Game of Thrones: Valar Morghulis

We’ve had a couple weeks to let the Game of Thrones finale breathe, so now we can talk about it, and we can reflect on season 2 as a whole. If you don’t like spoilers, you may not want to read an article about an episode you haven’t seen that concerns a point in the story you haven’t reached.

Have you heard the joke about how Game of Thrones is like Twitter? There are 140 characters, and terrible things are always happening. I didn’t make that up; I wish I knew who did. From reading Twitter (and Facebook, and occasionally actually talking to people), I gather a lot of people found the season 2 finale to be a little disappointing.

The preceding episode, about the Blackwater Battle, was a tough act to follow, centered on an epic confrontation for King’s Landing and the throne. The mostly-loathed Lannisters seemed poised to lose everything, and somehow or another they’d never been so empathetic doing it. But in order to portray all that dramatic tension, the show had to back-burner nearly everyone else’s story arc for an episode, leaving Jon Snow, Robb Stark, Bran and Rickon and friends, Arya, Daenerys, and Theon to be wrapped up in the finale.


Visually, the finale featured nice contrasts between ice and fire, in a nod to the books’ unifying language. I continue to be impressed the show’s creators are managing such sprawling and – let’s be real – often boring material as richly as they are. Still, the idea of a finale episode that ostensibly spends time catching up on the character stories that weren’t part of the real narrative climax isn’t exciting in concept.

Nonetheless, the finale actually did quite a good job of bringing everyone tidily to their next major precipice, while managing to unite them under the series’ thematic umbrellas: First, all of this throne-squabbling ignores the actual threat of unnatural evil in a slow but inevitable descent from the forbidding north. Second, all these people who scheme for power really want loving families even more, and they’ll actually make strategically-unsound decisions because of a desire to be closer to a parent or child (even if one’s children are dragons).


Serious Game of Thrones fans have been telling me they fear this is the point that the show might lose viewers who aren’t fans of the books, by virtue of the plentitude of characters and the odd, if faithful pacing. And it’ll get ever more challenging to wrangle this long, populous tale into something that makes sense on television: There will probably be edits and embellishments, and purists will complain.

But now that the season’s done and we have until 2013 to wait for season 3, it might be a good time to look at what the show’s doing right – and where we think it might run into some trouble.

The biggest complaint I hear from book fans is some of the liberties the show takes, occasionally sacrificing perfect fealty to the novel in favor of creating better dramatic structure. For example, in the novel it’s tough to tell much about Margaery Tyrell; the show created a more complex identity for her and crystallized her stated goal (to be queen at any cost) based on the most logical inference.

The show also brought to the forefront the clandestine love between Margaery’s handsome brother Loras and the now-late Renly Baratheon. The books only alluded to this affair on occasion, never making it explicit. This means more drama at the expense of ambiguity, true – but that’s the breed of ambiguity that works best in books.


The result of the trade-off for the viewers is more relatable characters, and that’s absolutely essential in a story that has so damn many people in it. In fact, most of the time the show trades restraint for big tells it’s to the benefit of the characters. Here’s another example: In the finale we see Robb wed his true love, flagrantly risking his family’s entire alliance with the cantankerous Frey family. Robb is clearly the kind of character who’s passionate and sincere to his own peril, so when the books let us know as almost an afterthought that oops, Robb’s just married someone, it’s not implausible.

It just makes the Stark son more vibrant, more of a pleasure to invest in, when the show lets us see it happen, lets us meet the woman worth risking a kingdom for. Small quibble: Lady Talisa is a Volantene, which means she’s from outside the Seven Kingdoms Robb wants to win. This would probably have implications on any son she’d bear, in that she brings no political advantage to the bloodline. The family of the books’ Jeyne Westerling is not particularly highly-placed, but they do have the Lannisters for allies, a fact that comes into play later on in the novels. Precise bloodline calculations often seem to bear on one's claim to the throne.

But yes – most plot adjustments pay off in that we see these characters in spectacular, plausible detail thanks in no small part to the impeccable casting and strong acting. Theon in particular has been an incredible addition to the forefront; the book’s mostly-repellent troublemaker has become a desperate “lost boy” whose vile behavior makes sense. In the books we just wanted him to die or something already; we want the show’s Theon to see the light, to have a chance to learn and be saved.


