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Game of Thrones – Season 2, Episode 10: “Valar Morghulis” review
Hmm. Maybe they should have ended the season with “Blackwater.”
I don’t want to be a negative Nancy, too difficult to please, and nitpicking everything. I really did enjoy this season far more than I did the first, and I think it’s only going to get better from Season 3 onward. Having read the series, I know there’s incredible, jaw dropping stuff to come and I’m impatient to see it. That’s what makes “slower” episodes a bit frustrating.
Then again, when Game of Thrones does drop the ball, it does so in a way that’s extremely worrying to those big, scary episodes to come. The show seems to have almost no middle ground – they either get it very right, or very wrong.
“Valar Morghulis,” I think, got an awful lot wrong, which only was more glaring because of some of the truly great character work on display here. (Is that even worth saying anymore? It’s almost a given.) Yes, it had a thankless task following up “Blackwater,” and I know the time after a battle is probably utter dullsville. I realize pieces had to be moved into place for next season. But did it have to be done so transparently? This episode played a bit like a checklist of cliffhangers, dutifully moving them to the “Oh no!” point without really investing much tension in the scenes themselves.
And let’s be honest – post-“Blackwater,” the show had deliberately left a massive promise in the form of Daenerys and her missing dragons. “Don’t worry,” the throwaway scene with her and Jorah said. “There’s going to be two brawls to close the season. We’re drawing this out, but the pay off is going to be immense.” But then it wasn’t. After numerous episodes of Daenerys screaming and crying about her dragons, and the expectation that the House of the Undying was going to crumble like so much rotten stone, it just hastily came to a “These CGI dragons are expensive!” conclusion. We saw one Undying burn up, and then Daenerys just walked out, like she could have done two episodes ago. Really, Game of Thrones? This is what you built up to for our Mother of Dragons? It’s like you don’t want us to see her reduce a building to rubble!
On the plus side, what the Undying scenes lacked in spectacle, they made up for in emotion. In the book, Daenerys’ trip through the House was a confusing, trippy mess of scenes that meant nothing to her and the temptation (an alliance with the Undying) was a pale and unappealing thing. Here, Daenerys was repeatedly shown things she desperately craved, but rejected in favor of finding her dragons, whose cries jolted her every time she wavered. And oh, how easy it would have been to fall for the Khal Drogo option, which was so utterly heartbreaking that one wonders if it was a vision at all. Beautifully, gutwrenchingly done. When Game of Thrones reaches for your heartstrings, it’s nice to know it can find them and tug them as hard as it can our thirst for gore and treachery.
How does one follow-up Khal Drogo? With cheesy chains, an unthreatening imprisonment scenario, and a stiff speech, apparently. I do love those baby dragons, though. They’re adorable. And fierce! I feel like they could have gotten out all along, and they were just like “Hi, Mommy. Did you bring snacks? Mommy, can I have a juice box?” (I imagine dragons enjoy juice boxes of kerosene.)
Daenerys did get one truly Targaryen moment, though. It turns out her sexiest lady-in-waiting sold her out to Xaro before cuddling up with him, and with that, we got the Mother of Dragons we knew was lurking under the tears. She has an awesome set of angry eyes, and they better not shortchange them next season.
The episode’s other bittersweet moment came from (who else?) Tyrion Lannister, who sits wounded and disgraced in a cubby corner of King’s Landing. Despite that he rallied the troops and saved the city, there’s no thanks for the witty, and he has been replaced by his father and Ser Loras. Tyrion was the most depressed and bitter that we’ve ever seen him.He also appeared to be in a lot of pain, which the make-up didn’t quite match, but props to Peter Dinklage for managing to sell something that the budget didn’t cover. (In the book, Tyrion loses chunks of facial structure, and is left with half a nose.) But sadly, when offered the choice of a new life with Shae, Tyrion turned it down. He loves being a Lannister too much. Any altruistic hope we may hold out for him was dashed, as he confessed that he loved politics, plotting, wit, and treachery too much to ever retire. Of course, one could also read this as more deceit – Can Tyrion truly relax? Couldn’t this be a plot? Shae is a woman he paid to lie! – but he had no reason to lie. This was Tyrion Lannister laid open for the world to see. And I don’t think the Lannisters can quit one another.
