Last night's Game of Thrones featured a lot of characters pausing at the edge of the whirlpool — before sailing over the edge, into darkness. Several of our favorite characters faced one last chance to stop and reconsider their choices, before it was too late. And almost all of them stayed committed to their terrible decisions — because when you've tied yourself to the wheel and committed yourself to a mad course, it can feel like your destiny.
We heard a fair amount of talk about destiny in last night's episode — most notably from Melisandre the Red Priestess, in her post-strangulation pep talk to King Stannis. Theon Greyjoy also tries to convince his tiny band of followers at Winterfell that they have a heroic destiny to get slaughtered and chopped into small pieces, so their names can go down in history. In both cases, the actual fate being described seems quite horrible — Melisandre tells Stannis that he'll betray everybody and lose himself, but it will all be worth it. Theon describes dying of a hundred wounds. Not that alluring.
And meanwhile, Daenerys Stormborn visits what appears to be some kind of dreamworld or nexus of realities, where she sees things that could come to pass, or which might have been — including a ruined Iron Throneroom and Khal Drogo with their son.
The other big motif in last night's episode, though — people being offered a chance to escape, and not taking it. In particular, Tyrion and Sansa are both told to flee King's Landing, and Theon Greyjoy is offered a way out of Winterfell. Robb Stark is begged not to go through with his foolish wedding, and Brienne has a chance to get out of having to escort Jaime Lannister.
Most of all, though, "Valar Morghulis" packed a huge emotional punch, from beginning to end. This was the most powerful episode of the show yet, for my money, and it proved that all that work on developing the minor characters really paid off.
There were so many great little moments that it's almost impossible to recount them all, too. And the direction by Alan Taylor was fantastic. The opening closeup of Tyrion's eye as he shifts from post-battle trauma-vision to reality, gets mirrored by the closeup of Stannis' eye as he sees the flames of Melisandre's prophecy. And the tight shot of Tywin's horse pooping on the floor of the throne room was astonishingly great, similar to the thing Taylor did in the season opener with the dead body falling onto the courtyard with a plop. Also, Daenerys' journey through the Land Beyond the Wall looked suitably unreal and sort of 2001-y.
This show continues to exceed my already high expectations.
So let's take the billion subplots one by one...
Stannis Baratheon establishes the theme of destiny as well as choosing your path — Stannis hears a pretty horrendous prophecy about all the terrible things he's going to do, on the way to becoming King, and he only seems interested in the part where he gets to be King. First, though, Stannis seems to be on the verge of rejecting Melisandre outright, after his huge defeat in the Battle of the Blackwater. He's consorted with a foreign apostate and murdered his own brother for nothing — plus he had to watch thousands of his own men die a horrible flesh-melting death.
Stannis, the relentlessly fair-minded stickler, has a debt he can't wipe out — and it drives him to strangle his priestess, taunting her to show him where her god is now. Her response: "in you."
Something about her fervor when she says her god is in him (and thus, I guess, it's actually her god that's strangling her) stops Stannis in his tracks, allowing her to tell (and show) him the full prophecy of his bloody role. Hearing that he's going to be the cause of years of war and uncounted suffering, Stannis doesn't try to deviate from that path — if anything, he seems more sure of his role than ever.
Theon Greyjoy... As we mentioned, he gets a last chance to flee and doesn't take it. Maester Luwin seems to have immense pity for the self-styled Lord of Winterfell, who's gotten himself into an untenable situation. Luwin has this great moment where he says Theon's not the man he's pretending to be — not yet, anyway. And Theon says he's gone too far to pretend to be anybody else, at this point. He can't go back to being one of Robb Stark's loyal acolytes, he can't run away and join the Night's Watch. He's trapped by the choices he's already made.
This leads to a bizarrely awesome scene that's basically a parody of last week's Tyrion Lannister "there are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them" speech, in which Theon tries to get his tiny crew excited about dying gloriously in one last epic battle. It's a rousing, thrilling speech — but it's clearly not true, because nobody in Pyke will give two shits about a handful of dudes who died holding a castle with no strategic value, miles from the sea. And Theon still doesn't understand the Ironborn — they're pirates, not knights. They want plunder, not glory.
