“This war has just begun. It will last for years.” The words emerged from Melisandre like so much secondhand smoke, but they could well be coming from the HBO executive boardroom. As year two of this grand, multivolume experiment in adaptation and decapitation comes to a rousing close, it’s clear that the network would be perfectly happy if peace never came to Westeros at all. Most season finales of cable dramas are, like Jon Snow, stuck playing a double game: attempting closure on the one hand and, on the other, teasing future conflicts. Game of Thrones, by contrast, goes completely Halfhand; after 20 hours of this sprawling story, only one thing is eminently clear: We’re just getting warmed up.
The body-bisecting savagery of last week’s “Blackwater” felt like the sort of big-ticket event this slow-burning season had been building toward; the moment Stannis’s fleet ignited was as satisfying for action-starved audiences as it was for the creepy, cackling Pyromancer. But with the battle ended, it’s now evident that the defense of King’s Landing was merely a footnote, not a turning point. Stannis lives to siege and choke another day, while Tyrion saved the city, but lost much more than his looks in the process. Like Robert Baratheon’s beer gut, the world of Game of Thrones never stops expanding. Those looking for closure should probably stick to In Treatment: The pleasure of this show derives not from large-scale happenings, but rather the slowly dawning anticipation of what is still to come. And so “Valar Morghulis” felt as much like a premiere as a finale, still pushing forward into unknown lands with the cockiness of a n00b on the Night’s Watch. Rich, sweeping, and surprisingly emotional, it managed to be the best episode of the show to date, even though it eschewed nearly every opportunity to deliver a crowd-pleasing crescendo. Game of Thrones, it seems, is equally enjoyable whether it’s clearing its throat or gleefully slicing through those of its characters.
In fact, from its establishing shot of an opening eyelid, “Valar” echoed Lost, another expansive (and expensive!) fantasy show that worked best when it was adding to the craziness, not attempting to rein it all back in for the twin, often contradictory purposes of ratings and resolution. The modern television viewer, like a wine-drunk customer at Chez Littlefinger, demands constant satisfaction. What’s real, what’s not, who’s a hero, and who is hopefully going to end up at the bottom of the Iron Sea with a bag over his head — as Ghost Drogo (who seems to have discovered both a sense of humor and an expert beard braider in the afterlife) wisely puts it, “These are questions for wise men with skinny arms.” In other words, let world-building warlocks David Benioff and D.B. Weiss worry about the heavy lifting. The rest of us should have learned by now to relax and take pleasure in the dreamy digression, if not for eternity, than at least for four or five more seasons. Winter, it seems, will arrive a lot sooner than anything resembling answers.
Yet if there was any overarching theme to extract from the now-completed season, it was the high cost of discovering one’s true nature — and the even greater price paid by those who defy it. There was no better example of the latter than the Ballad of Theon Greyjoy, a poor sap who tried to impress his father only to wind up abandoned by him yet again. Fueled by a lifetime of resentment, Theon constantly tries to grab too much — be it a castle or his sister’s breastplate — and ends up suffering mightily for it. Now trapped in Winterfell by 500 ornery Northerners, every night is a sleepless Rosh Hashanah, the direness of his situation compounded by the bleatings of the world’s most dedicated shofar soloist. “You’re not the man you’re pretending to be, not yet,” counsels sage Maester Luwin, but insomnia seems to have given Theon some perspective. “You may be right,” he replies. “But I’ve gone too far to pretend to be anything else.” Alfie Allen’s strung-out despair was both the best work he’s done on the series and the perfect capper to Theon’s life poorly lived, which made his vague fate all the more confusing. I appreciated his Coach Taylor motivational speech nearly as much as Finchy — who was so inspired he promptly shish-kebabbed poor Luwin — but couldn’t really understand the point or the circumstances of his subsequent smash to the back of the head. Did the Iron Islanders smelt the castle before escaping? Or was Robb’s emissary outside of the gates a bigger bastard than we’d previously thought? Either way, the show seemed to have missed its best opportunity to strike a principal from its increasingly overcrowded game board, even if the move did set in motion the most improbable traveling party since The Incredible Journey. I’d say that two children, one wheelbarrow, a simpleton, and a Wildling sounds like the setup to a bad joke told in a King’s Landing pub, but come on. We all know there’s no laughing in Westeros!
Actually, there’s not much merriment across the sea, either, as Daenerys’s reptilian rescue mission reaches its charred conclusion. Her field trip to the House of the Undying, while brief, was beautifully shot — a Myst-y meander through her spooky subconscious. If the last few weeks have seen the Mother of Dragons at her most childlike, her tender farewell with Dream Drogo matured her considerably. By the time Dean Pelton(s) revealed his plan to turn her into some sort of rechargeable magic battery, there was no question he was in for an epic burn. But this new, determined Dany doesn’t need her dragons to do her dirt for her. Like Tyler Perry, she can do bad all by herself, stealing the double-crossing Ducksauce’s amulet, then locking him and her equally duplicitous handmaiden inside his empty vault. As a fan of the ill-fated Qing of Qarth, I was bummed when Jorah-as-Geraldo discovered the truth about what was on the other side of that heavy door. Unlike his Scottish uncle, my man Ducksauce didn’t have any gold to swim in. He, like his beautifully corrupt city, was nothing but a pretender — and we all know how those tend to fare in the Seven Kingdoms. At least the Dothraki know who they are — looters and raiders — and that knowledge should serve them and their blonde boss lady well as they go ship-shopping in Season 3.
