SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 10 YET.
“This war has just begun. It will last for years.”
After the tumultuous excitement of last week’s Battle of Blackwater Bay, Game of Thrones’ season finale had a hard act to follow. Since last week seemed like a climax to the story, there was always the danger that this season ending would come across more like an epilogue. Yet it pulled off the hard trick of being an exciting finale in its own right, given a little more running time than usual to catch up on all the other plots left hanging from episode 8 and setting up situations and journeys for next year’s third season.
With so much to catch up on, I rather expected the aftermath of the battle for King’s Landing to be skipped over quite briefly, but even this was given a fair amount of screentime. Joffrey held court in the throne room, doling out rewards for his allies, most notably Margery Tyrell. With Cersei having cleared it with the Small Council and Pycelle with the High Septon, Joffrey’s show of obedience to his betrothal to Sansa was set aside in favour of Loras’ scheming sister – much to Sansa’s relief.
Natalie Dormer gave a subtle, intriguing performance as Margery, with her established political ambition – to be THE Queen – now in sight. Sansa, for her part, found her relief shortlived when Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen’s Irish accent none too well suppressed) enlightened her that the sadistic boy king could still beat her and take her in the bedroom. It was a revealing exchange, obviously setting up future plotlines – when Baelish commented that Sansa was “just like her mother”, it set off warning bells, as we already know of his deep unrequited feelings for Catelyn Stark. Meanwhile, you have to wonder if the smugly satisfied, fickle Margery knows quite what she’s let herself in for agreeing to marry Joffrey…
Tyrion too found the future uncertain, as Varys paid a visit to his sickbed. First though, Grand Maester Pycelle got a bit of payback for Tyrion’s earlier imprisonment of him, taking oily delight in informing him that Tywin had taken over as Hand of the King, and Tyrion was now, basically, nothing in the court. It’s a small role, Pycelle, but genre favourite Julian Glover has made him a truly loathsome schemer. The schadenfreud as he tossed Tyrion a coin – “for your trouble” – was perfectly played.
Varys got a fair bit to do this week too, which was great for fans of Conleth Hill’s silky, evasive performance as the court spymaster. After informing Tyrion that, whatever the history books might say, some at least would remember him as the saviour of King’s Landing, Varys also got a nice little scene with Ros (Esme Bianco), as he proved immune to her allure but instead of sex bought her complicity as an informant. “Littlefinger sees you as a collection of profitable holes,” he purred silkily, “but I see you as a future partner.”
It was a good scene and well played by both – I particularly liked the expression on Ros’ face when she discovered that there was nothing between Varys’ legs to manipulate. But it was also the first (and not the last) moment that made me wonder about how exactly the characters got to that point, a casualty, presumably, of trying to squeeze such a lengthy, complex book into ten episodes of TV. When last we saw Ros, she was a captive of Cersei, in the mistaken belief that she was Tyrion’s whore. No explanation was given for her current freedom – had Cersei realised her mistake?
At least we got clarity that Tyrion’s attacker in the battle was actually a paid assassin for Cersei, a rare clear explanation in a show full of duplicitous scheming (unless of course Varys was lying). Tyrion’s future in the capital is now evidently perilous, but as he admits to Shae, he loves the game far too much to give it up and escape to obscurity. Peter Dinklage, the breakout star of the show’s first season, has been elevated to top billing in the credits this year, and it’s clearly deserved.
As I say, it was a surprise that the characters in King’s Landing got so much attention with so many other plotlines to resolve or move on, but all got their due moment in showrunners’ Benioff and Weiss’ script. Some were dealt with more quickly than others, but even these had complex, well-played scenes – even if it was only one each.
