Game of Thrones: “Valar Morghulis” Review

So here it ends, the most controversial (from a book-reader’s standpoint) season of Game of Thrones.

I actually want to split this review into two halves; one for fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the other strictly judging only the show. Because they could be words apart. (At least at first glance. A more careful observation may tell that these two threads are closer than one might initially expect.)

“Valar Morghulis,” written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Alan Taylor, showed us an awful lot yet still managed to make us yearn for so much more. Sure, the episode was nearly 70 minutes long—longer than any episode so far—but it felt like it could have been an hour and a half, or even two hours.

Bloody good though—especially for the non-book readers. And that’s where I’ll start this review. This part is for everyone:

Excellent, excellent episode. One of the most satisfying in its telling, with outstanding writing, especially with regard to the theme of this episode (despite its death-themed title): the pendulum swing between ice and fire. I love that this could even possibly foreshadow the ultimate endgame of the entire story. (Dany standing alone in a charred, show-filled throne room had me especially interested.) The directing and the visuals were also fantastic; Alan Taylor at his best.

Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) cemented himself as an absolute legend. He was fully ready to die fighting, and his final discussion with Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) was just pitch-perfect and heartbreaking. Emmy nod needs to come Allen’s way.

Ultimately, Theon got what was coming to him—or did he? We’re still unsure as to his final fate. We assume he was handed over to the Bastard of Bolton’s men…

But then who burned Winterfell? We’re left to assume the Ironborn did a bit of razing before they beat a retreat. The only thing I know for certain is we lost Maester Luwin, who was sped on toward merciful death by the wildling Osha (Natalia Tena).

I’m glad we got to Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) crux, even though they probably telegraphed it a bit much. The look he gave to Ygritte (Rose Leslie) at the very end was heartbreaking; Harington played it well, and you could almost see how conflicted he remained even after Qhorin (Simon Armstrong) lay dead in the snow—not just his guilt at the deed, but that he knew he was now doing something that would likely betray Ygritte in the end. And did her look of fear actually mirror that? I’ll be interested in their journey next season.

“Dracarys!” Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) showed some nice fierceness there at the end—not to mention a ruthlessness that could only be described as Targaryenesque. You certainly don’t want to bet against her now. Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore), Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie), and even poor Doreah (Roxanne McKee) each got their just deserts.

I sort of love that Dany let the Dothraki loot to their hearts’ content. Never has pillaging made me smile so much as it did here.

At King’s landing, the shift of balance in power doesn’t feel as smooth as the Lannisters might hope. I feel like Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) doesn’t yet realize he may have bitten off more than he can chew in betrothing to Margaery (Natalie Dormer)—especially with scowling brother Loras keeping a stern eye on things. Tywin (Charles Dance) reasserting himself as Hand of the King while poor Tyrion may (Peter Dinklage) languishes in a (smaller) room, wounded, feels about right for Lannister loyalty. The biggest heartstring yank had to be Tyrion and Shae (a fantastic Sibel Kekili—showing us why they brought her to this role in the first place), even more so than the surprise cameo by Khal Drogo! (Hello again, Jason Momoa!)

All things considered this was an excellent episode. That’s how I judge it as a reviewer, because that’s the only way to be fair—to judge this television show as a television show.

Alright. So. That said…

Life is rarely fair. And so here is where I briefly don my Book Reader glasses… and this is where I lament on what could have been.

Please note the following is intended for book-readers only! Everyone else—skip ahead to the end, please!

What the hell, Winterfell? Yes, of course, I understand the audience is meant to be left in suspense as to exactly what happened. In fact I fully expect next season for them to backtrack just a little and show us what happened—perhaps from the eyes of the Bastard of Bolton!

But “suspense” doesn’t really cover the appalling lack of information here. There really needed to be more—at the very least a question asked, by someone, anyone, as to why would anyone burn Winterfell to the ground? If one of the characters had even voiced their confusion, the audience might then go, “Oh, okay, it’s a mystery!” As it was, it appears as though the Ironborn lit the place up before leaving. Of all the things the non-book readers question the most (from most of the comments I read), this one was the biggest WTF. The transition from still-standing Winterfell to burnt-to-the-ground Winterfell confused a boatload of people.

Mysteries are great. But they need a question asked, at the very least.

House of the Undying. Hashtag #HOTUFail. There seemed to be so many things they could have done—so many tiny glimpses they could have set up, much like the original House of the Undying, that I cannot be anything but disappointed by what we did not see.

Now for the record, I was happy with what I did see. I just wanted more. That’s my caveat. More, more, more. We got no Rhaegar, no Prince That Was Promised; we got no “The Dragon Has Three Heads,” and got no Elia of Dorne.

We got no flashback to the death of Irri—which I know they shot—nor any other sort of flashback. The House of the Undying simply seemed to be a place where one warlock, Pyat Pree stayed, accompanied only by illusory doubles. The Drogo/Rhaego fantasy seemed to be their way of making Dany comfortable—i.e. if they could keep her sated and happy within an illusion taken straight from her mind, then they would get exactly what they wanted: thriving dragons that increased the power and potency of the warlocks’ only recently awakened spells.

But if that was just a “happiness lure,” how does that explain the vision that came just before it—the Red Keep throne room burnt, snow covering floor and throne? That couldn’t have been a happiness lure, surely. So what is its significance?

And that’s the weight of most book readers’ complaints. Most like what happened… they were just disappointed in not getting more. And I guess I’m the same way. Because this was such a good episode… wouldn’t a few minor additions been so much better?

Yes, I know, “What do you cut??” You can’t cut anyone, really—not even poor Ros—which is why I would have liked to have seen an already-extended show extended even more.

It felt like this 9.5 could have been a 10. (“Blackwater” was a 9.9.) Alas.

If you were secretly hoping for Syrio Forel to be the next Faceless Man you see, follow me on Twitter! That’s @Axechucker!