While the series has kept the "Game Of Thrones" title from the first novel, George R. R. Martin's book series is collectively known as "A Song Of Ice & Fire," and while hints of the relevance of that have been contained throughout the show so far, that title has never been so front and center than in "Valar Morghulis," the superb season two finale, which managed to give satisfying climaxes to most of the ongoing stories that have run throughout the last nine episodes, including those that have been rather less developed.
Fire was prevalent throughout, starting with Stannis Baratheon, crushed by his defeat at the hands of the Lannisters. Losing what faith he had in the fire god brought to him by sorceress Melisandre, he's mourning the death of his men, and even that of the brother he conspired to kill, and attempts to throttle his enigmatic mistress. But she won him back once again, telling him to look into the flames where he sees… something. A vision of himself on the throne? More shadow vagina monsters? We won't find out for another ten months or so, but while Stannis is down, he's clearly not out of the game yet.
Daenerys, whose plotline has been dragging its feet severely over the last couple of episodes (probably the biggest flaw of the show so far), also got to play with fire this time around. Trekking into the House of the Undying, where the sinister warlocks have taken her dragons (which, it turns out, improve their magical powers, leading them to hope to imprison her to keep the beasts happy). They lure her through a sort of dreamscape — where she sees the Iron Throne that she wants so much, as well as her dead Khal (a nice cameo from Jason Momoa) and stillborn son — before chaining her up with her scaly adopted children. It's turns out to be a pretty terrible mistake, as the dragons are now grown enough to belch fire, and torch the bald magician to cinders. After that, she returns to seal the treacherous Xaro Xhoan Daxos (and her handmaiden, who appears to have been fucking him on the side) inside his vault, which turns out to be empty in the first place. Still, he's got plenty of exterior wealth to strip, which it looks like will be enough to buy passage across the narrow seas. Looks like we might see a new player in the Battle for the Iron Throne next year.
Fire had a less air-punching effect up in the north: Theon Greyjoy, surrounded by Robb Stark's men, gives an inspiring speech to his men to lead them to certain death, only for his first mate to hilariously knock him out once he's done. We assume we'll see him again — this would be a rather unsatisfying last appearance — but it looks like we're pretty much done with Winterfell: the Stark family home is torched to the ground by the departing Iron Islanders, and its defender Maester Luwin stabbed by the men. He survives long enough for a moving reunion with Bran and Rickon Stark (an emotional highpoint of the episode), before asking Osha to finish the job, and sending them off to find Jon Snow up at the wall.
Of course, what he doesn't know is that, in the icy part of the storyline, Jon is firmly behind enemy lines, and has now even killed a Night's Watch colleague. We're a little unclear as to what was at play here, but it seems as though Halfhand sacrificed himself to get Jon into the wildling camp — the bastard certainly seems to have earned their trust with the act. Again, Jon Snow's storyline has been a bit thin this year, but it looks like we'll meet the much-talked about Mance Rayder, the king-beyond-the-wall, soon enough, so hopefully it'll be more interesting next season.
But of course, the real development North of the Wall was the cliffhanger Sam glimpsed in the closing moments of the episode. While we've seen a few of the zombie-like "white walkers" in the show so far, including in the very opening scene of the pilot, we end the second season as Sam hides (not especially effectively — we wonder if this is the last we'll see of the portly Night's Watch man) from a veritable army of shambling undead, including a white-skinned creature that seems to be their leader. And they seem to be heading towards the Wall. The War of the Five Kings has mostly been wrapping up, but between Daenerys now having the means and firepowers to come to Westeros, and the white walkers, it looks like some new fronts are opening up, and we can't wait to see how it turns out.
Away from the whole ice and fire thing, things aren't looking great for Tyrion Lannister — he's sporting a horrific scar across his face, his sister tried to kill him, he's been replaced by his father as Hand of the King, given new quarters that seem a lot like a cell, has had his men scattered, and is generally on the outs at King's Landing. And yet he can't bring himself to leave, knowing that playing the game is the thing he's really good at. Peter Dinklage was typically superb in his big scene here, and having seen him plotting from the top of the tree across the last season, we look forward to seeing him as the underdog next time around.
Sansa Stark got what she wanted, too: the Tyrells ask that Joffrey marry Margaery to cement their pact, and he eventually consents, meaning Sansa has been cut adrift. But then, as Littlefinger (now the Lord of Harrenhal for his efforts) reminds her, she may be in a worse position now than ever before. Meanwhile, her brother Robb, against the advice of his mother, takes the plunge and marries his love Talisa, and given how often we've been reminded how unwise this decision is, we can't see it working out for the best. And the last Stark sibling, Arya, didn't have a huge episode, but did get to see her assassin chum turn out to be some kind of shape shifter. Finally, Brienne and Jamie had a lovely little scene together, fighting off some Stark soldiers, and we look forward to much more of them together in the third season.
There was an extra ten minutes to play with for the finale, and it really helped the show breath a little more: the choppiness of some of the season was thankfully absent. If the budget can accomodate it, we hope it's an option that gets used more often as the show continues. Right now, the major problem with the show is the sheer number of characters and plots to follow even though the scenes themselves are almost invariably superb, and no show on TV has a better cast. Rumors are that series three will only adapt half of the third book, "A Storm Of Swords"; hopefully that'll give more room to unfold across the season. Either way, the show's really hit its stride in the final couple of episodes, and we can only keep our fingers crossed that it keeps getting better and better. It's going to be a long, long ten months. [A]
Bits & Pieces
– Given the lack of appearance from Davos Seaforth, are we to assume that he died in Blackwater bay? It would seem that way, but given the abruptness of it, we assume we may see him again down the line. The same goes for Theon, too, and Bronn, who was sadly absent from this episode, but has been relieved as the head of the King's Guard.
– Also missing from this episode: Tywin Lannister. But given his new position of power, and that he's in the same place as both Cersei and Tyrion, we expect Lannister family drama to be a major part of the next season.
– Seriously, we do hope that Daenerys gets across the Narrow Sea sooner rather than later: while there's been fun in Qarth, it's also been pretty much a waste of time, and an exercise in wheel-spinning.
– For British TV fans who've been wondering where they know the actor who plays the warlock from — Scottish thesp Ian Hanmore played evil monk Father Angelo in "Doctor Who" episode "Tooth And Claw," and was the lead Fade in Jack Thorne's series "The Fades."
– Looks like Mance Rayder is going to be a major addition to the next season — those who've read the books (while avoiding spoilers) — any dream casting for the part?
– Alan Taylor directed for the fourth time this season, and it was great work once again. The more we see of what he does on this show, the happier we become about him helming "Thor 2."
– Fantasy Joffrey Death Of The Week: He finally gets laid thanks to his marriage to Margaery, and his head explodes.