In this same spirit of self-awareness, it actually made sense for Brienne and Jaime Lannister to be sent off on their own side-quest of swordplay and one-sided banter. For all their differences, these two have never for a moment doubted who they truly are, nor can they pretend otherwise — the Kingslayer is as likely to be mistaken for a pig thief as Brienne is to marry Joffrey. When she Varys’d the rapey Stark loyalist it was far from an improvisational visceration — it was a natural outgrowth of her own bedrock morality, forged from years of male mockery. The latter doesn’t make Brienne unique in her world (or, sadly, in ours) but her ability to poke back with something far more damaging than words does. (I only wish she had hitched her fierce wagon to someone better than Lady Catelyn, the Zune of Winterfell.) Her certainty stands in Stark contrast to Robb, who spent the entire season wavering between inspiring and impetuous. The would-be King in the North saw his southerly parts perk up dramatically thanks to the careful ministrations of Talisa, but otherwise he’s been stuck in place for weeks. It’s one thing to send someone else to defend your brothers, but it’s another to delay an entire war just to hold some sort of slam poetry wedding underneath a sycamore tree. (“Father! Warrior! Maiden! Stranger!” Was this a ceremony or the end of Chinatown?) Robb’s mother may be wrong about nearly everything, but I worry one bit of her advice may come back to haunt him: You can’t break a marriage vow without losing a bridge — or burning one.
The Stark children may be the moral backbone of this decidedly amoral world, but their dogged decency still seems like it may be their undoing. “Look around you,” Littlefinger whispers to Sansa, “we’re all liars here. Every one of us is better than you.” She may be a woman now, but Sansa is still a child playing a grown-up’s game. Baelish has pulled off quite the coup — getting Margaery Tyrell to trade a homosexual satyr for an asexual sadist — but just because Sansa is out of Joffrey’s life doesn’t mean she’s escaped his crosshairs. And while I may not yet understand her reasons for staying in King’s Landing, I appreciated the way the royal soap operatics were played out in front of a crowd like some low-tech trashy reality show (Living With the Lannisters?). The wise and majestic Tywin may be heralded as the “savior of the city” but yet another lofty title can’t stop him from tracking more of the same old horseshit into the throne room.
Arya managed to escape from her bad situation, but even she seems more trapped than ever. She passes up a chance to learn Jaquen’s dark, murderous arts by traveling with him to Braavos, a gay and merry place where leathery monsters roam free, and the only advice given to would-be assassins is to make it work. (Suggested slogan: “Braavos: Watch What Happens ... To My Face!”) It’s unclear what she plans to do in the meantime. Wander the plains in hopes of finding her brother? Gin up new ways of tricking Gendry to take his shirt off? With Dany’s dragons years away from maturity, it seems like Arya would have plenty of time to travel to the land of her dance instructor and learn a few deadlier steps. But then again, the biggest threat isn’t coming from the East. It’s brewing beyond the wall, where Kit Harrington is busy getting his MFA in Emo Face. Seriously, dude, get a hat or a Paxil prescription! It doesn’t seem to matter if he’s tied up with rope or tongue-tied around the ridiculously flirty Ygritte; either way his pretty bastard features are scrunched up like he’s got the second side of Clarity on perpetual loop in his mind. Thanks to the Crow’s self-sacrifice, Jon will soon get the chance to discuss Christie Front Drive b-sides with Mance Rayder, but it’s unclear if anything can be done about the real problem: the massive horde of ice zombies currently marching south, like so many half-eaten birds in winter. As impressive — and impressively ooky — as this final image was, it was hard not to think I’d seen this exact thing on a television show before, and fairly recently too. Sam’s cowering behind a rock was one million times more reasonable than anything Rick Grimes has ever thought to do in the face of a swarm of undead, but it did give the impression that we’re building toward a unified theory of Sunday television, a critically adored night reserved exclusively for ambulatory corpses, a neverending cavalcade of terrible mothers and graphic explorations of menstrual blood.
As ever, it was left to the littlest man to make the biggest impression. Cersei didn’t succeed in killing her impish brother, but she has knocked him down a considerable number of pegs. Scarred and scared, Tyrion seems like an entirely different person than the brilliantly inspiring tactician and nimble hamstring chopper who led the defense of the city. But the same fire that burns in Stannis’s blinkered eyes now seems to have sparked in Tyrion’s as well. All season long I’ve wondered why the more sympathetic characters don’t chunk up the deuce on their ill-advised dreams of power and set sail with the sex pirates, literal or otherwise. In a tender exchange, Shae offers her little lord that same vision — a permanent holiday in Pentos where they could “eat, drink, fuck, live.” (Elizabeth Gilbert: Call your travel agent!) But Tyrion remains a player, even despite his reduced circumstance, because he, like Varys, has a very keen sense of what he has — and what he doesn’t. “These bad people are what I’m good at,” he says. “Out-talking them, out-thinking them. It’s what I am. And I like it. I like it more than anything I’ve ever done.” In other words, his life at King’s Landing may be messy, and it may not end well, but it’s purposeful and incredibly fun. After a subtly enrapturing second season, I would argue the same can be said of Game of Thrones as well.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”’s in the comments, OK? OK!