Whether by intended tradition or mere coincidence, it's a noted trope of most HBO series that the fireworks, the major event(s) and long-simmering conflicts, come to a boil in the season's penultimate episode, leaving the finale to quietly pick up the pieces and re-set the stage for next year. That was by and large the case with last night's "Valar Morghulis," which was yet another solid Game of Thrones installment. Did it work as a finale? Well, we have our minor complaints about that and the season overall, but we'll get to those later. First, let's talk about the one plot to defy the HBO rule: beautiful Daenerys' (Emilia Clarke) literal fire-works in Qarth.
The Dragon Queen
Last year, amidst the deafening silence that followed Ned Stark's (Sean Bean) beheading, Dany rose out of the ashes and stole the show with the finale, and arguably the series', most memorable moment when she emerged with her baby dragons. After a season spent largely on the sidelines and sometimes absent altogether, last night found her ready for her encore.
Don't get us wrong, we loved every other moment of the finale, but when Daenerys commanded her "children" to barbecue Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore), the creepy orange-tan having sorcerer, our grin was incomparable. They may still be in their infancy, but last night proved that they don't have to be grown to fuck shit up and leave a dude flambé.
The route to reunion was filled with temptations, however. First Pyat gave Dany a glimpse of the Iron Throne she so desperately wants to reclaim. Then he offered a tantalizing vision of her deceased love, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and their healthy son. Still, the cries of her actual living family compelled her to immediately recognize both settings—her past and her future—for what they were: distractions.
After making short work of Pyat, it was time to exact revenge on Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie). Apparently Doreah (Roxanne McKee) contributed to the Dragon Theft Conspiracy and shacked up with the new king of Qarth. Emboldened and hardened by her experience in the House of the Undying, Dany exposes even more lies within the Greatest City That Ever Was—Xaro's safe is empty. The more space for him and the treacherous Doreah to live out their days inside of it while Jorah (Iain Glen) and the rest of Team Dany raid his crib for boat money. Next stop, King's Landing.
Tyrion gets demoted
Remember last week when we expressed fear that Tywin (Charles Dance) might snatch his title of Hand from Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) now that he's at the Red Keep? Well, unfortunately, that happened.
Tywin and Ser Loras (Finn Jones) may have saved the day, but the state of the Keep would've been much worse if it weren't for Tyrion's strategic brilliance earlier in the battle, when King Joffrey had run off like the sniveling, shook little twat that he is. Alas, for his troubles all Tyrion gets is a gnarly scar across his face, a room in the basement, and a coin from Pycelle (Julian Glover), who wears a shit-eating grin. Two weeks ago, Tyrion expressed to Varys (Conleth Hill) that the Hand position gives him purpose and meaning. Without it, he's a broken man with a father who doesn't respect him or his efforts, and a sister who tried to have him killed on the battlefield. Dark times lay ahead for the imp but we look forward to his inevitable return to power. After all, outsmarting the big people is what he's good at.
Do you believe in magic?
The people in Qarth and those beyond the Wall are well aware that the times are not as bland as they appear to be. Magic, and all other once fantastical elements of the realm are slowly but surely returning. By and large, the skepticism prevails though. Last night a few more characters became enlightened.
Somehow Stannis (Stephen Dillane) managed to slip out of the Red Keep and get back to Dragonstone to curse Lady Melisandre (Carice van Houten) out for her false prophesying. Her reply is something that we should all do well to remember: The clash of the kings may have been the focus of this season, but it will surely not resolve itself in one battle. There will be many more to come, and she persists in her belief that Stannis (the Light God?) will emerge the victor. Apparently he believes it now, too, after gaining vindication from some freaky image within fire.
Arya also gets a glimpse of wonder when she has her goodbye with Jaqen (Tom Wlaschiha). He offers her a chance to leave with him and return to his homeland, Braavos, where she can continue the training she started at King's Landing and advance to his assassin skill set so she can wipe out all her family's enemies. She resists in order to reunite with her kin, but before Jaqen leaves he gives her a coin should she ever need him again...and literally changes his face right in front of her.
As many people predicted earlier, the finale saw Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) sacrificing himself on Jon's (Kit Harrington) sword to put the bastard in deep with the wildlings, and the mysterious King Beyond the Wall, Mance Raydor. He's going to have to work quickly too—the zombie White Walkers are rising and they're headed straight for the Wall. Might wildling and Ranger unite against a common enemy?
Speaking of the Wall, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) are headed there upon Maester Luwin's dying orders. Winterfell, long thought to be forever standing, is no more. What exactly went down? Well that's where the finale dipped in quality a bit. Just when it seemed like Theon's (Alfie Allen) story had reached its inevitable conclusion, and he was going to die tragically in the blaze of misguided glory, his sketchy right-hand man knocked him over the head, stabbed Luwin (Donald Sumpter), and brown-bagged the young Greyjoy. Next we saw, Winterfell was on fire and they were gone. Um, what? We'll have to wait and see if they were betraying him to the Northerners or sneaking his foolishly defiant-ass out.
—Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) gets her social climber on and puts Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Joffrey's (Jack Gleeson) impending marriage on ice. She's on track to get everything she wants, but will she and Joffrey be compatible?
—Sansa is free, but only in the sense that she won't have to marry Joffrey. He and his cruel mother, Cersei (Lena Headey), will likely continue to abuse her within the Keep, but in service to his eternal crush on Lady Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and perhaps out of guilt over how he did her and Ned, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) offers to help get her out and to Robb (Richard Madden). But that might also mean taking her as his bride. He did, after all, mention that she reminds him of her mother when she was young. No sign of The Hound (Rory McCann), who dipped out after insulting Joffrey and offering to take Sansa back to Winterfell.
—Speaking of Robb (Richard Madden), he said fuck the Freys and put a ring on Talisa (Oona Chaplin). So there's that.
—Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are still churning comedy gold on the Kingsroad, until things get real and the Beauty is forced to tune up a few repulsive Team Wolf jerks who recognize the Kingslayer. Will she be able to deliver Jamie in exchange for Sansa?
—Varys is very unhappy with Littlefinger's rewards for politicking the Tyrell-Lannister alliance, and is now allied against him with the prostitute Ros (Esmé Bianco), who has endured a terrible year at his brothel.
—Isolated, Sam, the worst Ranger ever, is facing certain death at the hands of those freaky White Walkers.
Season Two Overall
Game of Thrones will easily go down as one of HBO's best series. The universe is so fun and the characters are so rich that rarely, if ever, have we walked away from an hour anything less than entertained. It is nonetheless an adaptation, and season one managed to stay true to the source material (so we're told, at least) while also working logistically as a season of television. This year, the hours felt a little too novelistic.
Some would say the series bit off more than it could chew with the millions of characters, new and old. We would counter that the full house wasn't the problem, but the servicing of the many plot lines was. Obviously every episode can't be as streamlined as last week's "Blackwater," but going forward it may be fruitful to bounce around less and narrow the focus more on a weekly basis. That way we will get more invested with new characters more easily and satellite plots like Dany or Jon will resonate more when they aren't reduced to one scene per episode.
If we have one other minor gripe with the season, it's that it lacked the unifying thread of season one. Dany and Jon are, by design, always off in their own worlds, but too many other characters were lost in their own drama. The actions and ultimate fate of Ned Stark reverberated across the realm and affected every plot. This year, Stannis' schemes, for example, barely registered if at all with Robb or Theon.
Yet and still, Thrones reigns supreme as one of TV's best offerings for the second year consecutively. Season three is coming.
Season Grade: A-