And of course, Robb Stark has rather cunningly spread the word that all of Theon's men are free to leave — but not Theon himself. So Dagmer Cleftjaw clocks Theon in the back of the head, and drags him out of there to hand him over. The saddest part of all this is that Maester Luwin is murdered, for trying one last time to save the unworthy Theon. Maester Luwin gets a tearjerking farewell to Bran and Rickon Stark, the last survivors of Winterfell, whom he tells to head North towards the Wall, to find Jon Snow.
And when Bran and Rickon get out of their hiding place, they find that Winterfell has been set on fire, destroying everything. Who did this? Presumably not Dagmer Cleftjaw, who just wanted to get out of there in one piece. No, it seems more likely that the rescuers who came to kill Theon decided to sack the place, and then burn it to cover up their treachery. (All we know about these rescuers is that they were led by Lord Bolton's "Bastard," whom we haven't met yet. Maybe he's like Jon Snow, another honorable but illegitimate son who longs to do the right thing. We'll see next year, I guess.)
Robb Stark also has an authority figure telling him that it's not too late to change the stupid course he's set himself on. The King in the North has decided that it's not enough to fool around with Lady Talisa for a bit, before going off to marry one of Lord Frey's daughters as he promised — he has to marry Talisa, because nothing else makes sense in this crazy world. Robb's mom tries her best to talk him out of this foolishness, but she's lost a lot of her stature since she let Jaime Lannister go. So in the end, Robb goes off to the woods with Talisa, to have a pagan handfasting ceremony where they recite the names of the seven new gods.
Sansa Stark, meanwhile, gets to watch Good King Joffrey struggle with a similar dilemma to the one Robb is busy running roughshod over. Joffrey is promised in marriage to Sansa, the same way Robb is promised in marriage to the anonymous Lady Frey. But instead of just quietly marrying someone else, Joffrey stages a huge pantomime in which Loras Tyrell asks him to marry his sister, Margaery Tyrell. And Joffrey puts on a huge fake show of consternation, because he couldn't possibly break his sacred oath to marry Sansa. At last, the question is resolved, because Sansa is the daughter of traitors, and for the good of the realm, the betrothal must be dissolved.
This leaves Sansa Stark free and clear — except that Littlefinger, the new Lord of Harrenhal, tells her that Joffrey will still enjoy brutalizing her and probably raping her too. He doesn't have to marry her to keep abusing her, and he'll never let go of his toys. Littlefinger offers to steal Sansa away and return her to her family, but Sansa declines — probably wisely, considering what we know about Littlefinger. Sansa is still trying to pretend that she's a good loyal admirer of Joffrey, a policy that's kept her alive thus far. But Littlefinger tells her that everyone in King's Landing is a liar — and they're all much better at it than she is.
(Which raises another question: What if Sansa's tactic is actually more successful than a proper deception would be? What if, by letting people see glimpses of her true misery and hatred for Joffrey, she's helping to sell the illusion that her spirit is broken? Nobody would believe that Sansa really does still love Joffrey, or that she's thrilled to be his prisoner. In any case, the moment where Sansa rejoices at the end of her betrothal, only to slip the sad mask into place again when she's spoken to, is pretty amazing.)
Ros the Spy Littlefinger's best sex worker, too, gets offered a way out of her situation by an older, wiser figure. Thank goodness Ros' storyline this season doesn't just end with her being the punching bag of the universe — we get a hint that she's about to take on a whole new thrilling role. Ros is trying her best to cover up the bruises she suffered at the hands of Cersei Lannister, when she gets a visitor, whom she does her darndest to seduce — except that it's Lord Varys, the eunuch, and she's rather wasting her time. Varys has a very intriguing proposition for Ros — work for him, instead of for Littlefinger. Ros is already pretty great at getting herself into the middle of everything that's going on, and Varys offers her the chance to turn it to good use, as a spy. The biggest perk: unlike Littlefinger, Varys protects his assets. (And is this the first time we've seen any indication that Varys' spies aren't all little boys? I guess Jorah Mormont was one of Varys' spies at one point.)
