Season finale review: ‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘Valar Morghulis’

A review of last night’s “Game of Thrones” season finale coming up just as soon as I have questions for wise men with skinny arms…

“This war has just begun. It will last for years.” -Melisandre

Though last week’s “Blackwater” was a creative high point for the series, it was also the first time I really felt at a disadvantage for not having read the books(*). I loved the intensity and grandeur that hour, loved many individual moments like Bronn taking out a chunk of Stannis’ fleet with a single arrow, or Tyrion convincing himself along with his troops while delivering that speech. Yet after the fact I realized I had missed a lot of crucial things: that the Hound quit the fight because of his fear of fire, that Stannis was being dragged away by his own men and not taken prisoner, that it was one of the Kingsguard who slashed Tyrion’s face, and that it was Loras Tyrell (wearing Renly’s armor, apparently) and not Lancel Lannister entering the throne room after the victory. Many of those things became clear on a second view, and/or after discussion with other viewers – the Hound’s problems with fire are hinted at, for instance, when he threatens to kill an archer if a flaming arrow lands anywhere near him – but in the moment, so much was happening in the dark that I couldn’t keep up with it all.

(*) And let me remind you – both here and down below – that ANY discussion of the books, in any way, is verboten. We’re here to talk about the show as a show, and if you have to get into things that aren’t actually in the TV show, that’s what the message board discussion is for.

And in “Valar Morghulis,” some of that confusion continued. Because I hadn’t entirely followed the disposition of Stannis last week, I spent much of the Stannis/Melisandre scene wondering if it was some kind of magical conversation he was having while rotting in a King’s Landing dungeon. And the show completely fell down on the job in terms of explaining what happened to Winterfell in between when Finchy cold-cocked Theon and when Osha and Hodor brought the kids up from the tunnels. Where exactly was that 500-strong force of friendly bannermen, who could have escorted the boys safely to their brother and mother?

That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. If it’s explained better in the books, I don’t want to hear about it. One of the reasons I’m so militant about book spoilers is because of my belief that if you can’t understand “Game of Thrones” without constant annotations from people who have read the books, then it has failed as a television show. There were a few instances here and there in the first season where I felt Benioff and Weiss did a poor job of letting newbies in on a key piece of information (that Theon was a well-kept hostage of the Starks, for instance), but for the most part, I could track it all. But as the scope of the series has expanded this season to include more characters, more locations, more kings, I’m starting to wonder if it’s impossible to fully appreciate and enjoy all that’s happening without that book knowledge. And I imagine that’s only going to get trickier as the series moves along.

Beyond those points of my confusion, a traditionally constructed episode like “Valar Morghulis” suffered from having to follow the tightly focused “Blackwater.” Once you’ve seen how well the show does at following a single story thread rather than bouncing from one to the next to the next, it’s hard to go back to the old way of doing it. Even if the extra time of the finale allowed each visit to be a little longer, and even if Benioff and Weiss did their best to tell one story at a time, rather than constantly shifting back and forth, the drama still felt much slacker than it did the week before – it felt like an hour and ten minutes of “where are they now” epilogue material after the season properly climaxed with “Blackwater.”

The idea of an HBO drama season having its dramatic peak in its penultimate episode isn’t new. David Chase and David Simon both made an art of that on “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” respectively. But because “Blackwater” showed me what this series could be if it told its stories differently, it was tougher to go back to seeing them told the same way.

This show isn’t exactly like “Lost,” but George R.R. Martin and others have made that comparison, and it’s a comparison the show hasn’t run away from: we open the finale on Tyrion’s eyeball, after all. But one of the things “Lost” was very smartly able to do, especially in the early days when it still used the flashback structure, was to tell one story at a time so it could be told as well as possible. An hour would focus on a single character, or perhaps a handful of characters, without worrying about what Jin and Sun, or Boone and Shannon were up to. There would be episodes that moved many stories along at once, but the hours  with the tighter focus made our understanding of every person and every story feel that much richer, and made the big moments stand out more.

