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Game of Thrones: Valar Morghulis

“What is dead may never die.”

“Oh, well,” I said to the cats, “it looks like this will be another solid-but-unexceptional episode in which we check in with all of the important people and set the pieces on the board for next season’s game.” “You sure ‘bout that, stupid human?” they said. And, as always, they were right: what started as a Where Are They Now? episode turned into something wonderful at the end. The House of the Undying was nothing like what I was expecting, and even better than I’d hoped. And: three blasts for white walkers!

Tyrion’s eye-opening scene was reassuring (he’s alive!) and horribly depressing. As Maester Pycelle enjoyed telling him, Tyrion is no longer Hand of the King. His father has received all the praise that Tyrion himself enjoys. Tyrion is stuck in a garret, alone, in pain, and with a gigantic scar on his face. Varys said to him what I said in last week’s review: the history books will not say it, but Tyrion is the true savior of King’s Landing. And no one will ever know.

Or even thank him. Varys made clear what Tyrion and astute viewers might have realized, but which I did not think was very clear at all last week: the man who tried to kill him was in the service of House Lannister, not Stannis, and he was paid by Cersei to do so. Despite that, Tyrion still wants to stay in King’s Landing, helping people by outwitting them. Hopefully he (and Shae, whose affection was quite touching) can continue to make a life there. And this probably isn’t what Tyrion wants to hear right now, but I think the scar is sexy.

Littlefinger’s usefulness to the Lannisters has netted him Harrenhal, the empty gift of grudging thanks. Is it resentment that makes him want to help Sansa and take her from Joffrey? Or is it his weird affection for Catelyn? Did he just want to ruin her one beautiful moment of laughing relief? Or something else, perhaps relating to his desire to stir up trouble in a profitable way? Varys seems to be operating against him, and solicited Ros to help him. Cersei did not find Ros by accident when she was searching for Tyrion’s doxie. Littlefinger put her in Cersei’s line of sight.

All those clever maneuverings are nothing more than a pile of horse poop, though. Twyin is not honored by Joffrey granting him the role of Hand and the title of realm’s protector, because Twyin knows how important he is. Margaery, Cersei, Joffrey, and Pycelle played out a hollow script meant to quash ill-will and gossip about Joffrey breaking his betrothal to Sansa. Meanwhile, soldiers die anonymously in the woods. Some quickly. Some not. (Way to go, Brienne.)

Robb and Joffrey broke their betrothals for different reasons. Joffrey needs a useful queen and knows it; that he is incapable of love makes him a more pragmatic king. Robb needs that usefulness, too, but he is willing to sacrifice the powerful alliance with the Freys for a lovely, useless woman from Volantis. I know we’re supposed to be sympathetic to Robb’s plight, but I have always struggled with just how stupid his decision is. You cannot be a good king if you’re leading with the head that is not wearing the crown.

Stannis had his moment of doubt with the woman who is more important to him than his own (as-yet unseen) wife: Melissandre. Stannis looked more vulnerable tonight than he has ever looked, and Melissandre played him like a fiddle. She does not phrase her promises as such, but rather as history written in fire and blood rather than ink. What did Stannis see? His own victory? Or hints that there is a much bigger game afoot than just the game of thrones?

Theon didn’t see his own defeat coming. Neither did I, in fact. I was surprised that he was given a St. Crispin’s Day speech, complete with rising music and cheering men. His first mate was not wrong: it was a good speech. But Theon getting knocked on the head was better.

It is odd to think that Theon was protecting Winterfell from destruction, but after he left, it was burned. By the iron-born, as a parting gift? By the northerners? As an unfortunate byproduct of the siege? Does it even matter? No matter the how: a castle that has stood a thousand years is now in near-ruins, although most of the stone still stands. I wish they’d had the special effects budget to show us just how ruined it was.

What we saw when Bran, Osha, Hodor, and Rickon was sad enough, though. I started crying when I heard the direwolves (hello puppies!) whimpering, and by Maester Luwin’s death I was sobbing. Poor Bran and Rickon: they have lost so many people. And they head north, unaware that Jon Snow is not at the wall but much farther away.