So we briefly caught up with Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie, now wandering the wastes outside Harrenhal, for just one quick but significant scene. Jaqen H’gar popped up (as if by magic) to explain himself and offer Arya a place with ‘the Faceless Men’, a mysterious-sounding group of which he is presumably one. Maisie Williams as Arya looked tempted, but had to refuse, preferring to try and reunite her family (good luck with that one, they’re all over the Seven Kingdoms). But Jaqen wasn’t quite done with her, giving her a strange coin and the codewords “valar morghulis”, should she wish to find him again. Then he changed his face utterly and was gone, a different man. It was a nicely subtle bit of the magic that the show uses so sparingly, but I have to say I’ll miss German actor Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen.
Brienne and Jaime, clearly now another of the show’s excellent double acts, also got one scene to continue their journey towards King’s Landing. Probably not strictly necessary as it didn’t advance their storyline one bit, but useful as a reminder of where they were, and where they were going. It also gave Brienne, finally, a chance to show what a badass she truly is as they were confronted by a trio of too-inquisitive Stark soldiers, who had previously killed three girls for the simple crime of flirting with Lannisters. After the initial bluff failed and the thugs recognised Jaime for who he was, Brienne slaughtered them all in a single-handed display of the show’s trademark gore. Gods know where she shoved the sword in her last victim – even this show backed off from displaying that clearly – but it looked like a very painful end.
Up at Dragonstone, Stannis too got a single scene to lick his wounds after his defeat at Blackwater, and take it out on Melisandre, whose prophecies of victory now seemed hollow. Carice van Houten as Melisandre yet again pulled out the stops in her portrayal of the Red Priestess as a mysterious, yet alluring sexual presence. Even the furious Stannis couldn’t – quite – bring himself to strangle her, and their scene together ended with him yet again utterly in her thrall, gazing eagerly into the flames of her god’s visions. The Battle of Blackwater may be over, but it’s clear that for Stannis, this is just a pause in the war…
Robb Stark too was pausing in the fight – in his case because right now, love was preferable to war. He’s besotted enough with Talisa to actually marry her, in a typically flame lit night scene, despite his mother’s warnings about arousing the wrath of Walder Frey. All this happened offscreen (as it were) in the books, with Robb turning up married as a fait accompli. Here, Richard Madden and Michelle Fairlie got a good scene as Catelyn reminded Robb that hers too had been an arranged marriage, and she and Ned had grown to love each other “stone by stone”. But Robb wasn’t listening (when does young love ever?) and you can see upcoming trouble for him being telegraphed from miles away.
There was also Theon Greyjoy’s increasingly tenuous-looking occupation of Winterfell to resolve before the season was out, and that was done with subversive brevity. Theon got a contemplative scene with the ever-thoughtful Maester Luwin as Northern troops surrounded the castle, hopelessly outnumbering him. The dialogue was as revealing as ever; Luwin told him, “you’re not the man you’re pretending to be. Not yet.”, to which Theon could only helplessly reply, “It’s too late for me to pretend to be anyone else.”
Too late indeed, as he gave a genuinely rousing speech to spur his twenty men into glorious deaths against the five hundred opposing them. But even his own men have had enough of him, and plainly would rather live than have songs sung about their deaths. So Dagmer promptly clobbered Theon as soon as he’d finished (“it was a good speech”), and dragged him off with a bag over his head. It was now clear (if it hadn’t been before) that Dagmer, played by the reliably loathsome Ralph Ineson (Finchy from The Office) was a conflation of both his own character from the books and that of the equally loathsome Reek. In a show with such an enormous ensemble cast, reducing the character list by combining similar ones is probably a very wise way to go.
But here too we had evidence of problems squeezing the book’s sheer amount of detail into the TV show’s comparatively short run. Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor emerged from their crypt hideout to discover Winterfell burned out and ruined, and Maester Luwin dying in the Godswood. Yet there was no sign of the Northern troops that had so outnumbered the Ironmen, and no indication of why they would simply abandon Winterfell when it’s the ancestral seat of the King in the North. It seemed likely that it was the fleeing Ironmen who’d actually torched the place, but having previously established that a Stark-friendly army was camped outside, you had to wonder why there was no one left when the Stark boys came out of hiding.
