"The King won't give you any honors. The histories won't mention you. But we will not forget." Lord Varys promises Tyrion "Scarface" Lannister that despite the ugliness that surrounds him, his good work will be remembered where it counts. I wonder if that's the fate that awaits "Valar Morghulis," Game of Thrones' second season finale. Will its many emotional and visual high points – and they were both as high as the show's ever gotten – remain when the frustrating, underwhelming parts are forgotten? I feel like Tyrion when considering this question: Hopeful, but kind of dazed.
The strong stuff was strong indeed. It's tough to overstate the magnificence of the moment when Sansa Stark, walking from the throne room after her abuser King Joffrey breaks their engagement in front of the entire court, finally allows herself to smile about it. Watching actress Sophie Turner – who will forever be overlooked in favor of the equally worthy Maisie Williams in the more traditionally badass role of Sansa's sister Arya – play Sansa's barely contained, near-ecstatic relief was like seeing sunlight break through the clouds after a three-day rainstorm. It was the first time she smiled all season, and that's at least as big a payoff as Dany getting MY DRAGONS back.
Tyrion's story hit home hard as well. Despite winning the Battle of Blackwater Bay, he lost damn near everything else: the credit, the glory, the role of Hand of the King, and the position at the top of the power-player heap now all belong to his hated father Tywin Lannister. He lost his looks to the sword of Cersei's kingsguard goon Ser Mandon Moore. He's even lost his chance to escape it all, thanks to his admitted addiction to the very game that nearly killed him. But none of it matters to him compared to Shae, who knows all of the above (especially the offer of escape, since it was she who suggested it to him) and stays with him anyway. The marvelous Peter Dinklage makes you feel a lifetime of unfulfilled hunger for that kind of love and acceptance as Tyrion breaks down and cries – at last, he's got the one reward that matters.
Theon Greyjoy's been similarly devastated by a lifetime of wanting what no one can give him, but unlike Tyrion, he's still coming up empty. He could never truly love the Starks, nor they him, since whatever else they were, they were his captors. But what does he get in exchange for a lifetime of buried resentment when he takes it home to his family? Mockery, abuse, and finally abandonment. All that suffering was for nothing, and now he knows it. Alfie Allen's never been better than in Theon's long dark vuvuzela-soundtracked night of the soul, just a big jittery angry pile of self-pity and contempt. For the first time in his life he was able to make his own choices, and to paraphrase the similarly tormented-by-family HBO anti-hero Tony Soprano, all of his choices were wrong. Given that one of those choices was to murder two little boys, by rights Theon should be the least sympathetic character on the show, but Allen sells how Theon truly believes that the Starks and Greyjoys forced him to do everything he's done. Even the blaze of glory he concocts as his one way out with dignity intact is taken from him, his big speech cut short by a blackly hilarious act of betrayal. He can't even die on his own terms.
Stannis Baratheon's attempt to become a man of destiny is faring little better than Theon's at this point. His hope for the Iron Throne appears to have burned up along with his fleet and followers on the Blackwater. But he, at least, has someone he can blame within choking distance: Melisandre, whose powers don't appear to include "being strangleproof." It's a shocking move to have him attack the Red Woman, but a necessary one: It hammers home that however powerful her magic may be, she's neither infallible nor invulnerable; it shows how devastated Stannis is to have been duped into believing his victory was guaranteed; and insofar as he's a fire-eyed true believer once again within two minutes of nearly murdering Melisandre, it shows just how effective she can be in advancing her cause, even with the one man who has more reason than anyone else to believe she's full of shit.
As for Daenerys…sheesh, was there a dry eye in the House of the Undying when she walked into that tent and found Drogo and her never-born child Rhaego waiting for her? For the first time all season the conversation around Dany shifted from the grand destiny ahead of her to the past she already lost, and in that instant a character who'd spent much of the season spinning her wheels gained traction (at least for a couple of minutes). Meanwhile, actor Jason Momoa never got nearly enough credit for his half of the Dany/Drogo relationship, for the real fire and chemistry there, but man did he make his cameo count – I mean, you try emoting in a made-up language while wearing more guyliner than shirt.
So that's what worked character-wise. Visually the show was as striking as ever, too: the beautiful reds of the throne room and Littlefinger's brothel; the eerie, something's-not-right-here now-you-see-them-now-you-don't tricks with Jaqen and Daenerys; our heroes' fantasy-animal companions, dragons and direwolves alike, totally able to withstand the glare of sustained screentime; and most importantly, the astonishingly in-your-face final scene of the White Walker on his dead horse, staring Sam (and us) directly in the face for just about as long as anyone could stomach before leading his endless hordes of undead to attack the Night's Watch. The show has demonstrated a knack for nailing big images, especially this season, and those payoffs can get you to put up with a lot of less successful stuff if need be.
And need be, oh yes, need be. Despite the episode's proficiency with Sansa, Tyrion, Theon, and Stannis, the episode badly bobbled some of the others. Both Brienne and Jon killing people in fits of rage? In the immortal words of the Ohio Players, "I ain't goin' for that no more, NO, uh-uh, uh-uh, I done had enough of that, noooo." Brienne killing the guards who accused her of murdering her beloved Renly after she watched him get cut down by a shadow monster now seems like the kind of thing she does all the time if you piss her off, while Jon murdered a guy over a yo-momma joke. Robb behaved similarly childishly, choosing to risk a key alliance and break a vow but packaging it in petty "you're not the boss of me!" terms to his mother, as if it's a tit-for-tat response to her freeing the Kingslayer. Grow up, dude! I don't know how you walk these characters back from there without a lot of work, if at all.
Dany's grand finale was the most problematic of them all. As written by George R.R. Martin, her trip inside the House of the Undying is a combination of David Lynch's nightmarishly surreal Black Lodge from Twin Peaks and the mad bursts of clues and hints and prophetic insanity that characterized Lost's great leaps forward in its early seasons. What we got was…not that. It was effective in and of itself, yeah – the Drogo stuff was moving, the image of the snow-covered throne room a vivid what-we're-fighting-for warning – but it was all easily understood, and over very quickly. But you really don't need to weigh it against the book to find it wanting: In character terms, it simply revisited the flameproof imagery of the first season finale and led into a lame joke about the Dothraki looting Xaro Xhoan Daxos's palace. Suddenly the weightlessness of the entire Qarth storyline was impossible to ignore, and after Dany's truly mythic journey during season one, it's a big comedown.
With the White Walkers, their zombie thralls, and the dragons now firmly in play, we're guaranteed to see amazing things in season three. With both Tyrion and Stannis living to fight another day, with Sansa in the court and Arya on the run, we're guaranteed to see compelling characters as well. But beyond that, what with the wobbly handling of Dany and Jon and Brienne and the non-dragon/Walker magic, the flames tell me little. It all comes back to Tyrion in that bed: He knows the game can be bad for him, but it's so thrilling in the playing that he's addicted all the same.