The key image in "Valar Morghulis," the second season finale of Game of Thrones, comes early. Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) is sitting majestically atop his steed, preparing to enter the throne room of King's Landing to be honored as Savior of the City by his grandson King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Just before this auspicious event, however, puncturing the austerity and pomp of the occasion, Lord Tywin's horse takes a big steaming dump on the floor.
Yes, after an incredible season in which episodes have focused on concepts like masculinity, femininity, honor, loyalty, and love, we have one more theme to explore: horseshit.
And, make no mistake, horseshit is a worthy subject, since it's the foundation and glue and currency of this entire society.
For all the talk about honor in the Seven Kingdoms, it's lies that really carry weight: they have the power to form alliances, to grant kingships, to topple lords, and to move entire armies into battle. Ever since Baelish (Aidan Gillen) turned on Ned last season, we've known that a good liar is more than a match for an honest man. Survival in this world depends on one's ability to tell a convincing lie, and it also depends on one's ability to see through the pretty lies, and to make a choice between the illusions and the things that really matter.
"Look around you. We're all liars here, and every one of us is better than you."
Joffrey's entire reign is a lie, of course: he's not the rightful king, he's the bastard son of an incestuous affair, and at this point everyone in the kingdom—including Joffrey—knows this. It's the lie that set everything in motion: it crippled Bran; it killed Jon Arryn, Ned Stark, and King Robert; and it started this entire war.
Now it just gets compounded with more and more lies. ("Tales of your courage and wisdom have never been far from my ears," Margaery [Natalie Dormer] says, while offering herself to Joffrey for marriage, and how anyone who knows Joffrey kept a straight face during that whopper is beyond me.)
Joffrey's crown was secured with another lie: Ned's "confession" of treason on the Great Sept of Baelor. Now, that second untruth is the excuse the Lannisters use to break Joffrey's engagement to Sansa (Sophie Turner). Yes, everyone agrees, Joffrey's vow to Sansa was sacred and legally binding, but Ned's treason (and her brother's rebellion) invalidates it, freeing Joffrey to make this strategically important marriage to Margaery Tyrell. No one believes any of this, of course, but it is (to borrow a phrase from Deadwood) "a lie agreed upon."
Sansa is just happy to be released from her engagement to the pasty little sadist, until Littlefinger (a consummate liar himself) disillusions her. "He'll still enjoy beating you. And, now that you're a woman, he'll be able to enjoy you in other ways as well…Joffrey's not the sort of boy who gives away his toys."
Baelish offers to take Sansa home, but she quickly protests that "King's Landing is my home now." Sansa has been surviving on thin lies ever since her father's death: she has been very careful to proclaim her love for Joffrey, and her allegiance to the Lannisters, at every opportunity, believing them to be the only things keeping her alive. In reality, no one believed her—Cersei (Lena Headey) has known all along that Sansa hates them—but her lies used to be politically convenient. Now they are inconvenient, and Sansa's lies can't protect her, and so she is in more danger than ever. "Look around you," Baelish says. "We're all liars here, and every one of us is better than you."
"That was the arrangement. I pay you, and you lie to me."
These aren't the only lies being told at King's Landing: history, too, is little more than a lie agreed upon, and while Joffrey and Tywin are getting all the glory, the city's real savior is being erased from the history books.
The reward Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) gets—for destroying Stannis's fleet, and for leading the battle Joffrey was too cowardly to lead—is a hideously slashed face, a professional demotion, and some crappy new quarters in the bowels of the castle. It's horseshit, as Varys (Conleth Hill) is kind enough to remind him. "There are many who know that, without you, this city faced certain defeat," he says. "The king won't give you any honors, the histories won't mention you, but we won't forget."
This should have been Tyrion's moment of triumph, and instead he's lower than we've ever seen him before. What's heartbreaking is that he doesn't even seem surprised: he was riding high as Hand of the King for a while—weilding power and respect that, as he said repeatedly, he never thought he'd have—and now the situation has righted itself, and he's despised once again. "I'm a monster, as well as a dwarf," he says, of his ruined face, and with all his other illusions shattered he assumes Shae (Sibel Kekilli) will abandon him as well. She is, after all, just a whore, like the wife who pretended to love him—for how could anyone love him? "I pay you, and you lie to me," he reminds her.
But she doesn't lie to him. "You're a mess," she admits, about his Frankenstein face, but she also begs him to run away with her and live a simpler life where they can "eat, drink, fuck, live." But Tyrion has had a taste of self-respect now, and he likes it. "I do belong here," he says. "These bad people, what I'm good at—out-talking them, out-thinking them—it's what I am. And I like it. I like it more than anything I've ever done." He asks her if she will leave him, and she looks at him sadly, and reminds him that they belong to each other. But it's impossible not to wonder if he's chosen a life of lies—the deceit and treachery of "the game"—over something real, over what might have been a happy life.
