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 S2E08 “The Prince of Winterfell”


“One game at a time my good friend.” — Tyrion Lannister

The second season of HBO’s Game of Thrones has been quite similar to the first season in that for every great episode we get one not so great, but still one that’s needed to help further the season’s narrative to it’s conclusion. This season it’s the effect that the War of the Five Kings has had one everyone from those vying for the Iron Throne to the lowly peasant who must endure the war that has engulfed Westeros. Even the lands of Essos across the Narrow Sea has felt the ripple effect of this war as we see Daenerys Targaryen struggle in her attempts to gain allies in a land content to see the kingdoms of Westeros fight each other into disunity.

Tonight’s eight episode of the season, “The Prince of Winterfell”, was not a great episode but it was crucial in further fleshing out some of the main characters who continues to have an effect on the war. The title itself as meaning one of the Stark sons, but in this episode this label could mean so many characters.

It could mean Theon Greyjoy who has made himself the new Lord of Winterfell as he and his score of Ironborn have forcibly taken the capital of the North a couple episodes back. We’ve seen him play the role of lord, or more like play-act the role, since taking Winterfell, but his decisions since then has made him even more petty than we’ve ever seen him through all of season 1. His behavior is a constant reminder that while he spent most of his life amongst the Starks — as part of his father’s punishment for rebelling against Robert Baratheon — he never picked up the concept of honor fom Ned Stark or through the actions of Ned’s boys. He’s like a spoiled young boy trying to please everyone and show them that he’s worthy of praise when what he’s done just makes him look more and more pathetic to those he’s trying to impress.

The scene between Theon and his sister Yara was quite illuminating in how the former went against his father’s orders and his people’s method of warfare because he envies the sort of respect and influence his sister has over the Ironborn men. Influence that goes against everything Theon thinks how a woman should be and that’s naked and subservient to him, or at least to men. Yara doesn’t resent her brother and actually cares for him in her own fashion. She even understands why he does what he does and how their shared experiences with their father, Balon Greyjoy, binds them closer than Theon would like to think.

Theon has been given chances and opportunities to think things more logically and with a keen mind, but he has squandered all these chances (one even coming from the sister he thinks doesn’t respect him) and just continues to dig the proverbial grave he might just find himself in. He may be the Lord and Prince of Winterfell now, but only he seems to believe that to be true.

On the other hand, we have Robb Stark down south, King of the North by his bannermen’s acclaim, but still just a Prince of Winterfell who would like nothing but to return to his birthplace and take up the duties now given onto him by the death of his father. He would rather return to guarding the North and supporting the Night’s Watch aat the Wall than continue to fight a war that he has lost much desire to fight. But he knows he must continue his campaign against King Joffrey and the Lannisters. Too much blood has been spilt by men under his banner and the honor and duty he learned from his father means he must set aside sentimental things (like running back North to retake Winterfell and free his younger brothers). The fact that he understands the damage Catelyn’s actions in regards to the Kingslayer and his orders to have her guarded like a prisoner means he has learned to set aside familial feelings for the greater good.

Robb Stark has learned much to be like his father and while much of it has been to his advantage in prosecuting the war and keeping his alliance of bannermen together he has also picked up his father’s flaw of allowing his heart to dictate an action that may just jeopardize everything he has gained since the war began. Even knowing that he’s arranged to marry one of the Frey daughters as price to move his army down south his feelings for Talisa (the camp chirurgeon and a lady of Volantis herself) finally overrides his reason and duty. For those who have read the book this scene was both touching and maddening. For those who have never read the book this scene will still be touching in that Robb followed his heart, but also maddening in that he puts in danger the alliances with the important House of Frey to satisfy his heart.

The rest of “The Prince of Winterfell” was more about moving the pieces on the board closer to that inevitable clash between the armies of Joffrey at King’s Landing and Stannis Baratheon with his fleet bearing down on the capital. All these build-up scenes added to subplots that has grown since the beginning of the season. If there was one sequence that seemed very out of place and felt like just spinning wheels in place it would be with Daenerys at Qarth as she once again agonizes about her kidnapped “babies” and how she must get them back. Now that she knows that the warocks of Qarth have the dragonlings sequestered in the Tower of the Undying one would think she would have tried to get them back, but instead we get more scenes of her and Jorah debating on the need to have the dragon’s back. While this part of the season doesn’t come close to being the “Sophia in the Barn” frustrating it’s getting close.

