Last year Game of Thrones ended its first season with dragons, a booming declaration that the show’s ambition was only going to grow as it moved forward. After a second season full of more characters, bigger storylines and deeper, darker themes, it would take a lot to make things even bigger. With “Valar Morghulis,” the show does just that, reaffirming its place as the biggest series on television, and knocking us flat right before the long wait for season three.
WARNING: As always, SPOILERS AHEAD.
In the North: Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) faces siege from one of Robb Stark’s (Richard Madden) bannermen, and makes a hard choice about the fate of Winterfell. Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) comes out of hiding and tries to pick up the pieces.
In King’s Landing: Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) wakes after the battle to find a major shift in power in the capital. Varys (Conleth Hill) makes a move against Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) makes new plans for a marriage that places Sansa (Sophie Turner) in a precarious and more perilous situation.
In the Stark Camp: Robb faces the consequences of his devotion to Talisa (Oona Chaplin).
In the Westerlands: Brienne (Gwedonline Christie) faces new challenges while transporting Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
On the road from Harrenhal: Arya (Maisie Williams) learns of a new dimension to her mission to kill those that have wronged her family.
At Storm’s End: Stannis (Stephen Dillane) faces the guilt and horror of his defeat in the capital and questions the power of Melsandre (Carice van Houten).
In Qarth: Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) enters the House of the Undying in search of her dragons and finds new strength.
Beyond the Wall: Jon (Kit Harington) must prove himself among the Wildlings. Sam (John Bradley-West) and his fellow Brothers of the Night’s Watch are surprised by a devastating new threat.
The first coherent thought I had (after, yes, a few incoherent ones) upon finishing the episode was “Thank the Seven they added 10 minutes to this one.” There’s so much going on. That in itself is a declaration of the episode’s ambition. Every major storyline is covered, and covered with more than just a glance. That’s an achievement all on its own, but the fact that every storyline is satisfying is proof of this show’s brilliance. If you take nothing else away from what I’ve written about this show all season long, take this: Game of Thrones isn’t impressive and worthy of your attention because of its setting or its magic or its epic scope. All of those things are worthwhile, to be sure, but the real reason you should be watching Game of Thrones is that the drama is taut and unceasing, even when the swords are sheathed.
There’s just too much to talk about here, so let’s hone in on a few choice moments, shall we? First, Varys continues to impress me. Hill has taken this archetype and built him into something much deeper, darker and even scarier. I can’t wait to see where that character heads. Second, Dinklage again steals his few moments in the episode from every other actor present, finding the deepest emotions Tyrion’s offered us yet. It’s thrilling when you see a character that’s so ingrained as funny and sharp turn so vulnerable so well. Dinklage really is one of the best actors on television right now, and this episode proves it yet again.
But, for me, the centerpiece of the episode (just like last year’s finale) was Dany. We’ve watched her struggle through desperate times all season, and things only got more desperate when she found herself among the prosperous who seemingly wanted to help her. Now she comes out the other side with yet another baptism by fire, but what happens doesn’t feel like a stale repetition of last season. Clarke is at her best here, and the new level of savagery her character reaches only makes me hungry to see more.
And then there’s that ending. Topping last year’s finale was always going to be a tall order, and it’s important to note that the show’s writers didn’t wait until the end to do it. They didn’t leave us hanging until the final two minutes to show us something cool. This episode was jam-packed with plot and blood and fire and all kinds of dramatic power. But then you get to the end and they top all of that. Last year they ended their season by declaring things would only get bigger from there. This year they did it again. It’s a tough thing to do, raising the bar every year, but after the season we just had, I have all the confidence in the world that Game of Thrones can top itself again next year.