Game of Thrones Revisited: 2.10 Valar Morghulis
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And in 2019, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world. This time we reach the season two finale and a period of reflective change for the series...
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
After the dramatic events of Blackwater, the season two finale Valar Morghulis takes a more reflective tone, dealing with the aftermath of the battle at King's Landing, wrapping up some story threads while setting up the bigger events to come in season three and beyond.
There's a real sense of change, not least because the bad guys have won - if there truly are bad guys in Game of Thrones. Stannis is far from a noble hero, but his crushing defeat at the Blackwater cements the Lannister's grip on Westeros. This is no more apparent than in the scenes in the Iron Throne room as the arrogant, narcissistic King Joffrey holds court with the victors. Littlefinger is given a lordship for fashioning an alliance between the Lannister and Renly's former partners, the Tyrells. Tywin is granted the title of Hand of the King, imposing as ever as he rides in on horseback.
Poor Sansa continues to find herself caught in the manipulations of the court; his actions twisted by the words of his mother Cersei and Varys, Joffrey proclaims his impending marriage to Sansa void in favour of the beautiful and politically astute Margery. And yet for the second time in two episodes, she refuses the offer of escape; whether it is out of fear or desperate hope that things will turn out all right, she is still too naïve to heed Littlefinger's words that Sansa will still be Joffrey's, just not legitimately. Of course that will eventually change, but it will take another season and a bit for her to see the light.
As for poor Tyrion, this is already the beginning of the end of his life in Westeros. His heroics at the battle of Blackwater are quickly dismissed, as he awakes horribly scarred and faced with the smug face of his once beaten rival Pycelle. Stripped off his title, his allies (an absent Bronn is paid off) and his health, Peter Drinklage delivers a vulnerable side to Tyrion rarely seen before. The scene where Shae visits him and offers to stay at his side is heartbreaking, not just because she is the one thing he still has left but because of what will happen to the doomed romance.
While the events at King's Landing sets up new stories for next season, Valar Morghulis does bring some closure to the dramatic events of season two. Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie make their escape and Jaqen h'ghar marks his end on the show, offering Arya the coin that will lead her to the Order of the Faceless Men. Robb marries Talisa, failing to heed the council of his mother, while Mellisandre counsels Stannis in her own fashion, fuelled by passion and seduction. Luwin meanwhile counsels Theon to flee Winterfell and take the black as Bolton's men besiege the northern castle (sadly the budget is used up on the previous episode, meaning we don't get to see any of the actual forces or the attack on the walls).
The finale marks the point at which Theon's grip on power comes crashing down in the most brutal and pathetic way possible. He fails to heed Luwin's words, attempting to rally his dozen Iron Born against the hundreds of Northern soldiers sounding the horns outside Winterfell and for a moment there is the suggestion that his rousing speech might succeed. At least until Dagmer beats him over the head and orders the men to flee through tunnels, not before gutting poor Luwin.
It's a sad end for the Winterfell Master; but the rest of the castle fares little better. Season two ends with the shocking death and destruction as Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor rise from the tunnels and find everyone dead. Poor Luwin dies beneath the sacred tree and the shot of the four walking solemnly from Winterfell, the smoke rising from the citadel that we began with way back at the beginning of season one, is a forbidding end to the season.
There's also an end to the rather unsatisfying Qarth storyline as Daenerys Targaryen (and indeed Emilia Clarke) finally gets something decent to do. The House of the Undying scenes are pure Game of Thrones meet Labyrinth as she is separated from Jorah in search of her three dragons. There's a lot to love here and many of the settings could be considered very prophetic. Daenerys walking through the snow-covered Iron Throne room, it's roof broken, could become a reality for season eight while her journey beyond the Wall is something we finally saw in season seven. The scene with a returning Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo and her unborn son are a tragic reminder of all she lost last season (sadly a reminder too that her storyline in the second season was far less eventful).
Ian Hanmore's Pryat Pree is great, insidious villain and his demise, burned to death by the dragons he sought to control is both poetic, if a little underwhelming. Perhaps more satisfying is Daenerys imprisoning Xaro Xhoan Daxos and the traitorous Doreah in her vault before looting his riches and fleeing the city. It's a strong end perhaps, but also a reminder that her storyline has had little to no purpose and great characters like Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Pryatt Pree and the mysterious priestess Quaithe were far more interesting than the storyline they were presented in. Though perhaps the showrunners did their best; at this stage they're more slavishly tied to George RR Martin's novels and A Clash of Kings doesn't give Daenerys much to do. Fortunately season three, like A Storm of Swords on which it is based, will be far more eventful.
Finally, events north of the Wall begin to do more than tease the audience. Jon is forced the turn his allegiance to the wildlings and the infamous Mance Rayder. It's a small step in what has largely been an uneventful journey for the Bastard son of Winterfell turned Nights Watchman, though Ygritte has helped keep things interesting. Like Daenerys, there will be far bigger things come season three. But it is the final scene that really delivers. Sam is trapped in an oncoming blizzard as the dead finally approach. The Walking Dead's zombies might have terrified audiences for eight years, but Game of Thrones - in my opinion - does it better. This is our first glimpse at the walking dead beyond the Wall and they are a horrifying sight, while the White Walker astride his undead horse really is a thing of majesty and horror in equal measure. That screeching battle cry ends the season on a dark and exciting note.
Valar Morghulis, like many of Game of Thrones' season finales, is a reflective look back at the events of the year and there is a lot here that teases a shift in tone for season three. It's the point where the bad guys have won, the heroes have barely survived with their lives - if there is ever really proper good and evil in the show. And the next two seasons will show we've seen nothing yet...