Speaking of Lannisters who can’t quit, I am eager to see more of the Brienne and Jaime show.
And speaking of emotional nakedness, it was positively delightful to see Sansa actually laugh. Her moment of relief was cut short, but it was a relief to see her flat expression actually is part of a performance of restraint that can break when it needs to.
Theon Greyjoy was another character who let it all hang out, admitting his utter failure and misery by all people Stark and Greyjoy. It was hard not to feel for him. (Just like it was hard not to laugh when Luwin pointed out he’d killed all the ravens.) He’s a horrible brat who is only a masochistic beat away from being Joffrey, but he sins because he wants to be loved, accepted, and praised so desperately. Of course, now he’s been hauled off by his own men for parts unknown, and I suspect he hasn’t hit rock bottom just yet.
And then Winterfell died.
This may be a moment that only the readers will nitpick, but I can’t believe all they could manage was a burned keep, and a vague idea of who had done it. Was it the Northerners camped outside, endlessly blowing the horn? The Iron Men? Was there a battle? How did the Iron Men get out if they were surrounded? It was just so vague and so cheaply done – this is the keep, and it’s burned – that it was hard to feel a real sense of loss and horror. I was glad they gave us a panoramic shot which reminded us Winterfell was more than one corner of a keep, but it just didn’t resonate the way I hoped. This may just be me, since those I watched with said “It’s gone! How can it be gone?”
And did the season really end with Catelyn and Robb remaining ignorant of Bran and Rickon’s “death”? Yes, it did, and I’m baffled as to why. We did, however, get more arguing about Robb’s love life, and a marriage scene that was straight out of Braveheart. I want to believe this is a in joke/homage to Richard Madden being born in the same spot as William Wallace, but I know it isn’t. I do have to applaud Game of Thrones for rewriting Robb’s love story into something we would actually care about, as opposed to the book, where he showed up with an unknown noblewoman and saying “Look, Mom, I got married while I was out on that mission. Cool, huh?”
You know what would really be cool? A series where Arya and Jaqen just wandered the world, solving problems and rescuing the weak. This friendship warms my heart so much. He has no reason to come back and say “Come with me, kickass little hero!”, but he did. Surely this means he’s a good guy? He has to see something in Arya that all but her dancing master missed.
And that brings us to a character who supposedly has a lot going for him, but has been a big flop this season: Jon Snow. He’s been nothing but an action figure this season, dully thumped across the snow like he’s being handled by a big invisible kid. He never reacts to the situation at hand. He doesn’t think his way through it. He just stands there, waiting for the plot to move him. Supposedly, this is a kid who is being tapped for a Lord Commander because he’s so quick and tough, but he doesn’t seem capable of picking up signals from his fellow rangers. Game of Thrones has him manipulated by events rather than acting as a willing – if reluctant and devastated – participant. Jon knew what Halfhand intended in the book (it all happened fast, but Jon knew and went for it) and he acted as he was ordered, instead of like a petulant schoolboy who let himself be fooled by a few insults.
And Halfhand? Maybe if they’d taken ten minutes away from Sexy Redhaired Wildling Girl we would have felt a little something. Instead, this played as a “What? Who?” moment that Game of Thrones often finds itself scrambling with in the last moments of a plot twist. There were plenty of Jon-trudges-through-snow episodes to have established these two as mentor and pupil. We should have been shocked, sickened, and saddened at what Jon had to do. We should have left going “Oh man, Jon is screwed. This won’t end well.” Instead, it was “Well, I guess he’ll hook up with that girl now.”
But perhaps no one was thinking that, because a few minutes later, we got a zombie horse. (I know, the proper term is “wight” but…) An army of Others. A weird light. And Samwell Tarly, stuck behind a rock, surrounded by beings that neither he or his viewing audience know a darn thing about. I can’t say I thought the effects and design was particularly striking – they look less like ice, and more like your average squishy zombie – but the sheer number of them did the terrifying trick.
Now, HBO … can you give this show the budget it needs so they won’t kick off season three with “Wow! Those wights and walkers were scary! Good thing we got away! Say, did you hear Winterfell burned?”