“The king won’t give you any honours, the histories won’t mention you, but we will not forget.”
Writer(s): David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Director: Alan Taylor
Events: Tyrion Lannister wakes up to find he has been replaced by his father Tywin as Hand of the King — Joffrey casts Sansa aside and pledges himself to Margaery Tyrell. Stannis doubts Melisandre’s powers until she shows him a vision in the flames. Robb Stark marries Talisa, ignoring Catelyn’s warning. Jaime and Brienne encounter three Northern soldiers on the road. At Winterfell, Theon is knocked unconscious by his men, who surrender the castle — Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor escape as Maester Luwin is killed. Jaqen H’ghar finds Arya and invites her to join the Faceless Men. Daenerys rescues her dragons from Pyat Pree and imprisons Xaro Xhoan Doxos for betraying her. Beyond the Wall, Qhorin has himself killed by Jon, while the White Walkers attack the Fist of the First Men.
SPOILER WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS RESIDING BELOW
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In ‘Valar Morghulis’, the Game of Thrones season two finale, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss prioritise narrative functionality and plot efficiency above all else. Their decision is understandable due to the circumstances that arise when the penultimate episode of their political fantasy soap opera was rooted in one location of an entire fictional universe, but it’s an obvious one all the same. Nowadays Game of Thrones is one of the largest entertainment franchises in the world, which means it can produce some of the longest episodes in television history and have people express their excitement as opposed to impatience.
But back in 2012, when this episode initially aired, its viewership was considerably smaller and their leverage with HBO considerably weaker, so broadcasting ambitious seventy and eighty-minute epics was out of the question. But despite ‘Valar Morghulis’ box-ticking exercises, it’s a testament to the show’s character depth, worldbuilding, and plot weaving, that an episode so obviously preoccupied with plot efficiency can still be so engaging and involving. We’re on the brink of this show entering its consistently world class run of episodes, and ‘Valar Morghulis’ is worthy set-up.
Starting with events in King’s Landing, we’re introduced to the surroundings which will dominate our sympathies over the next two seasons, as Tywin Lannister suddenly replaces Tyrion as Hand of the King. Tyrion has been unconscious, presumably for a day or two, following his defence of the city from Stannis’ invasion. Only, instead of waking up to widespread heroic recognition, his blurry vision focuses on Maester Pycelle, who Tyrion imprisoned only weeks earlier. The fact that Pycelle is now free is a wicked symbol of the power Tyrion has now lost — Cersei has weaved her web and snatched any sort of control out of her brother’s hands, filling the Small Council with sycophants. To add insult to injury, Tyrion’s tribesmen have also left the city after the battle. It’s classic Game of Thrones, and it’s a classic morning-after-the-night-before scenario, and Tyrion is feeling the full effects of both.
Also cast aside following the events of the battle is Sansa Stark, whose arranged marriage to Joffrey has been swept under the rug. It seems she didn’t take the Hound’s offer to flee. The Tyrells have arrived in King’s Landing, and Margaery is now betrothed to the king. Player Tyrell has truly entered the game. The news secretly delights Sansa, but Littlefinger enters the frame to remind her that she’s gone from being a princess to a political prisoner in one fell swoop. She and Tyrion are now, to paraphrase Joffrey, the Lannisters’ own to torment. Tyrion can now be constantly undermined and teased by Tywin and Cersei, while Joffrey and Cersei can punish Sansa for “crimes” she had no involvement with. It’s Cersei’s perfect scenario, and the events that unfold after their introduction in this episode will turn us against her even further.
In the Westerlands, Robb Stark disregards advice that would have saved his life had he taken it. Catelyn warns him that, despite his affections for Talisa, he swore a vow to Walder Frey, a stubborn, bitter man who wouldn’t take offence lightly. Robb ignores her, and marries Talisa in a secret ceremony, breaking the vows he swore in the first season. It’s foolishness, and in nine episodes’ time, he’ll bleed out in front of Walder Frey himself, alongside his mother and his wife. It’s hard to see his decisions in this episode independently of the events of the Red Wedding, and for that reason it’s difficult to view their wedding as anything other than set-up — but it’s heart-breaking to watch such a beautiful ceremony and know that it ends in Game of Thrones’ tragically defining moment.