And therein lies what’s probably the biggest danger for the Game of Thrones show: They’ve taken intellectually-compelling characters and have made them present, dimensional and empathetic (for the most part -- I hate how Peytr "Littlefinger" Baelish's ambiguous but omnipresent role has just ended him up an annoying brothel-creeper in the show).

Where will the Stark children go now that all five of them have been relieved from some present tension and cast into new and dangerous territory? Will the kids find their mother? When is Joffrey going to get what he deserves? What about that slow-encroaching undead threat from beyond the Wall, and when is Jon Snow going to get with Ygritte already? These are things we’ve come to care about.

But the series relies on its bleakness. I’ve heard many people wonder why cast Sean Bean as Ned Stark, why make him essentially the first season’s anchor, and then kill him off? Because that’s just how the story is. It makes you care about people, and then it takes them away. It makes you want the emotional salve of seeing them succeed, and then it withholds it. If Game of Thrones is “fun” at all, it’s because just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

How long will the show’s complicated universe and all its citizens keep the average viewer’s attention without the gratification people come to crave at the end of that hour they’ve waited a week for? We keep hearing about how the show's success is evidence of how the appetite for high fantasy stories has become mainstream, but this tale, with its non-traditional pacing, will test how much this is true. We want to root for those we love; we want to see who wins. But Game of Thrones is vast, a marathon. We will wait a long, long time before it reveals those victories to us. We’ll lose people along the way. Oh yeah, and some characters , too.

The phrase that Jaqen H'ghar teaches to Arya Stark before he says farewell -- Valar Morghulis -- is High Valyrian for "all men must die."


  1. Great article. I love the SoIaF books and can’t wait to see what they do with later ones translating into the show. In all honesty, though, I think that the show’s biggest hurdle will come during season 4, where peoples’ favorite characters are, in some cases, completely absent, and almost all of the plot goes into making book 5 and later books excellent.

    I think book 3 is going to have enough great stuff going on (as well as a season finale that will leave people WTFing so hard they’ll need to watch season 4, at least for the first part) that it’ll hold its own.

    1. Agreed on the season 3 finale.  I just finished the third book, and had to pick up the next one right away.

      I have to give credit to the show’s creators for convincing me that this was a story I would like to read.  I hadn’t read a non-Tolkien fantasy novel in years and years, as most examples of the genre are absolutely uninteresting to me. It was not apparent to me at all that A Song of Ice and Fire was something very different, but after watching the first season, I had to see what the fuss was all about.

    2. That is assuming they will devote an entire season to book 4 or take massive creative liberties to avoid that hurdle all together.

    3. Books 4 and 5 take place chronologically at the same time, they are just split geographically. The rumors are they will combine Books 4 and 5 for TV and do it chronologically over two seasons more or less. That way, they will keep the characters we love, while strategically introducing the new characters.

      1.  Martin says in the forward (I think to book 5) that he split the geographical stories into two books to avoid too much jumping back and forth, they really do cover a huge amount of the known world.

  2. I think they’ve said they’re going to stop sticking so rigidly to the books structures after season three but I can’t remember where I saw that.

      1. I think the stated plan was book 3 gets 2 seasons and book 4 and 5, whether they end up as 2 seasons or not, get condensed chronologically.

      1. Enough?   I am hoping this will catch on and the walking dead series will kill off Rick’s moronic wife and child.

    1. Oh boy. I know it’s a little sadistic of me, but having read the books I can’t wait to see the reaction to a certain upcoming “event” from all the n0n-readers who are watching the series.  **rubs hands together with glee**

      1. I’m looking forward to my girlfriend’s face when “that event” happens. I might film it. I wish I could’ve seen my face when I read it.

      2. You mean that event that when I read it I yelled, “OMG C’MON, seriously?!?!”.  If so, I had to take a moment to grieve.

  3. (Extremely minor and vague book spoilers, I guess?)

    I think that the books do a pretty good job at keeping all the balls in the air and making the major arcs reach climax around the same time up through book 3.

