(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
Even more than the heavily hyped (and very expensive) “Blackwater,” “Valar Morghulis” shows off what Game of Thrones can pull off that other shows can only dream of on a good day. Yes, sure, last week’s installment gave us an epic battle, but by the end of this week’s extra-long outing, not only have the existences of well over a dozen characters shifted irrevocably, but our very understanding of the Seven Kingdoms has moved subtly as well. “Valar Morghulis” boasts not only the longest running time of any Game of Thrones episode but also the widest variety of dramatic and emotional story beats, largely thanks to its status as a payoff clearinghouse for nearly every significant storyline of the season – especially the ones that dragged up until now.
That’s not to say there isn’t some plain old fun to be had this week, as well. Brienne gets her best asskickery showcase yet, defending Jaime Lannister from Stark men who (quite rightfully) want Kingslayer blood on their swords. Too bad they ran into the wrong “virgin” (as she’s identified by Jaime, whose base taunts continue to be a perverse joy), who makes short work of them. Well, short work of three of them. Ouch. Faring not much better is the traitorous Theon Greyjoy, who finally gets the sacking he richly deserves (literally), though he hasn’t lost his head quite yet. It’s a testament to Alfie Allen’s performance that he almost engenders audience sympathy in his soliloquy to Maester Luwin.
Really, though, the heart of “Valar Morghulis” remains the same as the rest of Game of Thrones: power, and its many forms. In particular, conjurations of power form the basis of a couple of key sequences. In the first, Melisandre (who, it must be said, has gotten so little screentime that her reappearance is almost a shock) tries to comfort an angry, bitter Stannis, who was promised victory if he fought in the name of Melisandre’s shiny new god. She insists, though, that the flames tell of his ultimate victory – and to prove it, she makes him gaze into a vision of his glorious future – a vision we can’t see. In the second, Daenerys finally heads to the House of the Undying, where she receives not one but two visions: in the first, a destroyed, wintry King’s Landing leaves the Iron Throne empty – for her to take? Before she can, she’s beckoned to a second vision, of her beloved Khal and the child they never got to raise.
In both the Iron Throne vision and Stannis’s final “conversion,” there are fascinating ambiguities at work. Are these visions of the future, or mere manipulations, illusions designed to bring about some nefarious aim? Can they be part of the same future? There’s no reason why not, given the events of the episode’s last few minutes (more on that sequence in a moment). To go along with these new questions, we do finally get a few answers about the use of magic: yes, there’s a correlation between the appearance of dragons and the new prominence of magic – but even that’s not entirely certain, is it? After all, the first appearance of magical elements on the show wasn’t Dany and her dragons, but the White Walkers, in the pilot’s opening sequence. Does anything tangible account for their resurgence, or are we to take them as simply representative of nature’s desire to purge man and its evils?
While “Valar Morghulis” evokes these big questions admirably, there are many, many more small moments that help to make the episode truly great. Tyrion, effectively stripped of all his power despite being most responsible for saving King’s Landing, wakes up with almost no allies and Frankensteinian stitching across his face, given him by Cersei’s treachery. His reunion with Shae is a lovely moment and about as much of a “win” for a character as competent as Tyrion as we could reasonably expect in King’s Landing. As this is a season finale, we get one wedding (Robb and Talisa) and one betrothal (Joffrey and Margaery), with Sansa’s fate left undecided for the time being. What we do know is that taking Baelish’s protection, and not the Hound’s, seems to be a plainly foolish move. The poor girl can’t catch a break. Lastly, but far from least, is the demise of Maester Luwin. His fatal stabbing comes as a nasty surprise after the comic moments in Theon’s downfall, making it doubly upsetting, but there’s something perfect about the way his actual death is handled; wherein on a show that’s less honest about human nature, it;s easy to imagine Luwin shooing Osha and the boy away in order to slip away with dignity, instead he keeps Osha for a moment in order to dispatch him quickly, because there’s nothing enjoyable about slowly bleeding out, no matter how picturesque the surroundings.
Finally, one last bit of business: that closing sequence. The show’s CGI effects have been more hit than miss this season, and the trend continues (despite the dodgy work on the Direwolves this week) in the reappearance of the White Walkers, along with their zombie-man and zombie-horse (!) army. There’s more terror in those last 90 seconds than in most half-seasons of The Walking Dead; special mention must be made of the open, gory wounds on the equine undead, and the surprisingly effective design of the White rider’s gleaming eyes and craggy face. With the Walkers on the march and Dany’s dragons beginning to be operational, there seems to be no reason Season 3 won’t be as epic as the book series’ fans have been promising. It’s going to be a long 10 months.