“Valar Morghulis” (for newbies) S2 / E10
- A- Community Grade
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God, I’m going to miss this show until next year. It’s the biggest cliché in the world, but there honestly isn’t anything like Game Of Thrones on television. Now, if you haven’t watched the episode yet, get outta here, cause I’m starting off at the end, with Sam hiding underneath a rock watching a bunch of ruined-looking corpses walk through the snow towards his friends. The image was cool—the snowstorm that followed them was an especially nice touch—but I was almost a little let down, since we’ve seen these fuckers before, and I’m maybe a little worn out on zombies.
Then what I can only describe as an…ancient frost demon? Rides by. On a dead horse. Making a noise you can’t even begin to describe. This show is the War of the Roses shot through with Led Zeppelin. The alliances, the politics, the battles feel authentic, and then there’s zombies, and dragons, and warlocks, and face-changing assassins, and it’s easy to roll with that as well. There’s nothing for us to turn to on TV that’ll fill that void. We’ll just have to wait patiently for nine months until the whole beautiful shebang gets kicked into action again.
“Valar Morghulis” was pretty much the opposite of last week’s spectacularly focused “Blackwater,” satisfyingly dangling all of Game Of Thrones’ many wonderful storylines over 70 minutes so that we’ll be chomping at the bit for season three. I’ve compared this show to The Wire before, even though they’re universes away from each other in so many ways, and this finale really reminded me of that show. On “Blackwater,” shit went down, pretty spectacularly, and we were right there on the front line to see what went right and what went wrong. Now that that’s over with, it’s time for everyone to jockey for their new place in the world and try and survive (and most likely, not everyone will).
The biggest changes are afoot at King’s Landing, where Joffrey has to wriggle out of his betrothal to Sansa to wed Margery, the lynchpin in a new alliance between the Lannisters and the Tyrells, an alliance we saw sweep through Stannis’ forces last week. Luckily, the Starks’ disgraced name makes the switch easy enough (although the crowd seems a little perturbed) but it was fun to watch the political theater—Margery’s declaration of love for a man her recently-dead husband had sworn to execute, Pycelle’s assurances that the gods wouldn’t be offended, Petyr’s prize of Harrenhal for arranging the whole thing. That it was preceded, a scene earlier, by that glorious shot of Tywin’s horse taking a dump outside the throne room…never let it be said that Game Of Thrones is a subtle experience (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
With Tywin’s arrival, however, comes Tyrion’s near-banishment: Cersei’s attempt on his life may have failed, but he’s scarred-up, robbed of his political power, and sleeping in a much less spectacular room, all prizes for his brilliant defense of the city. He still has friends (Shae, Pod and Varys—no sign of Bronn, but he’s lost his job) but no influence, and Shae’s offer to run away with him and dine and fuck until they die has to be an appealing one. But Tyrion’s addicted to the game, like the rest of them. “These bad people are what I’m good at!” he tells Shae, and he’s right—that realization has been his character arc this season. He’s no longer the wise jester of season one, getting in and out of deadly scrapes by his wits alone. There’s more purpose to him now, even if that purpose is centered around the ridiculous, never-ending power struggle of Westeros.
Stannis, meanwhile, has been robbed of his religious fervor, although Melisandre is already promising that the Blackwater battle was the first fight in a long war. At this point, there were really two places for Stannis to go, and we saw both of them: he strangles his infuriating priestess, who’s more cryptic than a character on Lost, but she eventually convinces him to look into the flames and he sees…well, something. Who knows what. It’s enough to re-kindle his fervor, possibly at greater levels than ever before. In the hands of another actor, this scene would feel like a bit of a cheat, but Stephen Dillane brings it home just with his eyes. Before, you always felt like Stannis had his feet in both worlds: a tactician and military leader at heart, swept up in Melisandre’s promises of glory because it was what he wanted to hear. But from that look in his eyes, Stannis may have become a true believer.
As crazy as Melisandre seems, there’s more and more evidence of the “dark arts” on this show, which have grown from being the ignored, mocked old wives tales of season one to a crucial part of the power dynamic. The white walkers have been around since scene one, of course, but that’s a little different—they’re some unknowable force, demonically powered, inhuman to the core. Melisandre’s spells were crazy, but they felt tied to reality—Stannis needed to impregnate her to create the shadow assassin. But the warlocks of Qarth were straight-up wizards, conjuring crazy visions for Daenerys to walk through (including the welcome reappearance of Drogo, who probably had more lines in this scene than the entirety of season one) and then chains to bind her to her dragons.