"I've come too far to pretend to be anything else."
"Valar Morghulis" is full of people being offered other lives, and refusing them.
Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) offers Theon (Alfie Allen) a way out of the nightmare he's found himself in: to join the Night's Watch. "I've known you many years, Theon Greyjoy," he tells the boy. "You're not the man you're pretending to be. Not yet." All season long Theon has been trying to be an Iron Islander like his father, like his sister: heartless, cruel, strong. It's a lie, a not-very-convincing disguise that no one really believes, but he can't stop now. "You may be right," he tells Luwin. "But I've come too far to pretend to be anything else." Theon shut off his heart when he assumed this identity, and one suspects he could not begin to deal with what he's done if he allowed himself to face it now.
And so he tries to die as an Iron Islander, giving a rousing speech to his twenty men about how they can fall gloriously in battle. Last episode I commented on how Tyrion's address to his troops at King's Landing was deliberately not a Saint Crispin's Day speech, for Tyrion knows that all the pretty words about honor and glory are just a smokescreen: they're the lies that leaders tell to convince men to throw away their lives. Tyrion motivated his men by speaking of true things—survival, and protecting those that they loved—but Theon is a young fool who needs to believe the lies. "We die today, brothers…but our war cries will echo through eternity!" he says. "They will sing about the Battle of Winterfell until the Iron Islands have slipped beneath the waves. Every man, woman, and child will know who we were, and how long we stood."
It's a good speech—but it's horseshit, and his men know it's horseshit. They don't want to be celebrated in song, or immortalized in bronze: they just want to live. They're not boys to fall for the pretty lies of war, so they club the idiot over the head and flee Winterfell, apparently burning it down behind them.
"If you would learn, you must come with me."
Arya (Maisie Williams) is also made an offer: to join Jaquen H'ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), and travel to Braavos, and learn the things he knows about killing. "A girl has many names on her lips," he reminds her. "Names to offer up to the Red God. She could offer them all, one by one."
She wants to learn, but he is asking her to surrender her very identity, and she is not willing to do that just yet. To put it another way, he is asking her to forget who she really is, and what really matters to her: her family. "I need to find my brother and mother. And my sister, I need to find her, too." He offers her a life where to kill is "no harder than taking a new name," a life of deceit, of shadow assassinations, of illusions and glamour, where not even a man's face—let alone his name—can be trusted. She is attracted to that life, but instead she chooses to focus on the people she loves, and the danger they are in. He gives her a coin that will lead her back to him, if she changes her mind, but—for now— she chooses what's real.
"Thank you for teaching me this lesson."
As I've said, everyone's survival depends on their ability to lie convincingly, and on their ability to separate truth from illusion. Brienne (Gwendolyn Christie) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), for example, are extremely bad liars, and their attempt to pass Jaime off as a common sheep-thief doesn't even fool a few Stark bannermen. (Fortunately, what Brienne lacks in guile, she more than makes up for in steel.)
Stannis (Stephen Dillane), having suffered a defeat where he was promised victory, accuses Melisandre (Carice van Houten) of lying to him about her ability to read the future and the will of her gods in the flames. "The flames lie," he snarls, and nearly strangles her in his rage. But she shows him a new vision in the flames, hypnotizing him with a new illusion to hang his hopes upon. "You will betray everything you once held dear," she purrs. "And it will all be worth it."
Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is now deeply committed to a major deception: Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) picks a fight with him, and sacrifices his own life, in order to embed Jon deep undercover with the Wildlings. (And there's a lovely ambiguity to how much of Jon's rage is a lie, and how much of it is an honest reaction to Qhorin's insults.)
But the biggest lies are faced by Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who is tasked with separating illusion from reality in the beglamoured city of Qarth. People have been telling her lies ever since she got here, and she has been too eager to believe them all: the city offered her hospitality, and Xaro Xhoan Daxos (Nonso Anozie) promised her wealth, and the magicians of the House of the Undying promised her help. What she got, however, was that her people were slaughtered and her dragons were stolen.
And so she enters the House of the Undying, where she must not only make her way past their illusions— "Are you trying to frighten me with magic tricks?"—but also face temptations to pull her from her path. Passing through one door, she discovers one of her dreams: the throne room of King's Landing, destroyed by dragonfire—looking like Harrenhal, with its stone towers melted—and the Iron Throne hers for the taking. For months she has been swearing that she would rain fire on her enemies and claim the throne, and here is that vision made manifest.