Speaking of Jon Snow: holy zombie cow! Coached by Halfhand to pretend to betray the Black Brothers, Jon now has an in with Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-The-Wall who has a gigantic army of wildlings amassed in a valley. Perhaps they can be useful in the fight against the


that appears to be coming to a kingdom near you. That scene is just an echo of its analog in the books, and I was delightfully, perfectly, wonderfully astonished by how horrifying the White Walkers are. And how many of them there are. Did you notice how it got colder as they got closer? How they are immune to the cold? How they are truly creepy and so very numerous? Are you incredibly excited to see them again?

The White Walkers should remind us of something that has been lurking in the background but not hammered home this season: there is a threat beyond the Wall, and the kingdom of Westeros is in a uniquely unprepared situation, divided as it is. The Warlocks told Dany that their magic has become stronger since she arrived: the dragons, the ominous comet earlier this season, and the increased activity of the White Walkers all seem to be connected somehow, although of course no one is in a position to make that connection besides us. They are too preoccupied playing busy, meaningless games of thrones to remember that winter is coming.

Dany’s sojourn in the House of the Undying was wonderful. It is different in the books, and I was prepared to be underwhelmed by a faithful adaptation. But it was a lovely sequence, reminiscent of the series finale of Awake. She encountered a series of temptations, or maybe a series of possible realities. Or both? The ways of magic are strange. The King’s Landing throne room was starkly beautiful: a caved-in roof, no light behind the Seven-Pointed Star (the religious symbol of the “new gods”), and entirely covered in snow. Is that what will happen down the line, as winter reaches King’s Landing and gives the White Walkers a chance to take over the island? Is that what Stannis saw?

The Iron Throne led to the Wall, perhaps suggesting just how easy it would be for the White Walkers to get from one to another. Or perhaps it means that Dany, when she rules Westeros, must remember that the greatest threats come from being so preoccupied with domestic matters that foreign threats are ignored.

“Maybe I refused to enter the Night Lands without you," said Khal Drogo. “Maybe I told the Great Stallion to go f*ck himself and came back here to wait for you.” Khal Drogo and the baby represented the might-have-been, but also gave Dany a chance to make sure her priorities were in order. She cannot be distracted by love, because she has lost it. She managed to walk away from her adorable baby and beloved husband to find what matters more to her: the dragons and, eventually, Westeros.

I will leave those of you who have not read the books to discover the meaning of valar morghulis on your own if you choose to. (Arya does not know what it means yet, but she will.) But I will mention that this episode raised a series of questions that might not be explicitly answered, but will at least become more important as the book series and the TV series continue:

What does it mean, though, that Khal Drogo opened up the possibility of a life beyond this life, a life in death that is worth unliving? What does it mean, that we got (what I think is) our first mention of heaven (by Theon) and of structured, Dantesque hell (by Stannis)? Do these allusions add up to nothing? How do they relate to Luwin’s assertion that he “will be right here,” in the godswood at Winterfell? Do they foreshadow the opening up of this universe to the otherworlds of the afterlife? Or do they remind us of how life does not end, what is dead does not die, whether it is in another world or the more horrifying prospect of becoming a zombie?

As I have said countless times, Game of Thrones is not about easy answers. It is about the realism of herteroglossia: different voices in cacophonous disagreement about questions big and small. In that, both the books and the show are excellent and challenging in a way that most literature and most TV shows are not. The refusal to provide us with trite philosophical panaceas is not a negation, but a perpetual opening of possibility. Where will those possibilities take us? We have to wait until April 2013 to find out.

Grumpkins and Snarks:

• Margaery: “Tales of your courage and wisdom have never been far from my ears. And those tales have taken root deep inside me.” Yeah, baby.

• Varys: “Littlefinger looks at you and sees a collection of profitable holes.”

• Theon: “Thank you, wise bald man.”

• Tyrion: “Pod, would it be excessive of me to ask you to save my life twice in one week?”
Pod: “No, my lord.”
I love Pod. I would like a Pod of my own.

• Shae: “Going in to war, fighting soldiers? You’re terrible at this.” I also love Shae. She really is the perfect woman for Tyrion.

• Khal Drogo: “These are questions for wise men with skinny arms.” Khal Drogo, I have missed you! What a great surprise to see him. It makes me even more excited to see what they do with Naked Ned Stark next season.

• Nice callback to Tyrion leaving coins for Pycelle’s prostitute. And to Pycelle’s enduring hatred for Tyrion.

