We've come to the end of the first season of "Game of Thrones," but not, as we now know, the end of the series. That's a pretty exceptional scene this episode ends on too -- and it's yet another brilliant structural touch that we finally get an onscreen magical element to this series 90 seconds before the season closes, and it's been foreshadowed since the very first episode rather than coming off as a deus ex machina. For that matter, it's a scene that could never, ever be pulled off on network television.
For an episode that once again had to cover a lot of narrative territory, though, there also seemed to be a bunch of blatant filler this week -- scenes that could fall away without anyone noticing. Chief among those was the sequence with Grand Maester Pycelle and the woman going about her ablutions in his quarters. Is he supposed to be blind, or just philosophical? And did that scene have any bearing at all on the plot?
Likewise, the dream sequence with Bran walking -- the third nearly identical such sequence -- goes nowhere in particular, and the subsequent scene with Osha and Bran in the catacombs doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. (It does, however, give us an additional appearance of Bran's younger brother Rickon, who's been seen so little that somebody set up a Where's Rickon Stark?
So here's a thought experiment. "Game of Thrones" wasn't officially renewed until after the first episode had been broadcast; it's worth imagining what would have happened if the series had had a backup plan in place to ditch the narrative of George R.R. Martin's books and wrap up the story somehow this week. This is pure speculation, of course, but it's fun to think how they might have done it with the time freed up by ditching the superfluous scenes. (Scooby and Shaggy showing up at court to explain the plot wouldn't quite work, although I'd love to see Cersei declaring "and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling Starks!")
The single biggest dangling plot thread, from an emotional standpoint, is the inevitable comeuppance of slow-clapper Joffrey, who's had an entire season to scare up a single redeeming character trait but has evidently found that below him. (An enterprising fan has assembled a 10-minute-long montage of Tyrion slapping Joffrey
over and over -- it's so satisfying!) It's easy enough to imagine the scene where Sansa notices that Joffrey is very close to a steep drop going in a rather different direction; that would also have made for a nice parallel to Bran's fall in the first episode.
The obvious closing scene for a final-episode version of this week's show would be Robb spontaneously being anointed king by his followers. Here's a proposition for you: When the Dothraki chant "Rhaego!" it's supposed to be a demonstration of their barbarism; when Robb's army chants "the king in the north!" it's supposed to be a demonstration of their heroic good judgement. Discuss.
Wrapping up Danaerys's story this time wouldn't have been tough, either -- just end her section with her walking into Drogo's funeral pyre. That would have been ambiguous about her fate anyway, given her scene with the dragon eggs midway through the season. She gets some of her best sequences on the show with this episode, although the script resorts to some hand-waving about the resolution of last week's cliffhanger. (Paraphrased: "So, what exactly happened inside that tent?" "Oh, it was awful! And it would have been so
expensive to film.") And all her sun-and-stars talk is neatly balanced by her realization that she's never seen the sun come up in the west
Most of the other major characters get at least some degree of closure too. Arya, now a master of pointyendology, learns to take advantage of the fact that everyone keeps calling her a boy. Jon Snow and the Night's Watch get to recite the Green Lantern oath, or whatever that "I am the sword in the darkness, the watcher on the walls" spiel is. Tyrion finally figures out a way to effectively humiliate his dad. Catelyn learns what happened to Bran, and gets at least a taste of the revenge she craves.
And the magnificently creepy pair of Baelish and Varys have another one of their circling-predator dialogues, in which they discuss what's between their legs, announce how much they admire each other, and get as far as "So! Here we are," although they're interrupted before they get a chance to actually make out. Actually, that would have been at least as satisfying for the last few minutes of a final episode as Tyrion slapping Joffrey a few dozen more times.
The sex, violence and catchphrase tally:
Bare breasts: Four, courtesy of Grand Maester Pycelle's young friend and, in that magnificent final scene, Danaerys. Also, we get our third naked man of the series, Lancel Lannister. Cersei might be luckier in love if she looked beyond her blood relatives as a dating pool, you know?
Fatalities: Khal Drogo eats a throw pillow, Mirri Maz Duur sings soprano, and it appears we lost Septa Mordane offscreen.
Catchphrases: Just one "winter is coming," from Arya's new friend.
Photo: Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) looks very calm and everything, but give her a rock and she will seriously mess you up. Credit: HBO.