The first season finale of Game of Thrones starts with the sight of blood, and ends in a vision of fire. Living up to its title, ‘Fire and Blood’ sees the culmination of the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire on screen. The scene is set. The players have been introduced, at least the initial core who will carry through until the very final season – Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister – and Game of Thrones has fully established itself as a TV phenomenon in the making.
It does, quite unusually, pick up where ‘Baelor’ left off directly, with young Arya Stark reeling in horror from watching the execution of her father, even if kindly Watch-supplier Yoren tries to conceal the gory details from her and very quickly shepherds her away, beginning her transformation from Arya to a boy who will blend in.“I’m not a boy!” a traumatised Arya shouts as Yoren reminds her this is the only way she will survive and get out of Kings Landing. Much like several other characters this season, Arya’s journey has been about quietly rejecting the life of a highborn Stark lady – the very idea Catelyn would be able to marry Arya off, as planned in ‘Baelor’, to an ugly Frey child is hilarious in how removed the concept is from Arya’s fate. We already know her path will be vastly different.
Though Arya is quite rightly far too young to be sexualised (not that Martin worries about sexualising children in the Medieval paradigm in his books), Arya is nonetheless removed of what femininity she does have by having her hair shorn and being given a male persona. Arya will eventually be a symbol of one of Game of Thrones’ most potent themes – that women have just as much literal strength and power as the masculine stereotype perpetrated in the Seven Kingdoms, but that journey is just beginning for all of the women caught up in this story. Arya’s will be the most extreme, especially wrought in contrast to that of her sister Sansa. The polarising extremes are underscored in how they react to Ned’s execution – Arya is angry, filled with fire, while Sansa collapses in horror.
Sansa’s own journey is less about discovering who she is, and more about escaping the role of a victim. She spends much of the series being abused, in varying ways, by manipulative, controlling and psychotic men. We haven’t yet met Ramsay Snow/Bolton, but he shares much of the genetic madness displayed here by the new King Joffrey – a pathological cruelty that can only come out of sexual relationships which are far from advisable. Both are men who play on Sansa’ innate naivety, femininity and terror in order to get what they need from her. For Ramsey, it will be sexual cruelty. For Littlefinger, more in truth a sociopath than a psychopath, it is political power tinged with a twisted sexual desire. For Joffrey, it feels much less about wanting to sexually abuse her as much as psychologically torment her.
If ever there was a moment which defined Sansa’s slow journey toward vengeance over the men who torment or abuse her, this is undoubtedly it. “How long do I have to look?” she asks. “As long as it pleases me” Joffrey replied, gleefully. Sansa, let’s face it, never much appreciated Ned when he was alive. She took him for granted, as all children do with their parents, particularly when they’re a teenager. More than Arya or her brothers, Sansa has typified a traditional teenage psychology across this first season; she is vain, self-obsessed, selfish in her outlook, and constantly insecure about her beauty and her future. Whenever Ned tried to show her kindness, give her advice, or even still treat her like a child, Sansa rejected him. Like many teenage girls, she wanted to become a woman. Sansa will get her wish in the most painful of ways, literally and psychologically.
Grief, naturally, is the primary aspect of this epilogue. Death will become a regular bedfellow for many of the characters acrossGame of Thrones, but many are still getting used to these radical changes in circumstance, and the loss of those dear to them, in particular the children at the heart of the series. There is an interesting moment which perhaps presages how Bran Stark will end up with deeper awareness of events to come, when his younger brother Rickon claims, in the haunting Winterfell vaults no less, that he had a vision of Ned by the bed.
Perhaps this is an omen about how Bran will ultimately end up more distanced from his family than any of them, beyond mere geography. While Bran’s journey hasn’t truly begun yet, with the key players involved only starting to assemble and the dreams continuing to hint at Bran’s key importance and links to the arcane history of the Starks and Robert’s Rebellion, ‘Fire and Blood’ establishes key portents to storylines and ideas which will only begin paying off toward the very end of the series, in a way that becomes more and more apparent in being able to see the show as a larger, connected tapestry.
