by Thom Powell
“The thing about [Gilly] that I find so interesting is that after all that Craster has done to her, she’s still got hope that life might get better.” -Samwell Tarly
Game Of Thrones can be an incredibly morbid show, mainly because Westeros is itself an incredibly morbid place. Season two’s final episode finds virtually every character in some sort of disadvantageous predicament. Robb must choose between the woman he loves and an alliance he desperately needs. Tyrion is no longer the hand of the king and must suffer the mockery of Maester Pycelle in his new, somewhat cramped living quarters. Arya must find her way back to Winterfell without the help of Jaqen H’ghar. Daenerys is — as she’s been very fond of reminding us lately — without her dragons and must risk her life in the House of the Undying. Jon must kill a brother in order to infiltrate the wildlings. Stannis must regroup after a particularly crushing defeat. Even Theon is faced with the choice between certain death, cowardice, or permanent service for the Night’s Watch. Despite these grim situations, Sunday’s episode was clearly about keeping hope alive in spite of difficult odds.
We begin in King’s Landing, with a newly disfigured Tyrion forced to bear the mockery of Pycelle, who informs him of his loss of status. We then see Joffrey doling out rewards for the victory at Blackwater — giving Lord Tywin the position Tyrion has been stripped of, granting Petyr Baelish dominion over Harrenhal, and agreeing to the Tyrells’ request to marry Margaery. Cersei’s attempt on the imp’s life may have failed, but she did succeed in taking virtually everything from him. The credit he rightfully deserves has gone elsewhere. And yet, Tyrion still has hope. He dismisses Shae’s idea of running off and living their days together outside of King’s Landing, because he still has faith in his abilities. As he tells his concubine: “I do belong here. These bad people are 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.” Tyrion may not have much going for him at King’s Landing, but he still has Shae, and he still has the respect of people like Varys, who understand how instrumental he was in protecting the interests of the kingdom.
Things aren’t going so well for the Starks, either. With Joffrey’s new betrothal to Margaery Tyrell, Sansa’s momentary elation is brought to an end by Littlefinger. Sure, she no longer has to marry him, but as Baelish points out, that doesn’t mean the Lannisters will let her go, nor does it mean Joffrey won’t try to have his way with her. Things seem better, but they may have just gotten worse for Sansa. Despite this, however, she receives unlikely help from Littlefinger, who tells her that he will help get her home. Even if his intentions aren’t entirely honest — he rather creepily compares her to her mother — it’s still a sliver of hope that Sansa can cling to in an otherwise desperate situation. The other Starks find themselves in similar situations. Robb ignores his mother’s advice and marries Talisa, crossing Walder Frey in the process. Catelyn is still under house arrest and is far from making amends with her son. Arya has escaped Harrenhal, but must now make her own way. Like Sansa, they still have some hope to cling to. Robb has his new marriage, Catelyn has Brienne and Jamie, and Arya has Jaqen H’ghar’s coin. The Stark armies may be without advantage and bereft of any leverage they once had, but Robb will have another well of support to help him gut out the remainder of the war. Catelyn may have lost her son, but she can still get her daughters back. Arya is rudderless, but she has a backup plan — courtesy of the shape-shifting H’ghar — should her return to Winterfell fail.
Winterfell, however, isn’t in great shape either. Theon is besieged by Roose Bolton’s forces and unable to even seek the respite of sleep, due to a particularly annoying horn-blower. His options are limited. His men are outnumbered 20 to 500 and going home with his tail between his legs isn’t an option. Maester Luwin suggests Theon take the black and serve with Jon Snow. He decides, instead, to take his chances and fight — delivering a rousing speech that would make Herb Brooks proud, which he hopes will inspire his men to do the impossible. This proves futile, as his second in command knocks him out (damn you, Finchy!), presumably to deliver him to Bolton’s men, before burning Winterfell to the ground. Everything appears lost for Luwin, who is dying of a spear wound, until he sees Bran and Rickon emerge from the great city’s charred remains, along with Osha and Hodor. The Starks may be split and Winterfell may be gone, but the boys are still alive, and they can make the decision Theon could not by seeking the assistance of the Night’s Watch.
Futher away, things are going a bit better for the likes of Stannis Baratheon and Daenerys Targaryen. All seems lost for Stannis, who laments the loss of his brother and nearly chokes Melisandre, until he heeds the red priestess’ advice and looks for his destiny in the flames. We don’t know what he sees here, but it’s clearly some sort of personal victory, as he’s struck silent. He may have hit rock bottom after the defeat at Blackwater, but that means things can only go up from here for Stannis. Meanwhile, in Qarth, Daenerys finally enters the House of the Undying. This was a pretty huge relief, considering the last few weeks of “MY DRAGONS”-related inaction from the mother of dragons. In one of the best scenes of the finale, Daenerys is shown the things she could have had — a still alive Khal Drogo and a healthy son — but manages to resist the temptation of these images in order to get her dragons back. Pyat Pree’s motivations for stealing her children are finally explained (the presence of her dragons enhances his magic to previously unforeseen heights), but his plan fails. Dany has no intention of being chained up for an eternity with her dragons, and burns Pree to death with a single word. With her dragons safely returned, Daenerys exacts her revenge on Xaro Xhoan Daxos — who will serve the rest of his short tenure as the King of Qarth locked inside his own empty vault — and loots his home for valuables that she and Jorah can parlay into a ship. We got the first taste of how destructive dragons can be with this episode, and it’s only a matter of time before Westeros sees how terrifying they can be.
If things are looking dire in Westeros, it’s only a matter of time before they get worse. Beyond the wall, Jon Snow is forced to kill Qhorin Halfhand to gain entry into Mance Rayder’s forces, but for once, the most important events on this front involve Samwell Tarly. He, like the main players in Westeros, has hope things will get better, but those hopes are quickly squashed. The white walkers have finally returned, and not in small numbers. The parade of the dead that Sam witnesses (hidden behind a rock) might be the best scene of the season. It’s terrifying in a way The Walking Dead can only dream of. The power struggle over the iron throne has been the focal point of the entire series, but it’s here that we see how futile it ultimately is. Winter has finally come. Like Theon, the denizens of Westeros have made their bed and must lie in it — they just don’t know it yet.