Something about these last two installments of Game of Thrones have inspired a change in me. I find myself daydreaming about gulping down wine from a bearskin, running down foes with a broadsword and hanging out with Peter Dinklage. Where previously, I stalled out partway through an attempt at the first book in the series, I’ve now burned through all of A Game of Thrones and a small chunk of A Clash of Kings in about a day and a half. I’ve even been trying to work the phrase “horse lord” into my everyday conversation (it hasn’t been going well).
And yet I haven’t been able to point out just what exactly caused me to catch Westerosfever. I’d definitely say that these past two episodes have been stronger than previous Game of Thrones fare, but is that really enough to make me go crazy like I have?
Who knows. The important thing is that I bang out this review as fast as possible so I can get back to my reading (and also the replica of the Iron Throne I’ve been constructing in my spare time).
All temporary insanity aside, “Valar Morghulis” is definitely a cut above the typical Game of Thrones episode where we leap around from setting to setting, despite the fact that we’ve just had a taste of an incredibly singular, straightforward episode of the show with “Blackwater.” Also, this being the season finale, we’ve got to spend time with every single character and give every individual story its own sendoff.
Yet despite all this, “Valar Morghulis” benefits from last week’s forward momentum, feeling both broader in scope and more emotionally intimate than what we’ve previously seen this season. Things feel bigger and grander largely because the finale manages to feature nearly every fantasy element present in the show’s mythology, with dragons, warlocks, face-changing assassins, visions of the future seen in fire, magic hallucinations and White Walkers all showing up at one point or another. The world of Game of Thrones is rapidly becoming more and more magical, and while these elements certainly are exciting (and are handled with just the right air of mystery), part of me can’t help but worry. How exactly are showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss going to stretch an already stretched-thin budget to create a world where dragonfire and wight attacks regularly become the norm? Perhaps HBO will grant them a little extra spending money, or perhaps we’ll be getting the equivalent of “these wicker baskets totally have dragons in them” for most of the other fantasy elements. Who knows.
But speaking of the fantasy stuff, how great were those wights? I was really hoping for a similar cliffhanger to last season that would introduce some new unexpected element, but when we got to Sam blundering around up North, my mind didn’t immediately snap to something cold and blue and undead. I almost feel like I (and hopefully a lot of the audience) had the same mindset about White Walkers as most of the characters in this show- aware of them, but compartmentalizing them as something so far away and so vague that they’re not really a serious threat. At least until that third horn blew, and then me and everyone onscreen came to that same horrible (for them more than for me) dawning moment of comprehension.
Plus the actual reveal was genuinely spooky. The use of the fog and the detail with which some of the wights had been eviscerated really reminded me of The Walking Dead (the atmospheric pilot episode moreso than the two disappointing seasons that followed), and I loved the slow pan up to the first real closeup of a White Walker. I don’t really know if they’ll be as scary as the wights until I see more of them interacting with people, but I’m a fan of the design. These things are an ancient, unstoppable power, and the Walkers’ old, wrinkly, stiff selves really exemplify that idea. With any luck, we’ll get some real, genuine scares and maybe even a traditional horror-movie vibe mixed in with the fantasy elements next year. A cliffhanger like this is designed to do one thing and one thing only- build slathering anticipation for the next episode, and it’s fair to say that the White Walkers accomplished plenty of that.
So let’s continue with the big-budget fantasy stuff and talk about what Dany was up to tonight. Overall, our goodbye to Qarth was so much more satisfying than anything else the Mother of Dragons has done all season. All Dany’s really done since those dragons were born was wander around the Red Waste without any real dynamic changes to her story, and then ditto in Qarth. Journeying into the House of the Undying not only gave Dany something to do, but her hallucinations also reaffirmed her inner conflicts in a big, physical, often haunting way. Being able to glimpse Dany’s past, her possible future, and the things she wants most in life brings a depth back to her character that will make it much more interesting when she finally comes into her own as a ruthless, confident conqueror. Like the White Walkers, I’m practically quivering with anticipation to see these plotlines picked up again next year.
