Reviewing Game of Thrones: Valar Morghulis


An explosive episode that was more focused than any other episode in the series to date — everything took place in and around King’s Landing — is followed by an episode that had quite a lot of storylines left to wrap up. The result? The burden that “Blackwater” left “Valar Morghulis” helped to detract from the finale, leaving it a less successful close to the season than last year’s acclaimed “Fire and Blood”. It’s simply the nature of the episode that it was going to be filled with the need to race around creating closure… but part of it seems like the result of a structural misstep on the part of the writers. Perhaps more importantly, however, this episode may have featured some beautiful images and moving scenes, but it was the moment for it to deliver genuine enigma and mystery to viewers, to deepen and greatly layer the narrative, and it was a shock to discover that they didn’t even do it poorly: they simply didn’t do it at all.

“Valar Morghulis” certainly has its places where it shines. Tyrion’s scenes were wonderfully realized, the cramped and grimy chamber he’s been confined to representing how his world has suddenly narrowed on so many fronts: at the moment of his greatest victory as the defender of King’s Landing, he’s been defeated, stripped of the position and the control that he had finally attained for himself. Grand Maester Pycelle is so contemptuous of him that he doesn’t even bother with his pose as a dottering old man, grinning down at him and mocking him with the flip of the coin for the slights Tyrion did to him. Tyrion lies there and takes it, too wounded and exhausted, too numbed by how his father snatched all the glory that he thought was going to be his. To some degree, of course, this reflects the reality that the Battle of the Blackwater Rush was about to see Stannis overwhelm the Lannister forces: Stannis had retained enough men to be able to counter-charge. But it was the time that Tyrion bought that allowed Tywin Lannister and the Tyrells to turn Stannis’s flank and scatter his forces. Varys informing Tyrion that there were those who knew this was a consolation, if a small one.

Similarly defeated, similarly constrained — brooding in his chambers on Dragonstone, the place where he started the season, the place that represents that for all his efforts he was back to square one — was Stannis Baratheon, angry and lost. Stephen Dillane has, I think, won more and more fans over to his performance over the course of the season, which I’m pleased by — I had enjoyed him from the start, knowing how capable he is from his work on HBO’s prestige mini-series John Adams where he played the taciturn, brilliant, and impossible Thomas Jefferson with great skill. His scene with Melisandre dramatizes something that he only discusses later in A Storm of Swords with Davos, and the dynamic works very well.

The feature of this scene that I found particularly fascinating, however, was Carice van Houten’s performance as we glimpse her insecurity before all of Stannis’s accusations: she doesn’t have an answer for what happened (or what failed to happen), and is scrambling to figure out how to turn him back to the path she wants for him. It’s conveyed in the way she holds her arms, the way her eyes look — it’s quite beautifully done. It reveals quite a lot about Melisandre, and perhaps starts to provide viewers with hints that she’s deliberately manipulative, steering Stannis to the course she wants. When she shows Stannis visions in the flames, it’s not as if he’s suddenly developed the art of it: she’s helping him to see them… and that “help” might really entail a projection, showing Stannis what he wants to see.

Which is more or less what happens in the book, but I should note — because I think this is an important character detail — that what Stannis sees is terrifying, promising him a hard and terrible future… and despite that, he presses on, because it’s right. Obviously, conveying that in Stannis’s last words and the look on his face would have been very hard indeed, but it would have been terrific to realize that what he sees proves to him that Melisandre can see into the future… but that that future is a dark one, and that he embraces it and accepts it says volumes about his character. He’s not just a man who’ll throw thousands of lives away to claim his rights — he’s prepared to suffer, even suffer horribly, because what he knows is that what’s right and just is bigger than anyone, even than him. They can of course work this in down the road, this notion that what he sees terrifies him and yet he still goes on… but it would have been economical to do it here, if they could.