We now have two more episodes left in the season and it looks like the Battle of Blackwater Pass from the novels may just arrive with the next episode. Will Tyrion be able to beat back Stannis’ siege of King’s Landing? Will Theon survive the season as Lord of Winterfell? Will Robb’s actions with Talisa destroy everything he has built since the war began? There’s so much questions and with two episodes left it will be quite the juggling act for the show’s writers to answer them all without having them seemed rushed.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E06 “The Old Gods and the New”


“Gods help you Theon Greyjoy. Now you’re truly lost.” — Ser Rodrik Cassel

Tonight we saw season 2 of HBO’s Game of Thrones series hit it’s second half running towards what could only be a climactic season ender of epic proportions. The show took a sort of misstep with an wheel’s turning previous episode that was mostly set-up. The show has been that way from the very start of the season, but last week’s entry was even moreso. Tonight’s sixth episode was titled “The Old Gods and the New” and it was a theme of faith that ran throughout the episode.

When I say faith I don’t mean of the religious kind but the faith one puts into the actions of others. Whether that faith is deserving or not is irrelevant. We see the youngest characters of the series with their faith tested from beginning to end. While it was mostly the Stark kids both legitimate and illegitimate who had to suffer in tonight’s episode we also got to see Daenerys Stormborn tested as her stay in the city-state of Qarth begins to turn for the worst and her inability to think with her mind instead of her heart has put her in a precarious situation.

The episode begins with Bran’s dream from last week finally coming into fruition as the seas has come to Winterfell and gone over the walls. It’s Theon Greyjoy and his merry band of Ironborn reavers who have taken advantage of a defenseless Winterfell. Any lingering doubts as to which house his loyalty lies now ends with his taking of Winterfell and imposing himself as it’s lord. Theon has bought into his biological father’s Ironborn way of life as he’s taken his own lordship through the “iron price” and not gold. Yet, this part of the episode also show’s that Theon has much to learn about being a ruler as some of his petty behavior comes to the forefront in his treatment of Rodrick Casell and being fooled by the wildling Osha. Just like Renly Baratheon before him, Theon likes to play at being a lord and someone who thinks they have power over the people when it’s all just in his head.

The same goes for King Joffrey over at King’s Landing who witness first-hand that his maniacal, iron-fisted rule of the realm has weakened what had been a strong realm and which is now ripe for all-out rebellion from within the city’s walls and not just from without. A riot of his own making doesn’t end even with his shouts to his Kingsguard and the Gold Cloaks to kill everyone when they’re outnumbered despite their armor and weapons. Joffrey begins to see what his Hand has seen and that’s the people of King’s Landing don’t see him as their rightful ruler and would rip the city and those who follow him apart (like the poor Maester who got the zombie feeding frenzy treatment) even if they die doing so.

For a moment Sansa Stark doesn’t understand why the people hate her as much as Joffrey and season 1 Sansa petulantly peeks out after her close brush with rape and death at the hands of the mob. It takes some wise counsel from her handmaiden Shae to educate her as to why they hate her so. Whether Sansa will learn from tonight’s events or not will show whether her character has grown from the shallow, fashion plate and status obsessed young teen or season 1 to the more savvy and leery young lady who has been quite adept at steering through the maze that makes up the game of thrones within the castle walls. One thing for sure is that she seems to have gained herself a protector in The Hound.

Over and north of the Wall we find Jon Snow and the small band of Rangers led by Qhorin Halfhand doing a sort of long-range recon patrol deeper into wildling territory to find out just exactly what’s going on with the wildlings and their self-proclaimed king Mance Rayder. We see Jon get a lesson in the importance of being a Crow delivered not so delicately by the veteran Qhorin who also seem to see something important about Jon, but who also sees an idealist who may not survive the Wall if he continues to think like someone who lives South of the Wall instead of on and North of it. It’s easy to say that Jon learns his lesson, but as we see after a successful ambush of a wildling patrol Jon still hangs onto too much of the chivalry and nobility of the the southern realms instead of the reality of the Wall and the North. He’s been a frustrating character since the first season and his steadfast “Ned Stark-ness” almost gets him killed and has saddled him with a pretty, wild redhead who may just be the death of him before he reaches his potential.

We now come to the Arya and Daenaerys portion of tonight’s episode. These are two young girls who have been thrust into situations not of their making and trying to make the best of it.

