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I have read all the books but nothing that we haven't seen in the television series will be discussed (same goes for the comments folks). And in that vein, I won't be speculating as to what may happen to any of the conflicts, characters and/or narrative threads, instead only what has been shot, set-up and/or suggested in each show as well as how skillfully (or not) it has been brought to the small screen. And to that effect...
"This war has just begun. It will last for years. Thousands will die at your command. You will betray the men serving you. You will betray your family. You will betray everything you once held dear. And it will all be worth it."
I don't know if you noticed but there was an especially long recap segment before tonight's finale. An extended sequence to refresh the viewers' memory is to be expected in most season ending episodes, however, the one preceding "Valar Morghulis" was probably the longest I've ever seen. Okay, that's a bit of a stretch but it felt that way didn't it? I don't blame them (more was probably needed), it just points to the main problem with tonight's episode - the same problem I've been harping about all season long - the series has grown too big for its britches. One benefit of being overstuffed is that, even if the overall picture cracks a bit under the weight, there is still so much to love about the second season finale of Game of Thrones.
"You don't want to swim too close to a drowning man?"
"Valar Morghulis" opens in King's Landing with a Lost-esque closeup on someone's eye. Tyrion watches the war burn before, in a blink, he wakes in his new quarters with the suddenly very smug Grand Maester Pycelle hanging over him. Bandaged, the heroic Lion is certainly not treated like one and is soon informed that he's been stripped of his title as Hand of the King. His father Tywin has taken his glory and his seat on the small council. And his horse takes a big poop outside the Throne Room before they gallop in for Joffrey's decree and the rest of the the pomp and circumstance. The 'proclaimation' sequence doesn't work especially well, but like the horse's poop, there are a few good moments.
Littlefinger is awarded Harrenhal for his part in bringing the Lannisters and Tyrells together followed by Natalie Dormer acting as seductive as ever when Margaery announces the love for Joff that's 'deep inside' her. I wonder, are the Lannisters getting more than they bargained for by joining Houses with the Tyrells? Some flowers have thorns. Or is it the other way round? Margaery is getting what she thinks she wants - to be the Queen - but that also comes with Joffrey. Also, just like that Sansa is tossed aside. She can barely contain her excitement - it's a great little moment that breaks the staleness of the rest of the scene - before Littlefinger ever so creepily tells her that breaking free of a betrothal is not the same thing as breaking free.
And she certainly won't be allowed to just return home (even if there were a Winterfell to return to) but, of course, he'll do everything in his power to protect her because she reminds him of her mother. With whom he was like a brother. Yeah, maybe a Targaryen! Am I right? We all know how Littlefinger treats women, speaking of which, we soon catch up with 'profitable holes' (Ros) being payed a visit by Lord Varys. I can't really stand her character since she's little more than a pair of, uh, ears, for all the characters to confess to while having sex but now she'll least be putting those things to good use spying for the Spider. The exchange was surprisingly enjoyable with Ros feeling out who Varys was before it continued to pit the latter against Littlefinger. Weaknesses.
This is still all contained within the opening stretch, making the time spent away from the rest of the world even longer and we only return to the capitol for one more scene this season, namely the emotional exchange between Tyrion and Shae. Well, first Varys tells Tyrion how much he admires him and how, despite this, they won't be seeing each other for some time. Varys can't be seen in the wrong company. Shae comes in and finds her Lion insecure about his battle wound, but too be fair, I think it looks pretty badass. And I thought chicks dig scars? It's not like half his nose was hacked off! Maybe he's more upset about losing his 'Handship' because he loves Shae but he really, really loves The Game.
"Will you quit the war just because you've lost the battle?"
The next loose end to tie up after the carnage (season climax) of "Blackwater" - oh, yeah, Tyrion's not dead! - is what happened to those on King Stannis' side of the battle. The last we saw of The Onion Knight and his son, they were blown into the water, but Stannis was able to retreat back to Dragonstone and, uh, converse with his Red Priestess. This is the best that Stephen Dillane has been as the bull headed Baratheon, finally breaking out of the spell and showing some emotion (even if he got a little strangle-ly). However, his time cursing the 'Fire God' is short lived, as is his remorse over killing his baby brother Renly, with Melisandre able to once again hypnotize him with the flames of the future.