The best storyline of them all — or at least tied with Tyrion’s — has been Theon Greyjoy’s narrative, so well-handled by Alfie Allen, and other than some niggling sloppiness in the direction at the end, it was a fine send off for the character, closing his narrative arc quite smartly. This is the sort of care and attention you wished every story line merited, and the kind of writing and character insight that every story line needed, but didn’t necessarily get. Though they fumbled the ball, a bit, by leaving the question of the sacking of Winterfell so thuddingly unanswered (when Luwin was alive and well in the godswood and more than able to tell them what happened), it was beautifully done on the whole. While I worry a bit about what this means for Theon’s role in the next season — will the story be serving the actor, again? — the fact that most of the writers really adored that story clearly showed in how well it was handled.

And for those who cry, “Purist!”, bear in mind that the best scene all season (in my book) was an invented one, the burning of the letter, that added greater emotional weight to Theon’s betrayal than what Martin chose to show (as he held that back until the end); and for that matter, Theon makes a rather different choice regarding his fate than in the novel, which to some degree is a change of character… but it feels true and real in the context of the themes o the series, and that’s enough for me.

There’s a fair bit to like elsewhere, but we’re there and gone so quickly in many cases that it doesn’t feel especially strong, simply holding us back from the major resolutions that have been set up for other characters. In fact, I think this is a genuine problem with this episode: some of these story lines should have been concluded at episode 8. Most notably, I believe Arya Stark should have received her last speech with Jaqen, and his coin, and the words “valar morghulis” in that episode. Some will say, “Well, people want to know where Arya is two episodes later, what happens to her next” but… they’re essentially going to be saying that anyway at the start of next season.

It’s not as if what happens with her is a great resolution to anything, beyond perhaps revealing that Jaqen is a Faceless Men (something that’s never actually said in the novel; in fact, Arya doesn’t quite learn about it until the fourth novel in the series — more on that later) and hinting that some day she’ll be going somewhere else. But… episode eight would have served. Similarly, while my general antipathy to the treatment of Catelyn Stark on the show may be speaking up here, the fact is that those two brief scenes could have compacted a little more and stuck into episode 8 as well. Let people wonder for awhile what the fall-out would be, or perhaps introduce (through Varys’s conversation with Tyrion) that he’s learned that there’s turmoil in Robb Stark’s camp because of a Free Cities girl…

And last, but not least, Brienne and Jaime, the issue for me is two-fold. In terms o structure, I won’t presume to guess how they’ll be introduced in the next season, but generally speaking that first episode or two is largely going to be reacquaintance and setup. Why not leave this scene as the start to their reintroduction to the first seaosn? It’s a decent scene, one that says a lot about Brienne and about the casual atrocities of war in the setting, atrocities that even the brave, “freedom fighters” (a rather jarringly anachronistic phrase to use in this setting) of the North are taking part in (for those who’re curious about how the novels deal with it, it’s not northmen who did it, but riverlords, probably Lord Bracken’s men hanging riverlands women who chose to consort with Lannister soldiers during the war). The other part of the problem for me lies in the fact that it does entail a rather radical change to Brienne’s character: she’s an absolutely ruthless killer.

This is, in fact, nothing like the character in the novels: she’s Sansa with a sword, a naive idealist who’s never killed anyone. It’s part of her arc, in fact, develops over a longer time, and tossing it in so suddenly takes away something from Brienne as an idealist, a woman who believes a defeated foe doesn’t need to die, who doesn’t think dealing death is what being a knight (or an aspirant to that culture of chivalry) is about. Is it something that destroys the character? No. But it takes away part of her story, part of who she is, and frankly it’s more conventional: warrior woman kicks butt and slaughters abusers of women with ease and grace is not exactly coming from left field; a warrior woman who can kick butt but has never had to make the choice whether to kill anyone or not is interestingly different.

