Review: Game of Thrones S2E10 “Valar Morghulis”


“We are the watchers on the Wall.” — Qhorin Halfhand

[spoilers within]

With last week’s explosive ninth episode, “Blackwater”, it was going to take much to make tonight’s season finale to really stand out. Just like the first season’s finale we get an episode that deals with the aftermath of the previous episode and also goes a long way into setting up events for the upcoming third season.

“Valar Morghulis” is the title of tonight’s episode and it’s spoken by Jaqen H’ghar to Arya as the two part ways. It’s a saying in Essos from ancient High Valyrian (a Roman Epire-like civilization which perished centuries before the series’ timeline) that translated means “All men must die”. Jaqen sees potential in Arya in becoming like him, a Faceless Man, assassins who follow the teaching of the so-called Many-Faced Gods. While Arya seems intrigued by the offer her need to re-connect with her family takes precedence over everything else. As the two part ways Jaqen imparts to Arya a coin that should she ever need passage to Braavos to start her journey into becoming a Faceless Man. In another instance that this series still has magic in it’s DNA we finally see why Jaqen is a Faceless Man as he walks away from Arya and her group wearing a new face.

Tonight’s episode lays the foundation that next season magic and sorcery may become more common place than the first two season of the series. We see Daenerys finally make her way into the House of the Undying to retrieve her dragonlings from the warlocks of Qarth. It’s a sequence that’s akin to spirit journey for the Targaryen Queen-to-be and Mother of Dragons as she walks the darkened halls and corridors of the House of Undying until an egress suddenly takes her North of the Wall to find a Dothraki tent where she discovers the two most precious things she has lost since coming to Essos. In what I could only see as a surprise that was kept by showrunners Benioff and Weiss from the press and bloggers (a feat nowadays) Daenerys sees her husband Khal Drogo and who could only be their son both alive and waiting for her.

Her reaction to this event was both poignant and tragic in that she finally has a chance to be with those she loves most but must give up the quest to retake Westeros with her dragons. Her decision to leave the tent and leave behind those she loves comes as her character finally realizing that sentimentality and the needs of her heart must take a back seat and wait. Daenerys comes out the other side a more confident ruler and one whose magic really is stronger than those warlocks who scheme to keep her and her dragons captive for themselves. It really sets up the Daenerys character on a much stronger footing for next season just like last season’s finale did. For all the moping around Daenerys did for most of season 2 the pay off in the end goes a long way into forgiving the show’s writers in their inability to write her character’s motivations consistently. Most likely the naive young girl being used by others for their own agendas and ends would be seen less and less next season while the Mother of Dragons reasserts her authority.

The same can’t be said for one of the five kings vying for control of Westeros. For those who have read the third novel the scenes with King Robb Stark were full of sentimentality but lacking in the cold-hearted logic that rulers must use in order to play the game of thrones successfully. Even his mother, Catelyn Stark, sees danger in Robb’s actions with the Volanti healer Talisa Maegyr. Catelyn knows well enough that Robb could destroy everything he has won and worked for since war begun because he has thought with his heart and not with his head. In what could almost be seen as more doom coming for the House of Stark, Robb cements his relationship with Talisa in secret even though we’ve come to learn through two season of this show that nothing ever remains secret for long.

Back in King’s Landing we see the balance of power shift once more as Tywin Lannister’s opportune arrival to take victory from the jaws of defeat at the end of last week’s episode sees him back as Hand of the King to Joffrey. Tyrion has lost all the advantages he had worked and gamed for all season as even Bronn has been removed as Commander of the Goldcloaks. We’ve not seen Tyrion laid so low as we have in this episode and the horrible scarring of his face looks to go deeper as he finally realizes that as much as he would enjoy running away with Shae and leave the politicla intrigues and backstabbing of the kingdom it’s something that he would miss terribly because it’s the one thing he’s best at. With Tywin now in charge of the kingdom and Petyr Baelish having earned himself the king’s good graces for manufacturing the alliance between the two most powerful houses in the kingdom with the Lannisters (Baratheon by name only) and the Tyrell’s of Highgarden. It’s going to be interesting to see how Tyrion readjusts to the new power dynamics in King’s Landing for season 3. If there’s one thing we’ve come to learn about Tyrion over two season’s worth of episodes it’s that he’s a survivor first and foremost.

Lastly, we come to Jon Snow and his dilemma North of the Wall. A captive of the wildlings and seen as someone very important for the still unseen Mance Rayder the so-called King-beyond-the-Wall, Jon must do the only logical thing (something Qhorin halfhand agrees as the only thing that could save Jon and maybe give him time to warn the Wall) and earn the trust of Ygritte, Rattleshirt and the rest of the wildlings even if it means killing one of his own to do so. In what would be one of several sweeping scenes that show the epic nature of this series lest we forget Ygritte shows Jon over the lip of a glacier the army of wildlings Mance Rayder has gathered.

