I’ve decided to review the last three episodes of HBO’s A Game of Thrones together in order to avoid repeating the same praises over and over. The cast of the show, as I’ve already said, is practically perfect, and that doesn’t changed in the final three hours worth of show. Most of what I’ll relay below are my final thoughts about the last three episodes, somewhat disconnected from any formal review structure and episodic order. A lot of these final thoughts will be focused on my issues with the series. I will say that the following things are still some of the greatest strengths of the series:
- Cast/Acting (as I just noted): almost every single actor/actress in this series is superb. Peter Dinklage better damn well get an award for playing Tyrion. Maisie Williams is still one of my favorite child actors in GoT; if she does not have a great career ahead of her, I will be pissed. Lena Headey is still brilliant and loathsome (in a good way). Emilia Clarke is also quite amazing in this series; she gets stronger and stronger as an actress (and as a character) with every episode. And Sean Bean is, well, Sean Bean; what more can I say? I don’t think there’s been a TV series where I have loved the cast as much as I do in GoT. I will come back to the series based on the actors alone (though Sean Bean will be sorely missed, of course).
- Sets/Costumes: To put it briefly — gorgeous sets, gorgeous scenery, and gorgeous costumes and design.
- CG: The producers of GoT were intelligent enough to limit their use of CG, which means the few times when we do see something put together by computer, they are properly budgeted and look decent enough for a TV series. No more of that SyFy cheap cheese garbage.
Beyond that, the series moves back and forth between good and bad. I’ll talk about some of those issues below.
(Note: I’m not going to offer any synopses for the episodes. You should watch the show. There may be some spoilers, though; if you haven’t watched the show, then don’t read beyond this point.)
Episode Eight — “The Pointy End”
“The Pointy End” is a product of wasted time. I’ve mentioned many times before that the writers for Game of Thrones have taken significant detours, often for no other purpose than to present breasts or, as in episode seven, to tell us what is going to happen later, thus spoiling the surprise. Sadly, this means that significant moments in the story or shortened to make room for all that extra stuff (more often than not extra scenes involving male chest shaving, women fingering one another, random penis shots, or four or more naked breasts in the same shot).
“The Pointy End” opens with what should be a major sequence (i.e., the fall of Eddard Stark and his House in King’s Landing) and takes a lot of the power out of it by removing a good deal of the death that is supposed to take place there. It’s fortunate that the writers decided to keep the final showdown between Syrio and the Lannister’s guard, but that doesn’t change the fact that the entire sequence ends so quickly that it’s hard to feel the impact it has on the characters (not just Arya and Sansa, but the dozens of guards and the like who, we are to assume, have been slaughtered). A similar reduction takes place later in the episode when Tyrion tries to convince the hill people to join him, which suffers from the poor establishment of the Vale earlier in the series. The absence of narrative fulfillment in both these instances does a great disservice to the consistency of the writing and the strength of the character arcs, though I’ll admit that at least the fall of House Stark is better handled than Tyrion’s “rise to power.” Things simply “happen” without much in the way of explaining how; when explanation is offered, it is without development (i.e., “do this” “okay” “done”).
The problem is that “The Pointy End” is such a good episode if you ignore these two problem areas. It draws out all of the established plotlines and shows how everything is tangled together, and the episode avoids many of the pitfalls that killed the earlier parts of the series (pointless nudity, etc.). It’s fortunate that the aforementioned problems are less egregious than those in other episodes I have reviewed, but they also expose the fundamental flaw in HBO’s adaptation: narrative direction and space. The fact of the matter is that 10 episodes is not enough to meet HBO’s tit quota and fully develop all the plotlines they’ve tried to insert throughout the series. I understand that the writers are anticipating A Clash of Kings, but that doesn’t give them an excuse to wander away from internal consistency in this season. While the second season was ordered before A Game of Thrones even aired, such things are never sure things. We have no guarantee that a second season will ever be filmed until the season is over and all the ratings are in. If A Game of Thrones lost 50% of its viewers after episode five, I doubt HBO would spend millions on producing a second season.
Having said all this, I do want to reiterate that “The Pointy End” is a good episode. Much of what is great about A Game of Thrones can be found here in good order. Here the story finally gets back to, well, the story, without spending inordinate amounts of time playing around with other nonsense. If not for the inability of the series as a whole to deliver the promise it set up in the first half, I think “The Pointy End” would be in my top three episodes for the entire show.
P.S.: Momoa is bloody awesome…still. The cast is just so wonderful in this series.
Episode Nine — “Baelor”
Much as “The Pointy End” bears the weight of over-extension, so too does “Baelor,” but in remarkably more obvious ways. While “The Pointy End” is still a good episode, despite its flaws, “Baelor” is an abject failure at fulfilling the promises set up in the last few episodes. There are two parts of this episode where this failure is made obvious.
The first is in the fall of Khal Drogo. In “The Pointy End,” Drogo is injured in a feud with one of his riders; rather than being injured in a proper battle, as in the book, he injures himself by pushing his chest into the blade of his enemy. This makes Drogo exceedingly arrogant, but it also makes him remarkably stupid. If being wounded is so dangerous in this world, then why would he let himself get injured? I think the writers set this scene up in order to suggest that Daenerys has swayed him away from his more rugged ways, but this is not properly displayed from “The Pointy End” to “Baelor.” Even the betrayal of the maegi, which isn’t exposed until the next episode, suffers from this lack of development, leaving the fall of Drogo without the impact it needs.
