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Throne of Iron, Throne of Dust: Thoughts on the Season Finale of HBO's Game of Thrones

When all we have in life is stripped away from us, what do we have left? What is life worth then?

These questions hover over the breathtaking finale of HBO's Game of Thrones ("Fire and Blood"), written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and directed by Alan Taylor, which depicts transformative moments in the lives of several characters, who must come to terms with not only palpable grief but also the realization that a brutal new status quo is upon them. It's a somber throughline that links the separate story threads of Daenerys, Arya, Sansa, and Catelyn, each of whom suffers a grievous loss and who must find their inner strength to face the day again.

For a series that engendered some criticism at its outset from critics and viewers about its depiction of women, particularly the lead female characters at its center, it's a remarkable turning point. Each of these women has suffered at the hands of their enemies, losing the men in their lives, until they must stand alone against those who would do them harm. And we see he literal stripping down of each of these characters--as Arya's hair is cut off and she loses the last vestiges of her identity as Arya Stark of Winterfell, and as Dany walks into the funeral pyre to burn off everything she once held dear--there are clear parallels.

(Also of note: there's a potential suicide beat for both Sansa and Daenerys; Sansa seems as though she is going to jump from the Red Keep's walkway, though it's then revealed she wants to push Joffrey. Likewise, Ser Jorah worries that Dany will leap upon the pyre, but she has other, darker plans of survival.)

In fact, it's the female characters we're left with primarily in the season finale, which shows the aftermath of the death of Ned Stark at the hands of Joffrey, who seems well on his way to being just as cruel and merciless as the Mad King himself. It's through their eyes that we see the true sense of what has changed, as Sansa is led to view the heads of her father and her septa, as Catelyn contemplates murdering Jaime in an act of vengeance against the Lannisters, as Daenerys bids farewell to Drogo and learns of her true nature.

Yes, dragons exist once more.

It's only natural that Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen should be the one to bring them back into the world once more. Having lost her husband, her unborn son, and her entire khalassar, Daenerys is once more alone in the world, her kindness to the maegi being repaid with death. Throughout the season, we've seen the signs that have led us to this moment: her seeming imperviousness to fire; her obsession with those dragon eggs. She is the blood of the dragon and while her womb may be emptied as a result of the maegi's treachery, she gives birth to a new race of dragons. Life springing from death, from the ashes of her beloved's funeral pyre.

Stripped of everything--including her clothing--she sits at the middle of the remains of that fire, those three dragons entwined around her, the mother of destruction incarnate. The Dany we see here is vastly different to the one we met back in the pilot episode: a naive pawn in a man's game of thrones. Now we see her as she accepts her destiny, the heir to the House Targaryen, the mother of three dragons. She is the terrible vengeance only dreamt of by civilized Catelyn Stark. It's the perfect way to leave the season, as dragons--and one, imagines--magic itself returns to Westeros and Essos. The girl that King Robert sought to have assassinated has been transformed into a powerful enemy. And people are at their most dangerous when they have nothing left to lose.

So where do we go from here? That would be telling, and I won't spoil what's to come for Daenerys within George R.R. Martin's novels. But what we do see is a war being waged on multiple fronts: while the Starks' rebellion against the Lannisters seems to be the primary thrust, there are other battles being waged elsewhere. Littlefinger remains the most dangerous man in Westeros, and also one of the most powerful as well. His conversation with Varys in this week's episode remains one of my favorite moments: two tacticians weighing each other up, each trying to find the other's weak spot. (And, lest we forget, spiders are hard to kill. They manage to see all and sneak away through the cracks in the firmament.) Daenerys may have lost her army but gained the only three dragons in all of the world. And, beyond the Wall, the wildlings and the most dangerous enemy of them all, the White Walkers, who have roused from their slumber of millennia. While the Night's Watch prepares to go beyond the Wall, the shield that guards the realm of men is at its weakest, made up of rapists, thieves, and cowards. Will the Wall stand if the White Walkers turn their sights on the south? Can the sworn brotherhood be both shield and sword when winter comes?

