(No, this is not a change of format. My randomizer has just served me alternating RahXephon and Game of Thrones episodes for the past four weeks. Believe me, I'm as baffled as you are.)
"Valar Morghulis" is basically the structural opposite of the previous episode of Game of Thrones, "Blackwater". That episode narrowed down the scope of the series to one event and location and greatly benefited from it, producing the best episode of the series thus far (although one that was still affected by some of the show's other flaws). What's more it was a distinct episode of television, separate from what came before and what came after but still in continuity with them. It was a sign that this show could be, if not brilliant, at least moving.
But in the finale things revert to form. As I mentioned many moons ago, a season of Game of Thrones often feels like a ten-hour movie chopped up into one-hour chunks for the convenience of broadcasting, which kind of goes against the whole point of serialized TV. Part of this is the ever-expanding scope of the series: as the characters scatter to the four winds, we have to follow every one of them, resulting in more and more plotlines. This is an extended episode, but even so it feels like it's in a desperate rush to touch base with every plotline just to set it up for a cliffhanger going into Season 3. Jason Mittel counts 12 main stories in this episode, which is off the charts as far as TV episodes go.
It's tempting to compare this expanding universe to that of The Wire, which was constantly adding new layers to its portrayal of Baltimore. But the major difference in my mind (besides sheer quality) is that The Wire envisioned all of these as part of a complex societal machine. In Game of Thrones the various stories are certainly connected, although some of the more far-flung adventures -- like Jon Snow's travels beyond the Wall or Danerys's troubles in Qarth -- are rather isolated. Still, there's the implicit promise that even those will pay off in time.
It's hard to know really where to begin, then. Giving a fair amount of consideration to each plot would make this post a lot longer than I have the time or effort for, and to scale back and try to cram everything in would more or less reduce the post to recap. Perhaps this is why episodic bloggers, already a breed given over to recap and thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluation, love Game of Thrones so much. It may not give you the best stories or characters on TV, but it certainly gives you the most. (But this is probably just me being bitter.) This may explain why, even more than usual, I'm going to ignore big parts of the episode and focus on the implications of just a couple of events. It's not like it's an unified whole in itself, after all.
In particular two one-off scenes highlight the economy of sexual violence in Game of Thrones, as well as the economy of just plain violence. In an early scene we have Joffrey swapping out his fiancee Sansa for a more politically prudent model in that of Margery Tyrell, the kind of deal that is brokered very carefully behind closed doors (although this is never explicitly shown) but has to be performed before the court so it appears spontaneous and cinematic at the same time.
(It's hard to make out in this reduced image, but that's the happy couple in the background, dwarfed by the ceremony surrounding them.)
The idea of romantic marriage, which didn't really exist in actual medieval times, appears to be an ideal in Game of Thrones, if a seldom-reached one. Margery and Joffrey make shows of confessing their improbable love for each other, even though it's an obviously political marriage, and Robb marries Talisa in a small and politically impractical ceremony because he swears he's in love. It's hard to say whether or not this is a conscious change from the actual beliefs of medieval Europe or simply a misunderstanding of them.
This marriage frees up Sansa, who was previously one of the many recipients of Joffrey's sexual violence. His violence is obviously supposed to mark him as a villain, but the show also seems to take pleasure in displaying it cinematically, even when it doesn't seem to really add anything to the story or the character (the peak being the scene where he makes a pair of hookers beat himself). Sansa suffered this violence quietly, always pledging her love for Joffrey, and it was hard to tell whether she actually believed what she was saying or not. Sophie Turner deserves a lot of credit for her acting this season, and the broad smile when her engagement is broken, finally showing her true feelings, is the most joyous moment of the episode and maybe the series thus far.
But of course, this is Game of Thrones, so her happiness lasts a matter of seconds. She is immediately offered protection by Littlefinger, an offer that is hard to refuse but nevertheless has sinister undertones -- not least because Littlefinger owns a whorehouse, and has just been given a big spooky castle. Sansa is a near-constant subject to sexual violence, or what Sady Doyle bitingly refers to as the game of "Who's Molesting Sansa Stark?" In part this is because of how determined she is to traditional gender roles, which makes her vulnerable to the power of men above her as well as the rage of white male authors
On the other side of the equation we have Brienne, who embodies non-femininity. Her sole scene begins with Jaime light-heartedly threatening her with gang rape. They then came across three girls executed for "laying with lions" or prostituting themselves to the wrong side of the war -- a harsh enforcement of the restrictions on female sexuality. They are set upon by the three men who killed the women, who promptly laugh at Brienne and imply that they raped one of the women. Despite being on the "good" side of the war, fighting for the Starks, this establishes them as worthy of the violence which Brienne shortly visits upon them.
I've mentioned this before, but it's still a troubling idea that the series presents. In the world of Game of Thrones, sexual violence is a currency and a tactic, and certainly commonplace. It appears in both subtle forms (arranged marriages for political ends) and blatant ones (rape by random soldiers). But the series suggests that violating traditional femininity, or simply being powerful and strong-willed enough by Danaerys, is a way of protection against this culture of rape. Such acts certainly have the capability of subverting the patriarchal ideology that justifies such sexual violence. But they also put the onus of this violence on the women -- after all, if they were all as cool and strong as Brienne, they wouldn't be in trouble all the time. And queer or otherwise gender-non-performing women in the real world certainly have no special resistance against rape and violence -- if anything, they're more frequently targeted for it.
Sansa and Brienne may be the most obvious targets, but the threat of sexual violence seems to hover constantly over every young female character, whether it be a momentary obstacle to be cut down (as Brienne does to the implied-rapists) or a long-term danger that proves harder to escape (as with Sansa's many engagements). Certainly this is part of Game of Thrones' intended commentary on gender roles in its society, and our (possibly just historical) society by implication. But it's hard not to wonder if the narrative isn't also using sexual violence as a kind of currency, providing at once vicarious thrills and the exhibition of simplistic justice.
One final, aesthetic note. In my first Game of Thrones post I mentioned that it used different colour schemes to differentiate between its far-flung locations. It still does that to an extent -- the barren whiteness of the North -- but overwhelmingly the mise en scene is dominated by black and orange.
(See also the above King's Landing pictures.)
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this shift -- possibly it's just a change from day to night, with the torchlight providing the orange glow. But it seems symbolic of a greater tension within the series. As the scope expands and expands, the range of possibilities in Game of Thrones becomes smaller and smaller.
Next week: "I came to fight, you know, I wanted to get bloody, have fun..."