Do not read on unless you've seen "Valar Morghulis," the Season 2 finale of "Game of Thrones."
As some listeners of the Talking TV podcast helpfully remind me, I tend to mention the same things pretty frequently when I talk about or write about "Game of Thrones." No, this isn't another rant about how Jon Snow should put on a damn hat or how much I want to see a Varys-Tyrion spinoff (or Jaime-Brienne spinoff or Twyin-Arya-Jaqen spinoff).
No, the thing I probably mention most frequently is the desire for the HBO drama's seasons to be longer. Have you seen George R.R. Martin's books? They're huge! You could fashion a front door out of one of them, or use one for a shield against traitorous knights; collect the whole set, throw your raggedy cloak over the top, and you'd have a decent fort. Ten hours has just never seemed like enough time to give to one of these doorstoppers, but David Benioff and D.B. Weiss got around that problem by having a "Game of Thrones" finale that was nearly 70 minutes long, and almost felt like two episodes in one.
You could argue that the second half felt a little more like a bit of a slog, or one of the epic walking tours that these characters are constantly on (say what you want about how generally freaky or scary life in Westeros is -- at least these people find time for cardio). In the second half, we spent a fair amount of time with the characters least affected by the battle of Blackwater Bay, and the slightly more tenuous nature of those connections to last week's mayhem may have accounted for the slight slackening of the evocative tension that had drove the first half of the hour. Or maybe it was the sheer length of the episode, which, I hasten to add, was generally quite strong. It's not that I can think of a scene or arc I would have cut (well, maybe the Ros stuff?). I just wonder if one of these seasons, HBO and the producers will finally bite the bullet and expand the seasons outward by an episode or two to accommodate the depth and breadth of this epic tale.
Having said all that, director Alan Taylor has not let us down yet; much of this episode had the visual poetry and compassionate precision that he generally brings to the show. He has an uncanny ability to find the emotional center of every part of the story, and though all of the Season 2 directors have been very good, Taylor was able to infuse large parts of this hour with an elegiac, even lyrical quality. As I've been saying in my Season 2 recaps and in the Talking TV podcasts -- and as Todd VanDerWerff eloquently pointed out in his essay on the differences between Season 1 and Season 2 -- what gives individual episodes and the show as a whole unity is not a tight focus on a few people or the kind of symbolic repetition that we expect from dramas like "Mad Men" or "Breaking Bad." What unites and defines the show and this world are themes about power and its uses and personal loyalty versus community obligations. We may travel far afield within an hour, but the exceptional thing that the producers, directors, cast and crew have been able to do is expertly focus on and personalize those ideas. There are dozens of variations on Martin's continual themes, but there isn't a same-y quality to the stories because what different people will do with their free will, how they'll think and plot and fight their way out of situations -- well, those things are as infinitely variable as human nature itself.
Now, the episode was over an hour long and a lot happened. There's no way that I can possibly go into every scene or every arc; we'd be here all day (or night). It might be most useful to just check in on several major characters. I wrote last week about how exciting it was to see how the characters reacted when they were literally under the gun -- we so often see them discussing various courses of action that it was a treat (at various points in the second half of the season, but especially in "Blackwater") to see them simply face down and deal with the challenges that came their way.
This week, it occurred to me that all the characters had just as many important choices to make, even if they weren't in a pitched battle. In the post-Blackwater world, how would they rule? In the still-raging battles around the kingdom, how would they fight? Among the least powerful, how would they survive? Would various characters accept the hand fate had given them or try to alter their futures? There was quite a bit of bouncing around in this episode as those questions were answered -- and of course, all those answers are by nature, provisional. So, then, around the horn:
Joffrey: How would he rule? He wouldn't. Of course, many of us will spend the next year hoping that someone finds a creative way to separate his head and/or his intestines from his body. Because Sansa was right: The idiot king is perfectly healthy (more's the pity). And as much as he's a sadistic little shit, he learned something from Blackwater: He doesn't want to lead or rule. Joffey seemed quite eager to hand over power to granddad and he ditched his former fiancee even more quickly than he fled the scene of the battle. The smooth-tongued Margaery Tyrell seems more up to the task of managing the royal sociopath, and of course Sansa's better off without him, but it's hard not to think that Sansa's been particularly stupid lately. Why not leave with the Hound when she could? There may well have been a reason to stay, but the show erred by not showing us what that reason might be, and by having her respond to Littlefinger's lucid arguments with a lame "King's Landing is my home." Not after Joffrey's publicly repudiated you, it's not. It's a deathtrap.
