June 3rd, 2012
“You’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”
Last season, Game of Thrones ended its penultimate episode with a shocking moment. With the swing of a sword, Eddard Stark was dead, and the ecosystem of the series had changed forever. The finale, “Fire and Blood” was largely left to pick up the narrative pieces that were left behind, selling viewers on a show without its lead. As a result, last season’s finale became about journeys forward: Tyrion’s journey as the King’s Hand, Robb’s journey as King in the North, Dany’s journey as the Mother of Dragons, Arya’s journey back north with Yoren, Bran’s journey as the Lord of Winterfell, and Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall with the Night’s Watch.
By comparison, “Valar Morghulis” has a greater burden to resolve ongoing storylines, with more of the season’s climax left to be explored given the contained explosiveness of last week’s “Blackwater.” While any simplistic analysis of the season’s narrative would identify the battle in Blackwater Bay as the season’s climax, the disjointed nature of the various journeys means that each character has been headed towards their own climaxes which were promptly delayed by last week’s events. Dany is still looking for her dragons, Jon is still a captive of the Wildlings, Arya is on the run from Harrenhal, and Bran remains hidden in his own home as Theon reigns over Winterfell. And these are only the storylines that we could identify most cleanly, as we could also consider Jaime and Brienne’s journey, or Robb’s relationship with Talisa, or any number of other threads that “Valar Morghulis” is expected to contend with.
For the most part, however, “Valar Morghulis” follows the example of last year’s finale, largely focusing on pivoting towards future storylines. This is not to say that it is anti-climactic, with Dany’s storyline in particular reaching a strong conclusion and the final moments of the episode delivering the equivalent thrill to last season’s reveal of Dany walking out of the fire with her dragons around her. Indeed, both episodes also spent a lot of time with characters taking stock of what has happened, settling on a course for the future, and then largely disappearing as other storylines took over.
The difference, though, is that there is something more substantial to take stock of. These characters are all older, mostly wiser, and each more clearly placed on a particular path. If last season’s finale was designed to solidify that these characters are not simply meant to live normal lives, consigned to a life at the heart of this conflict whether or not they choose that life, “Valar Morghulis” was about how that experience has changed them, and how the beginnings of their journey will prepare them for what’s to come.
It may be the same structure, in other words, but the result is a stronger finale, and a good burst of momentum into a third season.
Dany notes when attempting to enter the House of the Undying that it seems to be a riddle: you can’t enter a house, after all, if you can’t find the door. On some level, the House becomes the metaphor for her time in Qarth – more than an actual location of importance to her journey, it’s a brief stop along the road, a riddle she has to solve before moving onto the next path. It’s a lesson about the duplicity of men who desire power, and about the meaning of power in an age where power is about appearance more than the gold locked away in a vault. Dany realizes that she has become a piece on someone else’s chess board, a toy to be used by the warlocks whose magic is emboldened by her dragons, and then she realizes that their desire to give her everything she wants (whether it’s the gold to sail across the Narrow Sea or a dreamworld in which her sun and stars Khal Drogo and her son are alive and well) is all an illusion. Qarth almost becomes the equivalent of a mirage, a false end to a journey that is just beginning.
One could say the same for Tyrion in King’s Landing, who wakes up with a scar across his face and his entire life torn away from him. His father has ridden into King’s Landing and stolen away his title and his glory, his efforts in the Battle of Blackwater Bay lost in the history books as compared with his father’s heroics. Tyrion had built a life for himself, with people around him he trusted (like Bronn) and people he loved (like Shae), and all it took was his father’s return to rip all of that away from him. Tyrion loved that life, as much as he hated parts of it, and to find himself disfigured makes him feel as alone as he felt previously. It’s a heartbreaking scene for Tyrion, as he presumes that all is lost: he refuses to believe Shae would remain by his side, believing that any happiness he achieved before would be wiped away like the whore bride his father stole away from him all those years ago. While Shae remains, the rest of his life (and the power that came with it) is in shambles, the small man once again confined to the small quarters.
In both cases, power is something easily manipulated, something found in performance. Just look at the stage show that Cersei organizes in order to allow for Joffrey to throw Sansa to the curb and accept Margaery as his bride. It’s a brilliant sequence because of what it tells us about the participants. Littlefinger is all too eager to play whatever fealty he can, with Maester Pycelle equally excited to be returned to a position of power (as he lorded over Tyrion beforehand). Cersei, meanwhile, doesn’t even bother to hide the machination of it all, almost throwing it in Sansa’s face, while Joffrey is all too smug in playing the honorable boy before eventually “following his heart” in the matter. Loras, meanwhile, clearly wants nothing to do with any of it, uncomfortable with the charade, while Margaery’s smile is real, and genuine, and reflective of her thirst for power. Tywin has no interest in sticking around for the nitty gritty, content to earn his honor and then waltz away, but by the time the scene is done the business he oversaw with Littlefinger is done: the Tyrells and Lannisters are to be wed, and their hold on the crown becomes that much more secure as a result.