That’s obviously harder to do when you’re working with 10 hours a season rather than 22 (or even the 16 of latter-day “Lost”). But seeing “Blackwater” sandwiched in between “The Prince of Winterfell” and “Valar Morghulis” made me wish that Benioff and Weiss would be more willing to vary their approach. If you give us 5 minutes of Jon Snow per episode, I don’t much care about what’s happening to Jon Snow. If you pack it all into a single hour, maybe I do.

Or maybe the problem is simply that season 2 was based on what seems to be a transitional book in the series. Season 1 introduces the characters and starts the war, and then season 2 just introduces more characters, keeps parts of the war going while tabling others, and bringing precious little to conclusion. The entire Jon Snow arc of the season was simply setting up what’s coming next; same with Dany’s time in Qarth, and Arya’s time in Harrenhal.

The end of “Valar Morghulis” also evoked “Lost,” which had a knack for closing out flat episodes and/or seasons with such a gripping cliffhanger that it made you ignore how little of substance had happened leading up to it. I could complain about how easily Dany defeated Warlock Dean Pelton, for instance, but… hey, look! Zombie horse!

The massing of the zombie army to the north, and Dany finally gathering the means to buy a ship, signals trouble for those characters remaining in Westeros – and also suggests that several of the characters who were offered chances to escape their present circumstances in the finale might have been better off taking them.

Sure, Theon running to the Wall would have put him even closer to the walking dead, but when the zombies and/or dragons make it to King’s Landing, I’m going to guess that Tyrion will wish he’d taken Shae to Pentos, and/or that Arya will wish she was over in Braavos learning how to be a faceless girl.

And it was in the stories of Theon and Tyrion that both the finale, and the season as a whole, were strongest, because they felt like actual stories in and of themselves, rather than an opportunity to move the pieces forward for the next phase of the game. Both men are alive and will continue to be part of the narrative, but their arcs for this season had a beginning, a middle and an end, regardless of what they do next.

I compared Theon in an earlier review to Jon Snow, but the parallel with Tyrion seems more apt at season’s end. Each man grew up in a family where they never quite belonged, and where violence from childhood (the deaths of Theon’s brothers, Tyrion’s mom dying in labor) colors their every familial relationship. Each aspires to impress their blood relations, and each makes a move late in the season that seems like it has the potential to do that, as Theon seizes Winterfell and Tyrion commands the defense of King’s Landing.

But Theon proves to be in way over his head – tragically stuck in some limbo region between the family that was nice to him under terrible circumstances and the one that treats him like a joke when he’s finally returned to them – and doesn’t realize that seizing a land-locked city will do little to impress a family of seafarers.

Tyrion is much better at playing his game, finding ways to outmaneuver Cersei and the Small Council, and doing an incredible job in the face overwhelming odds against Stannis’ fleet, but it’s still not enough. His soldiers are badly outnumbered, and too many members of Tyrion’s family despise him and are just looking for an excuse to knock him off his temporary perch.

So Theon gets dragged back to the Iron Islands with a bag over his head, no doubt doomed for more scorn from his father and sister, while Tyrion is relocated to a shabby room deep in the castle, no doubt wishing to put a bag over his head to conceal his (very Omar-like) scar. Tywin is the only hero of the siege of King’s Landing, and he’s the new Hand of the King, and Tyrion doesn’t even get to be a historical footnote.

Just before Tywin enters the throne room to accept his accolades, we see a literal bunch of horse shit fall to the floor from his mount, and much of what follows in the episode feels like a metaphorical batch of the same: that Tyrion had nothing to do with saving the city, that Renly’s widow loves anything about Joffrey other than the power and prestige he’s about to give her, that the Iron men buy into Theon’s speech (even though Finchy acknowledges it was a good one), that Xaro Xhoan Ducksauce’s vault was full of priceless jewels (and I was pleased to successfully predict that it would be like Al Capone’s vault when Geraldo opened it), that Jaqen’s name is actually Jaqen (and that his face actually looks like that), that Warlock Dean Pelton is all-powerful, etc.