Still, they too have been set on a new course for next season. Advised by the dying Luwin to head for the Wall and the help of Jon Snow, the last we saw of Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor was them fleeing the smoking ruins of Winterfell and heading North.
Over the sea in Qarth, we had to deal with Dany’s resolve to go to the scary sounding House of the Undying to rescue her dragons from the cadaverous warlock Pyat Pree. This is one of the weirder scenes in the book, with magic and illusion leaving you questioning how much of what Dany sees in the mysterious building is actually real. Here, sensibly, this surreal journey was somewhat simplified. But we still got some magnificent visuals of Dany’s hallucinatory journey, finding herself first in the ruined, roofless and snowy throne room in King’s Landing, then venturing North of the Wall to where she found a Dothraki tent. Inside, we got an unexpected, and most welcome, return for Jason Momoa as her deceased love Khal Drogo, clutching their child, a vision of the life Dany was forever denied. Emilia Clarke again gave a splendidly mature performance as she rejected the vision’s falsity, even in the face of being reunited with her one true love.
But she still had to deal with Pree, who was doing his familiar trick of appearing in multiple places while magicking chains onto Dany next to her equally chained dragons. We then got one of the show’s truly triumphant moments as Dany exhorted the small creatures to incinerate the treacherous warlock, breaking his magical chains. The shot of her defiant, with the dragons roaring flame like flamethrowers, was awesome. It also made you realise what a fearsome weapon these creatures will be when they’re fully grown; they’re only the size of cats, and they can already incinerate a man from across a room.
And Dany wasn’t done with her betrayers, catching Xaro Xhoan Daxos in bed with her treacherous handmaiden Doreah. Taking the key to his mysterious vault, she found it empty of the promised riches – Xaro had been nothing more than a conman the whole time. Xaro and Doreah got a truly nasty end, sealed into the dark empty vault to die, and Dany ended this year ransacking the riches of his palace. She’s one step closer to buying the ships she needs to return to Westeros and wage war. And when the dragons are grown, who’ll be able to stand against her?
Finally, we had to catch up with the various parties of the Night’s Watch beyond the Wall. Jon and Qhorin were still being led, tied up, to the wildling camp, and Jon was baited into fighting then killing his legendary colleague. It was less clear than in the book that this was at Qhorin’s own urging, a means to get Jon taken into the wildlings’ confidence as an inside man; but the result was the same. Jon was untied, and the last we saw of him, he was gazing down into a valley filled with what looked like thousands of wildling tents.
Elsewhere, Lord Mormont’s party was again represented by lowly latrine diggers Sam, Edd and Grenn. Their usual fun banter (“It’s no place to live where you have to burn shit to keep warm”) was abruptly interrupted by the unprecedented sound of three blasts on the Rangers’ horn. We’d already established that three blasts, unused for centuries, meant the arrival of the legendary White Walkers, barely glimpsed since the show’s very beginning.
And so it proved, as a terrifying army of undead wights began to stream past the cowering Sam, led by a truly alien-looking blue eyed creature riding an undead horse. It was a genuinely thrilling climax to the season, with the zombies every bit the equal of those in The Walking Dead; and it’s probably a bit churlish to mention that the closing shot, of an undead army advancing on the Watch encampment, was essentially identical to the cliffhanger in Walking Dead’s penultimate episode this year.
It’s been a triumphant second season that’s firmly cemented the show’s success, and established that it can work as an ensemble without a central ‘hero’ figure like Ned Stark to hold it together. It’s also, for practical reasons, compressed or omitted many storylines and characters from the book; though as I’ve remarked, now and then this has left gaping holes in plotlines and character motivations. Sensibly, the showrunners have declared that the next, even longer book will be dealt with over the course of two seasons, and from there it may get even trickier as books four and five take place, for the most part, concurrently. Nonetheless, Game of Thrones is now clearly another great success story for HBO, and I’m already waiting eagerly for the next season.