Tyrion: By far my favorite scene in the episode was Tyrion's reunion with Shae (and Varys proved his loyalty by helping make sure that Shae and Tyrion are both not only, alive but together). Peter Dinklage has done such a good job of playing Tyrion the quipster and Tyrion the game-player that it's almost easy to forget what a world of loneliness and hurt lie at the center of the man. Not only did his father snatch away the glory he should have received for his ingenious victory plan, not only did he get no credit for engineering the Tyrell alliance, he's been abandoned in some gloomy corner of the castle, stripped of his title as Hand and suffering from a grievous injury, courtesy of one of his sister's allies. Still, despite everything he's lost, Tyrion has the one thing he's always wanted -- someone who loves him for himself and doesn't care about his height or the size of his purse. Tyrion was steeling himself for Shae's betrayal, and when she stayed with him, the vulnerable expression on his face made me tear up. It was one of the best moments of the season. And that's one of the great things about this tale: People who appear to lose everything very often have not. They may have lost the kind of title, prestige or honor that their families or communities value, but quite often, they gain something else, often something more important: love, connection, a sense of their own autonomy, clarity about who they are and what matters to them. Let's face it: Life in Westeros is pretty grim (and I'll say it again: If you found this season too dark, this was the Day-Glo funtimes season. Yeah, it does get even darker at times, going forward). Visually, Taylor did a wonderful job of conveying the reality of "winning" battles and "vanquishing" enemies. The reality of "victory" involves a horse emptying his bowels just before the throne room; an old man bleeding out in the mud; an angry king choking his trusted advisor. It's all about honor, right? But if this tale were only grim, there's no way that we'd stick with it. Everyone in this story has gone through a lot, and they often know now what they're risking and why they're risking it. Tyrion knows he has Shae, and that's a lot. Speaking of love, that brings me to...
Robb: We didn't spend much time with the king in the North, but we saw him long enough to witness him taking what I think is a momentous step. I wrote last week about how Tyrion's speech tied into one of Martin's perennial themes -- the growing importance of people's individual goals versus their clan/regional duties. Tyrion didn't bother to appeal to the soldiers' desire for honor or gold or pride of victory; he appealed to their desire to protect themselves and their families from those who wanted to kill them. Tywin would never have made that speech, just as Catelyn or Ned would have never seriously considered choosing their own mates. Robert and Cersei likewise went through with their disastrous marriage because it was expected of them. Cat and Ned were lucky in their alliance, less so Robert and Cersei, and Robb had decided he wasn't going to roll the dice with a dynastic alliance. He decided that having put his life on the line for his northern kingdom was enough; breaking with tradition and culture, he decided he didn't have to donate his heart to the cause as well. He carved away something that was just for him; he's not much different from the residents of King's Landing, who are no longer sure why they're supporting the lavish lifestyle yet another sadistic king. What's in it for them? Not a lot. And if Robb's going to risk everything for his people, he wants something in return as well. Even though the time we spent with Robb and his new bride was brief, it was one of the more heartening moments in an episode that sorely needed them. Which lead us to...
Brienne: Presented for your approval, this is my theory about Brienne -- She's the Omar of Westeros. I'm serious about this. Almost everyone who's seen "The Wire" designates Omar their favorite character, or he's at least in their top three. Why? Because he asked nothing of anyone else, he was a ferocious warrior, and most importantly, he had a code. So does Brienne, and we love her for that. She's not blindly pledged to some vague concept of "honor" (how could she be, given how many men of "honor" have mocked and abused her over the years?). Also important: She's loyal to an individual (Catelyn or Renly), not a region or a city or a class. She's basically boiled down the code of chivalry into goals we can all get behind: Serve someone who at least tries to be good; be strong but fair; defend the weak, treat smallfolk with kindness and the dead with respect; and be able to take on three guys at once and make it look easy. Add to this the idea that she drives Jaime Lannister nuts because she won't rise to his bait, she doesn't find him attractive and she's every bit as strong a fighter as he is, and it's even more hard not to love this tall drink of water. Brienne, may you live for many years and deprive many, many fools of their lives.
Stannis: This was one of the weaker moments of the "Let's check in with everybody" hour. We simply haven't spent that much time with either him or Melisandre, and call me a literalist, but I wanted to see what he saw in the fire -- or thought he saw. But then, I understand -- that was the point. Maybe he didn't see anything. Talking of styles of ruling, Stannis isn't quite like Daxos' empty safe -- all a big show and nothing inside. Stannis is undoubtedly tough as old boots, which he proved last week in the battle. But, like other characers in this tale, he's putting up a front to protect his real feelings and to shield his real identity. By himself, he may not have put himself forth as a king. He needs Melisandre to prop him up, but at what cost? How much of what she says is truth and how much is flattery and lies designed to get him to believe what he desperately wants to believe? Clarity is more elusive than ever for Westeros' second-least loved king, given how torn he is between wants and needs. Does he need to be king, or does he simply want to be king? And is it worth the price? Which brings us to...
