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Valar Morghulis: Thoughts on the Season Finale of Game of Thrones

Everything ends.

Life, love, and even dynasties: nothing lasts forever. They all turn to dust, a charnel cloud of smoke, reducing even the stones of a fortress that has stood for thousands of years to ash. Everything crumbles, everything rots, and everything eventually ends.

And even this, Season Two of Game of Thrones.

The season finale ("Valar Morgulis"), written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and directed by Alan Taylor, concluded the second season of Game of Thrones with a powerful episode that built up on the magnificent set piece of the Battle of the Blackwater that last week's episode provided. Despite the fact that, after such a momentous event, the final episode could have felt more like a denouement than a riveting installment in itself, "Valar Morgulis" instead further teased out more tension, drama, and dread, offering an ending to the season that was flooded with possibility, both of life and and of death... but ultimately of change.

While there was no drought of action, this week's episode also offered a reflection upon about perception, deception, and illusion, diving deep into the way in which we perceive ourselves, our surroundings, our failures and our strengths. Providing a strong throughline for the season finale is the notion of the difference between looking and truly seeing, peeling away the artifice to reveal the truth below.

It's a theme that plays out in all of the many storylines embedded within the installment, from the realization of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) that she will never be free and the quest of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) within the House of the Undying, to the seeming betrayal that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) metes out to Qhorin (Simon Armstrong) in order to prove that he is a turncloak and therefore of interest to the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Hell, it's spelled out in the opening images of the episode, a close-up of an eye, belonging to the wounded Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), as we see shadows moving in the reflection of his iris. Gorgeously filmed, it depicts the life that clings to Tyrion: watching but unable to act, as shadows dance around him, first of battle and then of those who manage to save his life.

But just when it seems as though he's made it through the battle unscathed, the sword dangling above his head drops unceremoniously: he's grievously scarred, a red wound across his face, and he's been removed from office. His deeds--the fact that he saved King's Landing--will go unrewarded, his name absent from the history books, no glory affixed to his chest. He's survived, but he's no hero, a fact that Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) takes no qualms about throwing in his face, giving him a mere coin for his troubles. It's a shameful act towards a man who only days earlier stopped the barbarians at the gate, who stood on the front line and held his ground, who refused to bow in the face of terror. The coin renders Tyrion as next to nothing, a half-man with a cheap tip. There is no hero's welcome for the Imp, no songs written in his name, no honor to be had despite the heroism he performed. (It's Conleth Hill's Varys, as usual, who speaks the truth: like the viewer, he too knows of the true deeds that Tyrion performed during the battle. Whereas others might see a "monster," he sees the hero of Blackwater.)

But, in a continent gripped by fear and war, every experience is somehow rendered bleak and tawdry. A ceremony in the throne room of King's Landing, intended to announce that Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) is the savior of the city and the new Hand of the King, is filled with as much pomp and circumstance as you might expect, but what the viewer sees--and which the attendant lords and ladies of the royal court do not--is the horse shit that piles up on the ornate rug outside those throne room doors. Not everything can be controlled or ordered, and there's always, it seems, that reminder of mortal imperfection: of the bodily functions that render each of us less than godly. Interestingly, the episode is bookended by such ephemera: Tywin's horse lets loose a mighty volley of excrement, while the men of the Night's Watch search desperately for waste to burn for fuel, digging in the icy tundra for the very thing that means the difference between life and death. An intentional juxtaposition? Absolutely.

Likewise, the juxtaposition between truth and artifice is enacted within the beautiful and somber scene between Tyrion and Shae (Sibel Kekilli), in which he pretends that their relationship is nothing more than a customer/whore dynamic. But she is not at his side for payment; whereas Pycelle offers Tyrion money, Shae offers him the redemptive power of love. He may see himself as a monster, but Shae sees him for his true beauty, his kind heart, his quick wit. She sees them as bound together, belonging to one another; the embrace that they share is a tearful one unlike that of Robb (Richard Madden) and Talisa (Oona Chaplin) who commit themselves to one another in front of the gods. There is no wedding for Tyrion and Shae and there never will be. Though they may consecrate themselves to one another in the dark of a cramped bedchamber, there is to be no marital union. The tears that Tyrion expresses in that moment is heartbreaking all the more because the viewer can see the futility of their situation: this will not end well. There are forces that want Tyrion dead and they will try again and, as much as he might love Shae, she is a weakness, a flaw in his armor. She can be used to get to him. And, as much as he wants to flee to Pentos with her, the only thing he is good at is political intrigue.