At Harrenhal we see Arya continue her indentured servitude to Tywin Lannister who seem to treat her with more respect than he does his own commanders. Whether he suspects who Arya truly is he does seem to treat her less a servant and more like an unofficial sounding board. The conflict of emotions this treatment from Tywin was quite evident in Arya’s face as she smiles behind Tywin and his council’s back when he compliments her and berates one his generals. Her situation gets really precarious as one Littlefinger appears in Harrenhal to talk shop with Tywin. This scene was masterfully done by veteran tv director David Nutter who milks the tension Arya feels at the prospect of being found out by the duplicitous, but observant Littlefinger. Her faith in the enigmatic Jaqen H’ghar seems well-deserved as she gives him a second name and sees that name given over to Death as Jaqen has promised. With each day in Harrenhal it looks like Arya looks to be the one of the all the youngsters in Game of Thrones who has begun to see the reality of the world instead of the ideals she has been taught growing up.

Far across the Narrow Sea we come to Daenaerys who is still trying to fend off the advances of Xaro Xhoan Daxos and the other merchant lords of Qarth who wish to put their hooks into her if she ever wants their help in getting across to Westeros to take back the Iron Throne she sees as rightfully hers. Where Arya has learned to think with her head instead of her heart to put herself into situations to her advantage the same cannot be said about Daenerys who still believes that her rightful claim to the Iron Throne and being the Mother of Dragons would make everyone bow at her young feet and give her everything she needs to get what she wants. When diplomacy doesn’t get her what she wants she reverts back to threats and actually sounding more and more like her dead brother Viserys who also used too much empty threats to try and get what he thinks was due to him. The episode sees her with even less retainers than what she had going into Qarth and worst yet minus the three dragonlings.

While “The Old Gods and the New” was still a set-up episode it also contained much character growth for the young cast. We see them learn the hard way that being a ruler of a realm and of men doesn’t come easy or come across as a game without consequences. Idealism gets tested and for most of the episode comes off less a virtue and more of a near-fatal flaw that cannot survive in the war-torn lands of Westeros let alone the intrigues of the city-states of Essos across the Narrow Sea. Faith has been tested as Bran sees firsthand as he sees what he thought was a brother to him and his family turn against them in a fit of pettiness and need to prove himself to his biological sire.

With more pieces being moved across the board it’s getting much clearer now that the war for the Iron Throne is close to being decided, but it doesn’t mean peace will come to Westeros. While the elders fight the wars begun by a child and being won by another it looks like tonight’s episode also shows that no matter how things turn out this season it’s the children of the series who have been forced to grow up by the war who will have to pick up the pieces. Tonight we see that some look ready to do so while most still look ill-equipped to survive it.

Review: Game of Thrones S2E05 “The Ghost of Harrenhal”


“Anyone can be killed.” — Arya Stark

The first four episodes of the second season of Game of Thrones has been consistently good to great despite the addition of a large number of new characters to a cast already considered massive by tv standards. Last week’s “Garden of Bones” was the weakest of the four and worked more like a set-up episode for the rest of the season. With tonight’s fifth episode in “The Ghost of Harrenhal” we get another set-up episode that looks to be the weakest entry in this new season.

The episode’s title comes from the novel and what Arya calls herself during her stay in Harrenhal. She becomes the ghost of the title as she takes the offer made to her by the engimatic Jaqen H’ghar. But before we get to Arya and her adventures within the cursed halls of Harrenhal we start the episode back at the Renly Baratheon camp where the younger Barantheon entertains Catelyn Stark with an offer to take back to her son Robb in the North. Before the armies of Renly and Robb could come together to fight against their common enemy that the shadowy thing from the end of last week’s episode finally make it’s appearance to end the fight between the Baratheon brothers once and for all.

As Arya comments to Tywin in Harrenhal thus Renly’s fate early in the episode prove her words correct. Anyone can be killed and it would seem anywhere.

The rest of the episode from then on is all about setting up what I can only guess would be the two set piece events for the season. There’s the planned amphibious invasion of King’s landing being planned by Stannis Baratheon with his reinforced army now that Renly’s bannermen has flocked to him after their former liege’s assassination. Then there’s the stuff brewing up north of the Wall with the entire Night’s Watch searching for and preparing for the massive wildling army being formed by former Night’s Watch brother and self-proclaimed “King Beyond the Wall”.