Yet, it’s not that army that gives tonight’s episode that cliffhanger send-off that last season’s finale did with Daenerys coming out of the funeral pyre with her three dragonlings perched on her unharmed body. No, tonight’s episode gets a cliffhanger that is more ominous and reinforces the House Stark motto of “Winter Is Coming”. We see poor Samwell Tarly (having been abandoned by the two other Night’s Watch Brothers once they heard the three horn blasts in the distance) scared out of his wits as he realizes that the three horn blasts that hasn’t been heard for thousands of years could only mean one thing: the White Walkers are on the march towards the Wall. In a final acknowledgement that as realistically the show has tried to portray the series in terms of warfare and political intrigue there’s no getting away from the fact that magic is still alive in this world born out of George R.R. Martin’s fevered mind as a massive army of undead slouches south towards the Wall and the kingdoms beyond it.

This scene just ups the ante on what we could only imagine what would be season three of the show. Across the Narrow Sea we have Daenerys Stormborn gradually detaching sentimentality from how she operates and this could only mean more bad news for the warring kingdoms of Westeros. The power struggles against King Joffrey looks to be going the mad king’s way as Lannisters and Tyrells ally together to retake the rest of the rebelling kingdoms. Now we have two armies, one living and preparing to go south towards the Wall (most likely to get away from the gathering White Walker horde) and the other undead and also heading towards the only bastion (one that is ridiculously undermanned) protecting the southern kingdoms from a gathering darkness.

If there was a complaint about this season’s storytelling it was that so much of the novel this season was based on was condensed to make it fit in a ten-episode season. Despite lulls in character development with Jon Snow and Daenerys we get major pay-offs for these two with tonight’s season finale. It’s good news that showrunner Benioff and Weiss has decided to split book three, A Storm of Swords, into two with the first half comprising season three with the latter half set aside for season four. Even with missteps along the way tonight’s season finale goes a long way into proving that HBO’s Game of Thrones is currently the best genre show on tv and one of the best tv shows airing now.

Now we have ten months of waiting to see how Westeros and Essos will deal with the events that ended season two. One thing for sure is that we’ll see more people die before all questions get answered if ever.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E09 “Blackwater”


“And who are you, the proud lord said,
that I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
that’s all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
a lion still has claws,
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
as long and sharp as yours.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
that lord of Castamere,
But now the rains weep o’er his hall,
with no one there to hear.
Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall,
and not a soul to hear.” — The Rains of Castamere

If there’s been a complaint (actually more of a nitpick) from fans of the show in regards to Game of Thrones’ second season it would be that a majority of the episodes this season looked to be cutting corners in terms of budget. The show’s first season was already the most expensive  TV series ever and this season things just got more expensive. There was one thing that seemed to have forced the producers of the show into scaling things back for many of the episodes (this season was really about shooting many scenes indoors whether it was inside a castle or tent) and that one thing was tonight’s ninth and penultimate episode of season two: “Blackwater”.

Tonight’s episode is the culmination of everything which has come before it during this season. Sure, we had some machinations that involved Daenerys across the Narrow Sea at Qarth and Jon Snow north of the Wall. Outside of those two subplots which has yet to fully play out this season (most likely extending into season 3), every storyline this second season was about moving the necessary pieces and characters that would affect the outcome of the battle that was going to take place on Blackwater Bay outside King’s Landing. This was a battle that’s been eagerly anticipated by fans of the books. It’s a gamechanger in the novels and after tonight’s episode played out it looks like it also changes the ever shifting dynamics of the tv show.

First things first, all the money being saved by cutting back on outdoor filming during this season looked like it went all in with this episode. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss know that they had a great chance of alienating the fans of the books and, most likely, even those of just the show if the most pivotal storyline this season was to be turned into a battle told off-screen and after the fact. No, this battle had to be filmed and done so that it didn’t look cheap. Even writer George R.R. Martin who gave birth to this epic medieval fantasy saga came in to pen tonight’s teleplay in order. The show even decided to go with an outsider to direct tonight’s episode and did they ever hit it out of the park with their choice of veteran genre filmmaker Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Descent, Doomsday, Centurion).

“Blackwater” did something this series has never done and that’s focus the entirety of it’s running time to telling the story of just the one location and tonight it was to be King’s Landing and Blackwater Bay. Every episode in this series has jumped from location to location that viewers have had to learn how to expertly track each storyline just to make sense of the show’s overall narrative. Yet, tonight Martin, the showrunners and, most likely, Marshall himself, knew that jumping the episode from location to location wouldn’t be the smartest of ideas. Tonight had to be about this battle and how it furthers the character growth of many characters in the show.