The above is a fairly minor critique, though. By itself, it would not significantly hurt the episode, but the second failure of “Baelor” makes these minor errors more apparent. The last two episodes of GoT have been promising war. But “Baelor” does not deliver. Rather, the two pivotal battles in the series are completely removed from the episode, likely for budgetary reasons. The first is at least cleverly worked around: Tyrion is knocked out in the pre-battle furor; when we see him wake up again, it’s at the end of the battle, where we are to assume he was knocked out again. I can accept this, since that particular battle is not as important as the second.
But the writers used no such clever work-arounds for the second battle, which results in the capture of Jaime Lannister and the defeat of the armies plaguing Riverrun. Rather, all we see are Robb and his men flying out of the trees as if they’ve been in battle all this time. The problem is that as much as GoT is a show about characters, it is also a show which promises blood as much as it promises character drama. There has been very little blood throughout the series (individual instances, sure, but not war-level blood), which makes these battles crucial to offering proper release from all the tension set up by Littlefinger’s betrayal. To me, the write-off of both battles is a mistake. If the budget is an issue, then it makes much more sense to me to spend less time and money on some of the pointless garbage they’ve shoved into the series. Even if you can’t film both battles, the piss poor excuse for writing off the second battle is hard to swallow.
This issue is what kills “Baelor” for me. The rest of the episode is so damned good. Daenerys’ desperate attempts to save Drogo with blood magic is well played, as are the final moments of Eddard Stark (with Arya in tow) and even the short scenes with Jon Snow (where he discovers who Maester Aemon really is) and the Freys (where we get to see what disgusting old perverts look like in this world). If you pretended that the battles weren’t supposed to happen at all, you could see in “Baelor” one of the strongest episodes of the series. But when you take into account how they wrote off the second of the battles, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. I love GoT something fierce, but every time the writers screw up on this series, they do so royally.
If I’m being honest, however, I think the fact that the rest of the series is so well-written explains why I notice the failures. If you put a old apple next to a fresh red one, you’ll notice the difference quite easily, even if the old apple isn’t rotten. But I suppose a lot of my problems stem from having started the series having not read the book, and finished the series having finished reading the book. I expected more. Much more. I expected battles. I expected logical progressions of narrative. But what I’m getting in these last episodes are rushed plotlines, sad excuses for removing important elements, and so on. The kind of story they’ve set up can’t be shown in 10 episodes. It’s just not possible.
The good news is that there aren’t any annoying pointless scenes in “Baelor.” It’s just rushed and absent of action. That sucks on its own, but it’s not nearly as bad as some of the crap we’ve had to deal with earlier in the season.
Episode Ten — “Fire and Blood”
Now we come to the finale. I can’t complain about this episode without being a nitpicker. Finally, the writers get the pacing right and the episode doesn’t feel rushed by an attempt to close out the series in time. This feels like an episode that should be as it is, and it packs one hell of an ending.
Daenerys’ last moments are astonishingly good; she is a character I expect to fall more and more in love with in the second season. Her transition from a timid “prize” at the beginning of the series to a strong-willed woman of power is one of the best things about GoT. She is the one character who develops the most in the series, and it’s a thrill to see her character’s final transition in the last minutes of the finale. I do think the writers could have spent a few moments relaying the importance of the “Bloody of My Blood” lines spoken when her transition is completed, but this is a fairly small criticism. The explanation is implied, which may be enough for some; for me, however, I think there needed to be more conflict before she walked into the fire to relay just how daunting and terrifying it is for the people around her to discover that she has not only survived the flames, but has come out unscathed and with dragons in her arms.
The rest of episode is equally well-acted, well-written, and well-directed. The scenes with Sansa made me hate Joffrey more than I ever did, while the added bits with Catelyn and Robb were brilliant. The book leaves some of the emotion felt by Robb out of the picture. Catelyn is well represented, but what the series does that the book could not is give Robb his moment to display the emotions he’s been forced to contain while on the war campaign. The resulting scene is beautiful and an example of a good addition to an adaptation.
Overall, this is by far one of the best episodes of the season. Despite the flaws in “The Pointy End” and “Baelor,” what proceeds in “Fire and Blood” is precisely what makes this series so amazing when it does well: beautiful directing and acting and damned fine writing (solid plotting and a well-paced narrative). I also think “Fire and Blood” is a cleverly-written transition episode, though perhaps an insecure one in part because second seasons are not promises. Many of the developments here are setting up what will occur in the next season (taken from the book, of course). This is intelligent writing on the one hand, but also a terrible risk on the other. After all, if there is no second season, the lack of a conclusive ending to the series means lots of unanswered questions for viewers. We’re lucky to have a second season on its way, but I would hate to see GoT become one of those series that ended too soon without giving us all the answers.
The only minor complaint I have about “Fire and Blood” is the fact that Arya has no scabbard for Needle. This doesn’t make much sense to me. Needle is sharp enough to kill someone. Why wouldn’t she have grabbed the scabbard along with the sword? Why would the writers leave that detail out, considering that the sword should have been in the scabbard when she plucked it from its box two episodes before? I’ve been rolling this around in my head for a while now and can’t find an answer. It’s a minor detail, but I suppose all we have to complain about in the finale are minor details. After all, Daenerys’ clothes burn off, but not here hair. WTF?
P.S.: The sound of the dragons screaming gave me chills. I’m not kidding. The last 30 seconds of the series are chilling.
Series Rating (Overall)
(More reviews: Episode One; Episode Two; Episode Three; Episode Four; Episode Five; Episode Six; and Episode Seven.)