By Rowan Kaiser | Press Play June 4, 2012 at 8:57AM
One of the key questions facing Game Of Thrones the series, as well as its source material, is: “What’s this about?” And by this I mean: “What is this story? How is it being told? Where is this leading?” Certainly there’s drama, and characters change, grow, collapse, or die, but it’s difficult to see a clear structure at times. “Valar Morghulis,” as a season finale, did provide appropriate resolutions for most of the characters’ stories this season. But it struggled to collect them—it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens, in the words of Homer Simpson. Still, it’s a compelling bunch of stuff that happens.
The Hero’s Journey is the default reading of most fantasy stories, and Game Of Thrones gives that opportunity with two of its characters: Jon Snow and Danaerys Targaryen. Both are born of noble blood, but are also outsiders. Both are young, and they are undergoing journeys of self-improvement as well as quests of external improvements. Both are also dealing with the most magic of any of the characters. Dany has her dragons, and Jon has fought one of the White Walkers, while the threat of more wraiths hangs over the Night’s Watch.
I’m not sold on this interpretation—Game Of Thrones seems too delighted to subvert fantasy tropes to fully follow through on the monomyth—but each character continues their journey in “Valar Morghulis.” Danaerys has had a bad season, sounding increasingly shrill over the course of her time in the unfriendly city of Qarth, but the climax of the episode finally justifies the time spent on her this year. Heading into the home of the warlocks led by Pyat Pree, she finally has the chance to demonstrate in action what she’s been shouting about all season, burning the magician and regaining her power. Yet her most important action isn’t her connection with her dragons, inciting them to violence. It’s rejecting the illusion of her dead husband and child. Her more youthful dream of a happy life with Khal Drogo is gone, and the steely Emilia Clarke realizes this quickly, giving her agency over her life again.
On the other hand, Jon Snow’s climactic act, a duel with the veteran ranger Qhorin Halfhand, represents arguably Game Of Thrones biggest failure this entire season. There is a reason for the duel—Qhorin mentioned it in a quick whisper two episodes ago—but if you can’t remember and extrapolate from “I hope you can do what you need to do” followed by a series of louder insults, I can’t blame you. We’re supposed to understand that Qhorin is doing this so that the wildlings will accept Jon, which will make him a more effective spy. But that relies on a single whispered line from two episodes ago. So, for all appearances, Jon is just a dupe, on multiple levels. For a character who could easily be described as the most traditional hero in the series, this is a serious problem.
A second interpretation of the overall story of Game Of Thrones is that it’s the story of the Stark family in a complicated civil war. Our main characters, after all, are Cat, Jon, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Robb, and formerly Ned (also little Rickon, attached to Bran). Dany and Tyrion are major as well, but under this theory, they exist largely to flesh out the story.
Sansa, for example, is our Stark gateway in King’s Landing. We see the new alliance between the Tyrells and the Lannisters both as the political intrigue that won the biggest battle of the civil war so far, but we also see it through Sansa’s eyes. Sophie Turner demonstrates her embarrassment at being publicly humiliated, yes, but also her joy at being free of her betrothal to the sociopathic Joffrey (though this is negated when the increasingly creepy Littlefinger promises to “help” her).
Her older brother Robb has a simpler story—he’s in love with Talisa, and decides to marry her. Cat, still under arrest for freeing Jaime Lannister, tries to talk him out of doing anything foolish, but she has no ground to stand on. Robb both follows his heart and his honor, marrying the woman he had sex with. It’s a sweet scene, and it parallels other loving scenes the episode surrounds it with, but it lacks depth.
Arya Stark has a similar issue, resolving her story with Jaqen H’ghar, but little else. I’ve complimented the child actors on the show before, but there are some issues here. Jaqen invites Arya to learn his killing strengths, but Arya says no, remembering her family. This is all good, but the struggle to remember her sister Sansa is a bit too obvious. It’s still amusing from a character perspective, but it’s quite transparently “television” in a way that Game Of Thrones, and HBO house style, tend to avoid.
A third response to the “What does it mean?” question is the most complex, subtle, and in my opinion rewarding: Game Of Thrones is about war and its effects. One of the things that has disappointed me about this season of the series, compared to the novels, is the lack of portrayal of the war’s effects. The best scene of “Valar Morghulis” finally depicts the brutality of the war, as well as the complexity of morality during civil war: Brienne of Tarth is still escorting the ever-snarky/charming Jaime Lannister to the capital, when she comes across a set of corpses.
They’re three women, hung with a sign saying that “They lay with lions.” The single image conveys brutality: we’re supposed to believe the Starks are good and the Lannister (lions) are evil. Yet here are three women killed for the crime of supposedly having slept with members of the Lannister army. The men who show up to confront Brienne—and explain the deaths—show the issues of civil war. They don’t take initial credit for the killings. They’re not dressed in uniform. They ask Brienne who she serves, but only after mocking her. And they are cruel men, quickly and violently dispatched.