• I couldn’t manage to work Arya into this review, so I’ll use the bullet point to say goodbye to J’aqen Hagar, who is now another man.

• Those dragons are the cutest little things I have ever seen. They were even cuter than Dany’s baby. I want to pat their heads.

• Doreah, traitorous slut, you deserved your fate.

• And the Dothraki finally got to loot something! I loved the shot of two of them carrying a gigantic gold-plated chair out of the palace. It’s not really practical for horse travel.

Thoughts on the Season

Game of Thrones is the hardest show to review of all those I’ve written about—and that includes FlashForward and Persons Unknown, two of DouxReviews.com’s more infamous duds. Navigating the treacherous waters of potential spoilers is a part of the challenge, but the sheer scope of the show makes breaking it down piecemeal each week nearly impossible. This season, Game of Thrones became much more comfortable with its own shifting perspectives: sometimes, we saw the widescreen version of history played out for us. Other times, as in “A Man Without Honor,” we were reminded of the people participating in that history.

Those people have also become more interesting. The first season was quite strong, and I didn’t feel like it was lacking anything at the time. But this second season raised the bar even higher: people were more peopleish and less like exposition-delivery machines with strong sexual drives. Dialogue was more natural. The costumes were even more wonderful. The budget was bigger, the settings more epic, the sex less expositiony. Above all, GoT finally learned how to move past the books, to make changes for purposes both dramatic and utilitarian. Some of those changes have irked some fans, but I remain solidly impressed by the changes that were made and how they’re knitting a complicated fabric out of the material in Martin’s books.

Season Three will cover at least part of the third book in the series (A Storm of Swords), and it will contain some striking scenes on par with last season’s “Baelor” and this season’s wonderful “Blackwater.” But I’m most excited about returning to the characters and their interactions, which the show has come to excel at: Brienne and Jaime. Arya’s journey. Dany’s frightening, growing strength. Margaery vs. Cersei. Tyrion and Shae and Varys and Littlefinger. I hope, and trust, that Game of Thrones will continue to find the perfect balance between the big and the small, and I remain wholeheartedly impressed by what they have done so far.

Four out of four white walkers.

[Reminder: book vs. show discussion is here, and that’s the place where book-spoilers live.]

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. Maybe it's because I am a complete Jack Gleeson/Natalie Dormer fangirl, but I loved the little encounter between Joffrey and Margaery. And holy cow can Natalie pull that dress off!

    And Theon, my silly little Chihuahua... For a character that is almost as hated as Joffrey, Alfie Allen does a good job. I loved his speech and laughed when he got conked on the head.

    KHAL DROGO. That is all.

    I am so looking forward to Margaery vs. Cersei in season three. You just know if you stick Lena and Natalie in a scene together it's going to be amazing.

    I've loved your reviews, Josie. Thank you for reviewing Game of Thrones :)

  2. You are quite welcome, Morgan! Thank you for introducing the Theon-as-Chichuahua theme. I thought of you when I chose the picture for the top of this review.

  3. I, too, am looking forward to Cersei v. Margaery, and more Brienne and Jaime. I loved their scene in this episode. She's is so wonderfully badass, and I was delighted to see Jaime recognizing this fact.

    Theon's story was quite strong this season, and this episode brought it to a fairly satisfying conclusion (for now). I really enjoyed both the comedy and the drama they worked into his scene with Maester Luwin, and chuckled quite heartily at Theon's sideways look of frustrated anger when the horn kept blowing in the distance. Alfie Allen has done a great job with this role.

    Maester Luwin's death was absolutely crushing. I sobbed quite openly during his final moments. He was one of my favorite tertiary characters on screen, and I will miss him tremendously.

    I understand why they made the changes they did for the House of the Undying sequence, and in my head, I think they probably made the smart choice to focus on an attempt to sway Dany from her path through temptation. But in my heart, I was disappointed with the changes. I was completely fascinated by the glimpses of the past and the portents of potential futures that the sequence contained in the book --- particularly the prophesies for Dany, herself --- and I was looking forward to seeing these things introduced to the show. Also, I wanted to see her dragons burn that mother down. Merely setting Pyat Pree on fire was underwhelming to say the least.

    Aah, well. My battle between trying to get caught up in the show for what it is and my longing to see my favorite aspects rendered on the screen continues ...

