Yet somehow, with the added challenge of lacking a central character whose ideals and experiences audiences could cling to throughout the season (like those of Bean's Eddard Stark), Game of Thrones has arguably managed to pull of the kind of feat most programs wouldn't dare; that is, the series has exponentially expanded its world – geographically and otherwise – added to its cast of characters, and then spread them apart so that few, if any, actually have chance to interact.
Here, the sheer size of Westeros and the number of characters contained therein could have proved a logistical nightmare for David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – taking into account they had but 10 (or so) hours to tell multiple intertwining (and sometimes disparate) stories and make them work as a cohesive whole. In doing this, the writers crafted a solid second season that united its characters and their various story lines through the omnipresent threat of conflict.
Often times, the trouble with world building on this scale is the struggle to make such varied characters relate to one another, but in Game of Thrones the shared experience that has gripped nearly every kingdom acts like a bridge between stories. There are other elements at play; such as, the general knowledge that Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) knows what everyone, everywhere, is up to at any given time - or that Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen) can be counted on as long as the end helps satiate his lust for wealth and power. The difference is these are attributes given to well-established characters that have a history long before the War of the Five Kings. To ensure Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has as much reason to take up precious screen time as Jon Snow (Kit Harington) or Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), there must be a shared knowledge of current events to keep them all relevant. And if what Melisandre (Carice van Houten) says to Stannis (Stephen Dillane) is true, then the event that unifies the characters will be raging for years to come.
Here, the progression of the individual plays against the backdrop of something larger, and in having these smaller chunks of story be impacted by such a universal event – rather than directly influence it – the pressure to end in resolution is largely lifted. Where some programs attempting to utilize such styles of storytelling come off being clumsy or unsubtle, this series sees the tactic executed incredibly well.
And so, after the narrow focus on conflict that was 'Blackwater,' Game of Thrones is set to bring its second season to a close by spreading itself across Westeros once more in 'Valar Morghulis.'
The episode largely serves as an appropriate epilogue for the 'Battle of Blackwater' while gathering steam for season 3. 'Valar Morghulis' has a lot of ground to cover, and thankfully it begins with the fallen Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who was last seen losing consciousness as his father and the Tyrells pushed back Stannis' invading forces. Tyrion, thanks to his squire Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman), is only slightly worse for wear – bearing a rather striking slash across his face, that he deems a worthy addition to his diminutive size. Tyrion's wounds are more than superficial, though, as he learns, immediately upon waking to none other than Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), that the position of the King's Hand is no longer his; it has officially been bestowed upon Tywin.
In a moment of rare tenderness, Shae (Sibel Kekilli) suggests the two run away and live their lives doing what they do best. The plan sounds ideal except for the fact that Tyrion has finally found his place in the world: it's not lazing about drinking and fornicating - it's participating in the process that recently spat him out. It seems, for the time being, Tyrion has no plans to run from King's Landing.
Unfortunately, the same can also be said for Sansa. Having turned down an offer from the Hound (Rory McCann) to return to Winterfell, she receives yet another opportunity to flee north, but refuses it, too. After Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), steps in to take the hand of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) - which takes the collective effort of his mother, Cersei (Lena Headey), and Pycelle to convince the teenage tyrant it's best not to marry the daughter of a traitor - Sansa is ostensibly freed. Though this puts Joffrey into the hands of someone more equipped to handle his particular temperament, Sansa is warned by Lord Baelish (the newly-named lord of Harrenhal) that Joffrey is not one to give up his toys so readily.
Arya is barely touched upon, but she, Gendry (Joe Dempsie) and Hot Pie (Ben Hawkey) have successfully escaped Harrenhal, thanks to Jaqen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), who offers to teach Arya the way to cross those names from her special list. Tempting as the offer must be, she turns him down, but Jaqen gives the girl his version of a business card – just in case she needs his services at some point down the road.
Meanwhile, Robb (Richard Madden) decides to marry Talisa (Oona Chaplin) in a slapdash ceremony that directly disregards his oath to marry one of Lord Frey's daughters, not to mention his mother's wishes. Given that Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is being escorted back to King's Landing by Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) – courtesy of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) – it seems a mother's words no longer carry much weight with the King of the North.
Speaking of the North, 'Valar Morghulis' largely resolves the issue of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) occupying Winterfell, after a sympathy-inducing moment where he reveals that his fate at the hand of Ned Stark set the tone for his life as an outcast - and now he is truly a man without a home. Instead of running to the Wall, though, Theon is simply dispatched by his own men despite a stirring speech that's tantamount to a call for suicide. The young Starks, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson) emerge from hiding to find their home in ruin and Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) knocking on death's door. Along with Osha (Natalia Tena) and Hodor (Kristian Naim), they set out in search of Jon at the wall.
Most impressive, though, is the way the episode takes the elements that have largely existed as the nonessential story lines (Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), and positions them to be the catalyst for season 3. In doing so, Dany is once more poised to become a major player. After a vision-filled journey through the House of the Undying that includes a glimpse of the Iron Throne covered in snow, as well as a brief interlude with her dead husband (Kahl Drogo) and child, she manages to recover her stolen dragons and use them to kill the warlock, Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore). The hasty, but satisfying victory finds her ransacking the home of Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anonzie), after entombing him in his highly-prized (but empty) vault.
Jon Snow's journey is also just beginning, after he slays Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) in an effort to convince the Wildlings he's a traitor to the Night's Watch. Rattleshirt (Edward Dogliani) recommends they burn Qhorin; as he's not one Jon would likely enjoy seeing walk the earth again. And on that ominous note, Game of Thrones ends with the sight of hundreds of reanimated corpses at the command of the White Walkers march on the Fist of the First Men, where Sam Tarly and the rest of Lord Mormont's Night's Watch battalion are stationed .
The climactic scene comes as the standout moment in a season filled with many highlights and powerful character moments. This was a truly exciting and well-made season, one that may actually trump its predecessor – a rare feat in both television and film. Here, though, the lion's share of the credit is owed to the cast and production value of the series. Because of those efforts, Westeros has become a tangible and believable place, giving the story room to work without addressing plausibility. Game of Thrones doesn't feel like a bunch of actors playing at fantasy; it feels like a world inhabited by real people. And that, after two stellar seasons, may prove to be the series' biggest attribute.
Game of Thrones will return for season 3 in 2013 on HBO.
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