SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, look deep, deep, deep into the flames and watch last night’s Season 2 finale of Game of Thrones.
Some say the world will end in fire/ Some say in ice./ From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favor fire./ But if it had to perish twice/ I think I know enough of hate/ To say that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice. —Robert Frost
Even if you haven’t read the book series on which Game of Thrones is based, you may already know that its title is A Song of Ice and Fire. In last week’s literally explosive episode “Blackwater,” we saw the destructive power of fire, and we saw that amply repeated here in “Valar Morghulis.” But we also had reminders of how, in the medieval world of Thrones, fire has a primal significance. Some worship it. Some covet its power. And some use it to burn bodies, to fend off the icy power of death beyond death, which we are reminded is indeed a destructive enough force in itself.
But we begin first not with fire nor ice but with ashes — that is, characters dealing with the smoldering aftermath of the battles for King’s Landing and Winterfell, some plotting to regroup to fight again, others finding that they have pulled defeat from the ashes of victory.
In King’s Landing, where we begin, Tyrion regains consciousness to find that he has won the battle and saved the city — in precisely such a fashion that his ungrateful family can strip him of power and pretend he had nothing to do with it. The situation is saddening; what’s heartbreaking is his realization, when Shae makes the perfectly reasonable offer that they flee, that his nature won’t let him choose anonymous contentment in exile over a miserable life with the Lannisters. (Oddly, this theme of not being satisfied with happiness was echoed in the same night’s Mad Men.) Peter Dinklage became the de facto lead of the show for the second season, and he tightened his grip on whatever awards hardware he will win with this pained discovery.
At the same time in Winterfell, Theon is facing a parallel choice, between danger and exile, also complicated by unshakable loyalty to a thankless family. (A strong parallel, by the way, that I never really picked up on in the books, which points to one advantage of the series format.) It’s a particularly strong episode for Alfie Allen, who gets the chance to play Theon for agony, fury and even comedy. (“And whoever kills that fucking hornblower will stand in bronze above the shores of Pyke!”) There’s a lot to despise about what Theon has done, but his basic situation — feeling not so much torn between two families as rejected by both — is pitiable.
The Winterfell story falters at the end; we see that the castle is burning, but not at whose hand, or precisely what it means, or why, if the stronghold has been retaken from the Ironmen, Bran and Rickon still have to flee. (Knowing the reason in the books, I’m guessing that Benioff and Weiss chose to explain it later, but I can’t see a good narrative reason — as opposed to time and budget reasons — to wait.) And that points to one weakness of this finale and a challenge the series will increasingly have to deal with going ahead: there’s just so much story to deal with that it can’t reasonably handle everything at once. “Valar Morghulis” had to give us a little of everyone to tide us over until next year, but it also accepted that not everyone was going to get epic closure of a season-long arc. Game of Thrones is playing a long game, and some subplots simply need to drop in the middle, to be picked up later.
But even when Benioff and Weiss needed to drop variations of “to be continued …” on us, they managed to do it in ways that deepened our feeling for and understanding of the characters. Take Brienne and Jaime: on the surface, their subplot had no more conclusion than, Brienne and Jaime are still walking. See you next year! But they’ve become characters who are fascinating even to watch doing nothing, and Brienne’s hell-yeah moment of retribution on the Stark warriors who brutalized three women on the road revealed the taciturn fighter’s moral core and showed that there are repercussions to the use of sex as a war tactic in the War of Five Kings.
“Valar Morghulis” handled so many story lines that I’m not going to try to analyze each — I wouldn’t get this done inside a week and 3,000 words. The incident that gave the season closer its title — Arya’s goodbye to Jaqen — ably showed how the war has changed her (though she still chooses finding her family over being trained as an assassin), but it’s a relative blip in the episode overall. Stannis is still alive and under Mel’s sway. Robb and Talisa take their relationship where you probably saw it going once you saw him lock eyes with her (and once you realized Oona
O’Neil Chaplin was cast in the role).
Sansa is de-trothed but gets to enjoy five seconds or so of relief before Littlefinger warns her that she may be in more danger. (Sophie Turner, who’s done fine work this season, shows at once her joy, her fear and her learned caution at expressing her emotions in front of Littlefinger.) Jon kills Qhorin for reasons that initially seem hazy but apparently got him accepted behind enemy lines in Mance Rayder’s army. (More on Beyond-the-Wall in a bit.) Varys makes a new friend in Ros, in a way that again shows Thrones’ sexual violence — in this case, Joffrey’s abuse of the two prostitutes — is not forgotten or without real effects.
And the Lannisters celebrate victory by dropping some horseshit both figuratively and literally, with Joffrey breaking his engagement in a marvelously staged show of “conscience,” all while Henry VIII–ogling Margaery, who says little but suggests she may be the most savvy and dangerous badass of anyone in the room.
Whew! Like I said: to be continued. But while the episode felt too packed and jumpy to match “Blackwater” as an hour of TV, it also showed how, overstuffed as it could be, the second season of this series attained a majesty and confidence beyond its already impressive first season. What the show lost in the focus on a single family and protagonist it has gained in establishing its own voice separate from the books. The show has managed to make the fantastical believable (visually and psychologically), doing it so well that it’s easy to forget that, before it started, people were wondering whether you could even pull off fantasy on TV. And it has managed to cat-herd the biggest sprawl of story and character on TV, (mostly) without getting its larger überstories lost amid the details.