I liked the explanation for the warlocks’ behavior: the dragons are enhancing their magic to levels they’ve never seen before, which explains the coup and why they’re not more notorious around the world. The upshot was predictable, but fun to watch—perhaps powered by their mother being in danger, the dragons up their firepower from “grill” to “charbroil” and take that scary bald Scottish fuck down once and for all. Quickly enough, we realize that Xaro was full of shit and used Daenerys as a bargaining chip in his takeover of the city, another fairly obvious twist. It was hard not to take his empty safe as a symbol of Daenerys’ plot this season, however. If season two had a weak link, it was in Qarth, because it seems that all our Khaleesi learnt was not to trust rich dudes without opening their safes first. It was a pretty short character arc thinly spread over ten episodes, so hopefully she’ll be on a more involving track in season three.
Another straight-up piece of magic we witnessed was the goodbye of Jaqen, who changes his face in front of Arya and gives her a magic coin in case she ever wants to look him up again. Arya, word to the wise: it’s a good move to hang out with unkillable, undetectable assassins who can change their appearance at will and have taken a shine to you. Definitely a better companion than Gendry, and that’s no slight against Gendry. One thing’s for sure: in Game Of Thrones, the eastern continent is way more magically-inclined than Westeros. Jaqen’s from there, Qarth is over there, and I’m pretty sure Melisandre hails from there. Robb should keep an eye on his new wife before she sprouts wings and breathes fire.
The only flaw with this episode is that it really leaves you wanting more. We just get little hints of some characters—Tywin’s on his horse, but he doesn’t talk to Tyrion at all. Sansa grins because she’s free of Joffrey, then gets propositioned by Petyr, and that’s it. Brienne has one awesome scene bantering with Jaime and taking out some northern scum, but their perilous journey has just begun. Most exciting of all is Jon’s showdown with the Halfhand right before things cut out—as he hinted two weeks ago, the Halfhand goads Jon into killing him so he can join the Wildling club. We’ll be meeting the King Beyond the Wall next season, and that’s definitely something to look forward to, but I’m fit to burst after watching this episode.
Some characters’ fates are particularly unclear. Davos, last seen being blown off a boat last week, may or may not be dead. Theon gets bonked on the head by his bastard first mate, and Winterfell is razed, but we never see a body. I was perhaps most disappointed by that, because Theon’s story really felt like it had reached a natural conclusion. I loved his scene with Luwin (RIP), who begs him to go to the Wall and seek redemption. Theon has been a friend to the Starks this season, then he’s been a coward, he’s been a brute, he’s been a fool. None of this really clicks with the path Luwin’s suggesting, and he knows it, even if Luwin is right when he says he’s not the man he’s pretending to be. “I’ve gone too far to pretend to be anything else,” Theon says, and he’s right. His goodbye was pathetic, shot through with black humor, and a little sad, so I’m frustrated that we didn’t get complete closure on the story, but I’m willing to believe there’s a reason for it.
That leaves us with…frost zombies. Hundreds of them. Closing on the Night’s Watch. With Sam quaking under a rock and Jon in league with the wildlings. There’s a lot to look forward to. I love the characters on this show, the intrigue, the encyclopedic knowledge it demands from its fans. But indelible images like that are what I love the most.
- Petyr has his work cut out for him with Harrenhal. “I shall have to acquire some sons and grandsons.”
- Varys’ scene with Ros was nice to have, since it made her feel like a real character, rather than the prostitute we continue to recognize. Varys had a lot of fantastic scenes this week—he’s more and more a gift of a character.
- I loved Theon’s rage at the “horn-blowing cunt” outside his walls. Luwin explains that they want to keep him up. “Thank you, wise bald man! Thank you for explaining siege tactics to me!”
- Arya can’t go yet. “I need to find my brother and mother. And my sister,” she adds, grudgingly. If only she knew what poor Sansa has been through!
- Drogo was just a joy to see again. “These are questions for wise men with skinny arms.”