This review may contain spoilers.
After last week's exciting showdown at King's Landing, it was hard to imagine how the season finale, "Valar Morghulis," might match or exceed such a pivotal moment in the series. But like George R.R. Martin's novels, the series has a way of engaging you just when you think it can't be topped.
"Valar Morghulis" succeeds by successfully capping the remaining story threads of the season with stirring developments.
First, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) awakes to find his glorious actions during the assault on King's Landing have been swept aside by his family. He has been relieved of his duties as Hand of the King, and he is bedridden from a head wound thanks to his sister's failed assassination attempt during the battle. Only Varys "the Spider" (Conleth Hill), Shae (Sibel Kekilli) and his squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) appear to remain devoted friends.
This is an unbelievable and cruel slight against Tyrion that demands a severe counterattack; his enemies are in serious trouble.
With Tyrion relieved, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) appoints Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) as Hand of the King and accepts a marriage proposal from Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). This act frees Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) of her marriage obligation, but Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen) warns her that Joffrey still intends to keep and abuse her.
Baelish promises to help her escape. Considering Sansa's dire predicament, it seems trusting Baelish -- a frightful concept -- may be her best option. Or, perhaps, she should have just been brave enough to accept Sandor "The Hound" Clegane's (Rory McCann) offer of help during the last episode!
On Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) ponders his crushing defeat at King's Landing. The red witch Melisandre (Carice van Houten) continues to promise him victory; she has him gaze upon a flame where he apparently deciphers the purpose behind his costly sacrifices for the Iron Throne.
Meanwhile at Winterfell, a dejected Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) prepares to launch a suicide attack with his men after a portion of the Stark army surrounds the castle. However, his troops have other ideas, and he is knocked unconscious by them and dragged off.
Later, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), Osha (Natalia Tena), Rickon (Art Parkinson) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn) emerge from the Winterfell crypts to find the castle is abandoned and in complete ruins. They also locate Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter), who was stabbed by a Greyjoy soldier. Pleading for them to travel north to the great ice wall to seek safety with Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Luwin also asks Osha to end his suffering. After Luwin's death, they start their journey to the Night's Watch.
Bran and Osha are unaware that the Night's Watch has its own problems, however. Jon, who was captured by the Wildlings, is forced to kill his commander, Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong), in an attempt to win their trust. It's a tragic cost, but Jon is subsequently taken to see their massive encampment, where their "King Beyond the Wall" awaits.
But not far from that encampment, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and the detachment of Night's Watch rangers encounter a far more dangerous foe than wildlings -- the White Walkers! An army of the dead is on the march.
Supernatural events stir across the Narrow Sea too as Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) confronts the warlock of the House of the Undying to reclaim her stolen dragons. Despite the warlock wielding an impressive level of magic in an effort to imprison her, Daenerys' ties to the three dragons prove too strong for him and the creatures turn him into a smoldering pile of burnt flesh. Once again, you can't underestimate Daenerys.
Finally, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) encounters the deadly Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha) and receives a mysterious coin, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) marries Talisa (Oona Chaplin) despite his sworn word to Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) continues to skillfully muscle her prisoner Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) back to King's Landing.
POINTS OF INTEREST
1. Varys recruits Baelish's prostitute Ros (Esmé Bianco) as a spy. After the cruel treatment she has endured, Varys appears poised to get the upper hand on Baelish.
2. Robb's marriage will likely add another foe against the Stark family after Lord Frey's wishes were ignored. Let's hope the Starks don't need that bridge again.
3. Joffrey will probably meet his match once Margaery moves into the Red Keep. The Tyrells are obviously a dangerous family.
4. In the House of the Undying, Daenerys encounters a vision of a dilapidated throne room in the Red Keep covered in snow. Is this foreshadowing her eventual arrival in Westeros?
Allen had another fantastic performance as Theon. Surrounded by the Stark army, Theon's rousing speech to his men ends on a surprising and funny note -- a punchline right out of Joss Whedon's ("The Avengers," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") playbook! And Allen's pained pause to endure an annoying horn blower was priceless.
Brienne's brutally impressive encounter with three soldiers on a road once again showed that nobody seems skilled enough to take her in a sword fight. The impaling of one of the men through his privates was especially striking. But one of the aspects of this scene that also stood out was the men were Stark soldiers. This isn't a simple fantasy series with black and white motivations. Like the real world, a uniform doesn't necessarily reflect who is to trust.
Another standout moment was Daenerys' dragons attacking the warlock as she seemed to sense their intentions or they sensed her distress. Surrounded by their fire, she once again matures into something new and far more formidable.
For once, Tyrion is stripped of his quips in this episode, but Dinklage delivers a moving reaction to Shae's devotion. And Tyrion's account of why he wishes to stay in King's Landing is intriguing and promises to create some amazing scenes next season.
The final scene, as the White Walkers and their army of the dead move to attack, is a fantastic closing image to a fantastic sophomore season.
"Valar Morghulis," like the series as a whole, is an exciting merger of skillful directing, cinematography, acting, writing and production design, all wrapped in Ramin Djawadi's superb score. This is epic television at its peak.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
Season 3 isn't here yet!
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
"Game of Thrones" stars Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Kit Harington, Harry Lloyd. "Valar Morghulis" was written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, and it was directed by Alan Taylor.
"Game of Thrones" returns for Season 3 in 2013 on HBO.
See our Season 1 episode reviews for "Winter is Coming," "The Kingsroad," "Lord Snow," "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things," "The Wolf and the Lion," "A Golden Crown," "You Win or You Die," "The Pointy End," "Baelor" and "Fire and Blood."
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