I’m not sure where to begin with this review. The season is over, and I cannot believe it. It feels like just yesterday that it was Christmastime, and the Game of Thrones teasers were flashing across the HBO airwaves, and I was burying myself in ASOIAF lore in an attempt to sustain my fangirlish hunger until the show debuted.
A few months later HBO announced the premiere date: April 17. But that was still months away, so I had to trudge through internet message boards and Tower of the Hand essays to get my fix. And then the first episode premiered, and nine more episodes came and went. The last ten weeks have flown by, and now we have to suffer through an entire year without any Thrones. As the opening credits played for the Season Finale, I experienced a Pandora’s Box of emotions: anticipation, pride, excitement, fear, grief, despair, and longing. The theme song, which in the very least deserves the over-used adjective “epic,” made me feel like I was finishing the first leg of a terribly fantastic adventure.
I’ve been breaking down my reviews by location/character, but in order to preserve the power of the finale, I have kept this one chronological.
*As usual, this post contains spoilers for the Episode 10 and the ASOIAF books.
A sword drips blood in the foreground. In the background, Ser Ilyn Payne lifts Ned Stark’s decapitated head for the crowd. We cut to Arya, still in Yoren’s arms. The Night’s Watchman carries her to an alleyway, where he cuts off her hair. He’s taking her North, and she needs to be a boy. Yoren has shown us that the Night’s Watch sense of honor may not be as black and white as we see it. The Watch says that once you join the brotherhood, your old family ties mean nothing. Duty trumps love. But Yoren bears a love for his black brother Benjen, who in turn is the biological uncle of Arya. Perhaps the Watch’s duty includes love for your brothers at the Wall, and out of that love, a duty to your brother’s family. This scene also marks one of the first times we’ve seen Arya be truly helpless…understandably so. Usually she’s a fireball, but here, Yoren has to carry her like a baby from the plaza into the alleyway, where she can barely struggle when he pulls out his knife. Maisie Williams has been a star all season, and she handled Arya’s post-execution grief and vulnerability like a veteran.
North, at Winterfell, Bran dreams again of the three-eyed crow, who takes him to his father in the Winterfell crypts. Awake, he tells Osha about his dream as she takes him to check the underground tombs. As they plunge deep into the tunnels, Bran tells Osha about Lord Rickard and Lyanna, and we learn about the pattern of untimely death that preceded – and then included – Ned. Lyanna has been mentioned several times this season, but all references were quick and passing. But we missed some Lyanna information as well. We never heard Ned tell Arya that she resembles her aunt in looks and spirit. We never saw Lyanna’s last words (“Promise me, Ned”) haunt Lord Stark. And most importantly, we didn’t see Ned’s fever dream about the Tower of Joy – the Dornish fortress where three Kingsguard knights guarded Lyanna until Ned and his bannerman Howland Reed emerged from the clash with the bodyguards to find her dying. Bran does tell Osha about his aunt in the novel, but to say that this was just a moment of faithful adaptation is to underestimate HBO. They’ve edited the story tightly, and the fact that they’ve kept in this bit about Lyanna, and the reference to Rhaegar Targaryen, leads me to believe both characters will eventually feature in the show in some way. Lyanna and Rhaegar make up one of ASOIAF fans’ favorite theories, and perhaps HBO is laying the foundation for new fans to also develop the same hypothesis. But since we can’t get inside characters’ heads in the show, the clues have to be cleverly embedded.
When Bran and Osha reach the spot where the boy saw Ned in his dream, a snarling shadow leaps from the darkness and bears its teeth, until a small voice calls it off. Rickon is there with his direwolf, Shaggydog, also looking for Ned after dreaming of his father. After telling his baby brother their father is in King’s Landing, Bran reemerges, and Maester Luwin is waiting with a scroll. The maester’s voice is full of sadness as he calls to Bran, and the boy knows exactly what message has come. Dark wings, dark words. During my recent reread of A Game of Thrones, this scene was one of the most moving. The TV version was different, but nonetheless sad. Donald Sumpter gives us two sadnesses in Maester Luwin: a restrained grief for the lord he has served for years, and a weary anguish for the fact that he needs to deliver this message to Bran. Isaac Hempstead-Wright gave a perfect performance as Bran, and in this scene he shows us in his face that he has understood that his dream was true. Ned will be in the crypts soon enough.
