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 S2E01 “The North Remembers”


“The night is dark and full of terrors old man, but the fire burns them all away.” — Melisandre

George R.R. Martin’s medieval fantasy epic novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, made a triumphant debut on HBO with Game of Thrones in the Spring of 2010. The show was headed to be a big success due to the huge fan-base that have read and re-read the novels, but the show was able to attract those who wouldn’t know George R.R. Martin or his books. This was the show that further cemented the notion that genre has become the ruling king of quality tv.

A new season of Game of Thrones now arrives with the premiere episode titled “The North Remembers” and while it shows Robb Stark (now proclaimed King of the North by his bannerman and liegelords) flush with success against the forces of House Lannisters and thus King Joffrey at King’s Landing the episode also weaves in an ominous tone that looks to dominate this second season. It’s a season based mostly on the second novel in the series titled A Clash of Kings and tonight’s episode has set-up not just King Robb Stark of the North against King Joffrey Baratheon at King’s Landing, but the old king’s two surviving brothers (elder brother Stannis Baratheon at the Isle of Dragonstone and younger brother Renly Baratheon at Storm’s End) as these four kings begin their path into a clash for the Iron Throne.

One thing to be said about tonight’s episode is just how much happens throughout it’s running time. We see how life since the execution of Ned Stark has changed the kingdom of Westeros for the worst as refugees fleeing the war between Lannister and Stark has made things near-untenable in King’s Landing. While the peasants and commoners of the kingdom suffer we’re quickly re-introduced to the author of the war in King Joffrey (played with an almost psychotic glee by Jack Gleeson) who hold’s knightly games to commemorate his naming day and plays at being a conquering monarch by redecorating the throne room. Trying to manage this petulant boy king is both his manipulative mother, Cersei Lannister, and his dwarf uncle Tyrion Lannister who also has been appointed the latest Hand of the King to help advise.

While we see the North with Robb sending peace offerings and terms to the Lannisters in the hope of getting his sisters (Sansa and Arya) back we also see him in a nice scene confronting Jaime Lannister still his prisoner and still trying to gain an upper-hand on the young king. It’s a huge difference winning battles can do to a young man’s confidence as Jaime’s veiled insults about his age only amuses Robb. It helps that his direwolf looks to have grown double in size since we last saw Greywind. The episode went a long way to showing Robb not just becoming King of the North in name, but also in manner and deeds.

Tonight’s episode might have been called “The North Remembers” but it’s the arrival of Melisandre of Asshai (Carice van Houten), the priestess of R’hllor (Lord of the Light) and her sway over Stannis Baratheon that adds a sense of the magical to what had been a series steeped heavily in medieval realism. It’s the addition of Melisandre and her seeming real gift for magic plus a glimpse of Daenerys’ dragons that offers glimpses to a world of magic and shadows behind the reality of war and the suffering it puts a kingdom’s people through.

As one could see this is quite a lot for one episode to juggle, but series director Alan Taylor has done a great job of keeping things from becoming too confusing to follow. Even the dark turn into infanticide and bloody purge in the end of the episode was a consequence born out of one of the king’s advisors in Petyr Belish (aka Littlefinger) who thought himself witty and clever by telling the Queen Regent Cersei that he knew exactly what had gone on between her and Jaime and the true parentage of King Joffrey. Taylor kept the episode from being bogged down in one area but at the same time still gives each character in the episode some character growth. Everyone looks to have aged and grown since last season and some for the better (Tyrion enjoying the fruits of being Hand of the King but also reveling in the fact that of all his father’s children it is he who is now trusted and not the disappointment) while others for the worst (Joffrey continuing his path towards Caligula-level mania).

One thing tonight’s busy episode has done is re-introduce the show’s audience to the world of the Seven Kingdoms and it’s many interesting characters and stories that came out of season one. It’s a world that continues to be a complex web of intrigue, moral greyness and ambiguity. While we see certain character on the extreme spectrum of right and wrong (Stannis and Joffrey respectively) we’re truly shown by tonight’s season premiere that everyone has their own agenda. Even characters we might have been led to believe as good show signs of cruelty while those we’re to see as amoral show signs of benevolence.

“The North Remembers” was a great start to what looks to be a season that will blow the first season out of the water (I don’t just mean because of the epic Battle of Blackwater that would highlight the season), but it also showed that despite being a show that had a legion’s worth of characters and subplots it still remained must-see and captivating to watch. Let the clash of kings commence.

Notes

  • It was great to see the opening title sequence once more and this time with the addition of Dragonstone to the stable of clockwork strongholds that has become famous.
  • We see Sansa Stark still pretty much a hostage of King Joffrey and trying to keep her head by parroting what he wants to hear. She did redeem herself somewhat by keeping a drunkard looking to become a knight from being drowned to death in wine and instead becoming Joffrey’s latest court fool.
  • Tyrion’s entrance in the same scene may not have had him slapping Joffrey (a meme that grew out of a slapping scene early in season 1), but his veiled insults at Joffrey’s ability to rule as king shows us why Peter Dinklage was deserving of winning that Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister.
  • The scene with Tyrion visiting his mistress Shae in the manor he had set her up in King’s Landing was brief but showed just how much Tyrion seemed happiest when close to her. Though it still doesn’t stop him from keeping her secret from everyone especially his father.
  • Once again I like to point out just how huge the direwolf looked as it growled menacingly at Jaime Lannister while Robb Stark held onto it. It’s almost as if Robb had to keep Greywind from lunging forward to rip the Kingslayer’s throat out. Maybe Greywind thinks Jaime was partly responsible for the death of Sansa’s direwolf Lady in the first season.
  • Speaking of direwolves…we get more clues that the Stark boys may be closer to their direwolves more than we thought as Bran Stark back in Winterfell dreams of roaming the forest near the God’s Wood and seeing it all through the eyes of his direwolf Summer.
  • HODOR! HODOR! HODOR!
  • Great sequence between Littlefinger and Cersei in the castle courtyard. Littlefinger may think of himself as the smartest and cleverest man in King’s Landing, but he still finds himself outmaneuvered, manipulated and laid low by Cersei. Those who doubted that Lena Headey would make for a great Cersei shouldn’t be having any more doubts about that casting choice with tonight’s episode.
  • We get a hint at the future introduction of what could be another self-proclaimed king in what looks to be quite a busy batch already with Theon Greyjoy asking to be sent back to the Iron Isle to speak with his father, Balon Greyjoy, on behalf of Robb who will need those hundred of Greyjoy ships to take on King’s Landing.
  • Was surprised to see Robert Pugh as Craster. I thought he looked like Shipmaster Mr. Allen from Master and Commander.
  • Also great to see Liam Cunningham as Ser Davos the Onion Knight who looks to be the clear-headed counsel to Stannis Baratheon.
  • Was disappointed there was very little of one of the show’s more interesting players in Varys the Spider, but it looks like he gets to have a juicy little scene in next week’s episode, “The Night Lands”.