And yet would any of that matter if the White Walkers north of The Wall were to descend on King’s Landing? Or if Dany’s dragons were to fly across the Narrow Sea to rain fire down on the Red Keep? Or if Melisandre were to birth an army of Shadow Babies to break slip through the Mud Gate? The merging of the two households changes the power dynamics of Westeros, but in the grand scheme of things more troops does nothing to stop the larger threats we see as viewers. Our perspective of power is found in the realm of magic, with those who wield extraordinary forces that require something more than an elaborate stage show, and the question now is how the humans who we have come to relate with are going to be able to battle or harness that power themselves.
The answer from Benioff and Weiss thus far, as it was in the books, is “not yet.” Dany may be able to get her dragons to burn some chains, but they remain too small to fight any sort of war, or bring her the power she needs to make it across the Narrow Sea. Perhaps only Stannis truly sits in a position to command such forces, reaffirmed in his beliefs in the Lord of Light after seeing something in the flames at Melisandre’s urging, but what he intends to do with it beyond achieving the same power everyone else craves is less clear. Other characters, meanwhile, are making choices that reflect a different world than the one we see elsewhere, a world where it still matters whether you piss off Walder Frey by marrying someone other than the daughter to whom you’re betrothed.
This may make events like Robb’s marriage feel insignificant, but I’d argue it better emphasizes a theme that we’ve been dealing with since Ned’s death. Ned wasn’t trying to play this game: he was simply trying to do the right thing, to live honorably and to follow his gut. However, he got caught up in a world where that wasn’t valued, where that held no power or sway over others who played by different rules, and now we find a character like Robb in a similar position. His rejection is more childish, following his heart more than his head, but it’s also personal. Just as Arya gives up a chance at a higher power to find her family, Robb risks losing an allegiance to follow his heart, as that’s what still means something to him. He has not yet reached the stage where he’s willing to consign himself to the higher orders of power at stake, not yet willing to lose everything of himself in an effort to win a war part of him didn’t want to fight in the first place.
For Jon Snow, meanwhile, he’s forced to follow through. Not only is it his duty, but it’s also his survival at stake. While Robb sits comfortably in the River Lands, Jon is North of the Wall in dangerous territory, among people who would see him dead. The show suffered in later episodes to provide any kind of structure for Jon, but the cold wastelands of Iceland provided a stunning setting which on some level filled in everything we needed to know. Jon is in a harsh situation that requires him to turn himself over, which here literally means killing the Halfhand (at his command) to ingratiate himself with his captors. While the rushed nature of the story kept it from feeling like a true climax, seemingly just a final step before we finally meet the “King beyond The Wall,” it plays well as a twisted turnaround of his early, failed execution. While he couldn’t kill Ygritte for the Night’s Watch as a test of his oath, he could kill one of his own brothers when it was a matter of life and death.
I could go on with further thematic parallels, but I think we’ve reached the point where we have to contend with two particular problems with “Valar Morghulis.” The first is that I don’t think it really did anything to solve any of the earlier problems with a few of its storylines: Jon and Dany ran out of things to do fairly early on, and both stories lost momentum as a result. I’d argue that the resolution offered here was effective as dramatic television, but I don’t know if it really did anything to bulk up those narratives to allow the character moments to resonate. They become part of the thematic connections I’ve mentioned, but there was a bit too much narrative burden present within those storylines that never quite gets realized. Dany’s dream in the House of the Undying is a big and evocative sequence, and nicely foregrounds her character in ways the storyline as a whole did not, so at least that offered a resonant moment to tie together some loose ends. Jon, by comparison, got nothing of the sort, with his actions largely serving a plot function rather than a character one. Ultimately, I don’t think it damages the finale as a springboard into next season or necessarily as a bookend on the season as a whole, but it’s a question mark that remains for next season.
