Game of Thrones: “Valar Morghulis” review

“You’re not the man you’re pretending to be,” Maester Luwin.

“You may be right but I’ve come too far to pretend to be anything else,” Theon Greyjoy 

Last week was the climax in Westeros, this week was the recovery…for the most part at least. Game of Thrones for its only two seasons seems to have borrowed The Wire model of serialized storytelling in that the penultimate episode features all of the action and the final episode features all the characters picking up the pieces from the said action, and perhaps even preparing for what’s to come in season three. For what it’s worth, I might be the final critic/commentator on the web to make this point but had to open up this review with that anyway.

What struck me about “Valar Morghulis” the most was in relation to its season one counterpart: “Fire and Blood.” It actually featured a couple of storylines that attempted to be complete denouements to ongoing threads on the show, doing so with varying levels of success.

Let’s begin with Daenerys and her Qartheen misadventures since if any character has gotten the short shrift in the show and especially in my reviews, it’s the Mother of Dragons. In my review of episode seven, I mentioned that the Qarth storyline reminded me of the much-despised Hershel’s Farm run on this season of The Walking Dead. Both locations brought their respective plots to a near-grinding halt while characters hunkered down in one area  instead of moving forward and inevitably left that location with a new lesson learned and a renewed vigor to keep advancing. Qarth was definitely far more palatable than Hershel’s farm, with more exciting results (Pyat Pree and Xaro’s coup! Dothraki garden party! Mysterious lady with the mask thingy!) but I find the storyline’s conclusion even more heavy-handed.

Dany leaves Qarth with a renewed appreciation for the power of illusion and how it relates to…you know, power. Pyat Pree is quite literally an illusionist, and I love his reasoning for wanting the dragons (they’re a wireless hotspot for magic, apparently) but the reveal of what’s inside Capone’s…I mean Xaro’s vault hammers home this idea of illusion better than any hallucination or vision that Dany experiences in the House of the Undying. But that concept of illusion is so apparent, it takes a little fun away from interpreting just what little Dany could have gained from her Qarth experience. As she and her Dothraki ferret away Xaro’s stuff (FINALLY! The Dothraki get to do a bit of looting), she even sums up her newfound lesson, after-school special style with Jorah.

Still, season two of Daenerys and Qarth in general do get a very definitive conclusion with few hanging threads for season three. I like that the show seems to treat the final episode as a prologue of sorts for the next season, but there still needs to be at least one thread that brings a sense of finality. And not just an end, but an emotional one. I still don’t think Dany’s visions in the House of the Undying serve the theme of illusion particularly well, but damn if I didn’t enjoy seeing good ol’ Drogo back. When Dany says to her Khal “Maybe I am dead and just don’t know it,” she is unable to conceal her smile at the thought of being in the same realm as her sun and stars. It’s the most emotional moment we’ve gotten with Dany in a season that mostly required her to make grandiose statements about “fire and blood” and squeal incessantly about her dragons.

Writers D.B Weiss and David Benioff (a.k.a the Dream Team) seem to want to close out Theon’s season 2 arc in this episode but can’t quite pull it off. Every single moment of Theon in this episode is heart-renching and perfect until the very end. I can appreciate the dark humor of Theon giving a truly impassioned speech just to be undercut by a blow to the back of the head by his far more pragmatic crew (“It was a good speech, didn’t want to interrupt”), but to leave Theon’s fate undetermined was a disservice to one of the strongest stories of this season. Theon’s journey was perhaps the most complete, honest and well-paced of the season, and it needed a proper ending–just one more shot, perhaps. Still, three cheers are in order to the young Greyjoy lad and Alfie Allen for turning in stellar work. Theon was a perfect example of what happens with family obligations and moral obligations clash in Westeros. Whichever wins out, people will die, and humanity will be lost.

This may have been the first episode of the season in which the Wall and the East’s storylines topped the Westeros storylines. Qhorin Halfhand joins Yoren on the list of badass Night’s Watchmen who have truly badass deaths. I don’t think the show did as good a job building up Qhorin Halfhand as a character for his selfless decision to have as big an impact, but the impact it has on Jon is apparent enough to be forgiven. I think ultimately Jaqen H’ghar took a lot of the “look at me, I’m awesome” attention away, and his final little bit of magic with Arya was excellent. Go ahead and Google  “valar morghulis meaning” now, and then meet me at the nearest tattoo parlor to get it inked.

Having Ygritte tell Jon that it was time to meet the King Beyond the Wall immediately before the scene ended may have felt like a tease, an enjoyable one, though. I like that Jon’s point of view in finales can always be counted on to get the viewer excited before going “Lol/jk wait 308 days for season three.”

Speaking of teases: those White Walkers. Hoo boy! The sight of those monstrosities and their undead familiars may not have packed the emotional punch that last season’s final shot did, but I might actually prefer this one in terms of sheer CGI awesomeness. In hindsight, after a whole season full of kings clashing there was no better way to end things than with a stunning reminder that something far more sinister lurks beyond the wall. Great writing, great foreshadowing, just top-notch stuff all around.

