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!

  • Andrew

    There are about three points in the book series that made me feel really sad and shaken up, and this episodes combination of losing Doreah in such a horrible way (Good riddance to Ducksauce!), with Dany becoming so cold, and then losing Maester Luwin after Donald Sumpter made him so much more than the book version, it deffinitely brought up those feelings. Which was horrible, but really nice at the same time that the TV show can still do that, even though i’ve read the books. Hearing the third horn blast still gave me goosebumps, as well. One of the coolest lines had to be Qhorins “We are the watchers on Wall.” as he was dieing, though.

    Axe, do you think it would work if the war against indigo is put to the wayside for a while and instead we all start a Kickstarter for a 2hour season finale next year? I think that would make everyone happy.

    • I will never retreat from battle in my eternal war against the color indigo. Never!

      But yes, I would like a 2-hour season finale. Can’t we have both?

      • Andrew

        Well, one of the little kickstarter rewards for donating could be a t-shirt with a cool, anti-Indigo slogan! All the fans will be roped into the cause because of their desire for the finale, and suddenly the champions of reason will have their army, ready to crush Indigo forever.

  • I think that if they cut the House of the Undying visions, it does not necessarily mean that the visions Dany sees in the book will not be revealed in the next season.  It may come in a different form from the book (ie. a dream or another prophet).  This is an adaptation after all, I don’t expect things to happen the same as in the book.  I am actually pretty happy they made the changes they made, I found the first season too predictable as a book reader and, althought I still loved the series, I wished that I did not know everything that was going to happen.

    • I have actually come full circle on my view of the House of the Undying.  On rewatching the episode, it became clear to me that prophetic visions were not within the power of the warlocks to give. Nothing in the two visions Dany had were particularly prophetic—unless (we may learn) accidentally so, i.e. the warlocks expected one thing and a different thing happened.

      We didn’t see Rhaegar, or the wolf-headed corpse, or Elia of Dorne because those weren’t in Dany’s mind. I think the warlocks could only use the things that Dany had thought of (possibly only in Qarth):

      1. The throne room, cold, devastated. I believe this was the warlocks’ way of saying, “This is what you seek? You don’t want this. Stay with us.”

      2. Drogo and Rhaego. I think this was the warlocks’ way of saying “…And this is what we can give you. Your happy ending. Stay with us.”

      She chose neither, ultimately, and the warlocks were forced to physically chain her in order to make her stay. They were finished with the wooing at that point.

      Now of course, we can bring up the argument that there were no “warlocks” — there was only Pyat Pree. 

      Which is an entirely different subject, but also sort of cool.  Talk about a master of illusion!

  • Dany’s visions in the book must’ve been red herrings. Otherwise, a line like “His is the Song of Ice and Fire”, would seem fairly important to a story called “A Song of Ice and Fire”. 

    • I think they’re still important to the books!

  • The Iconoclast

    “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?”

    Perhaps it was a “happiness repulsion” (i.e. try to convince Dany to give her quest to conquer Westeros by showing her that ultimately winning the Iron Throne would not be pleasant or enjoyable — a blackened throne room covered in ash/snow).  This ploy also failed because Dany smiled when she saw it.

    • The Iconoclast

      … try to convince Dany to give *up* her quest …

      • Exactly! I came around to that thought after my rewatch.

  • Hjanne87

    The House of the Undying was a slight disappointment for me too since the rooms were supposed to be left untouched, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of the House. But then there was this Drogo/Rhaego scene that was heartmelting 🙂

    I am also missing the point in Robb Stark wedding the girl purely for love and not for “honor, because he is his fathers son”? Also, why does the girl have so much screentime in the series when in the books she was hardly mentioned?

    And why bring Jojen and Meera Reed in the show for next season when they “easily” could’ve been introduced in this season too?

    Oh well, I watched the first season without reading the book and I was in love. By this second season I have read 4 books and of course it feels different to “know” more things that are shown.

    Anyway, this is by far the best saga ever written (or at least ever read by me 😛 ) and probably the best TV series I’ve ever seen.

    • Anonymous

       In fairness, in the books she gets just about as much mention as Robb since she is not a POV character. Also she is still alive to make trouble for folks if she cares to.

      • Hjanne87

        Maybe you’ve read more books than I have…? 😉 But yeah, that could be a reason to make her familiar to audience.

        What’s a POV character?

        • Erik the Viking

          Point Of View
          When Martin writes a chapter from a particular character’s viewpoint, they are a POV.