    4 and 5 are tougher, and not just because of the split narrative.  It’s not just that the cast of characters has spun out from a few opening locations to being all over the place, it’s the precise role that timing has to play in the story, leaving some characters back-burnered for long stretches of time until the others make something happen.  The arcs no longer line up, and while, say, something really exciting is happening to Jon, Tyrion may just be kinda cooling his heels, and Davos nowhere to be seen.

    I would say that Feast lacks a satisfying climax altogether, and Dance manages to end on a satisfying cliffhanger for a couple of characters, it leaves a lot more just kind of dangling.

    The show must, necessarily, rejigger the chronology when it gets to season 4 (there is no way it is leaving half the major cast out of an entire season the way the book did).  I think that, not season 3, is where things start to get really hairy.

    And if it’s hard to find a satisfying climax in the fourth and fifth books individually, it’s going to be that much harder to combine them and try to end them somewhere in the middle (Martin found that very idea insurmountable, which is of course why he split the narrative the way he did in the first place).  I’ve got faith in the showrunners, and I think they’ll figure out a way to make it work, but I’m at a loss as to what exactly that is.

    1. Agreeing with you— I’ve read and loved this whole series but I have confidence in HBO that they’ll clean-up and prioritize the next few books. They’re masters at this, and I’m pleased that they were the ones to adapt this series.

      My secret hope is that Martin will finish the next 2 books (should be 7 books expected, 1 for each god) in time for HBO to create them and give this series a bang-up ending. Based on the ending of the fifth book, I don’t see how it’s possible to just leave it at that.

      Curious if working with HBO and their plot/script writers will shape or inspire the next two books. He seems to have a great relationship with them and the cast. Based on his organization struggles with books 4 and 5, I expect this to only be a positive thing.

    2. Actually book 3 is supposed to be split between seasons 3-4 so it would be seasons 5-6 and maybe 7 tackling books 4-5. I assume books 4-5 will be somewhat merged back together for the TV series. Drawing out the TV series will give Martin a more realistic chance of keeping ahead of it, but after last time I am not holding my breath. At this point I am just happy we have two seasons of very good depictions of the books. It could have easily turned out like Legend of the Seeker though of course that had much weaker source material. Anything after this is icing on the cake.

    1. “Klaatu… verata… nnn… Necktie. Nectar. Nickel. Noodle.”
      -Army Of Darkness

      1. “Look, maybe I didn’t say every single little tiny syllable, no, but basically I said them!”

  4. I forget where I heard it, and could just be bs, but I think that since DwD and FfC were originally one book that just got too massive but took place at the same time (meaning, it was split by characters not time), the show will recombine the two and do two seasons based more one the timeline, not the specific characters of each book. 

  5. Yeah, season 3 is the first half of Storm of Swords. Season 4 is the second half. I think for at least 2 more seasons this show has such good material to work with that if it loses a lot of folks it will be the shows fault not the story (once we get to Feast of Crows though….ugh…I have no idea). 

  6.  I heard this too and I think it makes a ton of sense. Besides a FfC would be a terrible season of TV.

  7. Hi, my name is Scott and I post things on twitter as @iscoff:twitter 

    I made that joke about Game of Thrones being like twitter and want everyone to give me a dollar if they liked it:

    1. It’s nice, but you could have filled it out with a callback reverse… 

      “Twitter is like Ned Stark’s head. When you’re trying to say something really important, you reach the end of the line and get cut off.”

  8. So far, the series is working extremely well as an adaptation. Having GRRM actively involved is the key, I think, because it keeps the changes anchored to what’s important in the overall story. Compare it to “True Blood”, which has spun off into an incoherent mess as one unthought-out divergence piles up on another. I just hope HBO continues to support it, because definitely we are coming up on parts where knowing that, yes, the show WILL be around long enough to see things through will make a big difference.

  9. I try to avoid liking any of the characters too much, because it seems like there’s a million ways for any one of them to get killed at any given moment.

    I don’t want to be that guy who picks a side and then suddenly that side is dead.

    1. I find it hard to pick a side. I mean, I root for House Stark, but I also root for House Targaryen, Tyrion, and even Varys….