Most of the dynamic writing for tonight’s episode occur down at King’s Landing and Harrenhal where we see both Tyrion and Arya adjusting to the ever-shifting status in both places. With Tyrion he must now contend with an older sister in Cersei who seem to be waking up to the fact that she cannot bully the current Hand of the King and realizes that she too can play the manipulative game as her deformed younger sibling. The fact that a weapon of mass destruction has been in production for quite sometime without his knowing and put into motion by his sister has put the usually cocky and confident Tyrion on his heels. But as we’ve seen since this show began airing the dwarf Lannister is very quick to adjust his footing. It’s going to be interesting how the writers will keep the personal battles between Tyrion and Cersei for control of King’s Landing to not feel like wheel’s spinning in place. Sooner or later one of them will find the chink in the other’s personal armor and make the “killing” stroke.

Further up north we see Arya do her own dance around the shifting circumstance she finds herself in as the personal cupbearer for the man who heads the house she despises and blames for the death of her father. The back and forth between her and Tywin was one of the highlight’s of tonight’s episode even though it didn’t move the story forward, but did add another layer of character growth on the youngest Stark daughter. Maisie Williams as Arya continues to impress in the role. She looked like she belonged in the scene with the older veteran actor in Charles Dance. It’s a small wonder that she’s become one of the show’s favorite characters.

With tonight’s episode we hit the halfway mark of the season and even though there’s still another half to go so much stuff occurred with tonight’s episode that it’ll be a surprise if the season finale gives all of them a satisfying resolution. I haven’t even mentioned the scenes with Theon trying to find his footing with his crew before setting off to raid the coastline near Winterfell as his father has ordered him to do.

If there was ever a weak point in this season it’s that we seem to get a new subplot introduced with each new episode and tonight’s episode was a perfect example. Not saying that tonight was poorly written and acted. Everyone seemed to be in top form, but instead of streamlining what is already turning out to be a season with an ever-growing number of storylines we get more. It’s going to be a wonder how the show’s writers will be able to juggle everything as the season enters it’s second half. Maybe they won’t find a resolution for every thread introduced this season and I’m betting that is how it’s going to pan out, but that could also mean delaying some of these threads for next season.

If there’s one thing people should know about George R.R. Martin’s novels it’s that plots, subplots and side stories only continue to pile on each other even when some past ones get a resolution. Sooner or later the showrunners will have to make a tough decision to abandon certain storylines from the novel even if it means angering and alienating the fans of the books who are already grumbling about some of the changes the show has already made in adapting the series to television.

I’m all for fidelity to the source material, but as Arya said in tonight’s episode, “Anyone can be killed”, and I say the same thing should go in how the show moves on into the second half and beyond. Any storyline can be cut and I’m all for it if it keeps the series from becoming a narrative bloated mess.

Notes

  • Looks like Renly Baratheon will not be able to play at war again.
  • Brienne is not a woman that any man should anger if what she did in Renly’s tent was any indication.
  • Littlefinger and Margaery Tyrell would make for quite a formidable couple if these two manipulative kids ever decide to get together.
  • We don’t see it happen often but Tyrion definitely looks like he’s not in control of the situation during his conversation with Cersei and then later on with Lancel and his talk of wildfire.
  • For all his work to try and protect the people from Joffrey’s madness Tyrion still ends up on the short end of the stick.
  • Stannis is turning out to be quite a conundrum. One second he’s willing to use underhanded tactics to win over his younger brother’s bannermen to his army, then turns around and becomes his rigid self once again. It’s a wonder that he still has Ser Davos’ loyalty.
  • Tywin at Harrenhal with his war council is a major change from the novel, but it makes sense now that we get a sort of confrontation between the Lannister patriarch and Arya Stark.
  • Highlight of the episode has to be Jaqen and Arya making an arrangement where the former shall repay his life-debt to the latter with the deaths of three names Arya will give the enigmatic soldier.
  • Tyrion finally gets his footing on solid ground again as he takes control of the wildfire production from his sister. I’m thinking King’s Landing would be better served to have the volatile wildfire in the hands of Tyrion than his more equally volatile sister and her insane son.
  • Daenerys gets another lesson in the cutthroat world of diplomacy as she gets a tempting offer from Xaro Xhoan Daxos.
  • Her next lesson on how to be a capable ruler comes from her trusted knight and advisor Ser Jorah who thinks Daxos’ offer will contain strings that she may not be able to cut once accepted.
  • Bran’s dreams seem to portent the coming Ironborns and the former ward and friend in Theon leading them.
  • Rickon Stark looks like he’s becoming wilder and wilder with each appearance.
  • A surprise for the lack of any sort of sexposition or even nudity. Might be a first for this show.
  • One down and two to go.