I was surprised at how well the episode depicted the Battle of Blackwater Bay. We can definitely see Martin’s hand in the writing of tonight’s episode as things gradually built-up from the very moment the intro sequence ended and we come to see the invasion fleet Stannis has brought to King’s Landing just moment’s away from seeing the walls of the city. Even this late in the stage of the siege preparations we get to see how terrified everyone seems to be about the coming siege and battle. Everyone seem to be dealing with the prospect of battle in their own unique way. Tyrion spends it with Shae in his quarters with the notion that this time with Shae might be the last he’ll ever have adding a sense of poignancy to their scene.

Tyrion’s partner-in-crime and lord of the Goldcloaks spends it with some of his men at one of the local taverns with many tankards of good brown ale and the warm companionship of the city’s many prostitutes. Bronn may be acting cavalier about the coming battle, but his behavior and those of his men in the tavern doesn’t seem farfetched as we’ve learned through first-hand accounts of soldiers on the eve of battle trying to make the most of what could be their final hours on Earth. Bronn’s behavior is a stark contrast to that of Sandor “The Hound” Clegane who shows up in the very tavern but not with thoughts of a final night’s of debauchery and merrymaking but instead spending time drinking brown ale in silence and a mood that’s telling in how The Hound sees the prospect of victory in the coming battle. Bronn may think the battle is hopeless but he knows well enough not to waste what time he has left brooding and acting like a Debbie-downer like the bigger Hound.

Even Cersei and Sansa get a chance to show how the battle brings out the best and worst in people. The former’s caustic tongue and even more bitter personality comes to the forefront as she drops any sense of pretense of being the courtly Queen’s Regent. She knows exactly that the battle will not be about glory and honor. The battle will be about bloodshed, destruction and, if the defenders lose, the raping and killing of all the women behind the wall’s of King’s Landing. Cersei is prepared to do what is necessary to keep herself, her children and the women from being raped and murdered, but in doing so loses what semblance of loyalty her handmaidens and courtly allies may have had for her. Sansa, on the other hand, still tries to put up a brave front. Maybe it’s a genuine reaction or one she knows she must put up if just to keep the ladies in the Red Keep where she and Cersei have stashed themselves from running in panic.

As a student of military tactics and history tonight’s episode wasn’t cringe-inducing once the battle itself began. Martin does a great job in condensing the tactics and maneuvers he had written in detail in the novel, but could be confusing to the uninitiated. The episode wasn’t too simplified to the point it hand-held the audience through every step and move both sides made. We knew that Tyrion had a surprise waiting for Stannis’ invasion fleet and that it involved the use of the alchemical concoction “wildfire” (the show’s version of that near-legendary weapon that the Eastern Roman Empire used to defend Constantinople for centuries called “Greek Fire”), but we still had no idea just how the surprise would turn out. Even when the single boat silently approached the vanguard fleet led by Ser Davos we still didn’t know how the wildfire would be used. To say that the surprise Tyrion had for the invasion fleet was jaw-dropping would be an understatement. It was a scene that brought to life how the historical battles like the Battle of Red Cliffs, Siege of Antwerp, the Gravelines, the Battle of the Downs, the Battle of Solebay and the Battle of La Hougue must’ve looked like.

Even the amphibious landing that Stannis’ infantry made to start the siege of King’s Landings’ walls was both accurate in how such a military maneuver was done, but also shot in a way by Neil Marshall to be exciting and chaotic. This battle was chaotic but not in the shaky-cam variety but in how battles was always about the killing and dying of men on the ground who were just feet from each other. It was a bloody execution of the episode’s order of battle that really earns this show that label of epic that fans like to throw at it. Again I must hand it to Martin as episode’s writer for making things accessible to those who have never read the book, but also keep enough of what made this battle exciting to those who have been fans of the novels.

All of this would still have come for naught if the person directing the episode dropped the ball, so to speak. “Blackwater” needed a director who could handle massive action scenes both from a bird’s eye view and from that of the grunt on the ground. Neil Marshall is a filmmaker who has always been great at maximizing the small budget he works with to create thrilling genre films. As the first outsider hired by the show’s producers Marshall was already behind the eightball in that he’s not knowledgeable of the what the show is about. Yet, one couldn’t tell with tonight’s episode. If HBO ever decided to continue this series for many more seasons I hope that they and Benioff and Weiss just hire Marshall to become the default director when it comes to episodes that require that epic hand at the till. Even with the quieter scenes with Cersei and her youngest Tommen as they sat on the Iron Throne waiting for the bad news that she truly thought would come was handled with a filmmaker’s deft touch that most tv directors are rarely able to pull off.

“Blackwater” may be the second to the last episode of this show’s second season, but just like the first season’s penultimate episode with the execution of Ned Stark, fans and audiences of the show have been treated to what could be accurately called the season’s climax. It’s not a bad way to end a season, but as we found out with last season the final episode will have it’s own surprises but also end the season with new avenues of storytelling that would make waiting for the start of season three to arrive be an exercise in agonized waiting. Season one’s second to the last episode might’ve been more traumatic but tonight’s “Blackwater” may have just been it’s best.

A job well done by Martin and Marshall.