    At least they managed to wrangle some emotional moments from the changes to Dany's story. I wish the same could be said for Jon's story. I was not impressed. I was far more emotionally invested in Sam's short scene at the end! I'm hoping for better for Jon Snow next season.

    Thanks for the reviews, Josie! I do not envy you the task of reviewing this show, given your book knowledge, but you do an excellent job.

  4. Hi Josie, well, I thought I was too soft, so it is rewarding to see I was not the only one amidst sobs during master Luwig's death scene.
    That was moment #1, I cried hard too when I saw Khal Drogo and Dany's baby. What a temptation to resist, and way to go, Dany.

    I think I'll never understand what happened in the House of the Undying book version (unless I read it again, for the fifth time), for I was really hoping the series to make me understand it, and it was all too different. But good, especially the visions of Westeros. I beg to differ, Josie, for I think it was not snow covering King's Landing, but ASHES. As I was watching it first looked like snow, then I thought, but is it ashes? DOes that mean Dany will say the word Dracarys again? it looks like, but then again I may be mistaken...

    I loved Shae and Tyrion's scene, and her line "you have a shit memory" was fantastic. Tyrion should definetly go to Pentos. Too many enemies to fight against and for, and they all lie better than Sansa.

    Which leads me to frightening yet seducing Littlefinger. Yes, he's despicable, and yes, he has a twisted obsession with Cat, not affection, obsession. And it is clear he will transfer some of it to poor Sansa, who escaped her fate of being married to Joffrey and didn't get the chance of laughing long about it, for as Harrenthal's new landlord pointed, Joffrey won't let go of his toy that easily. Was it mean of of him to be a killjoy? Yes and no, for Sansa needs to be fully grown-up and less half-witted.

    I wasn't expecting zombie apocalipse scene, but rather hoping Sam would have the chance to use his new found weapon. That they didn't stop to feast on Sam is a frightening indicator they have a bigger agenda. Scary.

    April 2013? Too far indeed. I hope they make it a longer season, 10 episodes won't be enough to marvel at the new possibilities of fantastic dialogues between the queen and queen-to-be, Varys and Littlefinger, Dany and her hourney to the Iron Throne, and yes, JOn Snow as a turncloak, among other white walkers stuff.
    Thanks Josie once again!

  5. Great comment, Samantha!

    I re-watched the scene in the throne room, but my TV is just too cheap for me to be able to tell one way or another. Ash or snow, it's definitely a provocative image!

  6. Loved everything, but I wish they hadn't made Doreah a traitor :( Weren't Dany and her handmaidens supposed to be, er, bros? In the books they were supposed to be the people she trusts so that made me disappointed

  7. Josie --- Awesome review. Loved reading every bit of it until this:

    "We have to wait until April 2013 to find out."

    Really? Sigh.

    It's a true pleasure to read your thoughtful commentary on such a wonderfully and carefully crafted show.

  8. While I was watching this, I had exactly the same reaction that I had during the previous season finale -- being underwhelmed.

    The seasons seem to follow a pattern for me. They start off pretty well, crescendo into something wonderful and then just peter out at the end. Last week's show was my favourite of the twenty; this week's left me a bit cold (pun intended). It was, I'm afraid, a case of an "unexceptional episode in which we check in with all the important people and set the pieces on the board for next season's game."

    I go back to the readers vs. non-readers issue I have discussed before. As I had no preconceptions of The House of the Undying, I thought it was interesting, but nothing to write home about. And the White Walkers, while they were creepy and have the most evil blue eyes I have ever seen, did not really frighten me in a way they should have.

    But, as always, I came on to read the review and some of my impressions and dissatisfactions were changed by reading the review. Josie, you do an excellent job -- I can only imagine how difficult it is. I would have given up on this series fifteen minutes in without you, so thanks.

  9. Finally got around to this one.

    My favorite part was Theon's childish annoyance at the bugle and his rousing speech to his troops, culminated by his getting bonked on the head. As he was giving his speech, I kept thinking "I'm pretty sure this wasn't in the books." I don't remember Theon waging an epic battle for Winterfell with his Iron born soldiers stalwartly behind him. My memory did not fail me.

    The White Walkers don't scare me nearly as much as the Wights. GROSS.

    Oh and "You cannot be a good king if you’re leading with the head that is not wearing the crown." Josie, you're not allowed to make me laugh that hard. I nearly hurt myself!


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