Catelyn Tully walks stoically past a line of guardsmen. Ethereal, melancholy music fills the scene. Once Lady Stark is alone, she falls against a tree and gasps through tears. Her release only lasts a moment though, because she soon hears grunting and hacking further into the grove. Robb is weeping and viciously hacking at a tree. When he finally realizes she stands before him, he throws himself into her arms and swears to kill everyone involved with his father’s death. Cat, once again composed, hugs him tightly and speaks softly and matter-of-factly: The Lannisters have the Stark girls. The Northerners have to get the girls back, and then they will kill them all. Moments like this made me love Catelyn Tully Stark. Michelle Fairley’s incredible performance took one of my least favorite book POV characters and made her into one of my favorite TV characters. Her Cat is grounded and earthy, alternatively gentle and stoic when necessary. She is a wife and a lady of one of Westeros’ most powerful houses, but above all, she is a mother. Here, she must put her own grief aside to comfort her boy. He needs strength and composure, and Cat is willing to give him whatever she has of those qualities in order to help him be the leader he has sworn to become.
Marillion fills the Red Keep’s throne room with a crude song about King Robert’s death. It’s hard to imagine Joffrey being offended by someone defaming his father, but it’s easy to see the boy king’s delight in a chance to inflict cruelty on an unsuspecting subject. He makes Marillion choose between his fingers and his tongue, and leaves shortly before Ser Ilyn Payne cuts out the singer’s favorite instrument. Sansa, blank and red-eyed, watches from the gallery. On his way out, Joffrey invites her to walk with him. The Hound reassures her gently to do as she is bid.
Joffrey takes Sansa up to the castle battlements, all the way telling her how he will impregnate her as soon as she has her first blood. Sansa realizes where he is taking her – to see the heads of those executed – and she cries to go no further. She says Joff promised to be merciful, and he claims he was, because he gave Lord Stark a clean death. The fruit of Joff’s mercy now rests atop a spike, and Sansa is forced to look at it. When Joffrey looks for her reaction, she gives him nothing, and simply asks how long she must look. Joff also shows her the head of Septa Mordane, and promises to give Sansa Robb’s head too. Like a serpent, Sansa lays down her courtesies and strikes: She tells Joff that maybe Robb will give her his head. For this, he has Meryn Trant strike her, as he knows a king does not hit his lady. Sansa contemplates pushing Joffrey off the battlement walk, but before she can act, the Hound grabs her and wipes the blood from her lip. He tells her to save herself some pain and to give him what he wants. When she tries to return his handkerchief, he tells her she will be needing it again. Alone for a moment, Sansa succumbs to quiet tears.
As we saw Arya become vulnerable for the first time at the Sept of Baelor, we see the opposite in Sansa. For the most part she has been graceful and polite, tiffs with Arya and rude comments to Septa Mordane aside. Anything “bad” that Sansa has done has been childish – rude and snotty sure, but not aggressive or violent. Here, however, we see her assert herself for the first time. She has come to realize that Joff is not the gallant prince she believed. He killed her father, and she wants to hurt him. But for her comment she gets slapped, and before she can push the boy king to his death, the Hound intervenes. Sansa realizes she has no power against the Lannisters when she’s being held by large metaphorical lion paws, so she’ll find another way to armor herself: spiteful courtesy.