Although the sequence is short and tucked into the middle(ish) of the episode, it does offer perhaps the most succinct distillation of the season finale's driving theme. While Game of Thrones almost always, in one way or another, examines what it takes to rule, "Valar Moghulis" looks at what sacrifices and compromises they make playing the Game of Thrones. The quote that kicks off this recap ("... And it will all be worth it") shows Melisandre's more Machiavellian 'do what is necessary' stance, but the question could be applied to many other threads and characters throughout the episode. Is power worth what it takes to obtain it and/or maintain it? And when it comes to betrayal, like Jaime once said, there are so many vows how does one stay faithful to them all? In many ways, Stannis already had his season finale last week so this denouement could have bee cut to save the audience another trip. Not that it's a bad scene, it's just a story that perhaps could have waited until next season for resolution.
"Treat your oaths recklessly and your people will do the same."
Instead of taking advantage of Tywin Lannister's host retreating to King's Landing, it's time for a Westerosi wedding! Cat does her best to dissuade Robb from marrying Talisa because he has already made a vow to wed Lord Walder Frey's daughter. This is one of many reminders of this pact in the last few episodes, but in case you don't recall, Robb was betrothed a Frey daughter in order to secure passage for his army. However, thanks to Cat's recent move regarding the Kingslayer, her son doesn't exactly cherish her advice at the moment and he recklessly goes ahead with marrying for love and not bridges. Not the most exciting of sequences (two to be exact) but who doesn't enjoy a wedding? Especially, a nice green one, outside under the stars. Odd that he got married in the eyes of the New Gods (The Seven) and not the Old though? King of the North?
"Whoa! Who do you fight for?"
This is another section that probably could have waited until Season 3 but the writers probably wanted more Jaime time (actually, it seems they wanted to fit everyone in) as well as lay a good foundation for Brienne and his relationship. It was a pretty great scene but in the grand scheme of things, not exactly as pressing as some of the other conflicts. The banter is great between Christie's Brienne the Beauty and Coster-Waldau's Jaime Lannister, as was the little mummer's show they put on ("for stealing a pig?"), and you can start to see him gaining respect for her already. All it takes is killing a few Stark men. Not that they didn't have it coming. War is nasty business and soldiers on all sides do despicable things which is why Brienne only fights for Cat. Oh, and Game of Thrones can be a serious slog so it's also nice to get some comic relief. I always laugh at Jaime's wisecracks.
"No harder than taking a new name. If you know the way."
In the middle of the episode, we catch up with Arya who has just sprung out of Harrenhal with Gendry and Hot Pie thanks to the help of Jaqen H'Ghar. Of course, the show's title comes from this segment but that doesn't mean the sequence fits in seamlessly. Of all of the scenes, this was the sorest of thumbs probably because it was the last of the short, one-off catch-ups. In what is pretty much just a farewell for Jaqen, for both Arya and the audience,, the only event of note is the young Stark receiving the 'coin invitation' to Braavos. I mean, it's cool to hear about the Faceless Men and all, as well as see his low-budget face transformation, but I can't say that kind of exposition is satisfying finale material. Even when it's between to of the season's most beloved characters. But, since it happened, is Braavos in Arya's future? Or will she be able to find her mother, brother and sister?
"You know what it's like to be told how lucky you are to be someone's prisoner? How much you owe them?"
Almost the entire second half of "Valar Morghulis" is spent either in the North or across the Narrow Sea and all three locations contain more traditional cliffhangers. Theon is still the 'Prince of Winterfell' but he's surrounding and slowly going mad listening to the battle horns belonging to the Bastard of Bolton. Of course, he doesn't know that Robb ordered Lord Roose to loose his bastard son Ramsay Snow on Winterfell and offer his Iron Born a truce. I was really hoping that Game of Thrones would be able to pull a Walking Dead and slip a fan-favortite character into the finale without anyone knowing the part had even been cast, but that was quite a coup by AMC and no such luck here. Theon is trapped in the castle with no sign of help from his father (shocker!) but Maester Luwin is still incredibly kind to the lost ward and offers him sound advice suggesting that he run and join the Nightswatch.
The show and Alfie Allen have done a wonderful job with Theon's character, making him very complex and even sympathetic, despite his horrific actions. However, his father issues run too deep and he decides the only way to go is out in a blaze of glory. Too bad his Iron Born don't share the same willingness to meet death and, after his rousing speech, they knock him out and run a spear into poor Maester Luwin in the process. When Osha, Hodor and the 'Little Lords' emerge from hiding, they find all of Winterfell burnt, its people slaughtered and Luwin dying by a Weirwood. He tells them to head north and pleads with Osha to protect them. She doesn't need convincing. I think his death is the most emotional scene in the series' history, probably because we're not used to them being quiet, drawn out or involving actual goodbyes.
