The kingdoms of Nunziata, Miller and Rappe have conveyed for one last hurrah.

Josh: Agh! I can’t believe it is all over! Dammit. All four of George RR Martin’s existing books had already been released when I first picked up the series, so I was able to move fluidly from one book to the next — these major cliffhangers at the end of the first arc were no more than an enticing speed bump in the overall story for me then. Now I need to wait a fucking year to get more Dinklage! Curse ye fates!

Episode ten, “Fire and Blood,” concluded the season with some major moments, both small and emotional, and game-changingly epic. Bran has struck up a sort of friendship with the wildling Osha (Natalia Tena, who plays Tonks in the Harry Potter films), and we realize that the annoyingly never-seen Stark brother, Rickon – along with his annoyingly never seen crazy direwolf, Shaggydog – has been having some peculiar dreams as well. Sansa resigns herself to a life of awful subservience to King Joffrey, and The Hound finally shows some personality — interested to hear your thoughts on this Rappe. Catelyn Stark learns to pity Jaime Lannister. Jon Snow betrays his oath to join his brother, only to embrace that oath again to stay with his new brothers. Tyrion is given the honor of serving as the King’s Hand, and more even more momentous for him, his father’s respect. And of course, Daenerys gives Khal Drogo the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest treatment before hatching some motherfucking baby dragons.

This whole season I had wondered if HBO would slightly re-organize things so that Ned’s decapitation would happen in the final episode. I could see that having worked, and even having worked well (as far as shocking cliffhangers go), but I think this was the more nuanced move. Much like season one of The Sopranos – where the attempted hit on Tony occurred in the penultimate episode – it was nice to deal with the immediate aftermath of the season’s biggest moment without the inherent emotional separation that occurs between season breaks. This also allowed the other big events and surprises of “Fire and Blood” the freedom of not having to compete with Sean Bean’s mind-blowing exit from the series. In particular the scenes involving comatose Drogo and the death of Daenerys’ baby surely wouldn’t have played as big. Last week the elephant in the room was Ned’s death. This time it is a birth — Daenerys’, uh, replacement babies. Thrones had functioned all season as very low fantasy. It flirted a bit with higher fantasy, a zombie here and some dragon skulls there. But things have ramped up significantly in the final two episodes. First magic, then Daenerys walking into a flaming pyre and emerging with some hatchlings. Shit ain’t never gonna be the same now, folks. Here be dragons.

Elisabeth: This was indeed a great episode — tonally, structurally, emotionally. I have felt curiously unengaged by a lot of the episodes, and I wasn’t sure if it was just because I knew what would happen, or because I was having to recap and discuss the show with so many people every week.  (I know, what a horrid life.) Like you, Josh, I sped through the first three books (I needed a break and I haven’t picked up the fourth) so I’ve been surprised by how much I dreaded and anticipated the finale. I didn’t want to see Ned and Khal Drogo die, I didn’t want the show to drop off…and yet I’ve been sort of like “Just happen already! DAMMIT!”

But this episode really had me a bit depressed.  There was a tone of bitter defeat through the whole thing. These characters are hot-blooded, raring to go, at each other’s throats…and then as Ned’s poor body was bundled away, you just felt them all deflate a little. Oh shit.  Oh, it’s come to this. Oh fuck, we really messed up. And I include Daenerys in that too, poor thing. She’s maybe outside the Stark-Lannister conflict, but she’s been thirsting for glory and satisfaction on these same people, and she made a dreadful mistake to get it. (OR DID SHE? It resulted in three pretty awesome allies…)

I won’t talk dragons just yet, I’ll take your bait and talk about The Hound instead.  I’ve been pretty vocal about his absence, and while I will never forgive them for handing his tale of woe to Littlefinger (I will maintain that was a big bungle), I did love his “re-introduction” here.  This character who has been lurking quite dreadfully now steps up, does something rather kind, and Sansa is left reeling. Is he a threat? An ally?  Having him suddenly shove his way into her life, rather than being there heckling her and her romantic attitudes from the beginning, is going to be really effective and chilling.  It already is. “Here’s a bit of rag, because he’s probably going to smack you up. But I saved you from being skinned alive for trying to kill him, so give me a smile, eh?” I can’t explain why moments like these have wound me up more than entire episodes did for others, but they do, and it’s that kind of sly character work that makes me really eager to see Season 2.

Nick: First of all, explain the significance of ‘The Hound’…

Secondly, I love the downer vibe of this whole last arc of the season. Because I know we get more. A lot more. There’s no doubt in my mind this show is going to get a nice long life on HBO. Not only have the ratings been good but it’s “buzzy”. I loved this episode as well, and though Khal Drogo ultimately ended up being a character cool in concept more than execution he still left a pretty substantial mark. His passing and the horrible decisions that led to it lend the series a very interesting unpredictability. The same applies to Ned but he always felt like a tragic character. This finale not only ends with a major revelation (two if you count the eldest Stark son’s new role) but also seems to take what could have been a somewhat contained and familiar story and blown it completely into new terrain looking forward.

