Game of Thrones: Valar Morghulis

Valar Morghulis is an episode of extremes. Scenes were either really moving or really boring. The changes were either fantastic improvements on the book or messed up everything I loved about it. The episode featured the emotional culmination of many plotlines this season, but, as always, the series refuses to tie things up with neat little bows, and so the episode felt more like it was paving the way for the epicness that is Storm of Swords than providing the punch you might expect from a season finale. Last week was the finale; this one is where the dust settles, and the consequences are revealed. Emotionally wrenching, but nowhere near as gripping.

This review contains MAJOR spoilers for A Storm of Swords.

Tyrion and Shae

So Tyrion saved the city... and has gained a monstrous scar, a complete loss of power and a constant threat to his life in return. Life isn't fair in King's Landing, especially when you're a dwarf. His only friend now is Shae, a woman who he expects to abandon him the moment she sees his fall from grace. She doesn't leave him, continuing her role as the street-smart jaded, but protective-of-those-she-cares-about prostitute from the east and leading to one of the most touching scenes in the show. A few episodes ago, I commented that Shae clearly reacted negatively to saying "I am yours" to Tyrion, and I stand by that analysis. Shae is not the sort of woman who enjoys being encouraged or forced to say she belongs to anybody. However, in this scene, she is the one who initiates these statements. It's not a case of her belonging to Tyrion, but of them belonging to each other, a partnership that she is more than happy to embrace.

Shae is one of the female characters that the show has done right. She seemed a bit of a non-entity to me in the books, and I didn't develop an opinion on her either way. In the show, she's a female character who knows what's what, who takes care of herself, who is insightful and a survivor, and yet who cares for others when she can. She has been a great ally to Sansa, and her romance with Tyrion has been a highlight of the season for me.

But that great "romance" is precisely where things become problematic. As book readers know (and here be spoilers for A Storm of Swords), Shae is bought by Cersei and speaks against Tyrion in his trial, and he brutally strangles her to death. Judging from the way the show has been softening Tyrion's character, it's possible that this moment will be left out, leaving the two of them as an epic, if doomed, romance. Yet this is a major moment for Tyrion's character, and the final kick that throws him into a brutal, jaded, "kill them all" kind of perspective. It cannot be cut without drastically changing his character, but now it cannot be kept without dramatically changing the tone of the scene. In the books, Shae betrays Tyrion because she is, first and foremost, looking out for her safety and her position. Tyrion has deluded himself into believing that she loves him, and his murder of her is a turning point in his cruelty and misogynistic tendencies. He wants to own her, and when he finds that he cannot, he kills her instead. In the show, however, their romance is played completely straight, and I worry that, if Tyrion kills her, it will be played as a tragic but potentially just action, a punishment for Shae being a manipulative, betraying whore.

And that's not OK.

Sansa Stark and Margaery Tyrell

Meanwhile, Sansa gets a temporary, joyful reprieve, after an orchestrated council scene where Joffrey regretfully puts aside their engagement to wed Margaery Tyrell. Margaery is somewhat of a young Cersei, beautiful, powerhungry and able to manipulate people to get what she wants, but she also has power where Cersei never did, arranging her marriage without expecting anything but the power that will come with it. She's another character who seemed somewhat bland in the books (partly, I think, because we always get a contorted view of her), and the show has added to her dynamism and intelligence, making her one of the most intriguing new characters this season.

Margaery understands what Sansa has not yet learned: the game will never stop, so you must always be prepared to play. Women are all pawns, so you must fight through, let others believe you are malleable, and turn yourself into a queen. Sansa's smiling, laughing joy at her freedom was a beautiful thing to see, and the fall a moment later, when Littlefinger reminds her that she cannot leave, and that she now has less protection than before, was heartbreaking. However, I think this is one of the final steps in Sansa learning the game. She cannot trust others. She cannot rely on other people to save her, directly or indirectly, and she cannot imagine that anyone will ever let her go home. She must keep playing until she holds all of the cards herself.

Daenerys and the House of the Undying

And now to the disappointing stuff. The show has been hyping up the House of the Undying for weeks. Every episode, it seemed that her visit was imminent, and every episode it was delayed. And for good reason, it seems, because the House of the Undying was a bit of a non-event, at least compared to the creepy, amazing scene in the books. Her scene with Drogo and the child was very touching, as was Dany's realisation that it was all a trick, that she cannot look back, but the episode was missing the counterpoint to that: all the prophecies that lay out her future for her. The House of Undying is full of visions that remind her that she is just one small piece in this complex web, that things have happened before and will happen in the future that she simply cannot control, but that affect her none-the-less. Their removal was disappointing.