Mortals may play at the game of thrones, but there are darker forces at play, greater battles than just who sits upon the Iron Throne. The Starks are always right in the end: Winter--and death--comes for us all in turn. Summer knights may play at the game of kings, but they too will be frozen and blue when the true winter descends on Westeros...

And Joffrey may be the very definition of a summer knight, a boy-king who is ill-suited to the job of leadership, a spiteful brat who relishes the opportunity to make his betrothed stare at the disembodied face of her dead father, who tells her that he will get her with child as soon as she bleeds, who won't beat her himself but has one of his Kingsguard do it for him. Sansa sees the true face of her blonde "prince." Like Daenerys, she too must tap into inner reserves of strength she never knew she had, if she hopes to survive. We also see the continued oddness in her dynamic with the Hound, who offers her a handkerchief to wipe away the blood on her face, and bids her to keep it, as she'll soon need it again. Dogs and wolves together, perhaps?

We also see here that Sansa has lost the innocence and naivete that once defined her character; she's grown harder in just a matter of days, a callus over her soul. The old Sansa would never have attempted to murder her king, yet she doesn't hesitate to step out onto that walkway. And I believe she would have pushed Joffrey, if Clegane hadn't have intervened. She might still be a child, but Sansa has proven (at least to the audience) that she's been dangerously underestimated and that in her blood is that of the Starks. Just as dragons are born here, so too is a true wolf.

Speaking of wolves, we finally get to see Rickon's direwolf, Shaggydog, this week... as the continued subplot of the Stark children and their wolves continues apace. Both Bran and Rickon are led to the crypts beneath Winterfell, where they both saw their father in dreams. Both children seem to be having vastly prophetic dreams that are coming true, as the boys are aware of Ned's death before word of his murder arrives at Winterfell by raven. Just what does it mean exactly? How do they know that their father is dead? And how is this knowledge connected to the three-eyed crow in Bran's dreams?

(Kudos too to Natalia Tena for her jaw-dropping performance as Osha. While I imagined Osha extremely differently within the novels, I am now finding it impossible to separate Tena and Osha in my mind. Her scene with Bran here as she resists going down into the crypts was vibrant and three-dimensional, poignant and profound. Whenever she is on screen, it is impossible to look away, her wild nature at stark--heh--contrast with the highborn civility of Bran.)

Elsewhere, Tyrion found himself suddenly in his father's good graces, promoted to serve as the Hand of the King in King's Landing, removing him from the front line of the war and installing him in the comfortable luxury of the Hand's Tower. (Nevermind that the last two men who served that role both ended up dead.) And, despite Tywin's strict instructions that he leave his "whore" behind, Tyrion makes plans to bring Shae to King's Landing. (I'll say that this depiction of Shae is growing on me; she's less of a camp follower and more of a cunning courtesan, a mirror in some ways of Tyrion's own innate intellect.)

Jon Snow debated whether to forsake his vows and meet up with Robb on the field of engagement or remain at the Wall with the Night's Watch. While he does ride off, it's Sam and his friends who bring Jon back to the Wall. Honor before family, it seems. In losing Ned, Jon has lost not only his father but the only connection to his own past, to the truth about his parentage. Ned and Jon never do get to have that conversation about Jon's birth mother, and Ned takes this secret to his grave. In losing Ned, Jon therefore loses a piece of himself as well, another figurative loss to match the others.

Catelyn is driven to bash Jaime's head in with a stone, but she knows that Jaime is worth more to them alive than dead, and she still has hopes of getting her daughters back from the Lannisters. They need a bargaining chip and the Kingslayer is the best one that they could have hoped for. But if the Joffrey believed that killing Ned would serve as a lesson to the Starks, he was dead wrong: it provokes Robb into strengthening his attack and leads the Greatjon to proclaim Robb "The King in the North," and his bannerman to lay down their swords at his feet in fealty.

