followers have planned.
Even with an extended running time of ten extra minutes, “Valar Morghulis” was certainly over-stuffed at times. Stannis’ scene, for example, exists just to show that he’s still alive and still intent on claiming the throne. Similarly, the scene between Brienne and Jaime, though entertaining, was unnecessary, as it did little to advance their storylines or our understanding of their characters and could have easily been held off until season three. Other developments were given short-shrift, including the burning of Winterfell, which is a bit of an afterthought here. Even in such a bursting episode, however, there were often strong connective threads uniting otherwise disparate scenes. For example, Tyrion’s emotional outpouring at Shae’s renewed promise of loyalty (yet another fantastic Dinklage moment) leads into the tender moment of Robb Stark’s risky, alliance-breaking marriage to Talisa. Daenerys arrival at the spooky House of the Undying is followed by Arya’s own brush with eastern magic, as Jaqen H’ghar gives her a mysterious coin and a new mantra before changing his face and leaving her to her own mission. These touches lent the episode a much-needed sense of cohesion and helped create a satisfying conclusion to what was an ambitious and frequently impressive sophomore season.
In fact, Game of Thrones season two certainly wrapped up with a bang and the very last scene of “Valor Morghulis” was simply fantastic. After the third, foreboding blow of the Night’s Watch horn, Grenn and Edd flee, leaving cowardly Samwell Tarly behind. It is then that we finally get a good look at one of the oft-rumored White Walkers, a sword-wielding, ice-eyed, skeletal ghoul riding atop a dead and rotting horse. As Samwell cowers behind a rock, the camera pans out, revealing a massive zombie army marching ahead through the whipping snow. It’s a fitting counterpart to the season one finale, which ended with a magical rebirth, as here instead, we close with the ominous approach of death. Winter is coming, indeed, and it’s fucking terrifying. One thing is for sure, it’s going to be a long ten months until the third season premiere.