Welcome to the Hell that is being a fan of A Song Of Ice And Fire. It’s in this episode that you learn truly what it is to endure this rich, compelling, and brutal universe, and to be left wanting. Where you learn that no one is ever really safe, and that you’re going to have to suffer through what will seem like an interminable waiting period to find out what happens next. It’s our gift and our curse.
The tenth and final episode of “Game Of Thrones,” despite not being the best of the episodes, had some of the best moments thus far. This time around, everything revolves around change, around accepting new futures, new missions, new lives. The death of Ned Stark is felt throughout the Seven Kingdoms, and no one is left unscathed. In King’s Landing, we see that the beheading of Stark was just the beginning of Joffrey’s cruelty. His venal, miserable highness isn’t content to murder the man, but must rub Ned’s daughter’s — his betrothed’s — face in it. Credit Sansa for finally showing some strength, even if all it earned her was a hand to the face and a moment of gentleness from a scarred giant with a reputation for viciousness.
As always, my favorite moments came in those of quietness — sometimes, “Game Of Thrones” is at its very best when it allows two players to work together to create a brilliant scene. Littlefinger and Varys were one of the highlights, as they trade barbs, followed by a mutual acknowledgement and respect, followed by an unspoken realization that their world has changed, and the game they play may well have entirely new rules. Similarly, the meeting between Tywin Lannister and his son Tyrion — recognized as such for perhaps the first time — was one that was strangely poignant. Without Jaime, Tywin seems vaguely lost, and he turns to Tyrion, after finally noting his cunning and wit, to try to right the storm-wracked ship that is Joffrey’s kingdom.
An interesting development was born out of one of the scenes that was not in the books. Rose The Expository Whore (naked again, unsurprisingly. Seriously, she has a lovely body, but it’s getting a little ridiculous and even a bit tacky) bears witness to a history of the kings of the realm from Grand Maester Pycelle. The far more entertaining part of the scene is his subtle change, his quick disguise as he slips effortlessly into and out of the role of doddering old man. It was a clever little twist to the character, and allowed Julian Glover — a renowned stage actor when he’s not playing Nazi cohorts or Hoth-raiding Imperial Generals — to finally show some versatility.
Everything changed in this final episode. Robb’s transformation from boy, to man, to leader, to reluctant rebel King, was a stirring yet uneasy moment. If there was ever an instance of growing up too fast, that may well have been it. Arya changed, albeit on the surface, becoming Arry the Boy, now surrounded by convicts and runaways, destined for The Wall in what will likely be a harsh and pitiless journey. The dichotomy of the lives of Arya and Sansa is replete with cruel irony. Sansa wanted a life in court, married to Joffrey — and she’s getting it. Arya wanted a sword and adventure — and she’s getting her wish, too. Neither was quite the result they’d anticipated, but that’s life in Westeros. It’s always going to be worse than you think it is.
Speaking of the Wall, it’s in this episode that Jon Snow finally comprehends what the Oath and the Brotherhood and real sacrifice truly means. He’s flirted with an understanding, but it wasn’t until his world was truly ripped apart that he comprehended the words that he said, courtesy of a wonderful and moving scene where he stood and was faced down by Sam, Pyp and Grenn. The change is different for Jon — it’s less a change, and more an acceptance. An acceptance of his new life, of his mission and what has become his family. Here is where he finally learns to put his past to rest and fully embrace the dark, grim path that he’s been set upon — symbolized succinctly by his final moments, as they set out beyond the Wall to find whatever menace lurks behind it.
But of course, there’s no greater change, no more remarkable moment and no more jaw-dropping scene than the final parts that took place in Essos, marked by death and rebirth. It takes a brave story to kill off two of its most impressive characters (Ned Stark and Khal Drogo), but those deaths are proving critical to the tale becoming something far greater than we ever expected. Emilia Clarke shone once again in this episode, both in her tragic ending of Drogo’s life, and her incredible finale, the phoenix-like birth of a new queen, and the wondrous creatures that will become her symbol once more. Those final seconds, with an ash-covered Daenerys and the dragons slowly unfurling around her, screaming in hunger or anger of God knows what, comprised one of the most effective and frustsrating moments. YES! There will be dragons. NO! You’ll have to wait a year to see them again.
The episode was imperfect, if for no reason other than it had to do too much in too little time. This was the one that felt the most rushed, that seemed almost disjointed in the way that it staggered from scene to scene. It crammed five or six absolutely pivotal moments into sixty painfully short minutes, and it suffered for it. That’s not to say that it wasn’t well written, directed, or acted. It’s more an indictment of the constraints of the format.
In the last year, the two shows I’ve anticipated the most — this, and “The Walking Dead,” both ended up being rousing successes, but I freely admit that “Game Of Thrones” has blown “Dead” out of the water. It’s been a brilliant tribute to the novels, dense and complicated and lush and beautiful — and also brutal and heartbreaking, violent and ugly. It’s an almost-perfectly created new universe, with a cast that has grown just as the show has, to the point where each of them is fully capable of holding their own. It’s difficult to realize that some of the best characters are already gone, but the stories of the ones who remain hold such great potential that it keeps us hungry for more. Although, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say this — you’ve already learned it: don’t grow too fond of anyone, because it’s an unrelentingly brutal world in Westeros, and now war, and winter, is coming. And you know, of course, what they say.
“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
See you next year.