But aside from the goings-on up north and to the east, “Valar Morghulis” doesn’t end the season with a lot of overt conclusions. Mostly, what we’re seeing here are the same stories we’ve seen all season- some with a little twinge of a goodbye, and some that, if seen independently from the rest of the episode, don’t give off the slightest inkling of a season finale (Jaime and Brienne, I’m looking at you).
And by and large, these slight endings work pretty well. The one big similarity with all of them is that despite all the huge stuff creeping towards Westeros from the fringes of society, our characters are still moving down the same paths they always were, but maybe now with a little steelier resolve or a few more scars then they had before. Arya’s still setting off to find her family. Jon’s still going to be infiltrating the armies of the King Beyond the Wall (technically, Jon only gained the Wildlings’ trust in this episode, but from Halfhand’s demeanor it was pretty easy to see coming that he was gonna sacrifice himself to give Jon some street cred). Sansa still has to deal with all that awfulness in the royal family while trying to find a way out. And Bran, Rickon and the rest are still on the run.
Some of these plot lines work very, very nicely, like Jaquen’s mysterious face-change and goodbye to Arya, or Maester Luwin’s death, which gives a solemn air to the Stark boy’s flight. Some of them are just the slightest bit underwhelming, like those for Jon Snow or Brienne and Jaime. However, I wouldn’t really classify that as a problem. At it’s very worst, this episode feels like something you’d see in any other overextended episode of Game of Thrones. But at its best, “Valar Morghulis” injects these scattershot moments with real, genuine emotion, with dread, thrilling adventure and love.
There is, however, one other problem here besides the occasional lack of a conclusion. Just like last week,Game of Thrones continues down the unfortunate path of leaving out information that’s necessary to understand basic plot points. I had no idea where Stannis was or how he was talking to Melisandre, as I assumed the end of “Blackwater” left him in the hands of the Lannisters. The burning of Winterfell was also a huge surprise, not only because of how unexpected it was but because no one in Winterfell seemingly had any reason to burn it down. Dagmer and the rest of the Iron Islands men were already in deep enough trouble for invading Winterfell, so you’d think they’d avoid further punishment by… not burning it down. And the soldiers laying siege outside the walls were of the Northern variety, so again there’s no reason they’d want to see Winterfell burn. As a result, once more I was forced to fill these holes in the story with Google.
As much as I’ve enjoyed these past two episodes, this is no small matter. With another new season comes a whole slew of new characters and new plot lines, and I’m genuinely worried that we may be seeing even more corners being cut to cram in every necessary element. If I can’t understand the basic elements of the plot, I’m not going to be able to follow or enjoy the show. And I worry that it’ll be the same with the vast majority of the Game of Thrones audience that hasn’t read the books.
But we’ll never truly know if this is the case until next season. A season that makes me both very nervous and also feverishly, maddeningly excited.
A few closing thoughts:
- One positive sign that Season Three may not be a continent-jumping, incomprehensible mess: George R. R. Martin’s announcement that it’ll only cover the first half of book three. Hopefully that will give Benioff and Weiss a little breathing room.
- Tyrion’s erasure from the history books kicking off with a horse taking a dump- perfect symbolism or a bit too much? I still haven’t decided.
- Catelyn may see Robb’s marriage as a rejection of everything his father stood for, but I couldn’t help but see a parallel in Robb shirking off his arranged marriage and Ned straying from his own to father Jon Snow. Somehow, though, I have the feeling that Robb will be seeing more repercussions from this than Ned ever did.
- Poor Theon. Even the show itself tends to treat him as comic relief, with his murderous rage towards the horn-blower and his anti-climatic bonk on the head. Maybe next season he can find someone to take him seriously in whatever hellhole he ends up in.
- It’s kind of amazing how Varys has transitioned from creepy eunuch to someone I’m genuinely rooting for. Something we haven’t yet seen from this show is an all-out war of political scheming, and I have the feeling we’re about to see that very thing in Varys vs. Littlefinger.
- Stannis, too, seems much more relatable now than he ever was. The combination of guilt for the deaths of Renly and his men and the call of whatever was in that flame looks like it’ll be a potent one.
- I may be alone in this, but when we got to that closeup of the White Walker staring into the camera, I got the impression he was going to growl “see you next season… heh heh heh” and then it would cut to black. Maybe that would be too over the top.
Thanks for reading!