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."

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