Robb Stark sees Talisa as his true love, pledging himself to her for the rest of their lives. What he doesn't see is perhaps his undoing, trading one oath for another, breaking the word he gave to the Freys. His decision reveals both the depth of his feelings for Talisa (or, perhaps his sense of honor after he had his way with her) and also his own immaturity. He sees himself as immortal or as being able to shrug off the consequences of his actions. But oaths are more than mere words, and the breaking of a sworn oath is a serious crime. Their marriage begins with the seeds of those consequences, their marriage consecrated with a broken promise and the loss of some honor.

Even Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) considers the import of such oaths, weighing the promise of betrothal he made to Sansa Stark when he is presented with a more suitable bride in the form of Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) now that Highgarden has pledged itself allies to the Lannisters. Appearing before the court, Margaery offers herself up as a new bride for the child-king, more suitable than the daughter of a "traitor" to the crown. Despite her, er, proclivities, she is presented as being "innocent" as she and Renly never consummated their marriage, a fact that Ser Loras (Finn Jones) is forced to offer up before the entire court. While Joffrey vacillates about what he is to do (whereas Robb merely acts without thought of repercussion), he does relent, casting off Sansa in favor of Margaery. But while Sansa gleefully laughs, seeing herself as free from Joffrey, it's Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) who forces her to see the truth: severed legally from Joffrey, he is now free to use her even more cruelly. Her illusions are shattered, even as Littlefinger seemingly offers her the possibility of escape...

In order to survive, Jon is forced to murder Qhorin in front of the wildlings that had taken them prisoner. Goading Jon into fighting him, Qhorin knows that unless Jon is seen as a turncloak and an oathbreaker, he won't survive the day once they reach the Frostfangs and he knows that his death can save his brother from a certain death. It's a noble sacrifice that Qhorin makes, giving up his own body so that Jon can survive and come face to face with Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall. But it's also telling that Qhorin's last words--"We are the watchers on the wall..."--are that of the sworn oath of the Night's Watch. Its usage of the inclusive "we" is a signal, a reminder to Jon to not forget who and what he is, a lone raven in a land of ice and snow. Among by wildlings, he is not one of them, but a sworn protector of the realm. While the "free folk" might see Jon as an oathbreaker, the man who killed Qhorin Halfhand, those final words are a symbol of unity, strength, and commitment to their shared oath. His death will not be in vain.

Stannis (Stephen Dillane), meanwhile, sees his defeat at Blackwater as the end of his righteous campaign, blaming not only himself for the death of thousands of men in his army--who perished at the "seventh realm of Hell" amid chemical dragonfire--but also the red priestess, Melisandre (Carice van Houten), whose prophecies of victory failed to come through when he needed them most. I was surprised by his attempt to strangle the life out of Melisandre, and even more so when he relented when she said that her red god lives in him. She is gripped by a dangerous fanaticism, one borne out of the idea that Stannis is the reincarnation of mythical hero Azor Ahai, one that has infected Stannis as well. For a split-second, he sees the price of victory and acknowledges his crimes: the murder of his brother carried out by his and Melisandre's hands, the death of so many around him. But Melisandre offers Stannis two things: another prophecy, in which she tells him that he will betray everything and everyone he holds dear and that his ultimate victory will be worth the cost of perhaps his own soul... and she allows him to look into the flames to see what she sees. Whether this is the truth of what's to come or another dangerous illusion remains unclear, but as the flames burn in Stannis' eyes (there is the episode's eye motif again!), it's absolutely clear that he believes wholly and completely in what she's saying. A little belief can be a very dangerous thing indeed.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) comes face to face with some magic, as Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) reveals himself outside of the gates of Harrenhal. Jaqen gives Arya several things: freedom from her servitude and her false identity, a coin which she is to give to a resident of Braavos if she finds herself in trouble, and the answer to his own nature. Jaqen is a Faceless Man, a member of a fabled guild of assassins who can change their faces as one might a set of clothes. Having repaid his debt to Arya, he sets her on a path of her own choosing, telling her that she can be anyone she wishes to be. She can go with him and learn the secrets of his trade, and enact vengeance on the litany of names she sings to herself before sleep, or she can go her own way in search of her missing family. Here, it's Arya who uses duty and honor above self-interest, opting to reunite with her clan rather than take the path of revenge.

Jaqen's final words to her--the instructions she is to use when she is again in search of him--are significant here: "Valar Morghulis." I'm tempted to reveal just what they mean, but because they weren't translated within the episode, I'm leaving that for you to puzzle out on your own, though the clues are indeed embedded deeply within the series as a whole. It is, in many ways, the underlying theme of George R.R. Martin's grand work as a whole.

While it comprised just a little scene, but I loved the interaction between Esme Bianco's Ros and Hill's Varys, in which he offers her a new opportunity. While Littlefinger sees her as nothing more than a common whore, with "a profitable collection of holes" that he can financially take advantage of, Varys sees the true skills Ros has, soliciting her not for her body but for her mind... and more importantly her ability to ferret out what men are thinking. She's ideally suited to such subterfuge and espionage, another little bird to be added to Varys' flock, a whisperer of secrets gleaned from unsuspecting men. Men, who it should be said, undervalue both Ros and Varys for the organ they lack.

