After last week’s tumultuous, spectacular battle of Blackpool, tonight’s Season 2 finale of GAME OF THRONES was, necessarily, somewhat lower-key. It served more as a coda, and as a transition to Season 3 (considering that there was no attempt at closure in any of the stories, it’s a good thing that there’s going to be a Season 3–not that it was ever much in doubt). It should be noted that despite the lack of resolution, plenty happened in the course of the episode’s supersized 70 minutes, so SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Although Thrones in a sense plows the same fantasy pseudo-historical adventure territory as the Lord of the Rings saga and its many imitators, structurally it’s quite unusual, especially as a TV series. It’s hard to think of any other drama that has not only juggled multitudes of storylines, but has done so with little if any mixing among many of them. Some of the key characters in the Thrones universe, most notably Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), have never even met the other key characters, and often even if the focal character of a storyline–for example Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane)–knows the other protagonists, often he’s had no contact with them for years, and shares no scenes with them. It’s a sort of narrative wizardry that keeps all these parallel casts and plots forming a single, and satisfying, cohesive whole.
Tonight’s season finale, written by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (based of course on George R.R. Martin’s novels), and directed by Alan Taylor, was in keeping with this sort of perversity. Major characters like Cersei (Lena Headey) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), despite the latter’s surprise appearance at the end of last week’s episode to win the battle of Blackpool for his family, barely made appearances, while others like Stannis and the Kingslayer, Tywin’s son (and Cersei’s incestuous brother) Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) showed up for a single transition scene each.
And yet it was all thrilling, as our leading men and women, while not resolving their stories, moved toward the next stages of their tales. A recurring theme of the episode was being advised to run away, a recommendation usually ignored. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who’s become the very heart of the series, was advised to get out of King’s Landing, now that his evil father and sister (who we now know tried to have him killed on the field of battle) have taken power, by the usually duplicitous but seemingly well-meaning eunuch Varys (Conleith Hill)–but Tyrion, despite the fall he’s taken–and his new horrific scar–decided that he’s developed too much of a taste for political warfare to leave. At least he has his loyal Shae (Sibel Kekilli). Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) was also advised to get the hell out of Winterfell before the Starks showed up for him–that didn’t work out so well, although Theon’s fate is still unclear.
The Stark children also mostly didn’t do what they were asked. Robb (Richard Madden) was told by his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) to stick to his bargain and not marry for love, but he went ahead and did it anyway. Sansa (Sophie Turner), her place as the monstrous Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) fiancee taken by another, refused to leave King’s Landing, even after Baelish (Aidan Gillen) let her know this change in status would leave her in even more danger at Joffrey’s hands. Arya (Maisie Williams), invited to Bravos by magical hit man Jagen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), although tempted–that’s where her “dancing-master” hailed from–decided to press on to find her brother and mother. Only Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), whose movements are really controlled by Osha (Natalia Tena), went off in the direction he was pointed, north toward The Wall.
Although it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll find Bran’s half brother Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) at the Wall if they get there. Just as Season 1 of Thrones ended with a burst of magic–the birth of Daenerys’ dragons–this season provided a double dose of the fantastic. First we saw Daenerys, after a hallucinatory journey through the House of the Dead that included a–ghostly? dreamed?–reunion with Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) and a visit to a snowy King’s Landing throne room, win her escape with the lethal help of her dragon children, and then finally prepare to travel to the mainland and join the war for Westeros. But even her magic may pale next to the final sight of the episode, and the season: an entire army of zombie warriors arising from the Land Beyond The Wall and marching south, more spectacular than anything seen in 2 seasons of The Walking Dead.
Game of Thrones is as marvelous a piece of storytelling as television–for that matter, any current popular art–has to offer. Graced with HBO’s willingness to ignore established rules (and its relatively generous budgets), the show tells its compelling stories in its own way, and always looks amazing while doing it. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Dinklage, Headey and Williams first among equals. The cinematography and production design are of feature quality, and the show is wisely sparing with its special effects, so that when dragons do appear on screen, they look as good as technology can provide. After a richly satisfying 10 weeks, the only disappointment is that we’ll likely have to wait almost 10 more months before the Game comes around again.