  • Allison Wheaton

    I love the TV/book breakdown because I had the same sort of mixed views, especially regarding the HOTU.  I didn’t totally understand that part of the book so I’d hoped the show would shed new insight.  Uh, not so much, but I could appreciate the HOTU scenes on their own merits, esp with the Khal Drogo cameo.  The ‘who burned Winterfell’ didn’t bother me as much but maybe that’s because having read the books, I know what’s coming.  But even if I hadn’t read the books, the mystery still wouldn’t bother me because I’d figure it’s part of the season ending cliffhanger.

    Alfie Allen should DEFINITELY be in Emmy contention, no one plays deranged and deluded better than him.  As much as I enjoyed his performance, the bald guy still made me laugh when he said he never thought Theon would shut up.

    No comment on the zombie army in the review? 

    • I did like the zombie army. Some people compared it to The Walking Dead, and I guess that’s slightly apt (since they are dead and walking), but GRRM wrote and published this part of the story long before there was ever a comic book.

  • Anonymous

    No comment on the white walkers/others appearance??

  • Erik the Viking

    Solid ep, solid review.
    Glad to see the White Walkers, finally.
    My only beef was HotU, but I think for different reasons. I didn’t mind so much the book omissions; I was actually a bit relieved they tightened it up. I have little patience for the test-your-resolve-illusory-mind-f*ck plot vehicle. My bitch was two-fold: 1) was this really the best the warlocks who “defended with sorcery, not steel” could come up with? Pyat Pree can morph into a swarm of throat-slitting assassins, but gets stymied by a piddly little gout of dragon fire? Didn’t they teach stop, drop, & roll at Hoggwart’s? Didn’t dude ever play D&D? I swear I got a bigger flame-on last Memorial Day when I sprayed lighter fluid at the BBQ coals (looks like Pree was there, too, judging the lack of eyebrows…) Dragonfyre is supposed to melt *stone*, but silk brocade makes an effective retardant? … I guess I was expecting a charred stump… rant off
    Anyway… 2) Dany’s transformation from petulant tween to bad-ass queen was seemingly instantaneous. How long ago was she at the gates of Quarth, or the courtyard of the Merchant-with-the-unpronouncable-name, pitching a lip-quivering, moist-eyed hissy-fit? And now she serenely summons up the backbone to roast up a Pree Kabob. 
    rant off (for real, this time).
    Despite petulant pouting tweeny queens.

    • Erik the Viking

      I will say, though, that I did enjoy her satisfied smile as her enemies died screaming, wreathed in dragonfyre.

      • Anonymous

         Yeah I’m a much bigger fan of Daeny when she is in actual full on fire and blood mode rather than just talking about it. That episode with the spce king set her back except for the small bit of awesome about how her dreams come true.

        • This was the best Dany episode of the season by a mile.

    • The way I saw it, Drogon (the black and red dragon) lit Pree’s sleeve on fire with a tiny fireball. While he was shaking his sleeve out (rather unsuccessfully) all three dragons gave him longer streams of dragonflame. And at that point he was (literally) toast.

      Dragonflame is MUCH hotter than any other kind of fire—hotter even than wildfire, since wildfire cannot melt stone and dragonflame can.

      But yeah, Pree didn’t seem to consider the fact that anything chained could hurt him. Fool!

  • Ser_G

    What’s with the assumption that the show must be interpreted differently by book readers versus non-book-readers, or that the two groups must necessarily judge an episode on the separate axes of faithfulness vs. quality?  I’m a book reader and I have no problem judging the show on its own merits, I’m not upset at the deviations from the book, and I was pleasantly surprised at the House of the Undying scene, for example, because I’d worried from the start that David & Dan would try too hard to be faithful to the book and would have, as a result, made a mess out of a scene that works very well in the book but would lose far too much in translation.  There’s simply no way to communicate the information imparted in the book in a way that would be at all coherent.

    There were elements of the story I didn’t like, almost all related to a lack of setup; we didn’t really get enough Tyrion + Shae scenes this season, for example, to make her undying proclamation of love at the end as meaningful as it should have been; Robb’s marrying TalisaJenye felt rushed, and the reveal that Doreah had sold out Dany and her dragons simply didn’t work, which made Dany’s reaction seem incredibly monstrous.

    All that said, it was a strong conclusion to a strong season, tied up what needed to be tied up, and left open enough to provide easy hooks into next season.

    • It’s true, and most of MY complaints center on “We could have gotten so much more of X and X and X…”

      The hazards of taking a book as large as A Clash of Kings and fitting it into 10 hours are plain. They just ran out of room.  20 episodes for A Storm of Swords seems to me to be much fairer. I can’t wait to see what they do with it!