Likewise, I loved that we got to see Brienne (Gwendolyn Christie) cut loose in this week's episode, showing the Stark soldiers and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) the stern stuff that she is truly made of. While they see her as nothing more than a woman, or alternately, a freak, she proves herself more than adept at handling a sword, taking down three armed men without breaking a sweat and dishing out her own unique form of justice, giving two a "quick death" and killing the third slowly for the way in which they killed the women they had come upon. It is eye-opening both to the audience and to Jaime, his look of shock and surprise palpably etched on his face. While we only get this sequence with the two of them, it's a big step in developing their own dynamic going forward. If he believed that he could easily escape his jailor, he would be entirely wrong.

The one sequence I wasn't that crazy about was actually that of Daenerys at the House of the Undying, which I thought was not handled as well as in "A Clash of Kings." While I was happy to see Daenerys take more of an active role within her own story, there was a shabbiness to some of the House of the Undying sequence that was unexpected. I absolutely loved the illusions that she encountered on her quest to rescue her dragons--a walk through a snow-filled throne room in a destroyed King's Landing (her hand nearly touching the Iron Throne), a walk beyond the Wall in the brutal winds and ice, and a fleeting glimpse of paradise in the arms of her lost love, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), and the child they never had. Here, Daenerys is faced with the choice between sweet illusion and its false promise of eternal happiness or a return to the mortal realm, to the harsh truths of what she has lost, an acknowledgement of the failures and losses she has endured. This I thought was handled beautifully without the need for overt exposition.

But it was the showdown between Daenerys and Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore) that I felt was lacking. While it made sense for her dragons to attack him, the final showdown felt more like a whiff of smoke than a full-blown fire. While Daenerys gives the order to her dragons to unleash their fire, the little trickle of flames should have been something that Pyat Pree could have easily countered. Their fire doesn't envelop the room or even, really, the warlock himself, whose magicks should have been capable of putting out such a meagre flame. What I wanted to see, if the writers were going to stray away from how the sequence plays out in the novel, was Daenerys once again surrounded by fire, the dragons' breaths cocooning around her, filling her with flame, reinforcing her own "magic," singing her hair and burning off of her in a magnificent arc of fire and rage, exploding outward at Pyat Pree. What we get instead is a mere flicker (Seriously: stop, drop, and roll surely would have saved him.) and some singed clothes before the warlock succumbs to the flames.

And Daenerys learns the episode's central lesson as well: few things are as they seem, the difference between appearing and being a vast chasm. Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) claimed that wealth beyond imagination was inside his vault, accessible only by a key he wore around his neck at all times. But once Daenerys opens it, she discovers the truth: Xaro's jewels and gold the only wealth he owns. The vault is empty, the illusion shattered. His control of Qarth founded on nothing besides smoke and mirrors, lies that enforced the image he wanted to put out to the world.

Poor Theon (Alfie Allen) is himself caught between the man is pretending to be and the man he truly is, something that Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) tries to teach him before it's not too late. But instead of casting off the shackles of false identity, Theon is condemned by the choices he's made, betrayed by his own men who are under siege by 500 Northerners at the gates of Winterfell, a bag placed over his head, a symbolic reminder of the fluidity of identity: prisoner, guest, family member, hostage. Lord or lickspittle. Theon's speech is him at his best, a symbol of Iron Island independence and a clarion call to arms, but it results in nothing but the destruction of Winterfell and the end of his reign as its lord. What happens to Theon remains unclear at the end of the second season. Is he taken by Ramsay Snow and the Northerners? Is he taken back to Pyke? We're given no clue, though it's clear that someone destroyed Winterfell.

(Poor Maester Luwin, meanwhile, gets the saddest death on the series since that of Ned Stark. I found myself weepy both when he was impaled on a spear and when he begs Natalia Tena's Osha to end his suffering. His death scene in the godswood, in front of the heart tree, was beautiful and elegiac. His goodbyes to the Stark lords both somber and heartfelt. In a series overflowing with death and destruction, Maester Luwin's passing is a true tragedy, reminding us that the death of a good man is always a crime, always felt, and always grievous.)

Finally, there were the three horns sounded on the Fist of the First Men, a signal that the White Walkers were upon the Night's Watch. And that they were, seemingly hundreds of wights heading straight for their encampment, lead by several of the legendary ghouls astride white mares, their glass swords gleaming in the frost, calling their hordes to battle. It's a reminder of the true battle at hand, one that goes beyond the mere game of power: it's that between good and evil, day and night, fire and ice. And those horns signal the start of the real war to come.

Season Three of Game of Thrones will begin in 2013 on HBO.

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