‘Fire and Blood’ certainly begins to establish how men, not Gods, are beginning to try and craft their own sense of power and place amongst in their world. Ned’s execution serves as the martyred rallying cry for an entirely united North, who place their armour and steel not behind one, distant King to rule them all such as Renly Baratheon (or his still unseen brother Stannis, whom we shall shortly be introduced to), but rather their own ‘King in the North’. It’s a role Robb practically walks into, a natural choice for a union of houses who have only ever known Stark rule, and particularly after the unjust murder of the leader they all loved. Robb may not be ready but he and Cat are so consumed with vengeance, he accepts it without question. “And then we will kill them all” Cat promises, sounding a little like how Arya will once she puts her kill list in play.
Despite their victories, there is an anxiety about the Lannister’s in ‘Fire and Blood’, with Jaime captured. Be it Cersei’s worry or Tywin’s fury, it is now clear the war they have become embroiled in isn’t going anywhere any time soon, given how Ned’s death has rallied the North and thrown the Baratheon’s into the mix. “They have my son!” Tywin angrily declares and it goes back to the primary concern he has: legacy. With Jaime absent, Tywin is forced to use Tyrion in a way he clearly hoped never to do, tapping into the sharp intelligence he gained from his father by making him Hand of the King. It was established as far back as ‘Winter is Coming’ that Tyrion has a unique ability to keep Joffrey in line, so it’s a smart move by Tywin in terms of reigning in Cersei’s own unwise impulses, given he has to continue the war from Harrenhal.
‘Baelor’ nicely gave some depth to Tyrion’s own psychology, particularly in relation to Tywin, so it’s telling that Tywin, despite gifting him these bonuses, declares: “you will not take that whore to court”, referring to Shae. He still has one eye on appearances in a way Tyrion does not, and has rebelled against his entire life, and retains a level of control over his son in this matter. From a distance, you suspect this is all part of Tywin’s calculation, if indeed he has placed Shae inside Tyrion’s bed, but it adds an extra shade to their relationship given what we discovered in ‘Baelor’. Tyrion is not the son Tywin wants involved but events have forced his hand, and sadly Tyrion is self-aware enough to recognise this.
Speaking of court, ‘Fire and Blood’ makes time, even with everything else rumbling around in terms of narrative, for a couple of scenes which further illuminate characters on the edges of the storytelling, sketching in shades some of which will pay off, some of which won’t. The latter is a great scene featuring Grand Maester Pycelle and once again pointing toward how the characters at court are very much performing roles. Pycelle’s secret limberness and how he covers it to show himself a frail old man is never again referred to but it’s a great touch – how he pretends to be infirm as part of his survival technique. In his droning on at the bored (again naked) prostitute Ros, Pycelle discusses Kings and hints at the mental illness which consumed King Aerys “he melted away before my eyes” and it’s interesting to hear how he started as a good man, given Egg was his father.
We’ve discussed the Machiavellian psychology behind both Littlefinger and Varys this season and this final scene for them this year seems to cap off what Benioff & Weiss have gently been layering with these two grandmasters. They both discuss what each would do if they ever sat on the Throne, which Varys at least knows is a near impossibility – particularly given part of his rebuke to Littlefinger is that he would never want it, countering Littelfinger’s own standard taunting of Varys’s status as a eunuch.“Do you spend a lot of time imagining what’s between my legs?” Varys barbs. It feels like a quietly important scene in the context of power and the broader games being played because it sees both men admire how far they’ve come, and how in some sense they are of one mind, even if their end games are different. “So here we stand, in mutual admiration and respect, playing our roles”. They almost finish each other’s sentences. It’s both cute and a little chilling.