And then she passes through another door—which turns out to be the gate at The Wall—and is faced with the cruelest temptation of all: Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa), and their beautiful son Rhaego. This scene is heartbreaking—the husband and son she lost, restored to her—and it's all the more powerful because the love and humor and warmth of their relationship has been missing from her storyline all season. ("Maybe I'm dead and I just don't know it yet," she says. "Or maybe I refused to enter the Night Lands without you," Drogo responds. "Maybe I told the Great Stallion to go fuck himself, and came back here to wait for you.")
It is everything she has ever wanted—to have both the conquest of Westeros and her love—but it's a lie. Mirri Maz Duur (Mia Soteriou) lied to her about many things, but she said one thing that was true: Drogo would return to her only when the sun rose in the west, and set in the east. Never. She reminds herself of this now, and turns her back on the lie, and follows the cries of her dragons instead. They are real, and her love for them is real, and they are—as Pyat Pree (Ian Hanmore) discovers—more powerful than any illusion or glamour.
Finally, Daenerys confronts the final lie, and goes in search of Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Discovering him with Doreah (Roxanne McKee), who has betrayed her, Dany steals his key and opens his vault, to discover it empty. All his unimaginable wealth turns out to have been the biggest lie of all, the lie with which he stole the city of Qarth and became a king. (Just as with Joffrey, lies can make kings.) "Thank you, Xaro Xhoan Daxos," she says, locking him and Doreah in the empty vault. "Thank you for teaching me this lesson." For she haslearned that a lie can be a most powerful thing, but she has also learned the importance of seeing through the lies, and focusing on what's real. The visions she saw were lies, but her dragons are real. Xaro's treasure was a lie, but his gold and jewels are real enough to buy, as Jorah (Iain Glen) says, "a small ship." Like many viewers, I've been frustrated with Dany's storyline all season, but it was all worth it to see her kick unbelievable ass in this season finale.
If the season had ended on her victory, I would have been satisfied, but this finalehas one more reality check for its characters (and for us): all these lies of court, and all this squabbling over who is or is not the rightful king of Westeros, doesn't matter a good god damn. Way back in "The Pointy End," Osha (Natalia Tena)—who is a great teller of truths—told us that all these armies were heading the wrong direction: they were going to make war in the South, when they really should have been worried about what was going on North of the Wall. Now, as three horn blasts sound out across the frozen wasteland, we see that she was right: the White Walkers are on the march, and everyone is fucked, and all these things that have seemed so important up until now were nothing more than a petty game of thrones.
Everything up until this point has been so much horseshit: now it's about to get real.
- I skipped over Robb (Richard Madden), who makes a liar of himself by breaking his vow to the Freys and marrying Talisa (Oona Chaplin). I still like how the show has handled this relationship, and I still see something heroic—however foolish—in Robb's determination to claim some happiness out of all the horror and misery he's seen. (It's a point echoed by Sam [John Bradley], who says that what he likes about Gilly is that, after all she's been through, "She's still got hope that life will get better." With lives like these people are living, hope is an admirable act of faith.)
- I also skipped over the very sad scene between the dying Maester Luwin and the Stark boys. Donald Sumpter has done exquisite work on this series, and I'm sorry to see him go.
- Finally, I skipped over a nice scene between Ros (Esme Bianco) and Varys, in which he offers her a job. (I particularly liked how this scene was shot, and lit, exactly like the terrifying scene between her and Littlefinger in "The Night Lands.")
- Random observation, from the Department of Obviousness: it didn't occur to me until I asked myself, "Why does Dany have to go through The Wall to discover Khal Drogo?", but of course The Wall symbolizes the threshold of death on this show. ("Winter is coming," after all, is just another way of saying, "Lots of people are going to die." And, of course, Beyond the Wall is where the dead men live.) Again, in retrospect this is totally obvious, and not terribly deep, but I admit I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms before.
- "These are questions for wise men with skinny arms." Jesus, how much have I missed Jason Mamoa as Khal Drogo? Let me add my voice to the chorus of people calling for him to come back and play a certain different character in later seasons.
- This has been another great season. At the risk of jinxing it, I'd point out that very few shows can boast two seasons—20 episodes—without a single fumbled hour. (Even Mad Men—my other nominee for the best show currently on television—has the occasional eyeroll-inducing misfire.) There have been some subplots that weren't as strong as others, but for my money no major gaffes or dropped balls. That's rare, and impressive, and a testament to the commitment of executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to maintaining this show's vision, tone, and overall quality.
- I'm thinking about writing one more overview post on this season, after I have a chance to go back and watch it all from the beginning. Otherwise, thanks for reading and commenting, and I'll look forward to picking up the conversation next year.