Brienne of Tarth also gets a chance to back out of the dangerous course she's set herself, when she and Jaime Lannister are caught by three Stark men. She's already realizing what a handful Jaime Lannister is — constantly challenging her to fight him, taunting her about her virginity, being a major dickface — and meanwhile, she's in constant danger of being caught by her own side, which might not treat her too gently for helping a prisoner escape. So when she gets almost caught, she has the option to give up her prisoner and maybe get away. Instead, she first tries to help Jaime pretend to be some nobody who got caught stealing a pig — in a pretty hilarious sequence — and then she murders three men to keep her prisoner.
Of course, these aren't just three random fighters — these are the men responsible for stringing up three innocent women who allegedly gave comfort to the Lannister troops in some fashion. The Stark men gave two out of these three women a quick death — so Brienne does the same for two out of three of them.
Tyrion Lannister wakes up to find out that he's an unsung hero. While everybody else who defended King's Landing is getting medals and promotions and betrothals, Tyrion is stuck in bed with a nasty scar going diagonally across his face — so, as he puts it, he's a monster as well as a dwarf now. His power base has been dismantled, too: Bronn is no longer Commander of the City Watch, and the Hill Tribes have been sent home. But worst of all, even though many people know that the city would have fallen if it hadn't been for Tyrion holding off Stannis' forces, he will never get any official credit.
Worst of all, he wakes up to find Grand Maester Pycelle standing over him — the man whom Tyrion sent to one of the Black Cells for betraying him. Pycelle doesn't bother to put on his "doddering old fool" act at all, sneering at Tyrion and tossing him a coin for his trouble, the way Tyrion did to Pycelle's bed companion.
Lord Varys, the person who built up Tyrion as the only one who can save the city, is more or less abandoning him now, although he still considers himself Tyrion's friend. He sold Tyrion a huge heroic destiny, and Tyrion fulfilled it — and now, he's being cast aside, like a broken relic.
Varys does do one last favor for Tyrion, though — he sneaks Tyrion's girlfriend Shae in to see him, for one of the episode's two tender, heartbreaking moments. Shae genuinely seems to care about Tyrion now, and is no longer just being paid richly to pretend, as he puts it. In fact, Shae puts her finger on the dark side of Tyrion's character — "I'm a poor little rich man and nobody loves me, so I make jokes all the time and pay people to laugh."
Tyrion gets offered a chance to get out of King's Landing before things get any worse for him — Shae asks him to run away with her, to Pentos, where they can eat, drink and fuck without ever having to worry about Starks or Baratheons again. Tyrion says no, because he has discovered he really loves outsmarting everybody else in this horrible town, and he wants to keep doing it. He's found the thing he was made for. "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." But instead of leaving Tyrion to his dangerous games, Shae promises to stay with him, because she is his, and he is hers.
Jon Snow also faces a key decision, after which there will be no turning back. His fellow prisoner, Qhorin Halfhand, wants Jon to kill him — so that Jon can prove that he's no longer loyal to the Night's Watch, and thus infiltrate the Wildling army led by former Night's Watchman Mance Rayder. Qhorin keeps trying to bait Jon into a fight, so Jon can have an excuse to murder him, and Jon is clearly hesitating. But finally, the two men do get to have a brutal swordfight in the snow, with their hands still tied, and Jon skewers Qhorin through the sternum.
And amazingly enough, the ruse works. Jon is untied and accepted as the man who killed Qhorin Halfhand. He's led to the Wildling encampment, where there are hundreds (if not thousands) of houses, where he'll be introduced to his new leader, Mance Rayder.