Not only then do Renly and Stannis pose a threat to Joffrey's reign but so too does Robb Stark... and that's to say nothing of Robert's bastard children who are in the wind. It's no coincidence that Arya--her hair shorn and now calling herself Arry at Yoren's insistence--meets up with Gendry, who is himself heading to the Wall to become a sworn brother. And, just like Dany and Sansa, Arya is not afraid to act any longer. After stabbing a stableboy in last week's episode, Arya isn't likely to lie down and allow anyone to take Needle from her. She can take care of herself now, a lady turned gutter rat, a wolf with a claw.

And this wouldn't be an episode of Game of Thrones without some sexposition in the mix as well. This week that went yet again to Ros, who washed herself and dressed while Grand Maester Pycelle pontificated about his role as the advisor to many, many kings before losing the thread of the conversation altogether. Eye candy to distract from the speech of an old man, one imagines.

Still, I thought that the finale brought together a number of disparate threads (Jon Snow's attempted desertion, Catelyn's fury, Arya's transformation into Arry, Dany's dragons) into a tense and provocative climax for the season. Like Martin's novels, there's an underlying momentum here, a deadly undertow, that keeps the story throttling along at high speed; it's a true serialized narrative, rather than an episodic one, building and building to a final reveal, one that will keep fans of the show anxious until Game of Thrones returns in 2012. (Or propels them to pick up "A Clash of Kings" anyway.)

A reader commented last week that the season began with a beheading and Episode Nine concluded Ned's storyline with a beheading as well. I'd agree with this thought: there's a beautiful broken symmetry here with the two beheadings: Ned swings the sword and kills a boy--who broke his vow of station--despite the fact that he's telling the truth. Ned is killed with the same sword after breaking his vow to serve the king, and whose final words are lies constructed to save his family. Joffrey, of course, doesn't carry out his execution, but gives Ned's sword (Ice, which has been in the Stark family for centuries) to Ser Ilyn to swing.

All it takes, in the end, is one swing of the blade for everything to change. One step into the flames, one foot on the causeway, one step into the darkness. War may have gripped Westeros, but the true threat to the Seven Kingdoms is the one no one believes in anymore. Ice in the north and fire across the Narrow Sea; white walkers and dragons walk once more. And this is only the beginning...

Game of Thrones will return with its second season in 2012.


Donnie said…
Grand Maester Pycelle's expository speech was interesting, but the purpose wasn't interesting dialogue. We learn that Pycelle, like everyone else in King's Landing, is playing a role. He is nowhere near as feeble as he puts on; his appearance of weakness is his armor.
Anonymous said…
I agree, Pycelle was playing his part, the facade of a man on the brink of dementia, slow moving, when in fact, he is spry and cunning.

Great article. I enjoyed your take on the episode. Very seriously thought out.
Maroule said…
yep, the idea is that Pycelle knows the whore is one of Littlefinger's agent so that he passes messages => he is senile, and he will support Joffrey... it's interesting because up until now the viewers also thought Pycelle was indeed totally senile...
BTownBiz said…
Loved this season..but you can just feel teh world teh "Game of Thrones" is taking place in about to explode into something vastly more magical & supernatural..can't wait!!
Anonymous said…
Very nice article. This series has become addictive. I had come to wait anxiously for Natalia Tena's 'Osha' to appear on screen. Arya and Osha have such expressive faces. Wake me after Winter ... in time for season 2.
caithink said…
Can't wait to watch Season 2, even if I've read the novel..
Bella Spruce said…
Great review! I've really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the series. I know a lot of people weren't impressed by Daenerys' storyline at first but WOW did that pay off. The final scene with her was just amazing. And I love how much her character (and Sansa, as you mentioned) grew over the course of the season. I haven't read the books so I'm dying to see what happens next!

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