This episode simply served too many masters… and perhaps forgot one, in the end: the audience. Not entirely — I’m not saying this was a horrible episode — but there’s one particular facet of “Valar Morghulis” that let me stunned when I saw it: the House of the Undying. I have been critical of some of the decisions the producers have made in regard to their adaptation: the “season of romance” meant that we spent too much time with Robb Stark’s cliche-filled romance with the spunky, sassy Talisa; that Ygritte’s alternating come ones and insults (played very well, and with great chemistry, I won’t deny it; I look forward to Jon and Ygritte next season… but I really wish it was next season) occupied the whole of episode 7 and led to the abandonment of a beautifully cinematic and atmospheric chase scene and ginal capture that Martin had written. But more than that, more than loving actors so much that the story was shaped to serve them rather than the other way around, as it must be, it was the decision that Daenerys’s story needed action. And so what did we get?

Up to the very final scene of episode 6, Daenerys’s story more or less tracked with the novel. Then the dragont theft and the blink-it-and-you-miss death of Irri, which leads to the coup in Qarth and Xaro proclaiming himself a king. Well, that’s action, but… without a political context, without a real sense of this meaning anything, it didn’t strike me as being a particularly strong drive for action. The aftermath of the finale seemed to prove it out: the question of Qarth’s political future, what impact it might have on the place and its citizens, even the detail that Xaro was the Bernie Madoff of his day, has basically earned no attention compared to everything else. Xaro and Doreah’s fates apparently have some wondering at whether Daenerys is cruel or not, but the idea that there’s some kind of political, gritty realism in the place just isn’t sustained. And so episode 8 is the briefest of scenes, leaving us with the House of the Undying…

Which lacked everything that Martin’s version of it had. The House of the Undying is perhaps the biggest single incident in the series that ties the far-flung narrative, which not only encompasses Westeros and Essoss but also the past and the future, together. I knew, going in, that it would be greatly curtailed: time and budget restrictions, namely, would see to that. But I had expected something, just a bit, of the material that revealed an overarching story, “the song of ice and fire” from which the whole series they say they’re adapting comes from. And nothing. Even the littlest, most enigmatic of details — a blue rose growing from a crack in the wall — that could so very easily have been inserted because they literally took her to the Wall? Not there. At all.

Where was the enigma, the mystery that’s won so many devoted followers of the novels? That I see again and again that new readers suddenly twig to when they stumble across it, and they’re floored by it? The act that the novels is full of layers of history and prophecy and foreshadowing is something that readers of all stripes actually adore. They may not all love it… but those that don’t? Most of them don’t seem to find their enjoyment harmed. Doubtless there are people who watched The Sopranos who didn’t notice or care about the little references to details in earlier episodes that deepened characterization.

Doubtless there are people who watch Mad Men and don’t necessarily remember the way Lane Pryce suggested that it’d be Joan who discovered what a fraud he really is, and then getting a very different context for it more recently. These grace notes for characters? Part of the character of the novels is Westeros itself, the world, and the prophecies and the shadows of the past that goes back thousands of years? That’s a grace note for it, one of the most substantial characters in the series, the thing everyone’s fighting over, the thing that may be doomed and is imperiled. It may not be Middle-earth, no, but it was part of Martin’s aim to make people feel invested in these far-flung, fantastical places with their richness of history.

The loss of Winterfell is a fine example: it’s not just a prosaic loss for Theon, or for the Stark boys. Theon Greyjoy tells of how he felt when he first saw it, how strong and ancient it was, and his realiziation it was there long before him and would be there long afterward. Those few words give an inkling of what viewers were supposed to comprehend: not just a home, but a historic site, lived in for thousands of years by the Starks, a place that’s a symbol of something, a place that has meaning. That’s how the novels deal with the setting, and I was glad that the show succeeded in managing that here and there — Winterfell, the Fist of the First Men, the lands beyond the Wall in general — which makes the abandonment of the way it’s all tied together into the present story and in to the future of the story all the weirder.

In the end, it was an episode that occasionaly reached for greatness, but undercut itself by having too many masters to serve, too many storylines that needed to be wrapped up when they could properly have been closed out in “The Prince of Winterfell” to leave room for more story in “Valar Morghulis”. And it failed, in the end, to reach out for the mystery that was hanging there like a fruit, ready to be plucked. The discussion about the series will be focused on the minutae of immediate plot and character movements, and will barely scratch the surface of what more readers had to go with by this same point in the novels.