The other issue at hand is the other countless number of question marks that remain given the number of changes made to the story as compared to the books. I saw some rumblings on Twitter about this, and I have to be completely and totally honest: I simply don’t care about the comparison anymore. When I started writing these reviews, someone asked why I wasn’t offering more of a book reader perspective: that wasn’t something that any critic was doing at the time, and was certainly a niche I could have filled. However, I resisted it, both because I didn’t want to exclude any potential readership (keeping spoilers at a minimum to allow non-readers to participate) and because I didn’t consider myself an expert on the books. I am a fan of the books, perhaps, but I don’t have the emotional connection necessary to really draw out the comparison to its fullest potential.
However, the longer we’ve gone into the series the more of this kind of analysis we’ve seen in comment sections and in reviews, and I have to say that I have no interest in it. I can tell when the show makes changes, but I never have any sort of reaction to it, good or bad. I understand why people might be more concerned, but on a personal level it seems strange to be judging a long-form adaptation based on a single change in a single episode. While broader questions of whether the show is doing justice to the books is the kind of personal reflection that is an inevitable and valuable part of subjective viewing practices, focusing on minute details regarding an adaptation-in-progress is not something I find productive or satisfying. This is not to devalue those who feel differently, as I believe there is a place for that kind of criticism, but rather to say that I know there were changes, and I know they’re going to affect where the story goes from here, but my response is not concern or even uncertainty so much as curiosity. I’m interested more than invested, intrigued more than incensed, and so whatever impact “Valar Morghulis” has on the show’s future is fine by me so long as I continue to think the show works as a whole.
Season two worked. I don’t know if I’d place it above the first season, but “Valar Morghulis” did a very fine job of transitioning from one stage of this journey to another. Arya was never going to stay at Harrenhal with Tywin forever, just as Dany was never going to stay in Qarth, but she left Harrenhal a slightly different person. In a long-form narrative like this one, the goal for each season is about moving everything one step closer to where it’s heading, and I’ll warn you up front that Martin is not particular fond of endings. Journeys will rarely end in Game of Thrones, and thus the goal becomes achieving a cumulative development which affects the characters we care about and the stakes we’ve come to take as our own. By nature of how much more time we’ve spent with the characters, those stakes are stronger now than they were last season, which is why a similarly structured finale is allowed to resonate more clearly. This is still a messy narrative with too many threads to successfully follow, but there’s power in this sort of deep breath finale: as storylines reach a point of transition, it’s time for everyone to stop, look at where they are, and then plot their next step forward. While only time will tell whether Benioff and Weiss have charted out any missteps among the characters, with at least one more season (and likely a few more) to correct any path that might prove disadvantageous initially, “Valar Morghulis” never feels tentative or halting in its movements – it was strong, just like the season it concludes.
I’m open to the idea that this itself was just a performance, a show of strength and power which underneath reveals underlying tensions. However, for now I’ll simply admit that I enjoyed the show, and would ultimately value that entertainment over any underlying concerns which may appear over time.
- My favorite little moment in the episode: Tywin’s horse taking a shit before entering the Throne Room. There’s a deeper thematic reason I appreciate the detail, but I also liked how it emphasized the theatre of the performance: while the horse is a sparkling symbol of power when Tywin rides into the hall, it’s an animal that defecates on the floor outside of the doors.
- My second favorite moment: Theon’s second-in-command explaining his delayed attack on Theon by suggesting that “It was a good speech – didn’t want to interrupt.”
- Without spoiling anything, Brienne and Jaime’s road trip never built to any of its potential climaxes: there’s no danger in the situation they end with, instead allowing Brienne’s attack on the Stark men who nearly identify Jaime to deepen the dynamic between them. A smart choice, I thought.
- While this was one of the most substantial collections of the entire cast in one episode in a while, there were still some key players missing: curious to see how/if the show picks them up next season.
- Interesting choice to shift to a more heavily CGI White Walker as compared with the prologue. I guess I’m not entirely shocked, as they have a bit more control over it that way, but it did create a bit of dissonance for me. Still, though, the effect of the undead walking towards them was quite chilling, if you’ll excuse the pun.
- Maester Luwin’s death was the largest emotional beat in the hour, and I thought it was well done: the show has done a nice job with characters like Syrio, Yoren, and Luwin in terms of their relationships with the Stark children before their deaths, and seeing their passing through the eyes of babes (as it were) has worked well for the show.
- While I continue to welcome any readers to comment below (although I’d appreciate you tagging spoilers for non-readers), I’m particularly interested in how non-readers responded to the season, given that we’re getting closer to the deep end as far as the narrative is concerned.
- And thanks to all of you for reading – these are some of my most trafficked reviews I’ve ever written (and the only ones I’m writing here at Cultural Learnings currently), and I value the discourse they offer as I watch through the show from one perspective and y’all bring thousands more. Looking forward to Season Three!