Josh: Eh, it isn’t really a matter of significance with The Hound, as far as the story is concerned, but rather that the character simply felt more interesting and intimidating in the book. Obviously the show had to pick its battles when it came to which of Martin’s gazillion characters to showcase most. The Hound was one of a handful of characters that felt very inherently appealing for a live-action TV series — crazy facial scar and intriguingly emotionally complex. We saw his scar, but that emotional complexity was merely hinted at when The Hound squared off against his giant brother during the tournament. Then he went back to being a glorified extra. That moment with Sansa in this episode was the first time the character really stepped forward. At this point this isn’t really a complaint so much as an observation. The Hound was treated a bit like the wolves in this season, HBO only felt like trotting them out when the story directly called for them. I think Rappe and I just assumed that the The Hound would be treated a bit more like Theon Greyjoy or Jorah Mormont and given a lot of face-time despite their relative lack of direct importance. Though, now, it seems safe to awesome that The Hound may get more love in Season 2. And holy shit! The Hound is the “Yarp” guy from Hot Fuzz? How the hell did it take me the entire season to realize that?!?!

Elisabeth: I didn’t know either. I saw someone mention it on Twitter…all the more reason he needed more love. It’s Yarp guy!

Josh: And horrible decisions on display in these final episodes, indeed. Daenerys is such an interesting character now. I loved her philosophical face-off with the gypsy (or whatever they’re called here) woman. That was such an amazing moment of objective mind-fucking for our Khaleesi — “Um, you assholes killed my entire village. How does you making me your personal slave constitute ‘saving’ me, dumbass?” Goddamn. So good. Daenerys’ moment of epiphany is made even more interesting by the fact that she still kills the gypsy women anyway. That is such a Thrones moment of truth right there. “You have really opened my eyes, gypsy lady, buuuuuut you still murdered my husband and unborn baby, so, you know, eat shit and die.” It was pretty thrilling seeing those little CG dragons. After a full season of regular-sized non-CG direwolves I wasn’t sure how I’d greet CG characters of any kind. But I thought they looked great. And Emilia Clarke looked great too. A wonderful (and rare for this show) instance of necessary and classy nudity. Nick, did you know dragons were coming? I’m dying to know how shocking or not-shocking their appearance was. I mean, dragon skulls, dragon eggs, endless talk of dragons… I have to assume people expected actual dragons to show up on Thrones eventually, even if not so soon.

Elisabeth: Judging from the non-readers I know, the dragons were a delightful surprise.  I actually thought it came off kind of flat, because the book was so full of “the music of dragons” and how the cracking was like the rending of worlds, and GoT kept it hidden until the LAST possible second…but that low-key “Surprise!” approach seems to have worked better with audiences.   Any suggestion it might have been bigger was met with “I was amazed!” so, hey!  I was just glad the CGI was so damn good.  I was worried we might see some wonky dragons, but they were really quite good.

We’ve complained that Daenerys’ story was really tacked on in parts, but the past three episodes were absolutely fantastic, and a lot of that had to do with her world finally getting some scope.  We saw more Dothraki, we saw Khal Drogo as a man who could rape and pillage, and we saw that Daenerys wasn’t exactly all that in the Dothraki eyes.   It was just a tiny bit of context, but it made all the difference, and made me wish they’d done a LITTLE more in her intro episodes.   What made the ending so utterly powerful was seeing her stripped of what had, until now, been a fairly safe and happy situation.   Seeing her there, all by her self, this beauty in the midst of total ruin was so powerful. It emphasized just how vulnerable and dependent she was on a man and a man’s world.  But that final shot of her with a new weapon and trio of allies — she’s not that girl anymore!

Speaking of characters marching off, how cool was Jon’s new mission?  I really dug that last shot of them riding under the wall.  It feels like they dumped all of their bombast on that scene (could the soundtrack be any louder?) but it felt earned after the low-key wars of the previous episode.

Come to think of it, is there a single character who isn’t heading into the lion’s den? I’m not sure you could ask for a more tangled cliffhanger. Even Cersei has a new bedfellow.

Josh: There is a lot to be excited for, coming off those cliffhangers. I think it is safe to assume Tyrion in King’s Landing is going to be some juicy good times. And I am already drooling over getting to adventure around north of The Wall with Jon Snow and the rest of the rangers. The Wall is such a great element in the series. There is so much building tension amongst our various factions in the Seven Kingdoms, complicated further by the rise of Daenerys across the Narrow Sea — there are conflicts here that we know stretch back hundreds of years to when the Targaryens first rode their dragons into Westeros. But as Commander Mormont stated pretty plainly to Jon Snow in this episode, none of this matters for dick if the White Walkers are back. It doesn’t matter who is on the Iron Throne. Commander Mormont essentially told us that in the end all our major storylines are completely pointless. Which I think makes Thrones absolutely riveting. This is the stark, dark intelligence of Martin’s series boiled down. As Nick noted, there have been so many bad decisions made in this season, and any wise individual – like Tywin Lannister – can sense what a clusterfuck things have become already. Now everyone needs to go through the motions to snatch power, or maintain power, or maintain honor, or get vengeance. And yet, already, everyone is fighting the wrong fight. Winter is coming, as the Starks would say.