Daenerys: The theme of personal desires versus epic destiny played itself out most literally in Dany's dreamlike trip through the House of the Undying. She saw the Iron Throne in a broken, snowbound castle; the howling waste beyond the Wall; and most touchingly, her husband and child. The things she wanted most were presented to her, but the call of her dragons urged her to a different fate. What's continually amazing about Emilia Clarke's performance is that, despite how little we've seen of Dany of late, the change she underwent in this episode felt absolutely right and inevitable. The trembling Dany who first married Khal Drogo (and what a nice shock it was to see Jason Momoa again) has known love, she's known loss, and now she knows what she needs to do to save her people and take the throne. All the clarity Stannis and Theon are missing -- the iron-faced Dany has it to spare. Not all these kings are sure of themselves or what they want, but well before she's put a crown on her head, Dany's proved to be the most confident of all of them.
Theon, Bran, Rickon and Arya: I'll make a confession -- I went on the Internet to see how the Theon story wrapped up in "A Clash of Kings," because this episode left that vague -- too vague, probably. Still, I can see why alterations were made in the story, which is a little convoluted in the novel. In any event, it was sad to see poor Theon choose, once again, to follow his most brutal instincts -- and yet again to be made a laughingstock. I laughed out loud when his own soldier hit him with a spear to get him to shut up right in the middle of his "rally the troops" moment. Theon is ever-destined to reach beyond his grasp and ever-destined to come up short, even though, as he was reminded, other courses of action were available to him. No such choice was given to Maester Luwin, who ended the episode as ruined as Winterfell itself. The little lords are on the run (with the very canny Osha looking out for them), as is Arya, which brings us to...
Magic: There's a lot of it about, and no mistake. Dany's dragons proved more powerful than Warlock Dean Pelton; Arya saw Jaquen change his face completely (which was very freaky); and the episode's closing image showed that all the chaos in Westeros is nothing compared to the army of zombies that is amassing north of the Wall. Yes, Jon Snow, it's terrifying to have to unexpectedly kill one of the most legendary men of your order, but how much more terrifying was it for poor Sam to see what appeared to be the king of the White Walkers atop an undead horse? Not being able to save Gilly looks like small potatoes now. And the fact that Mance Rayder is amassing an army of his own isn't much comfort, unless every Wildling has been issued his or her own personal zombie-roasting blowtorch.
I wonder, are people going to drop out after this season, either because of the sadder parts of the story or because of the presence of magic? The mystical and the mysterious are now fairly major elements in the story, and that might be the point at which those who aren't particular fans of science fiction or fantasy might just decide it's not the story for them.
That would be a shame. Sure, this finale might have been a little overstuffed, but Season 2 as a whole has been tremendously satisfying, given how well it has distilled Martin's themes of love, loyalty and perseverance with coherence, compassion and spectacular -- no, stunning -- visuals.
By coincidence, I finished "Wolf Hall" today, an evocative novel about the progress of Thomas Cromwell through the corridors of power in 16th Century England. These sentences from the novel struck me as being very reminiscent of "Game of Thrones": "When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them."
Hilary Mantel's fascinating book contains no magic, but what she wrote has so much resonance for this tale, in which people are trying to not just grab power but present the idea that they already have it or deserve more of it. It's not just what you say or do but the spell you weave with your self-presentation that matters. So many of these characters are presenting facades (Daxos, Stannis, Theon, Jaqen -- hell, almost every character aside from Bronn and Brienne). So many others are willing their words to make change in the world, and it's not so hard for me to see actual magic bleeding into these conflicting quests for influence and power.
But as we've seen, even when that "spell" works, gaining power is mixed blessing, whether or not magic was involved. Nothing comes for free. But the point is, ascending the ladder -- or clawing yourself up from nothing -- involves an act of will that might as well be a spell or a magical incantation. The people in this world spend a lot of time not just convincing others of who they are, they have to convince themselves that they have to take what they're owed.
The images they project -- they may just be a trick of the light. Or are they real? Well, despite many of the characters' uncertainty about their futures, those Walkers looked very real.
I say Season 3 can't get here fast enough.