Danaerys' storyline has been the most inconsistent of the season. The first few episodes found her wallowing in the Red Waste, yelling about what is hers and how she'll take it and so on. After arriving in Qarth, she found momentary salvation only to soon be betrayed and see her dragons end up in the Warlock's House of the Undying. When they arrive at the temple, there is no door and Jorah follows Dany around the tower until she vanishes. He's left shouting like Stanley in Street Car while his Khalessi finds herself inside. I love the way Alan Taylor shot the sequence. Simple yet beautifully framed, which you could say about many of the sequences in "Valar Morghulis" (the foursome fleeing with Winterfell burning behind them also immediately comes to mind).
Now inside the chamber, Dany can hear her dragons crying out for her but they do not lie behind door number... well, I think it was the only door, instead she finds a ruined Throne Room. The temple has our Khalessi tripping out, moving from vision to vision. The first finds her in the burned out Red Keep in the middle of a snowy Winter, having to choose between grasping the Iron Throne and going after her shrieking 'babies.' Then she walks out a gate and is suddenly transported to the base of the Wall and, in a nearby hut, sits her 'Sun and Stars' (Jason Momoa in a surprise cameo) and their unborn baby Rhaego (with a ridiculous wig). We see what Dany is willing to give up in order to rule, leaving her Matrix like bliss with Khal Drogo to continue her quest.
Back in the temple, she finally finds her dragons but they are restrained. Pyat Pree arrives and uses his magic to also take Dany captive but no matter how strong the dragon's presence has made them, Warlock's should not fuck with a Khalessi and her dragon babies. Drogon lights the place up and the audience rejoices! She then takes a trip to Xaro's to find that he wasn't lying when he said "he didn't become the second richest man in Qarth," as there is nothing in his secret vault. Well, nothing except for him and Dany's treacherous handmaiden. But there is still enough scrap lying around the palace to buy them a ship, only to where will they set sail?
"We are the watchers on the wall."
The last place the episode takes us is 'Beyond the Wall.' First, Jon and Qhorin Halfhand are still held captive by the wildlings, with Ygritte paying special close attention to Lord Snow. She's doing all she can to get him to side with the Wildlings while he still has a chance and, oddly, Qhorin is doing the exact same thing. Only the legendary Ranger's plan will cost him his life and involves Jon only pretending to be one of them. The Halfhand pushes the issue by breaking free and coming at Jon with a longsword and the Wildlings decide just to get it over with by pitting the two against each other. Qhorin 'pushes' Jon too far and ends up taking a sword in the gut for the team. Jon does his usual wounded puppy look and Ygritte shows him, and us, the large camp of Free Folk assembled under Mance Rayder. It's time to meet the King Beyond the Wall... In 10 months.
The final sequence, very reminiscent of the series' opening 15 minutes, finds Sam, Grenn and Edd near the Fist of the First Men. Remember when British Matt Damon took two crows out and we first glimpsed the White Walkers? It was like a separate short tease, later connected to the series through the deserter's beheading at the hands of Ned Stark. This tag feels much the same, tacked on the the end of the episode and not really connected to anything that comes beforehand. Not that it wasn't exciting. One, two, three blasts and all complaints were forgotten. Grenn and Edd make a run for the rest of the Watch but Sam's not fit enough and instead has to cower behind a rock and watch the horde of wights, zombie-walk their way into battle at the behest of a White Walker commando. The wights look great (especially the foggy longshot) but the White Walkers less so. The dead horse was amazing. Sorry, Luck.
"Valar Morghulis (All Men Must Die)."
Okay, so "Valar Morghulis" was a pretty great episode even if it was betrayed by the sheer number of story lines to advance. All the credit in Westeros goes to co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for crafting a more than satisfying season finale even though we visited eight or nine locales, saw something like 50 named characters and set up a few cliffhangers. This was probably the result of ”Blackwater" all taking place in one location. "Valar Morghulis" was extra cramped because the series' dropped all the narrative threads save the events occurring in King's Landing and that left a lot of stories to retrace and resolve in one hour.
I won't bother making another plea for 90-minute installments of the series because it's never going to happen, however, the writers do need to be wary of overloading the audience and/or sucking the life out of episodes by doing too much. There is certainly no easy solution to adapting something so vast for the small screen but that's the hand they've been dealt with George R.R. Martin’s "A Song of Ice and Fire."
Fortunately, Weiss and Benioff for the most part have done a great job juggling the various story lines and even when an episode as a whole doesn't quite come together, or perhaps feels too rushed, most of the pieces will still be incredibly entertaining to watch. It was a truly great season of television ("Garden on Bones being my favorite episode). Game of Thrones will return with its third season April, 2013 on HBO. How can we possibly wait until then? Valar Dohaeris.