Speaking of Commander Mormont, I don’t think we’ve made any mention of James Cosmo in the part yet. Cosmo is great casting. He is one of those character actors who has been showing up in supporting roles in films set in the UK for decades (like Highlander and Braveheart). He exudes a lot of power just by standing there, which makes him perfect for Mormont, and his quietly stern delivery packs everything he says with added importance. I have been really appreciating his work in these handful of pivotal scenes with Jon Snow. It is cool to see him given a prominent role on something like Thrones after all these years. Also, as a Scottish actor, it is only fitting that he be stationed at The Wall — anyone who has seen a map of Westeros surely can’t help but notice its resemblance to the UK, and The Wall is just about where Hadrian’s Wall is in real life (I don’t think there is any true significance to that; more so just interesting as an observation).

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I liked that this episode reminded us of the reality of Robb Stark. We witnessed him take up his father’s mantle with unexpected maturity and confidence, but that scene where Catelyn found him savaging a tree – “You’ve ruined your sword,” she tells him – in response to his father’s death helped remind us that he is still technically a teenager entering adulthood.

Nick: I think the ultimate compliment seems to be that the show captures the important beats of the book but don’t swell too long in them. As a result it’s palatable for nonreaders, but I see it as a major engine to get people to buy the books and read them because unless the story takes some serious liberties with the material it’ll enhance the global impact of A Song of Ice and Fire on them. It certainly got me jazzed about reading them.

If we look back at the first season of nearly any major series, aside from the one or two notable people the cast is filled with fresh new faces. Since just about all of the “star power” is out of the show, and let’s not pretend any of these folks were A-listers, I think we’ll see who will evolve into our next Josh Holloway or Michael Imperioli, or whomever else. The series has made a big step, and if the law of HBO shows is true to form the best is ahead.

Elisabeth: No one will believe it, but I actually said “Way to ruin your sword, Robb” right before Catelyn did, which clearly means I can hold my own in Westeros.

One thing I do hope — especially since, um, we’re down a few characters — is that we CAN dwell a little longer with Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion next season.  Their trials and tribulations (and I don’t WANT to spoil anything, but come on, the writing is on the wall there!) are really going to benefit from some luxuriating.  I really enjoyed the way the season took a bit of a breather, and narrowed its focus, and it really helped establish and ground our emotions for these characters. There WILL be new faces next season, and I hope the show doesn’t go too schizophrenic trying to introduce them, and then spend like twenty minutes with Redhaired Sharon Stone as she huffs and puffs to the camera again.  I’m really tired of her, and am now convinced she’s a girlfriend of one of the writers or producers.  I’m fine with Shae T&A, but I’m going to be pissed if we get shortchanged on dragons because her tits are cheaper to produce!

Josh: Ha. Redhaired Sharon Stone? I’m assuming we’re talking about Theon’s former prostitute who has been turned into a semi-important recurring role (ie, source of nudity for HBO)?

Elisabeth: Yes, indeed. I know her name is Roz or Red or Strawberry Tart or something, but that whole “One for the road” scene has just labeled her the medieval Sharon Stone in my mind. Call me a nitpicker, but I can’t get over the fact that Renly was shaving with a big barbaric “Oops I lost a nipple” knife and she is completely waxed smooth down there.   It’s the one thing more unbelievable than White Walkers and dragons!

Nick: She had pattern baldness.

Josh: I had no issues with the shaving, but I support your general complaints. I find her presence on the series pretty tacky, and her scene with Grand Maester Pycelle (played by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘s Julian Glover) was certainly the worst scene in this fantastic episode. I like naked women, but it just seemed like lazy salaciousness here. Though that scene did contain one interesting element, one that I don’t think was in the book, which is the revelation that Pycelle is pulling an I, Claudius of sorts — he’s pretending to be old and doddering, when in fact he is capable of doing squats and other spry aerobic moves. Though this felt more like a bit intended to induce a laugh, rather than a notable disclosure of information to the audience.

Nick: Holy shit that was Julian Glover. I guess the grail really DID that to him.

Josh: He chose poorly, indeed.

The season went by fast. I couldn’t be happier with the success the series has found. Before it aired, no one was giving Thrones a chance to last more than two seasons, three seasons tops. Not after Rome went down as it did. But I have a good feeling here. While it does feel a bit pie-in-the-sky to dream that we’ll get a season for all seven of Martin’s books (especially when the final two haven’t even been written and it took him for fucking ever to write book five), I think it is safe to say that Thrones will get to tell a pretty large chunk of the story.

See y’all next season.