The episode’s defining moment comes far beyond the realms of men, however, as the White Walkers descend on the Fist of the First Men to attack the Night’s Watch. Sam is with Edd and Grenn at the foot of the mountain, hunting for “shit to keep warm”, but three blasts interrupt them. It’s the three blasts Sam warned them about just a few episodes ago, that indicate White Walkers, but his friends have already scarpered and left him behind. The Walkers will destroy the Night’s Watch’s band of brothers during the off-season, as the episode and season cut to black on the shot of them beginning their charge into battle. The Watch’s expedition north to seek out wildling camps and investigate why an increasing number of them are descending further and further south of the Wall will have to come to an end. The attack from the Walkers and the Army of the Dead is the first fatal warning they receive, and it’s one that leaves them with broken, depleted forces, and will send them back to Craster’s, where Lord Commander Jeor Mormont will meet his end. We won’t see the full force of the White Walkers in action until season five’s brilliant ‘Hardhome’, and this scene has a similar feel to the closing moments of season seven — a White Walker attack is an effective epilogue to the season, almost. But their actions in this episode will still have far-reaching consequences with regards to the future of the Night’s Watch.
Season score: 8.4
— Having lost the battle of Blackwater, Stannis Baratheon is back at Dragonstone. How he managed to return there is never explained, but whatever, we’ll just assume he escaped at the end of the battle and fled. He chokes Melisandre to test her faith, and she proves that her devotion to the Red God is unwavering. She shows Stannis a vision in the flames and brings him back onside almost instantly. Their relationship still hasn’t completely revealed itself, and their encounter in this episode is a little confusing, but season three will surely even things out a little.
— During his encounter with Ros in King’s Landing, Varys reveals a little more of his character. His slithering duplicity will return, but his sympathies lie with the characters we sympathise with too. It’s not until season five that his true nature reveals itself, once he’s free of King’s Landing — as Littlefinger says to Sansa, they’re all liars in the capital — but there’s a neat window into his true character here.
— Shae suggests to Tyrion that they leave for Pentos. Tyrion remarks that he’s good at keeping his family in line. If only he’d said yes — he ends up in Pentos anyway, a significantly changed man.
— Daenerys’ uneven journey in Qarth reaches and understated but ultimately satisfying and intriguing end. Her visions of the throne room, and of beyond the Wall, and of Drogo and her son, their origins and significance are yet to be confirmed by the show, but season eight certainly has a chance to bring them full circle. It’s not quite on the levels of surviving being burned alive in a funeral pyre, or destroying a Dothraki temple, or incinerating an entire army, but watching Pyat Pree burn up quickly brings her adventures in this strange city to a nice end. I don’t believe that Doreah would betray Daenerys so readily, but her being locked in the empty vault with Xaro Xhoan Doxos at least puts a decent full stop on this plotline. Daenerys can now use Xaro’s gold to buy ships and sail her way to Slaver’s Bay.
— Jon Snow is shown the wildling camp by Ygritte, who’s about to bring him to Mance Rayder. Jon has just killed Qhorin, who gave his life to buy Jon some time and leverage. Jon’s now the man who killed one of the wildlings’ greatest foes, and soon he’ll be reluctantly welcomed into their pack.
— Arya is invited by Jaqen H’ghar to join the Faceless Men of Braavos. She declines the invitation, but Jaqen presents her with an iron coin. She’ll later use that iron coin to gain passage to Braavos. I imagine, at this stage, the show was considering having the relationship between the Faceless Men and the Iron Bank of Braavos fleshed out a little more. As it is, they remain separate on the show, and probably will for good now.
— Bran and Rickon, along with Hodor, Summer, Osha and Shaggydog, escape Winterfell before it’s seized by the Boltons. Sadly, Maester Luwin is gravely wounded by Dagmer before he can escape with them. Theon takes the siege as a chance to reflect on his upbringing at Winterfell, but he’s gone too far now. He hasn’t taken Yara’s advice to leave, he’s lost the castle, and will soon find himself awake in a Bolton dungeon after his men surrender. It won’t work — the Boltons never miss a chance to flay a man — and it now means the Boltons own Winterfell. It’s where they’ll now sit for four seasons. They betrayed the Starks’ trust, but Theon’s to blame. He’ll pay for it over the next few seasons.