Jon and Sam’s “unresolved plots” (that’s what I’ll now be calling all non-Theon or Daenerys plots from the finale) were undoubtedly the best but I’d say Tyrion’s was directly behind them. There are a lot of great actors on “Game of Thrones” and it can often feel unfair to single out Peter Dinklage over everyone else because Tyrion is such a meaty role. But in this episode, where Tyrion has two lengthy scenes in which he does nothing other than lay in a bed and speak, Dinklage still somehow finds a way to burst off the screen. It’s gotten to the point where we should just call any streak of uninterrupted, Emmy-worthy acting brilliance “Dinking” (example: Elizabeth Moss is just Dinking out her mind on Mad Men this season). Tyrion spends so much of this season amassing allies, amassing information, amassing power, amassing everything, just to lose it all in the single swipe of a King’s Guard sword. That moment where he cries in Shae’s arms is beautiful not because it is a love story but because some part of him still believes that the only thing he has left in his life and the only thing that he had to fall back on when everything came crashing down is a woman that he paid for. Tyrion’s storyline will be particularly interested to watch in season three because he is the character whose circumstances have changed the most without a location switch.

Stephen Dillane may have turned in the second best performance as Stannis. It’s a little unclear how he survived but I’m sure very few of us really mind that he did. I think the religious angle was left a little unexplored this season, especially when he chose to leave Melisandre behind

Bran and Co. join Brienne and Jaime and Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie as characters in transit, both literally and in terms of plot. The Bran gang (we need a name for them. They remind me of the Scooby gang but it’s not quite as fun if Shaggydog and Summer don’t speak) is in part an ending to the Winterfell era but also another prologue of sorts to season three.

I was happy that the producers found something for Jaime to do this season (I believe he appears in one chapter of the entire book), but it’s still confusing as to why they didn’t take it further. Jaime appears in a total of four episodes this season and spends two of them in a cage and two of them on the road. The episodes he spent in a cage were so strong and had moments of such perfect character development that I’m a little curious as to why they needed to expedite his road trip at all.

In describing this episode, it does seem like a lot of plot points get cut off fairly abruptly. As I alluded to The Wire model earlier, I think this is a perfectly legitimate direction to take. Sadly, the conclusion to Dany’s storyline just underscores how disparate it was from the rest of the show this season and makes this finale feel a little disjointed at points. Still, despite a couple of trip-ups, “Valar Morghulis” does nothing to jeopardize Game of Thrones status as one of the best shows on TV.

It’s a little incredible to think of just how much season two expanded the world of Westeros and “Valar Morghulis” exists as a promise that this world of dragons, ice-zombies, betrayal and Hodor isn’t getting smaller anytime soon. I’m curious to know if there is a critical mass or breaking point for viewer’s whose brains or attention spans just can’t take anymore…but given time to adapt these large books meticulously enough and fairly enough, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff should be able to keep the magic going.


  • Opening on Tyrion’s eyeball was very Lost-ian, no?
  • I like that the very next shot after Tyrion was verbally abused by Pycelle was quite literally horseshit.
  • I am surprised at how much I loved Maergary Tyrell this season. She’s going to fit in quite well with the schemers at King’s Landing.
  • Nice to see Sansa smile for the first time in forever before Littlefinger goes super creep on her.
  • Ros going for Varys’ crotch and subsequent horror at the fact that this is a man she cannot even attempt to control was great. Ros is a bit of a controversial character amongst readers of the books because she is an entirely new addition but I’m a fan.
  • Jaime’s brilliant put-on lowborn accent just adds more fuel to the “Accents of Westeros and What They Mean in the Larger Picture” essay that I don’t have time to write.
  • “Walder Frey is a dangerous man to cross.” IT’S A WESTEROS PUN! WALDER FREY IS ‘LORD OF THE CROSSING,’ GET IT??
  • Why did Robb and Talisa get married by reciting the Seven Gods? He worships the Old Gods and she’s from Volantis. Regardless, I think we are all going to get invites to Andal-style weddings very soon.
  • “The King won’t give you any honors, the history books won’t mention you but we will not forget.” Neither will we, Tyrion, neither will we.
  • “Eat, drink, fuck” is Shae’s Lorathi answer to “Eat, Pray, Love.”
  • “I need to find my brother and mother…and my sister, I need to find her too.” Awwwe, begrudging sisterly love!
  • My favorite part of Dany’s Drogo vision is that she never kisses him. She knows intuitively that that means the vision has won out over reality.
  • Finally, thank you to everyone who has been reading these recaps of mine. It’s been a learning process for me (look up the word counts of each recap and you can see a young writer coming to terms with just how much he actually has to write to justify his tenuous position as “critic.”) but an enjoyable one. I just hope that I got a little better as it went along and you were able to take one little nugget of entertainment or insight from each one. I’d like to keep these recaps going this summer but don’t really know what to do until Breaking Bad comes back. Any suggestions?

(photo via Game of Thrones Wikia)

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