    2. (Sorta Spoilery)

      Arya Stark is my favorite character to follow, but its getting a little hard to take the constant barrage of horrible things happening to her.  

      She needs a lucky break, dammit :)

      1. I feel the same, have never read the books and only seen the series.  I’m afraid to say where I think she should wind up since if I guessed right, would that make me a spoiler-spreader, right?  But there’s one role that she seems destined to fulfill.

        I may read the books just to find out if I guessed right.

  10. “Game of Thrones” is HBO’s new “Oz,” in terms of a huge cast, multiple story lines and high body count. Cable shows have become gladiator academies for actors and studios that want to develop new talent. The newer actors get all the cussing and fucking out of their systems before moving up to the bigger paychecks (for slogging through far more inferior material) of the big 4 prime time shows. GoT suits this drama mill formula perfectly, as you get to see a lot of new faces performing decent material and the media gets to speculate on who will be the next big thing…

  11. Prediction: many storylines will be pruned out of necessity, but the show as a whole will obey the Law of Conservation of Incest. 

    Actually, that’s not really fair, since TV-Margaery’s absolute nonchalance at the idea of a three-way with her gay brother actually increases the incest quotient of the show.

    And this is coming from a fan. I can’t wait for season three to find out who’s going to fuck their sister next!

    1. I thought Margaery’s nonchalance at the idea revealed a lot about her character: she is completely pragmatic about how romance and power relate.  This doesn’t necessarily mean she’s ruthless, but it does make her a very strong foil for Sansa.  

  12. seasons 1 and 2 have been so great, i just can’t WAIT until they hit book 3, where things REALLY get rolling…

      1. You know, I thought that, too…and then I actually ran the numbers.

        He has died a lot…but he’s also survived a lot.  His biggest problem is that he plays the big heavy, so he ends up dead.

        For every Fellowship of the Ring or Goldeneye, you have a National Treasure or Sharpe’s Rifles.   In Silent Hill, Ronin, Troy, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Flightplan, North Country….Bean survives in as many movies as he dies, honestly.  He’s just really high-profile when he does die.

  13. SPOLIERS: Since they have already said season 3 will not stick to the “one season=one book” rule,  here is how I predict Season 3 and 4 to end: (fill in the space between as you will)
    Season 3:  The Red Wedding will end the season (or episode 9 like Blackwater was this year)
    Season 4: Joffery’s ‘wedding’ will be early in the season, Season will end with Crossbow in the Toilet and the reveal of Lady Stoneheart
    (I am not sure how they will split up Jon’s story)

  14. I always heard it as:
    Why doesn’t GRRM Tweet?
    Because he can’t restrict himself to only 140 characters.

  15. It is ok to spoil the plot up until the episode in question, but can you please refrain from any (however vague or wink-wink) future spoilers from the books? How hard can that be?

  16. The only disappointment I felt in the last episode was that the annoying Sam was not killed by the zombie king.

    Really, though….why would Martin create a dumb servant character named Samwell? I have yet to read these books but I thought so far he was doing a good job of avoiding similarities with LotR.

    1.  Is it just me, or does Sam have the LOOK of being an illegitimate son of our ex, killed by a boar, king?
      To me, the resemblance in face and body is uncanny. Perhaps the directors didn’t notice, or perhaps its a subtle little thing that might get a little lip service without breaking cannon. I mean, the king DID get around a little and all..

      1. Indeed!!!!!!  But if I am not mistaken did they show Sam finding the cache of dragonglass arrow points?  When it was NOT him.  DId I imagine it?  I am one of those most annoying wussies who when it seems they are going off original script run from the room humming loudly so I won’t be crest fallen.

    2. “dumb”…?

      I agree that his cowardice is overplayed and slapstick, but dumb the character is not. It’s not played out quite as much in the show as the books, but even in the show pretty much everything the Watch knows about Walkers is Sam’s research at Miskatonic. I mean in the Castle Black maester’s library.

      1. Yes, I would say dumb. Thinking that you have fallen in love with a girl after a 20 second conversation is dumb. 

        Also, I’ll say this again….his name is Samwell and Sam’s name in LotR is Samwise. Why would Martin make this obvious comparison?

        Plus I thought he would have made excellent zombie fodder.