San/San shippers must have rejoiced at the scene on the battlements. I don’t sail on that ship myself, and I actually found the Hound a very different character than what we have on the page. He’s much gentler – in act and speech. In fact, the only moment we get a sense of his malice is when he brings back Mycah’s body. He’s a much more domesticated dog than I expected him to be, and I lament the fact that we only saw him for a few brief moments this season. Because, you know, we had other characters to focus on…like Ros.
Under a velvet night sky, Robb’s war council discusses its next move. Some suggest joining Renly Baratheon, but Robb, ever like his father, says that law prohibits Renly from being king before Stannis. The men argue over which king to support until Jon Umber claims the floor. He spits – literally – at both Baratheons’ names and declares that neither brother means anything to him. Greatjon draws his sword and points it at Robb. The new Lord of Winterfell is the only man Jon Umber will call king – the King in the North! Slow and somber music sets the scene as Theon Greyjoy and others swear their allegiance to the new king, until all the Stark bannermen fill the night with chants of “KING IN THE NORTH! KING IN THE NORTH!”
This was a moment viewers really needed. We’ve seen Ned’s death, Bran’s grief, Sansa’s abuse, and we needed something that didn’t reek of injustice. Richard Madden has played Robb as a boy who quickly had to become a man, and if the Whispering Wood was his rite of passage, this moment was definitely his initiation into adulthood. He has just become Lord of Winterfell, and now he is the first King in the North in several hundred years. The tone of this scene was beautifully set. The darkness, the candlelight, the music, Greatjon’s booming voice – it all felt solemn and reverent. The Northerners aren’t just looking for revenge. They’re not just looking to secede from a kingdom held by an enemy king. They are looking for a return to the Old Way, which, as Bran told Ned in the execution scene in the premiere, is the Stark Way. The Southerners are ostentatious, extravagant and poisonous. Let them keep their irreverent kingdoms and their Seven, and the King in the North will reign over Winterfell, the Wall, the Wolfswood and all that harkens back to the ways of the First Men.
Cat visits Jaime Lannister, still cocky even in chains. She greets him with a rock to the face and threatens his life, condemning him to the seven hells by the justice of the gods. When she tells the knight that men like him bring injustice into the world, he replies with an existential truth: There are no men like him…only him. HBO had to expand Jaime Lannister’s role in the first season to boost his limited presence in the first novel. In doing that, it seems they’ve started Jaime’s character development early. He is cocky, but he also presents an honesty and self-awareness few other men would care to display. Cat questions him about Bran, and he admits he pushed the boy from a window with the hopes of killing him, but offers no further explanation than that. Cat contemplates the rock she still holds, but ultimately lets it clunk to the ground and walks away. I found it slightly out-of-character for Cat to give up on answers so quickly, but I suppose she was so exhausted she couldn’t deal with any more. Bran is crippled, Ned is dead. There is no going back, so how much does the Kingslayer’s reason really matter?
With Jaime a prisoner of the Northmen, Cersei has taken another lover – her cousin Lancel, the squire who pumped Robert full of wine on his hunting trip. She snaps at the youth as she holds a letter in her hands. She has presumably received notice of her twin’s capture, and she certainly is not happy. Lena Headey has played a more reserved, controlled Cersei, not as manipulative and sexual as in the novels. Book Cersei uses sex to get what she wants, and nothing of Season 1 Cersei really broadcast this message. This scene at Lancel may be our first look at that side of the Queen.
Tywin tells his council that the Starks have his son. The Lannisters lament their position: Jaime captured, their armies scattered, and both Baratheons now playing king. Kevan suggests trying for piece, but Tyrion uses a broken glass as a metaphor for the Lannisters’ chance at treating with Robb Stark. Joffrey cut off peace the moment he cut off Ned Stark’s head. The men offer various suggestions, but Tywin doesn’t care. He thinks only of Jaime and sends everyone except Tyrion away. He lays out his plan: Ser Gregor will burn the Riverlands, Tywin will regroup at Harrenhal, and Tyrion will rule in King’s Landing in his father’s stead, taking Joffrey and Cersei in hand and protecting Lannister ambition from potential Small Council treason. Tywin has finally recognized Tyrion for what he is – a cunning, determined man. But there is another layer to that newfound understanding. Tywin knows Tyrion loves his whores, but he forbids Shae from going to court. Tywin hates whores (remember Tysha?) because they shame the golden aura of House Lannister. But on a deeper level, he also hates not being in control. So although he has given Tyrion an immense power, Tywin tries to keep his son on the leash by denying him his favorite pleasure.