Chilling isn’t certainly something that can be said for Jon Snow, even in the cold wastes at the Wall. He is continuing to grapple with the decision of whether to race off and avenge the death of who he believes to be his father, or stay true to his vows. A really nice touch to Jon’s story in this episode is how Sam Tarly and his friends in the Watch rally to save Jon from his own misjudged sense of pride and honour. Oaths may mean nothing to men like Walder Frey, as we discussed in ‘Baelor’, but they’re central to the Watch and make the point their job is to serve the Realm, the bigger concept, rather than show loyalty to one house or one war. This is what Jon still cannot reconcile – he still can’t let go of the past, or of his Stark blood. It’s a battle Jon will fight across the entirety of his character arc.
What Season 2 will explore is where Jon sits in relation to the Watch.“Are you a brother of the Night’s Watch or a bastard boy who wants to play at war?” Mormont asks, pointedly raising the very character question which will define his arc as they head beyond the Wall to investigate what Mormont considers the real threat to Westeros. His words echo similar Ser Davos Seaworth will voice many seasons to come in referring to the Iron Throne, and how pointless the wars of men or who sits on the Throne are in relation to the threat the Watch are facing. It’s an idea which will carry across and develop in future seasons of Game of Thrones, and for Jon Season 2 begins to define who he really is and how the Watch creates the ultimate King in the North.
As Jon undergoes a personal test to determine his future, so many leagues away in Lhazar does Daenerys Targaryen. It feels fitting that Daenerys should close out the season given she has immediately made a mark as probably the signature iconic character in Game of Thrones, given her striking blonde locks and a storyline which has separated her from the majority of other narratives within the show. Daenerys has moved from the naive, frightened child we met in ‘Winter Is Coming’ all the way through to the radicalised concubine of a warrior savage, and now ‘Fire and Blood’ completes her transformation into a symbolic incarnation of the Dragon, of the totem that raised her family to greatness for generations. It may be the beginning of her journey, but what she goes through here changes her forever.
For a start, she loses her child and does not become a conventional mother. Blood magic witch Miri Maz Dhurr reports that Rhaego was born “scaled like a lizard, blind, with leather wings like the wings of a bat” suggesting that while she may have been originally intended to bear a normal human baby, the blood magic ritual turned her fetus into that of aborted, dragon-like qualities. The honest truth is, however, Dany will never quite know; she is unconscious when Jorah takes her into the tent where Miri is reviving Khal Drogo, and we never see her give birth. Dany only has Miri’s word to go by and her testimony is questionable given how she cons Dany with Drogo’s resurrection, turning him into little more than an undead Wight, just without the murderous, zombie characteristics. It’s proof, if anything, that death cannot ever really be conquered, even if magic can prevent it – the body may live but the soul dies. Well… until Jon Snow, that is…
Daenerys makes some powerful decisions here. She ends the shell of a life Drogo was gifted in exchange for her unborn child, smothering the man she loves to save him from just existing, not living. She offers those the Dothraki had taken as slaves their freedom, and many take it, but she draws a line in the sand and offers a mission statement – she will free all slaves. Jorah makes the point that she could sell the dragon eggs and “live as a rich woman in the Free Cities until the end of your days”. Daenerys is presented with a choice – free from marriage, or bondage, free to let go of everything. She chooses to become the Dragon, to take that step into the unknown, and the final moment of a naked Dany surrounded by newly hatched dragons is a signature, iconic one. The first step Game of Thrones takes into a new world.
‘Fire and Blood’ therefore proves to be an impressive ending to a strong, vibrant and complex first season for Game of Thrones, which has skilfully balanced a great deal of world-building with introducing a vast array of fascinating, deep characters who inhabit a story on the verge of becoming mythical as well as Medieval. Season 2 will begin edging further into territory which spans multiple genres but, in reality, the journey for all of these characters, and this genre-defining show, is just beginning.
Are you a fan of Game of Thrones? Let us know. This is an abridged version of a review that first aired on Cultural Conversation, which you can read here.