Despite the initial thrill of seeing Brienne—the insulted woman—succeed in her violence, the scene is still discomfiting. The northerners are supposed to be, at the least, more heroic than their southern counterparts. These men are rapists and murderers. But worse than that: Are they even evil than Jaime Lannister, the charmingly sarcastic prisoner being saved by Brienne? Jaime is handsome, clever, and in the main credits, but he’s also Ned Stark’s rival, a man who tried to kill a 10-year-old boy, and he's conducting an incestuous, adulterous affair with the queen. Jaime survives because he’s important. These men die because they’re not. This is the war of Game Of Thrones, and it’s a difficult and bloody war at that.
The episode’s other most powerful scenes also avoid the heroes and Starks. Tyrion Lannister is surviving his wounds from the battle of Blackwater, yes. But his exploits in the battle have been ignored. His father Tywin receives the accolades while Tyrion gets moved to more modest quarters. His only ally is Lord Varys, the eunuch whom the show depicts as having been outmanuevered by Littlefinger’s successful arrangement of the Tyrell-Lannister alliance. Varys brings Tyrion his mistress Shae, leading the to the most affecting scene of the episode, wherein Shae professes her loyalty to the scarred Imp. Both Kekilli and especially Dinklage act the hell out of this scene, providing a stellar emotional core to “Valar Morghulis.”
Finally, the most complete part of the episode occurs in Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy is surrounded by the Bastard of Bolton and his troops, with 500 men against 20. Maester Luwin provides Theon with council, and Theon (and Alfie Allen) lay his entire life, his motivations, and his insecurities out for the viewers and the Maester to see. Here, Theon turns from a ridiculous figure into a tragic one. He has no home and no one to trust, so he relies on his masculinity and ambition to give his pathetic life some meaning. This urge manifests itself in a speech he gives to his men, wonderful both for its position within Theon’s narrative and because it's a joke: he's cut short by his men, who just want to use Theon’s body as leverage to get home. At every point, Theon has been given chances to be better. He has wasted them, trying to gain the respect of men who never would have respected him anyway. This may be Game Of Thrones at its smartest: Theon is trapped by his attempts to be as masculine and powerful as possible. He’s not. Maybe he never has been. Everyone, including him, recognizes this. But he feels that he has no choice but to continue.
Add these stories all up, and what is the sum? I don’t think there is one, other than that the third season, ten months away, can’t arrive soon enough in plot terms. The final two episodes have demonstrated the dynamism that Game Of Thrones’ tight serialization can provide, like no other show on television right now. On the other hand, there are serious issues with Game Of Thrones’ structure. They can certainly be masked by momentum, but the connection—or lack thereof—of the myriad of stories has to be a constant concern for the series’ fans and creators.
Most of the stories portrayed in “Valar Morghulis” are significantly different from those in the book, yet most of these still point to an endpoint of the later books, used as major reference. The Bastard Of Bolton may not have made his appearance here, but the ambiguity about the sack of Winterfell leaves room for interpretation. Likewise, Jon Snow’s arc as an idiot may have been painful, but it leaves him in a position to be less terrible in the future.
My biggest disappointment with the episode—apart from the lack of redemption for Arya’s story mistakes two weeks ago—comes from the Cat—Robb interaction. In the novels, both Cat and Robb discover each others’ crimes at the same time. Robb gets married in the west, then returns to discover that Cat has freed Jaime. His forgiveness for her act based on love is a defense of his own act of love, a manipulation which both impresses and frightens Cat. We only get a tiny part of that in a conversation where an ineffectual Cat attempts to persuade Robb of the virtue of arranged marriage, which Robb can dismiss thanks to her release of the Kingslayer. It’s good—but the scene in the book was great.
A final word has to be given to the cliffhanger at the end of “Valar Morghulis.” The White Walkers have been an ominous threat since the cold open of Game Of Thrones’ first episode, but have rarely been physically threatening. Now, we see an army. And while in story terms, the army of wraiths attacking the Night’s Watch is certainly ominous, the CGI used to depict the supernatural threat just can’t quite manage it. The pseudo-zombies shown are just a bit too cartoonish, and some of the horde that follows are all too obviously just topless actors’ backs staggering in front of a bluescreen. But this is the way the novels’ story goes, so some depiction is necessary. We have to see the undead threat, even if that threat, treated literally on-screen, is insufficient compared to the danger on the page. The episode’s other most powerful scenes also avoid the heroes and Starks, focusing instead on the effects of the war on two of this season's most dynamic characters, Tyrion and Theon.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.