But in a few individual moments – Theon speaking to Maester Luwin, Tyrion confessing to Shae why he can’t leave this horrible place, even Dany being reunited with her beloved Khal Drogo in some kind of dream space – “Valar Morghulis” was completely, utterly, powerfully honest. And I’ll try to focus on moments like that – and, yes, on that final image of the zombies marching towards the Wall – in the long wait before season 3 begins.

Some other thoughts:

* I called it wrong on Sansa taking off with the Hound. That’s another case where not having access to the books – or, at least, to her inner monologue (and Sansa not having any character she trusts enough to reveal her thoughts to) – was a problem, because as presented over the course of the season, it seems spectacularly stupid and naive for her to stay in this place.

* Where last season climaxed with the death of our central character, and bumped off other major players like Robert and Khal Drogo, season 2’s big casualties were Renly (never all that prominent, and killed relatively early) and Maester Luwin, who had a bit more to do this season, but never enough that I felt his loss nearly as much as Bran and Rickon did.

* Speaking of Drogo, loved seeing him again for a few minutes, whether that was really him or just another trick of the Warlock’s. Such great chemistry between Emilia Clarke and Jason Momoa, and their interaction brought back all the warm feelings I had for Dany in season 1 after she spent most of this season being petulant and yelling about her dragons. I also liked the glimpse – possibly a real premonition, but just as possibly still another trick – of a future where Winter has come and the dragons have burned King’s Landing.

* The “Midnight Run” parallels continued for Brienne and Jaime (and thanks to @Kickpuncher for making me this new Twitter avatar), as he kept trying to needle her into making a mistake. And yet you could see in his eyes after she killed the three Stark soldiers – two quickly, one slowly – that whenever he does trick her into untying him and letting him hold a sword, she won’t be nearly as easy to defeat as he’s been assuming. Don’t mess with the tall blonde lady, fellas.

* I can appreciate Robb’s distrust of his mother after she let Jaime go, but marrying Talisa and breaking his promise to Walder Frey is going to backfire, no? Even if, for the moment, the combined armies of the Lannisters and Tyrells are too busy congratulating themselves in King’s Landing to mount any kind of attack on the King in the North.

* Adding to my confusion as to Stannis’ whereabouts was that the main title sequence didn’t return to Dragonstone, even as it made sure to stop at Harrenhal and the Pyke, two locations no characters we care about were in during this episode. During season 1, there were certain locations that appeared in the credits every week whether we visited them or not (Winterfell, the Wall, Dothraki country), but others (Pentos, the Eyrie) only appeared in whichever episodes featured major characters there.

* Speaking of Harrenhal, Littlefinger (one of a handful of characters the show was comfortable ignoring for large stretches of the season) inherits the place after all. But how much will he get to enjoy it if Varys and Ros do team up to exploit whatever his vulnerabilities are?

* I’m less impressed with my prediction that Halfhand would die trying to establish Jon Snow as a traitor so he could go undercover in Mance’s army than I was with my Ducksauce vault prediction – Halfhand strongly implied it a couple of weeks ago, after all – but hopefully now that Jon Snow is going to meet Mance (who will presumably be played by an impressive British actor), that story will pick up steam in season 3.

And for the last time this season, we’re going to keep the book/spoiler issue as simple as possible. We are here to discuss “Game of Thrones” AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here’s the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase “the books” without it being immediately preceded by “I haven’t read,” then you should probably delete what you’ve written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will be deleted, and if you see something that I haven’t already removed, please feel free to email me. As usual, I’ve set up a message board discussion thread where you can do as much TV vs. books discussion as you want. In these comments, everything book-related that has yet to come up on the TV show (plot, characters we haven’t met, motivation, etc.) is verboten.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at