The second season of Game of Thrones ended Sunday night with the finale “Valar Morghulis.” The episode succeeded in tying up most of the loose ends remaining in the season, while providing enough cliffhangers to establish a substantial amount of interest for the next season. Spoilers ahead.
Before delving into this episode, and the second season as a whole, I should note that I read all of the books prior to this season. This isn’t something that can be easily discarded; I have a pretty decent idea of what events are building towards, what characters intend to do, etc. So my perception of the show is bound to differ with someone who is experiencing this series without any foreknowledge.
I must admit, one of my gripes for this season has been the degree to which it has diverged from the books. The world of Westeros has grown in the second season; more families are involved, new characters are introduced, new plotlines are laid above previously existing ones. Unfortunately, the episodes are still 50 minutes and the season is still only 10 episodes long, which means certain events and ancillary characters have to be cut. Certain characters have been forced into uncharacteristic actions simply to fill roles that previously belonged to minor ones, and some major characters are given probably less screen time than they should have had – particularly Davos and Stannis.
But the past two episodes have been nothing short of exceptional. The previous episode contained the Battle of Blackwater Bay, this season’s high point. Tyrion defends the city, only to find himself betrayed by a knight (presumably) sent to kill him by his sister, and escaping with a hideous scar. Stannis, after losing Davos and most of his ships, is thrown back after almost taking King’s Landing by a surprise alliance between Tywin Lannister and the Tyrell family. The main plot point of the season is resolved, and this is where “Valar Morghulis” begins.
A major recurring motif throughout this season has been fire. Stannis Baratheon leads a rebellion with the help of a sorceress who serves a god of fire, and sees visions in flames. The battle upon which Westeros is decided is fought amidst a towering inferno. Daenerys seeks to gain power through her dragons, “fire made flesh”. Fire is bound to these characters, and to the entire show for this past season.
I mention this because this motif was used often and with great effect in this finale episode. Tyrion awakens to the horrors of his burning battle still in his mind and must face its destructive and traumatic consequences; his plans have been dashed and his face scarred. Winterfell is burned to the ground and its inhabitants – save for Bran, Rickon, and their companions – are slaughtered. Jon Snow slays Qhorin Halfhand as a means to gain the wildlings trust, looking back lost and disheartened as they burn his remains.
However, fire works both ways; it is not merely a destructive force but a source of life and power. Stannis’ convictions are revitalized as he sees futures in fire. Inflamed passions are responsible for major political upheavals as Joffery decides to wed Margaery Tyrell, and Robb weds … well, not who he’s supposed to wed. Daenerys’ hopes for returning to Westeros are rekindled, escaping from the House of the Undying as her dragons burn her adversary alive. All hold a promise for a new, better future for themselves.
But as the end of the episode reminds us, that future is in grave danger. Fire may have fueled season two, but as season three approaches, it may be snow and ice that take its place. The Night’s Watch and Jon Snow have been featured less this season, but as the end of the episode teases, their predicament is the most important and dire. Jon Snow comes to understand the massive size of the wildling army, while his brothers are faced with an assault from undead ghouls and the Others themselves. “Valar Morghulis” does an excellent job tying up the final strands of this season while laying foundations for the plot and theme of the next.
Season two is over, and the fires that defined it are burning lower. The cold winds are rising and winter is almost here. Season three is coming, and with it cold and desolation. As the title says, all men must die. I suspect many will next year.