  • #HOTUfail hahaha

    I have to admit, even though i knew I wasn’t going to get a glimpse of Rhaegar I was still hoping. They could have even brought Harry Lloyd back and just shot him from the back…although maybe they used up their “bringing back dead actors budget” on Jason Momoa…which had me in tears, so no complaints here.

    I loved the throne room in ash. Eeriest scene EVER. When Dany popped out at the Wall I was really expecting the whole blue rose/flower but no dice on that one either.

    I’ve read the HOTU scene a few times and it still makes my head hurt so I completely understand why D&D wouldnt want to spend time and money on all that crazy stuff, BUT i agree that Pyat Pree all alone burning was seriously anticlimatic–even if I hadnt read the books.

    The scene in the book with the crowd of warlocks sucking out Dany’s life and the rotting heart? Still gives me the shivers. But if I have to trade a floating, rotting blue heart for that wildfire…i’ll take it.

    • I think the issue with not including the actual Undying in the HOUSE of the Undying was that… well, how much bloody exposition would we then need for THAT?  You can’t just leave them a mystery until; next season either, since Dany doesn’t go back. 

      • Erik the Viking

        And Ros is all the way back in Westeros…
        How could we possibly get an exposition scene without Ros?

  • Brynn

    I think Jon’s story disappointed me the most (as it has all season).  I think it could have benefited from Qhorin telling Jon to kill him, Jon showing some real CONFLICT on the matter, before it actually happened. Qhorin’s last words were powerful, but in my opinion, not enough for that story. (I would have cut the Ros scene to put this in, but I love Varys and any scene he’s in so…)

    “Drakarys” happened too early but eh! Dany’s growth was non-existent all season then she gets all cold and ruthless at the end.  I don’t know if that is the writer’s fault or Emilia.  I hope for a smoother and more significant growth in season 3 and 4.  (it HAS to happen after all, for where her story goes)

    And the trend so far in two seasons is anything related to Rhaegar or the prophesy has been omitted by D&D. Coincidence? Maybe they are waiting on later seasons to reveal? I think it will come later like how they brought Ned’s line of “that’s the only time you can be brave” a season later.  At least I am hoping.

    The three horns sounding White Walkers… WAS AWESOME!!! I love the “oh shit!” ending.

    • Brynn

      Oh and some other awesome scenes:

      Tyrion. And Shae. I am still surprised I LIKE Shae now. And Dinklage really owns Tyrion, I felt so bad for him, as I did in the books, after the battle was over.  And I love Podrick!

      Brienne kicked some serious ass.  The slow death she gave that one man, she could be cold and ruthless when she wants to be!  Definitely was not in the books, but I LIKE it!

      Jaqen and Arya. I really liked that too. Faceless man indeed.

      I understood Sansa’s reason for refusing to go with Sandor.  A) he was scary and talks about violence like… ALL the time, and B) Stannis looks like he was winning and he is on her father’s side!  But for her to refuse Petyr?  Especially after he told her how it was going to be for her now that she is NOT betrothed to Joffery? It didn’t make sense.  At least Littlefinger set her straight in that she isn’t going to keep fooling people for long. But it sets things up nicely for future seasons.

    • Erik the Viking

      The way I see the Jon/Ygritte/Qhorin arc, it appears that they may be setting up a more conflicted future for Jon. I mean, it *wasn’t* all spelled out and planned out that he would be an infiltrator, as it was in the book. As it stands, Jon can have an enormous amount of turmoil with whether that was what Qhorin actually meant, or whether Jon just murdered a Brother. It also gives his captors more credibility when they accept him nt their ranks, not having given the Crows time alone together to hatch a plot. Also, as viewers (and not book readers), we’re not so sure which way Jon’s going to go, as we don’t have the benefit of reading his thoughts.
      Much, much more tension, in my opinion.

      • Brynn

        If they give Jon that kind of internal conflict of the fact that he wasn’t SURE what Qhorin had intended, then YES I would definitely be happier with his arc. Let’s hope the writers give Kit way more to work with next season than him just reacting to sexual-verbal jabs from Ygritte.  And yes, Qhorin/writers would have needed to have a clever plan to communicate better to Jon what he was planning without the Wildlings catching on…

        • I think they actually could have even done it one better by not telegraphing it at all in episode 8. Just have Qhorin attack Jon out of the blue, Jon kills him in self defense, Qhorin whispers his “Watcher on the Walls” line, all intense…

          Sure, you have people going “WTFFFFFF” but that’s a mystery you can solve in season 3. I don’t mind mysteries. 

  • Erik the Viking

    I wonder if Margary is going to offer Joffers the Tyrell Two-fer package deal on their wedding night? You know, the same one she offered Renly…