Yet Daenerys also learnt, like Margaery and Sansa, that power is nothing more than a trick, and that she cannot rely on others to offer help. You have power if people believe you have power, but actual gold is far more useful when it comes to buying ships.

And finally, Doreah. After escaping from the House of the Undying, Dany finds Doreah in bed with Xaro Xhoan Daxos and punishes them both for their betrayal by locking them in the vault where Xaro's phantom riches reside. Dany inflicts a cruel, indirect death upon the pair, and we have to wonder why she instantly decided that Doreah had betrayed her, instead of considering that Doreah herself might have been kidnapped or threatened. Dany might think of herself as a just figure, a mother to her people who must reclaim her rightful place so that she can nurture and protect them, but she is, in the end, brutal and just a little bit insane.

Winterfell

In off-screen plotpoints this week, Roose Bolton's bastard from the Dreadfort has Winterfell surrounded with an army, and Theon is forced to try to defend his new stronghold with only 20 men. In an absolutely heartbreaking scene that actually made me cry for Theon (who I usually hate), he rejects the idea that he should be "grateful" about the kind way his captors treated him and talks about the tragedy of belonging nowhere, of pretending to be one awful man because he cannot pretend to be anything else. Resigned to his fate, he gives a rousing speech to the few Ironborn men under his command... but is promptly knocked out by one of them and dragged away. Maester Luwin is stabbed in the stomach, and assumedly the Ironborn men let the army into the walls.

I say assumedly, because this is where the story falls apart. Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor crawl out of the crypts to find that all the men have been killed and that Winterfell has been burned to the ground. Maester Luwin lies nearby and tells them to run North to the Wall, where they may be safe. But (perhaps due to budget constraints) the destruction of Winterfell seemed almost a non-event, and it seemed completely unclear (to my book-reader eyes) what actually happened. Perhaps they are leaving it as a tragic cliffhanger until next season, but as no character even asked what happened to the castle, or questioned why things turned out the way they did, it felt like less of a dramatic cliffhanger and more of a shrug through one of the biggest events in the book.

Catelyn, Robb and Talisa

Is the show trying to make us actively root against Robb? "Catelyn, the word of reason" is back, after a painful sojourn into "Catelyn, the nagging irrational mom," and she's dropping truth bombs for Robb all over the place. Love built over time is stronger than fiery passion in war. He should not dismiss the Frey girl just because she is not beautiful, because she is not foreign and forbidden. And he absolutely should not go back on his oaths and anger the Freys. Robb is acting spoilt, selfish and entitled, and it's making me actively want him to get his comeuppance. Not a good perspective to have, considering the events of the next book.

Jaime and Brienne

This pairing was the highlight of this episode, and I look forward to more of them in the future. The show's version of Brienne is somewhat different from the books -- more stoic, less naive, and much harsher. Brienne has always been the only true knight in the series, protecting the innocent, upholding her vows and despising the act of killing, and the show puts a new spin on this, as she rejects both sides of the war in favor of Lady Catelyn, is disgusted by the mistreatment of innocents, and although she would prefer non-violent means, she is willing to fight and punish those she believes are cruel in a pinch. Her determination to bury the murdered women was a wonderful character moment, her banter with Jaime was spot-on, and it's great to see that Jaime is already developing a strange respect for and attraction to her great skill and no-nonsense attitude.

Arya Stark

Arya has escaped from Harrenhal and is heading home. So far, she's avoided direct bloodshed, but her murderous mantra stays with her, and she's now been introduced to the Faceless Men and their morbid slogan, "All must die."

Looking ahead

I'm still confused about how I feel about this season. Some moments were fantastically done, and some characters came to life on screen when they felt flat on the page. But some characters and plotlines were contorted, even hacked to pieces, in order to simplify the story, condense it for the screen, make it fit budget or just present a different interpretation or theme.  This season suffered partly from time constraints -- now that most of the protagonists are in different places, they usually get one scene per episode -- making it feel more like an extremely long, broken up movie than self-contained blocks of a story. Hopefully with the next book spread over two seasons, we'll have more time for character development, and less need to condense character complexities for plot.

And hopefully, the show will let go of its harmful suggestions that a woman is mostly window-dressing, and must be untraditional, unusual, to be worthwhile.