As it neared the end of its second season, “Game of Thrones” threw all its remaining fuel on the (wild)fire for its penultimate episode, the rip-roaring Neil Marshall-directed depiction of the Battle of Blackwater. For once, the show didn’t skip around the many far-flung locations in which its different stories are developing — it kept to the capital of King’s Landing and the characters who were there engaged in either defending the city or trying to take it down, jumping from Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his forces on the water and on shore to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) taking charge of the Lannister troops to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) holed up with Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) and other noblewomen awaiting their fate.
With its battering rams, swordfighting and ships going up in green flames, “Blackwater” maximized (sans dragons) the whole outsized medieval fantasy aspect of “Game of Thrones,” the one that’s probably the primary impression of the series maintained by anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. It was impressive and messy, even though the show saved some cash by having Tyrion once again pass out and miss a crucial part of the clash (this time around, at least, he got to first heroically rally the troops and see some action). It was the big moment to which the season had been heading, the equivalent of last season’s penultimate installment in which Ned Stark (Sean Bean) lost his head in a public execution for treason.
Sunday’s finale, “Valar Morghulis,” was pleasantly subdued after all that excess, looking in on the aftermath of the battle while teasing out what might come next and reminding us why we’re actually invested in seeing these characters struggle on. By turning to the quieter side of “Game of Thrones,” the finale demonstrated how the show can find time (and could do with finding more) for touching emotional moments amidst the direwolves and named weapons and undead armies in the north.
“Game of Thrones” is so focused on action — not just literally in the sense of combat, but in terms of things happening and narratives moving forward — that it can seem emotionally icy, its characters already a touch alien thanks to the brutal world from which they come and seeming more remote as the show packs in additional factions and storylines moving forward, leaving less time to get attached to any one figure. “Valar Morghulis” grounded the drama a bit by dwelling on what’s already happened and the price that many of these people have already had to pay.
The top priority of “Game of Thrones” is never going to be in-depth character development, but that doesn’t mean that the population on screen can’t give the impression of being complex even if their every facet isn’t going to be explored. “Valar Morghulis” demonstrated how susceptible and human seemingly otherworldly creations like Tyrion and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) are at heart. For Tyrion, that instance came after he woke up in bed to learn that not only does he now have a scar across his face, his ruthless father Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) has arrived to save the day, displacing his son from the position of Hand of the King that he’d so come to enjoy.
It was an abrupt and unhappy plummet from a place of authority for the halfman, who only hours before had been at the head of an army strategizing how to keep an enemy that vastly outnumbered them from breaking down the walls and burning the city to the ground. Power, even in that limited regard, is something that sits better with Tyrion than just about any other character on the show — he has more of a conscious and less of an ego than anyone amongst the nobles vying to rule, and he’s not just good at dueling with “these bad people,” he loves it.
“I like it more than anything I’ve ever done,” he told Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in a crushingly sad moment after she asks him to run away with her — like Daenerys, he’s pulled back to something that punishes him and that may destroy him, because he knows it’s the place in which he belongs. He tries to push her, the only other thing he loves in his life, away as well in a fit of self-laceration, but she sees through him, knows what he needs, and stays.
Daenerys too got an inexpressibly mournful moment in the House of the Undying, when she encountered a vision or a memory or a visitation from her dead husband Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and their stillborn son Rhaego, both alive, whole and waiting for her in a space somewhere not quite the afterlife.
It was an open instance of softness for a character who’s had to learn to be fierce and imperious, and who’s accepted that in order to take back the Iron Throne she’ll always been fundamentally aloof and alone — as she tells the faithful Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), the dragons are “the only children I will ever have.” To see her take pleasure in the husband and child she misses, at least for a magical instant, was heartbreaking and played well be Clarke, who’s become very good at portraying strength while allowing it to be clear that the character has a lot still to learn and more mistakes to make.
Even poor Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who in trying to win back the love of his father took over a castle he couldn’t hold, had his moment of misguided humanity (Theon is really nothing but human weakness). Listening to the siege outside, with no place to run and no way to defend Winterfell against the outside number, Theon took counsel from Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter), who knew the boy for most of his life. The talk with the Maester was a careful one — the man obvious had his own agenda — but it was sweet as well, Luwin offering him the best out he could come up with, even though it was one Theon ultimately turned down.
Theon’s need for praise and reassurance has been constantly at odds with his lack of perception when it comes to people, and his impetuous seizing of the keep in which he was raised was the ultimate folly, impressing neither the family in which he was born nor the one with which he lived. His inspirational speech to his men, in essence urging them to join him in a heroic joint suicide, turned into a parody of the successful one given by Tyrion in the previous episode when he’s knocked unconscious and dragged away. He places value in honor in a way that the kingdom he’s from does not — no matter what he does to prove he’s Ironborn, he’s internalized too much from his time with the Starks.
Even Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) had her moment of softness, insisting on burying the dead girls she finds lynched on the road, though it put both her and her prisoner Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in danger. And Robb (Richard Madden) proved himself the (perhaps foolish) romantic, marrying Lady Talisa (Oona Chaplin) in private instead of the daughter of Lord Frey to whom he was strategically promised. It felt telling that the season came to a close not at the end of the battle, but instead after spending time on these windows into vulnerability, glimpses of actions that aren’t the wisest and are more telling because of that. They were welcome examples of softness in a fictional world that seems to prove itself ever crueler, and even then they came with their own foreshadowing sense of approaching doom.