And so the second season of Game of Thrones comes to an end– not with a bang, but with a horse defecating in Joffrey’s court.
There’s much and more that’s worth discussing in the final two episodes of this Game go-round than equine bowel movements, but I keep coming back to that very vivid image presented toward the start of Valar Morghulis. How utterly cheeky of Alan Taylor to symbolize the further dishonoring of the crown and throne of Westeros; in my estimation, there’s no way that’s unintentional, though it could well just have been a happy coincidence. But whether it’s meant to be there or not, that image brusquely and crudely introduces a theme of taint that echoes throughout course of the season finale.
If you’ve ever wanted to accuse me of reading too much into something, well, now would be the time to do it. Maybe literal horseshit isn’t the most impressively intellectual or witty way of underscoring the utter careless disdain with which some of these characters treat their responsibilities and positions, but Tywin’s steed certainly puts a loud, amusingly boorish exclamation point on the end of that particular sentence. But there’s no debating how quickly some of the most important players in the sprawling narrative actively abandon their commitments and duties in the pursuit of their own wants; their selfishness proves a tarnish upon the roles their titles demand they play.
The obvious place to start is Joffrey, the petulant, psychotic, cowardly brat-king, unfettered by the restraints of higher authority. Throughout the entire running of the show, he’s constantly made it clear he’s wholly unequipped and unfit to rule; he’s a fool, he’s a madman, and he’s spineless. But worse than that, he’s flighty and abusive, a teenage boy given the agency to act upon each and every last one of his whims without any consequences and without a single person to tell him “no”. It’s a miracle Tyrion even once manages to keep Joffrey in check throughout the course of the last ten episodes, but everyone’s favorite Hand cannot stop his king from wreaking havoc throughout the realm with his avarice and his complete disregard for the needs of his subjects.
And so Joffrey’s very placement on the throne itself disrespects the authority and meaning of the kingship. Maybe that’s not a grand observation, given the painfully obvious absence of apathy and empathy in his soul, but Valar Morghulis nonetheless serves as the capstone moment of a season which establishes time and time again his unfitness for rule. Yet he’s not the only king in Game of Thrones to disgrace his rank and standing; Stannis, for all of his unyielding justness, murders his own brother in competition for the iron throne, while the late king Robert essentially used his status to recklessly live life as one big unending feast. Kinslaying and Bacchanalian antics, however, may only be slightly worse offenses for a king to commit than oathbreaking, which leads us to…Robb Stark.
Really. Robb may be quite the hero in Game of Thrones, but an oath is an oath, even when it’s made to David Bradley. So when Robb quite willfully and remorselessly breaks his betrothal and his word to House Frey so that he can happily marry Talisa, he’s committing an offense as unkingly as Robert backhanding Cersei in A Golden Crown. Kings don’t get to do whatever they want; they cannot renege on their promises. We don’t yet know the fallout of Robb’s transgression here, but he’s made his stake as a king much harder for us to accept. Kings don’t beat prostitutes, they don’t run from the field of battle, they don’t torment their future queens, and they do not follow their heart’s desires.
Thematically, Blackwater and Valar Morghulis are on point, but staying on theme on comprises a part of the greater quality equation. Blackwater, through and through, represents one of the show’s finest moments; in one hour, we’re treated to a battle far more brutal and introspective and well-choreographed than anything seen in major theatrical releases of the summer (like Snow White and the Huntsman), but we should expect excellent from Neil Marshal. Marshal’s known as a man who can do a lot with a little, and between the sheer scale of Blackwater and the variety of action at hand, it’s clear that his reputation is well-earned. The episode is replete with great moments, both physical and character-based; the turn of the Hound, fleeing the battle at the sight of fire all around him, works as well on the screen as it does on the page, and perhaps even better. Tyrion’s rousing battle speech is immensely moving and a lot of fun, and there’s something exciting and riveting about seeing this man charge into battle though life has equipped him so poorly for it. And all around these characters, death falls from the sky; men are split in twain, decapitated, garroted, burned, stabbed, crushed, and generally ruined in the melee, and all the while our protagonists just stare in sheer awe at the horror unfolding before their very eyes. It’s great stuff, and I only hope future battles receive the same sort of treatment.
Valar Morghulis, on the other hand, may well embody the big problems with the season all on its own. There’s plenty of good material here, but much of it just feels rushed. Danerys hasn’t gotten her fair share of screen time this season, and while that’s likely because A Clash of Kings, the source for S2, doesn’t give her terribly much to do, it’s curious that Dany didn’t have her arc expanded as other characters– again, Robb– did. Meanwhile, Stannis’ scene with Melisandre felt undercooked and, frankly, totally inert. In fact, the entire episode suffered from a form of compression, where everything felt too squeezed together to properly breathe, and that’s something that’s been building for the whole season.
Which, I think, speaks well to the decision to split A Storm of Swords— the next book in the series– into two seasons. It’s a huge book (in the U.K., it comes in two volumes) that’s brimming with big, important, climactic events, and to see it get reduced as several narratives did in S2 would be a shame. That’s not to say that not everything here works; there’s plenty of good in Valar Morghulis, much of it centered around King’s Landing and the various players involved in plots and schemes and doings in the kingdom (favorite random beat: Varys’ sympathetic nod to lady of the night Rose when she clumsily tries to seduce him). But the stuff that plays the best mostly ties back to the better-developed arcs of the season. Poor Theon’s final blaze of glory, which never quite takes off, serves as an outstanding finishing touch to an amazingly well-done arc. Alfie Allen deserves an Emmy, without question, for his work here.
Then there are the gimmes– the little moments that will inevitably come back in the third and fourth season. I’m sure everyone felt the hairs on the back of their necks stand up on end at the sight of a White Walker in full, fearsome view, and I think that while Jon Snow’s arc has been somewhat shortchanged this season, that ending shot of the wildling camp raises the stakes in the battle beyond the Wall in a big, big way. Plus, Dany’s out of Qarth, and she has her dragons– which can only mean good things for all of us. I don’t ultimately think that Game of Thrones season 2 stands up as well to season one, but it’s still strong, and if the creators play their cards right, we’ll all end up being taken on an incredible ride when S3 arrives.