Arya Stark also gets offered a chance to get away from Westeros, and to get the thing she's been calling out for all season: revenge. Now that Jaqen H'ghar has helped her to escape from Harrenhal, he's apparently been impressed with her cleverness in giving him his own name to kill. He offers to take her to his order, the Faceless Men, where she can learn to be a super-assassin, just like he is. She would have to leave Westeros and travel to Braavos, where her "dancing instructor" was from. But afterwards, she would have the skill to kill Cersei, Joffrey, the Hound and everybody else she hates — and they'd never even see her coming.
But Arya decides not to go off with Jaqen, because she needs to find her mother and siblings — even Sansa, whom Arya grudgingly accepts she needs to be with as well. So instead, Jaqen gives her a coin which will serve as her token of admission to assassin school. All she has to do is give it to any man from Braavos and say the words "Valar Morghulis" (which readers of the books know means "All men must die") and they will take her to Jaqen.
Oh, and Jaqen randomly changes his face at a moment's notice. He's a freaking shapeshifter!
Daenerys Targaryen. In an episode that's all about people making major choices, Daenerys' experience stands out — she seems to enter a dreamworld where she's seeing different possible realities. Or maybe the sorcerers in the House of the Undying are just showing her what she wants to see — the Iron Throne, Drogo alive. But in that case, why does she visit the lands beyond the Wall? And why is the Iron Throne deserted and snowed in? (It appears as though the throneroom's ceiling has been destroyed — melted by dragonfire.) Is this a possible future, or just a happy dream?
In any case, in the midst of her travels through this netherworld of what might be and what could have been, Daenerys gets to be with Drogo again — and it's another insanely moving scene that it just about breaks you to watch. Drogo has their son, the Stallion that Mounts the World, and he says that maybe he refused to go to the afterlife without Daenerys, or maybe one of them is dreaming. If it's Drogo who's dreaming, he'll kill the man who tries to wake him up. But, at last, Daenerys has to leave her mate and journey onward, coming to where her dragons are held prisoner.
And, at last, we find out what all this has been about. Sort of. The sorcerers found that their magic powers were reawakening at around the same time that Daenerys' dragons were born, because the dragons are a source of magic. And the closer they are to the dragons, the stronger their powers get. But the dragons, in turn, need Daenerys nearby, or they weaken. So the sorcerers want to keep both Daenerys and her dragons imprisoned forever, in their tower — but they miscalculated, bringing the dragons too close to their power source. Daenerys gives the dragons a command, and they unleash their fire, burning the sorcerer Pyat Pree and freeing Daenerys and themselves.
Afterwards, Daenerys hunts down Xaro Xoan Daxos, who's in bed with Doreah. Which pisses Daenerys off, for some reason — didn't she tell Doreah to go sleep around and see what she could find out? Doreah is just obeying orders. But in any case, Daenerys steals the key to Xaro Xoan Daxos' vault — which turns out to be empty. Yet another deception in the hall of mirrors that was Qarth. Daenerys locks the protesting Xaro and Doreah in the vault, and then steals everything that isn't nailed down, to buy herself a ship.
(And yes, it must be said — the only storyline that didn't really gel this year was Qarth. It all felt a bit too rushed, and it was never entirely clear what was going on with Xaro and the other members of the Thirteen. This whole story boiled down to: Daenerys experiences betrayal, sees some trippy visions, and buys a boat. There could have been better ways to get there, even if you followed some of the paths from the book.)
Samwell Tarly: And finally, the other member of the Night's Watch that we're following is still in the Fist of the First Men, where he's just found that mysterious cache of obsidian weapons. And then he and his companions hear a horn blast — at first they think it's one blast for Rangers returning. Then they think it's two blasts for Wildlings attacking. But no... it's three blasts, the never-used signal for snow zombies. Grenn and Dolorous Edd run away, leaving Samwell behind because he's too slow. And Samwell hides behind a rock, only to get a front-row seat at the procession of the entire freaking zombie army. And he sees some kind of leader of the zombies, with glowy blue eyes, staring straight at him.
In an episode with a lot of talk about people's Destiny and people deciding whether to play out the roles they've taken on, there's one huge fact that nobody can run away from. There are snow zombies out there, and when it gets cold enough, they're coming South.
Screenshots via Winter is Coming Tumblr.