I’ve praised Dinklage before, but this scene encapsulates his range. He plays Tyrion’s showiness when he smashes the glass. He pulls a very DeNiro-esque, comedic face when Tywin snatches away the wine jug. And when his father recognizes that Tyrion is his son, Peter shows shock and pride. Tyrion has longed for this acceptance forever, but he’s still unsure if he’s truly gotten it.
Dany has woken and asks for her son. Jorah’s eyes betray him, and the khaleesi demands to know how Rhaego died. Mirri Maz Duur enters, as though on cue, and provides all the gruesome details: Rhaego was born dead, with lizard-like skin, leathery bat wings, skin that fell from his bones and insides filled with grey worms. Daenerys finally understands the price of blood magic, and demands to see Drogo. She wants to know what Rhaego’s life has bought her.
The khalasar has left, except for Dany’s guards and handmaidens, and whoever is too weak or wounded to go. The khal lies immobile in the sunlight, and Mirri says he will be as he was when “the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, when the seas go dry, and when the mountains blow in the air like leaves.” Dany questions Mirri’s betrayal, and the maegi says the Stallion Who Mounts the World will now never trample any nations into dust. Dany claims she saved Mirri’s life, and Mirri tells Dany to look at Drogo to see what life is worth when all the rest is gone. Daenerys has officially now lost everyone who was ever dear to her: Both parents, both brothers, her unborn son, and her husband, whose body now possesses no spirit. She has no one to whom she can run, nowhere to go. Daenerys Targaryen must now carve her own path in this world out of the death and destruction she has been given.
Jon Snow opens the gates at Castle Black and mounts his horse. Sam is nervously asking if Jon knows what happens to deserters. Jon doesn’t care. He plans to find his brother and put a sword through King Joffrey’s throat. Sam says the Watch needs Jon and stands resolute, until Jon nearly rides him down. As Jon rides out of Castle Black, a sullen version of the Thrones theme fills the scene. We’ve had our doses of moody Jon here and there this season, but this is the icing on the cake. Despite his conversation with Maester Aemon last week, Jon has given into his need to touch glory. Like anyone, he doesn’t want to be left behind while family and friends move on. If he can fight at Robb’s side, he can be a brother, a commander, a hero, and maybe some people will forget he’s not a true born Stark. The irony is that he’s leaving the one place in Westeros where he can truly escape his role as a bastard.
Shae is packing Tyrion’s books. She asks why she cannot go to King’s Landing, and Tyrion says it is because she is a whore. She gets angry, Tyrion calls his father a choice word, and invites the prostitute to accompany him to the capital. Despite any father-son bonding moment, Tyrion won’t let his dad control him. Shae is his, and Shae will come.
Jon rides through the night. Ghost lopes at his side and riders press at his back. One of them shrieks as he rides into a tree branch and falls from his horse. Jon wheels around to find Sam, Pyp and Grenn, come to bring Jon back to the Watch. They surround Jon and repeat their Night’s Watch oath. They are his brothers now, and they need him, for this night, and all nights to come. Sam hands Longclaw to Jon, who, with a sigh, accepts. No doubt Robb and Bran and Rickon loved their bastard brother Jon Snow, but he will never share their words. He is not a Stark, just a no-name son of the North. But with Sam and Pyp and Grenn, Jon shares so much more than words. He shares a home, a duty, and an honor. Every man at the Wall is a bastard of society, and Jon none the more than the rest.
