Last night’s Game of Thrones season finale, “Valar Morghulis,” was always going to have it tough. Not only did it follow on the heels of “Blackwater” — a thrilling, climactic episode that was easily the best of the season — but it also had to wrap up a million distinct story lines and leave audiences hankering for season three. So if the entire hour and change wasn’t quite as satisfying a conclusion as I wanted it to be, its shortcomings are understandable. But it did feel like a deflating ending, a not-quite-there episode that spread its arms wide to catch a lot of falling balls, then tossed them all back in the air.
This season has been all about the children of powerful leaders coming into their own, and the story lines that felt most fully developed last night centered around the idea of tests and initiation rites — some successful, others less so.
Poor Theon fell in the latter camp. Holed up in Winterfell, abandoned by his sister, being driven mad by a bugler outside the castle walls, Theon is dealing with the fallout from his rash decision to seize the Stark stronghold. Theon’s narrative arc this season has seen him try to prove himself to his stern, twinned fathers, Balon Greyjoy and Ned Stark. So it was something of a blessing that it was his third father figure, the grandfatherly Maester Luwin, who stood over Theon’s shoulder as the boy hit rock bottom.
Luwin counsels him to undo one dramatic choice with another: run even farther away from home (wherever that is for Theon) and take the black by joining the Night’s Watch. The Wall offers a kind of dark hope — the promise of, if not full and immediate redemption, then at least a way of declaring a kind of existential bankruptcy, allowing even someone as tainted as Theon to step away from the messes he’s made and start over. Each of the major deities are invoked in this episode — the Drowned Gods during Theon’s speech; the Seven during Robb’s rushed battlefield wedding; the Red God in Melisandre’s scene with Stannis, and again when Jaqen H’ghar tells Arya that she can join his assassin’s guild, the Faceless Men, and learn how to sacrifice her enemies to the Red God herself. But this was one of the first times we’ve really felt the spiritual possibilities of joining the Night’s Watch, as opposed to seeing it as a place where society’s dregs get dumped.
But is escape even possible in this world? It’s a question “Valar Morghulis” raised again and again, to uncertain ends. Sansa has been delivered from the threat of marriage to Joffrey and was offered yet another chance to be taken home to the North by a man who seems an unlikely savior, at best. We don’t know yet whether she’ll take Littlefinger up on his offer, but we do know that it’s a hollow promise: to the North lies destruction. Arya, meanwhile, is offered a kind of escape of her own: Slip the bonds of your life and continue to remake yourself through disguises, Jaqen H’ghar says, and you can cleanse your history by killing those who’ve wronged you. Arya is tempted, but turns him down; she has responsibilities to her family — even to her sister, she stresses — that she can’t, or won’t, shirk. Shae begs Tyrion to come away with her to Pentos, where they can eat, drink, fuck, and live like normal people. As wretched as Tyrion has become — face slashed, position revoked, his father (via his horse) shitting on all his good work — he can’t leave. He loves out-talking and out-thinking these “bad people.” “It’s what I am,” he tells Shae.
Theon likewise decides that he can’t accept the escape Luwin offers him, choosing instead to double down and fight. But whereas Tyrion says, this is what I am, Theon poignantly tells Luwin that, while he may not be the man that he’s pretending to be, he’s gone too far to pretend to be anything else. Performance is a key element of power in Westeros (cf. Joffrey, Cersei, and Margaery’s waltz in front of the courtiers of the Red Keep). But Theon has never been able to move elegantly in the public sphere, the way his foster-brother Robb can. At first, Theon’s wild-eyed speech to his twenty measly troops seems like it may be the heroic moment he’s been waiting for his whole life — an act that will sweep away the public humiliations and missteps he’s made in this courtyard before: the botched execution of Rodrik Cassel, the unveiling of “Bran and Rickon’s” bodies that cemented the Northerners’ hatred for him. The speech is meant to echo Tyrion’s rousing words to his besieged men in “Blackwater,” but it explicitly promises what Tyrion was smart enough to leave out: glory. Theon is still child enough to believe in romantic ideals and to trust that the abstract goals that motivate him will motivate others. A hard thwack to the back of the head, just as the music has swelled to a stirring crescendo, disabuses him of that notion. And poor Maester Luwin gets a spear in the gut for his troubles. (The scene with Luwin under the tree in the Godswood is probably the most I’ve ever teared up in the show. Donald Sumpter has really been wonderful all season. But, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luwin has to go so that Bran and Rickon can take off on their journey.)
Jon Snow, meanwhile, fares far better with his big public test — one that also results in the sacrifice of a father figure. By killing Qhorin in a (secretly) staged battle, Jon ingratiates himself with the wildlings, winning a measure of freedom as well as a reputation. Tell Mance Rayder that this is the man who killed Qhorin Halfhand, Ygritte proclaims.
Pouty McPouterson thus wins, with a single sword thrust, the prize that Theon was so ardently chasing and that was denied to Tyrion, who rounds out this trio of unloved sons. In contrast to Jon and Theon’s very public acts this episode, Tyrion is dealing with the humiliating outcome of his big initiation test in the most cloistered, private way possible — hidden from view, his face bandaged, as the court assembles to honor his father, Littlefinger, and the Tyrells. When Varys tells him that Joffrey won’t honor him and the history books won’t record him, but “we” will remember him, it’s cold comfort.
The big test this episode belonged to Daenerys, who finally took matters into her own hands and, by working her way through the trials in the House of the Undying — and firmly rejecting the comfort of her old life, as wife to a strong man and mother to one who would be even stronger — came into her own as a leader. But what kind of leader will she make? A vicious, cruel one, one who proves that the stereotypes about the Dothraki aptitude for pillage are true and who punishes a follower for a few minutes of (understandable) weakness by locking her in a vault to die? It’s not that I expect softness from Daenerys because she’s a woman; this is how the game of thrones is played. But long before Robb was wrestling with Talisa over how to treat prisoners of war, Dany was trying, in her blinkered way, to do right by the Lhazareen women. There was just something painful about watching her pitiless streak emerge, even as it seemed inevitable. As Daenerys walked through the destroyed, snow-covered Throne Room, I couldn’t help but think of Melisandre’s promise to Stannis: This war will last for years, and thousands will die.
Or was it a threat?
Lots to look forward to in the coming season — Mance Rayder, a newly fierce khaleesi, and those white walkers. Even though they reminded me a bit of a Pirates of the Caribbean–themed display at Stew Leonard’s, I’ll admit, I shivered.
Some stray, if not closing, thoughts and questions:
- How did Stannis escape Blackwater? Shouldn’t he have been captured at the end of it? Did Melisandre teleport him back? Also: Hello, Melisandre, it’s nice to see you again.
- I hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Tom Wlaschiha, the actor who plays Jaqen H’ghar. He and his non-standard grammar choices were really starting to grow on me.
- Surely, Margaery, that is too much bosom to show in court? Though I appreciated the pointed, costume-as-character contrast between your neckline and Sansa’s.
- Please, please Varys, be good to Ros.
- I wish I had more time to chew on two moments that seem stubbornly linked in my mind: Brienne cutting down the women who were killed for lying with the Lannisters, and Daenerys locking Doreah away for eternity for sleeping with Daxos. If you have thoughts, please share them.
- How come Khal Drogo’s baby looks so white?
And that’s all she wrote for now. Thanks to all of you readers, who’ve been such great companions this season! You’re all so much more to me than a profitable collection of holes.