It’s tough to face a season finale of Game of Thrones, no doubt about it. Ten episodes simply isn’t enough – as soon as I feel my appetite is whet, it’s time for another ten-month break. Brutal, I tells ya – and I already know what’s going to happen (apart from the stuff they change, of course).
As for the finale, they chose an interesting place to end it – not exactly where I thought they might, but close. We’ll get back to the ending in a minute, but as to the final episode as a whole I thought it was very well conceived for the most part. It seemed to fly by in about 10 minutes, and I kept praying there would be one more scene to keep me going. There were some changes – some for the better, some not so much – but all in all, the season ends with the story closer to the books’ canon than I would have guessed a few weeks ago.
Because last week’s episode was the blockbuster Blackwater extravaganza, this one was saddled with the challenge of checking in on as many different threads as it could – and it did a good job of coming close to doing so. It also couldn’t provide the wall-wall-fireworks the penultimate ep did, but I don’t think it suffered much in comparison – offering up in place of grand battles quiet conversations, betrayals and new terrors to take to bed with you. One of my favorite scenes was the one featuring Brienne and Jaimie. Martin has an affinity for odd couple dynamics, and we see them cropping up over and over – and Bri and the Kingslayer are one of the best. These are two people who reveal themselves to be so much more than you think they are when their journey begins, and their strange odyssey is going to be one of the best things in season three.
If I had to pick a favorite moment of the episode it would be up North, in Winterfell – and that’s in spite of the fact that Theon’s part of the story was one of the changes I didn’t like so much. I won’t go into details in case you decide to read the books, but his downfall at Winterfell was quite different – and quite a bit more dramatic – than the TV version. Luwin did suggest The Wall to him, that much is true – and their conversation was largely canon and quite beautifully handled. It’s interesting to see Theon come to grips with just how screwed he is, and wrestle with that part of him that agrees with Luwin – that he’s not the man he’s pretending to be. But he rejects Luwin’s entreaty to flee – in his own words, Theon “has been pretending to be that man for so long that it’s too late to pretend to be anyone else.” I don’t know if the meaning behind what happened at Winterfell – the betrayal of Theon by his men, the burning of the city – was clear to non-novel readers or not – and to be honest, I’m not sure whether it was supposed to be. It certainly is clear exactly what happened in the book, and it’s only hinted at here – but I don’t know if it was poor exposition or a genuine attempt to keep you confused until next season. I’ll shut up, just in case.
But as to my favorite scene, it was Luwin’s farewell to the Stark boys. The poor bastard was mortally wounded trying to save Theon of all people, then dragged himself off to the Godswood to die. It’s just so pathetic and sad – and when Osha brings Bran and Rickon in time to say their last goodbyes, I very nearly lost it. There are so few genuinely good people in this story, people you want to root for because they’re kind and decent – and Bran and Luwin are definitely two of them. Even Hodor (“Hodor”) shed tears at that farewell.
Another great moment was Jaqen’s farewell to Arya, which was relatively loyal to the book too. Jaqen was a little prettier than I imagined him, but he was in essence the man I pictured – and one of the coolest characters in the books. That face-changing thing was quite impactful in the TV version, and the episode isn’t titled “Valar Morghulis” because that’s a throwaway line. Arya’s arc is full of odd couple relationships, and Jaqen was one of her more charismatic “dance partners”.
It’s fitting that things didn’t linger too long at King’s Landing, as that part of the story was largely settled last week. There are lots of seeds planted, but the aftermath of Blackwater is much briefer in the TV version. Peter Baelish sets his talons on the newly-freed from betrothal Sansa – “We’re all liars, and we’re all better than you.” And Tyrion wakes to find a world much changed – he’s disfigured, no longer the Hand, Bronn no longer leads the Night’s Watch, his hill men are gone and his heroic efforts to save the city seem to have been erased. Only Varys seems to hold to the truth, and as so often Varys delivers some of the best lines of the episode. His response of “I thought you said you knew who I was” might have been the best of them.
I really thought they might go for the symmetry of ending with Dany again, as she took center stage late in the episode, though with her arc being so different it would have been hard to guess where. While the details of her visit to the House of the Undying were radically altered, in the end this portion of her arc ends in a state far less altered than I would have predicted. Some of the changes are a little puzzling, since they seemed to lead to the same place (more or less) and they didn’t really add much drama to her arc – though the surprise appearance of her sun and stars, Drogo, certainly was dramatic. Meanwhile Robb has decided to follow his heart instead of his oath (and his mother’s wishes). “Take your oaths lightly and your subjects may do the same with theirs”, Cat says. What’s that old saying about mothers – about how they always know… What was it?
In the end it was at the end of the world where the season wraps up, first with Jon killing Qhorin Halfhand in a manner much different than what was in the books. The reason is the same, and I hope it’s clear enough (it’s obvious that Taylor intended for the audience to know, so I don’t think this is a spoiler): Qhorin figures he’s dead anyway, and Jon might gain some trust from the wildings by killing him. It’s a noble sacrifice by Qhorin and it happened too quickly here, robbing it of some of the poetry and GAR it deserved. Qhorin acted when he did because they were almost at Mance Rayder’s massive encampment – get ready to hear a lot more about the King North of the Wall next season. And it ends with our unsung hero, Samwell Tarly, left for dead by Dolorous Ed and Grenn as three horns ominously blow. Three horns, white walkers – Black Watch tradition for a millennia. I can’t say enough about the way HBO brought the wights to life, and the White Walker on the dead horse – oh, yeah. That was about as creepy and ominous an ending as the season could have hoped for.
I don’t especially want to spend a long time comparing the first two seasons of GoT, but if forced, I’d say that this one was about on par with the first – though there were some obvious differences. Primary among them, I think, is the absence of Sean Bean’s Ned Stark as a spine to run through the entire season. There was no “main character” here – and as Martin’s books progress, the cast gets larger and larger. That’s going to present some interesting decisions for HBO as we progress, and an increasing number of fan favorites will likely be cut (though I was pleased to hear it confirmed this week that two favorites of mine, Jojen and Meera Reed, will be added for season three. Better late than never!). S2 didn’t have to do as much heavy lifting with exposition, but did have to keep many more plates spinning – mostly successfully. It was an admirable effort in making a gargantuan story fit the small screen, and that job is only going to get more difficult with each passing season. And never forget, winter is coming…