Dany washes Drogo, begging him for a sign he is still present. Nothing can rouse him, and his eyes are dead as he stares into space. She lays on top of him and weeps, tenderly telling him, “When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, then you shall return to me, my sun and stars.” She kisses him one last time before pressing a pillow over his face. The camera zooms out, and through a frame of tent silks, we see the khaleesi leaning over her khal as he convulses. As the life leaves his body, so too does Dany’s naivete flee from her soul. She understands now, and her transformation is nearly complete.
Grand Maester Pycelle has just slept with Ros, everyone’s favorite whore. He talks about all the kings he’s known over the last 67 years and predicts greatness on Joffrey’s horizon (always the sycophant!). After Ros leaves, Pycelle does a few stretches and squats before donning his maester’s robe, hunching and slowing himself down.
Varys and Baelish are looking at the Throne. They ask each other what they would do if they found themselves sitting there. Varys says he’s one of the few men in the city who doesn’t want to be king. Petyr says Varys isn’t a man at all, and initiates a conversation about Varys’ castration. Varys responds with wit, asking why Baelish is thinking about what’s between his legs. Each eventually admits he admires the other before Joffrey enters. The council is in session, and the spymasters go about their duties. These two scenes reinforce the best-known secret of the Red Keep: no one is as he seems. All the councilors have their own agenda. All are playing the game of thrones.
Arya, now “Arry” the orphan boy arrives at the caravan heading toward the Wall. She has to be careful; the degenerates Yoren has rounded up would sell her out for next to nothing, and the worst ones would rape her first. She walks past three convicts locked in a cart and is soon ambushed by two boys – Hot Pie and Lommy Greenhands. They pick on her and try to steal Needle, but Arya holds Hot Pie at sword point until he reclines in terror. Gendry pops up and threatens the bullies as well, and they flee. Gendry then asks Arya about her castle-forged steel, explaining that he used to be an armorer’s apprentice until his master got sick of him and sent him to the Watch. Before he can say more, Yoren calls for the recruits. They need to get going, because it’s a thousand leagues to the Wall, and winter is coming. We may have seen her vulnerable side before, but scrappy Arya is back with a vengeance. She lost everything from her life as Arya Stark. Everything except Needle. The sword was given to her by her favorite brother, acknowledged by her father, used in training with her beloved mentor. It is the key to who she was, and she will cling to it at all costs. And if Hot Pie tries to take it from her, she’ll kill him, just as she killed the stableboy who tried to take her to the queen.
The Old Bear asks Jon if his moonlit ride was so tiring. Jon looks uneasy, but Mormont says the Watch would have no men if they executed everyone who ran away for the night. He says honor took Jon away, and honor brought him back. Jon says his friends brought him back, and Mormont says he didn’t say it was Jon’s honor. When Jon protests that the Lannisters killed his father, Mormont asks if fighting will bring him back. Mormont has seen dead men come back to life, and prefers not to see it happen again. He asks Jon if Robb’s war is more important than the Watch’s war. Jon submits and says no, and Mormont is glad. He wants Jon and Ghost with him when he rides out tomorrow beyond the Wall. A prideful militaristic theme plays as the gate is raised and Mormont, with Jon behind him, rides from Westeros into the wilderness beyond. He asks Jon, “Are you a man of the Night’s Watch, or a bastard boy who wants to play at war?” Jon’s friends helped him answer that question, and here in his blacks on horseback he sits, answering it. Kit Harington again does a phenomenal job with Jon’s internalized feelings, and the last shot of him for the season shows us just how far Jon has come in ten episodes.