“Valar Morghulis” came back to those überstories in the end with Dany and Sam — fire and ice. There are two interconnected long games this series is playing: Dany’s quest to regain her family’s kingdom and the threat to all Westeros (and maybe to all life) of the Walkers beyond the Wall. And the finale returned to both with spectacular closing images.
Dany’s arc was a tough one for the show this season. In the source book (A Clash of Kings), it’s a lot of wandering that ends in a shorter journey to Qarth and a different version of the showdown in the House of the Undying. The biggest difference — which I assume fans of the books will be debating for a while — is in the magic-haze visions Dany sees while searching for her babies. In the book, it’s a kind of Dharma Initiative video — a massive mythological download of short glimpses of the past (or possible past) and cryptic prophesies of the future (or possible future), which recur in the books later and provide endless reader-interpretation fodder.
The series streamlines them, going instead for the emotional punch of a vision of a snowy, ruined throneroom followed by a dream reunion with Khal Drogo and Dany’s stillborn baby. It loses some of the trippy wonder of the book’s visions (as well as several “clues” that readers have been discussing for over a decade). But it also frees the writers, who have been more and more willing to take the TV series in surprising directions, from being bound to a single set of predictions.
And maybe more important, it forgoes the big download for powerful scenes that distill Dany’s season down to a theme. In her visions — presumably induced by the warlocks to lull her into eternal bondage — she sees two things she badly wants: her throne and her family. She could reach out and touch either one, surrender to the narcotic illusion and be happy forever.
But both times the cry of her dragons calls her back. It would be a false happiness, a virtual reality. Like Tyrion and Theon — another parallel I never saw in the books — she recognizes that it is more unbearable to deny her nature than to deny her happiness. She is the Mother of Dragons. It is not the most normal path to power, nor an easy lot, but it is part of her. (Indeed, part of her in a literal, concrete enough way that she can actually withstand flames.) With one defiant word, “dracarys,” she has her children unleash jets of fire that seem almost to shoot from her body itself, as though she were in a high-fantasy Katy Perry video. With that, her story line becomes a heist job, as she readies to leave Qarth with Xaro’s riches (less than advertised) and a little greater knowledge of what it means to inhabit her destiny.
And then: the ice. “Valar Morghulis” ends where it began — not the season, but the series itself, whose pilot opened on a glimpse of the supernatural creatures beyond death whom the Wall was erected to keep out of Westeros. I can’t say I loved the CGI rendering of the frozen Walker here — it seemed a little too corporeal, whereas I imagined something more spectral, to suggest that these beings are not just monsters but something literally antithetical to life. Still, if the general point was to show that the Walkers are very much real, and numerous, and an active (largely ignored) threat, then, point taken!
There are so many little pictures within Game of Thrones that it needs to step back at choice moments and remind us of the biggest picture: that magic is reawakening in a land that largely thought magic had died out, and that all the pushing and pulling over power is the rearranging of deck chairs — in this case an iron one — amid a looming global catastrophe.
It suggests, in other words, an ultimate showdown among fire and ice, in a way that made me wish it were next year, now. And it suggested that, as these two elements exert their forces, there will be a lot of steam generated in the seasons to come.
Now for the year’s last hail of arrows:
• I was surprised at the tenderness of the final scene between the maester and Theon (who, after all, he helped raise.) Luwin’s suggestion that Theon escape to the Wall and take the Black made me wonder: Was his hope and plan to send him north together with Bran and Rickon? (Note to readers: one thing I like about the departures from the books is that I’m genuinely not sure if Theon faces quite the same future in the TV series. Not every change may be for the better, but I like that the show can surprise me.)
• I had some discussions on Twitter last week with other viewers of the show about how fast the denouement of the Blackwater battle came — for instance, the blink-and-you’d-miss-it unveiling of Loras. Here, that become much more clear with the Lannister’s alliance with the Tyrells. And how fun to see Margaery playing Joffrey’s hormones like a fine medieval lute.
• Surely there were other people out there yelling, “Wait! Come back, more handsome version of Jaqen’s face!” Seriously: another example of the series using simple camera trickery to achieve a chilling magical effect.
• I sort of wanted to see what Stannis saw in the fire, but I have to suspect I would have been disappointed if I did. Instead, the flames reflecting in his and Mel’s pupils were a lovely, haunting touch (recalling the episode’s opening shot of the reflections changing in Tyrion’s eye — which in turn again recalled Lost).
• “Eat. Drink. Fuck. Live.” I now know the title of Shae’s future inspirational memoir.
• Yes, the final image was a bit Walking Dead in Iceland. But I did love the dissonant variation on the Game of Thrones theme playing over it.
• “Two quick deaths?” I can’t say it just once: HELL. YEAH. BRIENNE.
(Here’s my usual request for those who have read the books: you’re welcome to compare what’s happened already on the series, but no referencing plot points or upcoming events — nothing possibly spoilery for the book virgins out there. Thanks.)