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Game of Thrones Watch: Rising from the Ashes

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, get a crackling fire going and sit down to watch the season finale of Game of Thrones.

I’ve always resisted the shorthand that Game of Thrones is “fantasy Sopranos.”  To me, the series has more in common tonally with a range of other HBO dramas–a mix of Deadwood, Rome, The Wire, even Carnivale–than the very ironic and modern Sopranos. But like that show, Game of Thrones has had a stellar first season that built and built and built. And like some seasons of The Sopranos, it used its penultimate episode to show us the big whacking–that of Ned Stark.

The final episode dealt with death and its consequences, indicating that we are still in the first act of a very long story. On a plot level, it was about setting up conflicts and situations that will presumably play out in a second season. On a thematic level, it was about resurrection, and how the future rises from the ashes of destruction.

On which note, let’s begin at the end, with that scene.

Whatever flaws Daenerys’ storyline had starting out (the depiction of the Dothraki’s world in particular), it had a compelling theme: her transformation from object to subject, from girl to leader. And for my money, Emilia Clarke sold the character, as an emotional being and a bad-ass dragon lady, better then ever in this finale. Death had to pay for life, as Mirri Maz Duur told her, and she used the blood sorceress’ words (and her life) to hatch her fossilized dragons. (Speaking of which: a moment for Mia Soteriou, who in a few scenes made her earthy, embittered character one of the most complete of the Dothraki storyline.)

But really, the deaths that paid for life were Rhaego’s and Drogo’s. It was surviving those ordeals that made her finally ready, in that last scene, to assume the role of mother/leader/queen. Her agony at smothering her vegetablized Sun and Stars made their love palpable but also gave a figurative meaning to “death pays for life”: just as she had to claim her dragons by walking into a fire, so too does becoming a true leader mean enduring pain that would destroy others.

This was one of those rare cases, by the way, where I went back to the book to see how the ending scene compared–even more so than Ned’s execution, this was the visual I first wondered about when HBO picked up the series. In the novel, Jorah found Dany in the ashes of the pyre while it was still night, with one dragon on her shoulder and the other two suckling at her still-swollen breasts. The red and black dragon hissed, and “the other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.”

The TV scene was different, in a way that shows the producers have become confident enough with the material to make choices that work better for this medium. The book–told in the third person from Dany’s point-of-view perspective–is more intimate. In the screen version, the camera pulls back to see her in morning light, facing her new people, who bow before her. And the dragon on her shoulder responds not with music, but a cry that is eerily perfect: like a baby’s, but terrifying.

(Incidentally, much has been made of the nudity in the series; here, I think it’s fitting and necessary, not simply because the fire burned Dany’s clothes away. We’re seeing her as queen, mother and a being of visceral power, and the nude shot–with one dragon helpfully covering her pelvis–is like some kind of ancient allegorical painting of her as maternal goddess.)

In Westeros, our cast of characters are taking stock of life after Joffrey’s impetuous decision to put Ned to death. (As this week’s minstrel scene affirms, the little sadist likes the punishing-people part of being king best of all; it may be that a taste for solid food is all that separates him from Robin “Make the bad man fly!” Arryn.)

And it’s not just the Starks who have reason to mourn that decision but Tywin Lannister, who concedes to Tyrion that, having underestimated Robb and with both of Robert’s brothers raising arms, he is suddenly on the losing end of a war he could have ended on his own terms with Ned alive. Here, it’s Tyrion whose stock rises from the ashes of a defeat, as the patriarch dispatches him to King’s Landing to serve as Joffrey’s Hand and minder.

The prospect of Tyrion empowered to slap some sense into his nephew again in season two is enticing indeed, but more than the title, the scene conveys that what the dwarf has gained here is his father’s recognition. It may only be because Jaime is imprisoned; nonetheless, when Tywin says that he is giving Tyrion the responsibility because “You’re my son,” you get the distinct sense that this is the first time in quite a while Tyrion has heard his father acknowledge this–if ever.

Back at the Stark camp, the death of Ned Stark has not only elevated Robb as Lord of Winterfell, but–by infuriating the lords loyal to Ned–resurrected a concept that predated the forcible union of Westeros by the Targaryens’ dragons centuries ago: The King in the North. What began as a fracas between two houses is now officially a civil war (apparently on more than one front), with the Starks and their allies literally seceding. And the last few episodes have brought home to me how kingly Robb has become in how short a time–though we see, in an effective scene with Catelyn finding him beating his sword against a tree–he is still in some ways a hurting boy.

A skirmish has become an all-out war–but the close of Jon Snow’s story, farther north at The Wall, reminds us that there is an even larger war than that one, one operating on a much-longer, near-geologic time frame. I’m not sure that anyone expected Jon actually to run off and join the war, but his chase and retrieval by his friends was surprisingly moving, as they repeated their vows and made clear–even if they came to the Wall in exile, to escape death or prison–that the words truly mean something to them now.

In all, just a stirring, towering end to a season that seemed too short. I could nitpick many choices in the adaption—Catelyn and Bran, for instance, seemed to get particularly lost over the course of the season–but this was as effective a transition to TV as anyone could reasonably expect.

I read the books well before seeing the series, so I was already disposed to the story, but that was no guarantee that Benioff and Weiss would pull it off. But they’ve managed to do something, in retrospect, very difficult: to tell a story that involves people who are hundreds of miles apart, some of whom have never met, and yet make it casually clear that this is all the same big tale.

One that only promises to get bigger, however many people have died. “You should get some sleep,” Jaime Lannister says to Catelyn in his last words of the season. “It’s going to be a long war.” I can’t wait until the battle is rejoined next year.

Now a last hail of arrows:

* It wouldn’t be a Game of Thrones finale without sexposition, and this time it’s Grand Maester Pycelle who gets some. I’ve half-defended some early, similar scenes because however awkward they at least imparted necessary information that could only come across in dialogue. But unless I’m missing something, was there anything necessary that this scene gave us, other than a reminder of kings we already knew about?

* Meanwhile, it’s good to see that Lancel is still serving the realm, and the Lannisters still keeping close together.

* Sophie Turner’s Sansa has had to suffer much of the season as everyone’s least-favorite sister behind Arya, but Turner does fine work here showing her turn to hatred of Joffrey, as she goes from being in over her head to being a prisoner in hell.

* On a related note, tell me what you think: did the Hound stop Sansa on the bridge to save Joffrey (who has insulted him for sport) or to save her?

* It’s interesting to see that Arya (traveling in disguise to save her life) has ended up hitting the road with Gendry (the bastard hidden in plain sight as an armorer’s apprentice to save his life).

* “I’m funny now? I’m Shae the funny whore!” I smell a spinoff!

One last time for this year: to those of you who have read the books, no referencing events or revelations that have not transpired in the series. And thanks for being so good about spoilers here all spring.