From ice to fire. Rakharo puts Daenerys’ dragon eggs into Drogo’s funeral pyre. Jorah suggests she sell them instead, but she says that is not their purpose. She has understood what she must do, but Jorah refuses to allow it. He says he cannot watch her burn. Dany kisses him on the cheek and reassures him. Mirri Maz Duur is bound to the pyre. But before lighting it, she addresses the people still with her. They will be her khalasar, but all who desire to leave are free to go. Some do leave, but Dany pushes on. She asserts her birthright: Daenerys Stormborn, of House Targaryen, the blood of Old Valyria, the dragon’s daughter. And although her baby never lived, Dany claims her role as mother of her people. She tells them that anyone who would harm them will die screaming. Mirri says she will not scream. Dany doesn’t care; it is only Mirri’s life she wants. Only death can pay for life. She has understood.
Dany lights the pyre, and sure enough, Mirri begins to scream. The princess walks directly to the center of the flames, near Drogo’s body, mimicking her first appearance way back in Episode 1, when she resolutely entered the scalding water of her tub at Illyrio’s manse. After a last shot of Drogo’s face, the screen cuts to black.
In the cool light of morning, Jorah walks toward the cinders. Smoke clears to reveal Daenerys Targaryen, crouched and naked, unharmed, with a dragon in her lap. As the camera closes in on her face, another dragon climbs over her shoulder. Jorah Mormont falls to his knees. As she stands, a third dragon crawls up her leg. The black on her shoulder hisses, and a slow, subtly tribal and mystically hymnal version of the show’s theme plays as her khalasar bows to her – the khaleesi, the Stormborn, the Unburnt, the Mother of Dragons.
Dragons helped Aegon the Conqueror take Westeros. If anything will help his last descendant retake the Targaryen kingdom, it’s the power of dragons. Of all the characters in Season 1, Dany grew the most, from a frightened girl to a self-assured khaleesi, and later, a Queen. And here, she is reborn, marking her ascension into the identity she has been chasing. She has traveled so far, both spiritually and physically, and has transformed from sheltered to worldly. But the instructions for her greatest achievement have been with her since birth. To hatch a dragon requires the very two elements that House Targaryen took up as their family words: Fire and Blood.
This scene has been the one thing that has most excited and most worried me about Season 1. Dragons, CGI, adapting the poignancy of this young woman’s road to maturity ending with such a monumental moment…could HBO possibly translate this for screen? But they did it! They SO SO SO did it, and of course did it in their own way. A few things were slightly different, one of the most prominent examples being Dany’s hair. In the novel, it burns, but I am glad the show didn’t go that route. A bald head would have meant a set of potentially bad transition wigs. But they did make a slight concession, and had Dany’s hair woven tight to her head and away from her face for the first time. Her baldness in the book is a strong symbol for rebirth, but having her hair styled drastically different was at least enough of a sign to show that something was going to change. An example of something they kept just as in the book? Dragons. They were even more beautiful versions of what I imagined while reading AGOT. On the record: The dragons were some of the best CGI to ever grace a TV screen.
The visual component of the show allowed HBO to give us information we couldn’t be sure to glean from the books, and because TV is a visual medium, it can link us to other visual art forms. For instance, Dany’s pose invokes the image of a Classical statue or a Renaissance painting, specifically Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The painting depicts a goddess just born, and the same could be said of Dany. Aesthetically, the positioning of the dragons is strong. Drogon sits on her right shoulder, Rhaegal is held at the center of her body, and Viserion is on her left leg. The spacing is perfect, and they’re not competing with each other for the spotlight. The dragons are balanced and infuse the visual image of Dany with a sense of power and stability. And that’s what they give her in the story, don’t they?
Overall, the finale completely represented everything the series stands for: People finding their paths in an unforgiving world. Growth and love and hate and pride. Dragons and wolves and magic. What drew me to A Song of Ice and Fire was the fact that it is a fantasy epic. What kept me there was that it is so much more. It is story that uses a fictional world to reveal truths about our own reality. After an awe-inspiring first season, I can concretely say that HBO’s adaptation accomplishes the same.
“As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.” –George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones. August 2005 Bantram Spectra mass market reissue edition, pages 806-807.