        1. I’ve fallen in love with no more justification than that. Try it, it can be a lot of fun.

          As for the name, do you really think Martin did that by accident?

          I don’t suppose you noticed what his affected middle initials are.

          As for the zombie fodder, if you’re still watching next year, you might enjoy the next moment after that cutaway. Sam’s interaction with that walker isn’t done.

  17. They’re coming up on some complications that I don’t know whether HBO will be able to deal with…  “Stoneheart” is obscure enough a reference that anyone who hasn’t read the books would really have to put in the effort if they want to whine about spoilers.

    If they handle those kinds of things well, they’ll have done something truly groundbreaking.

    Anyway, I loved the episode. The CGI on the dragons is wonderful. I especially like the sly, “clever girl” smirk they give when looking under Dany’s arm at their prey.

    1. I agree that HBO is completely NAILING those dragons.  They really look amazing. Even though I was disappointed a bit by how they stripped down the whole House of the Undying part, I can accept it so long as they keep up the amazing dragon work.  

  18. The thing to keep in mind if you haven’t read the books is that just about every character is at risk (except probably Dany, Jon and Arya) .  No matter how much you love someone, in Game of Thrones it’s always, “Til death do us part”.

  19. I purchased my mother the HBO series for M day and she and my step dad have gone nuts for it.  We so thoroughly enjoy talking about it.  I am still gobsmacked on the timing of Peter Dinklage’s literal birth to make this series happen as without him it…just…could…not.

    Here is my dieing burning question.  I am just squirming to know, in the first hour after the initial airing of the S1 episode where Ned Stark is beheaded how many viewers who had not read the books audibly said “WTF?!?!”, made a mad dash for the ePad of their choice and downloaded the first book in the series? Anyway someone can find out what the sales of the digital book were in that time from B&N and Amazon?

    I did, and subsequently read the entire book before the next episode (S1 finale).  My children had the weirdest lunches that week, cans of tuna requiring can openers to open, the rest of the breakfast they didn’t eat…whatever was essentially edible and at hand that I did not have to put down the book while to stuff their lunch.

  20. also…since then I have been reading Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror”, regarding medieval life and the machinations of royalty during the 14th century and can’t help but wonder if GRRM did too.

  21. I can’t wait to see the little turd Jofrey die and his mom taken away in chains.  Waiting with  baited breath. Season two was mostly boring. the best episode was indeed the finale. Please don’t bore us to death in Season three.

  22. The show suffers a bit from its desire to show everything on screen. Especially in book 3, a surprising amount of the action takes place “off camera”, as it were – the impact comes from hearing about it later, and there’s a real focus on the sense of confusion and indecision stemming from the fact that not only the characters don’t know what’s really happened, but sometimes the reader doesn’t either. That, for me, has been mostly lost in the show, and is evident in bringing Robb’s marriage to the forefront. It’s possible in the book to juggle that many storylines precisely because (not in spite of) the habit of having even major events pass by with very little mention except “well, that happened”, and then being revisited later. The show should run with that and accept that not everything needs to be explicitly depicted.

  23. Not to worry…. if the show starts to drag they can always throw in some more tits and ass. It worked for the first 5 episodes of Season 1. Lots and lots of closeups with long extended scenes.

  24. Good stuff…my personal major problem is how they’ve treated the Littlefinger character.

    The books set him up as arguably the best player in the kingdom…usually multiple steps ahead of even the smartest/craftiest characters.

    Invented scenes like the ridiculous confrontation with Cersei just lack all of characteristic subtlety and make me worry that they don’t understand Martin’s vision for the character. That said I know GRRM is heavily involved so hopefully this isn’t as big a deal as I’m making it out to be (he is my fav. character so I am admittedly biased).

    Basically he’s showing his cards way more than he ever did in the novels.

    That said loved the article and love the show.

  25. I skipped this whole thing to avoid MORE spoilers. The image at the top of BB was enough to piss me off though — just started powerdiscing the new season. Lame.

  26. Books one and two were tight. Dramatizing them required skillful adaptation of an already strong story arc. Books three and four drop in focus and especially in dialogue. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the the author was padding things out. They will be much more challenging to bring to the screen.

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