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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Valar Morghulis”

“Valar Morghulis”

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.

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Game of Thrones – “The Pointy End”

“The Pointy End”

June 5th, 2011

“Written by George R.R. Martin”

The credits for Game of Thrones has always read “Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss,” but the question of authorship has always been considerably more complicated. The fact is that this is very clearly George R.R. Martin’s world, and George R.R. Martin’s characters, and even George R.R. Martin’s story – while we can certainly argue that Benioff and Weiss have taken certain liberties, adding scenes and shifting character allegiances, it has not utterly transformed Martin’s vision. And yet, at the same time, we can’t say that this is Martin’s show, as he was ancillary to the myriad of decisions which move beyond the initial creation to the execution and design. A Song of Ice and Fire may be his story, but Game of Thrones is not his television show, and there’s an odd shared ownership of Westeros that has been evident throughout the season.

I say evident, mind you, and not problematic. The scenes that have been added have been strong, and the decisions made have been mostly logical if not necessarily ideal in every instance (or for every fan). However, here you have an instance where the person doing the adaptation is Martin himself, given a chance to return to key moments and characters and tell the same story all over again. And yet, he’s now working within someone else’s show even when he’s working within his own story, an intriguing scenario that I thought going in might make for an intriguing case study.

However, there’s honestly nothing to really see here: while this is a very strong outing, and maintains the momentum from last week’s episode quite brilliantly even as it hits the fast forward button on the narrative action (and thus risks missing key pieces of the puzzle), I don’t think we see some sort of crisis of authorship. Martin’s return coincides with the period where exposition goes out the window, and where major story events are starting to take shape. It is a period where characters are making decisions instead of pondering them, and where key themes are beginning to filter throughout the storylines at a rapid pace, and so any authorship is swallowed up by the sheer presence of the realm and those outside its borders who threaten it.

In other words, it’s just as Martin intended it, and thus as Benioff and Weiss intended it as well.

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Game of Thrones – “Lord Snow”

“Lord Snow”

May 1st, 2011

“I wanted to be here when you saw it for the first time.”

In the opening moments of “Winter is Coming,” we saw the Wall for the first time. Directly after the credits rolled, we first set eyes on Winterfell. Shortly thereafter, we visit King’s Landing for a brief moment as Cersei and Jaime discuss the secrets that may have died with Jon Arryn.

These were the first moments that we, as viewers, saw these pivotal locations in this series, but two of these were never formally introduced: Cersei and Jaime rode north to Winterfell soon after that conversation, and we saw only a brief glimpse of The Wall at the conclusion of “The Kingsroad.” Our focus was on Winterfell, and on the parties who set forth from its walls, and on Dany’s struggles across the narrow sea.

In “Lord Snow,” the Wall becomes more than an imposing structure, and King’s Landing becomes more than a geographical entity. The episode opens with Ned riding into King’s Landing and immediately finding himself in a meeting of the Small Council, while we are catapulted into Jon Snow’s first training session with Ser Allister Thorne without any glimpse of his initial arrival. There is no time to rest or become acclimated to their new surroundings, as life in King’s Landing and life at Castle Black hold a new set of challenges which will shape the episodes to follow.

And yet, “Lord Snow” is perhaps the most narratively uninteresting episode of the first six, almost like a second pilot where no story truly finds its footing. While the political organization of King’s Landing is sketched out, and the reality of being a brother of the Night’s Watch is well-established, the actual payoff for these events are left for the subsequent installments. Returning to this episode after having seen that which follows, I found myself appreciating what it accomplished without necessarily finding it satisfying, the first episode where the narrative feels limiting rather limited.

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