The second season of "Game of Thrones" came to a close in a very satisfying finale last night, titled "Valar Morghulis" (High Valyrian for "All men must die," if you were wondering). The 65-minute episode was chock full of cliffhangers that we'll all be drooling over in the ten month wait for season three, but in the mean time, let's take some time to appreciate the staggering feat the "Game of Thrones" producers have managed to pull off (and improve on) for the second year in a row. David Benioff, Dan Weiss, and his creative team have managed to take an un-filmable story and turn it into breathtaking television, cramming an unbelievable amount of story successfully into ten hours of filmed content. It was difficult choosing which moments would be on this list because there were so many to choose from, but here's our pick for top ten moments in "Game of Thrones" second season:
10. Jon Snow kills Qhorin Halfhand. He might finally be a Ranger, but Jon Snow (Kit Harington) got much more than he bargained for in the process, up to and including: being captured by Wildlings, tormented sexually by a tiny loud-mouthed redhead (Rose Leslie), and being forced to kill the legendary Ranger, Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong). Halfhand knows that Jon will need to get in good with the Wildlings and their King-Beyond-the-Wall, Mance Rayder, if he's to ingratiate himself enough to learn anything, and more importantly, live to tell the tale. The best way to do this? He forces Jon Snow to kill him and then feign a defection from the Night's Watch. Jon -- good boy that he is -- understandably has a hard time with this, but Qhorin baits him with taunts of his bastardy, and his father's treachery, and in the end Jon Snow shoves Longclaw up through Qhorin's guts and out the other side.
Episode: "Valar Morghulis"
9. Dany sees a vision of Drogo and Rhaego in the House of the Undying. Season one ended for Daenerys Targaryen in a storm of death, fire, and rebirth. She lost her husband, her son, and the prospect of any future children forever. Season two ends with her entering the stronghold of the Warlocks of Qarth, the House of the Undying, to reclaim her stolen dragons. The Warlocks tempt her with images of her past and future in order to snare her in their trap, and the most powerful of these temptations is a vision of her dead husband Drogo (Jason Momoa) holding their son Rhaego, whom she never got to meet. Dany is caught by the vision at first, but soon realizes the nature of the trap and pulls herself out of it. Emilia Clarke plays the scene beautifully, as the heartbroken Dany can't help but take some pleasure at the sight of her lost family. In the end, it wasn't a smart move on the part of the Warlocks, because the result is not so much a trapped Daenerys as an angry and powerful one, with dragonfire at her command. The Warlocks die screaming in fire.
Episode: "Valar Morghulis"
8. Yara asks Theon to give up Winterfell. Theon (Alfie Allen) is a boy caught between two worlds. He's a Greyjoy who was raised like a Stark, and he's a boy playing at being a man. I was tempted to include the wonderful scene between Theon and Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) from the finale where Theon explains all of this, how he was never accepted fully into the Stark's world, and upon returning to his real home and family, was rejected for not being enough like a Greyjoy. But in the end I decided to go for a similar scene in an earlier episode between Theon and his much more confident sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan), who implores Theon to give up the fight for Winterfell and come home. It's a scene that accomplishes the same ideas as the one with Luwin, but it does so without spelling things out for us, and gives us a lovely look at the relationship between Theon and Yara. It's a moment where she gives up the badass attitude of lording her superiority over him, and instead acts as a big sister who is genuinely concerned for dumb, petulant little brother. In the end, Theon makes the same decision he always makes: the wrong one. But it was a nice moment nonetheless.
Episode: "The Prince of Winterfell"
7. Arya and Tywin have dinner. If you would have told me the best chemistry in season two would be between an old man and a little girl, both of them kind of murderous, I'm not sure I would have believed you. In a departure from the books that turned out to be genius, Tywin Lannister (the superb Charles Dance) occupies Harrenhal instead of Roose Bolton, and he and Arya the "common cupbearer" in disguise (Maisie Williams) strike up an antagonistic sort of friendship. Tywin may be the villain, but he's smart, and he's got style. You find yourself rooting for him, even as you despise him. The same thing begins to happen to Arya, who finds herself drawn to her new master, admiring him and wanting to kill him all at the same time. Tywin develops an affection for the strange little girl who he seems to see through as if she were made of glass, working out that she's a girl, and a high-born one at that, but content to let her hide in plain sight for whatever reason. Perhaps because she just amuses him, or as he says to her in the episode, because she reminds him of a young Cersei, fierce and smart. They talk about war and legacies and dragons, and it's completely wonderful.
Episode: "A Man Without Honor"
6. Yoren dies. Fresh from seeing her father murdered, and murdering someone herself, Arya is having trouble living with herself. In a rather sweet and bloody midnight talk, Yoren (Francis Magee) tells Arya how he sleeps at night, and in the process gives her a new purpose. He tells her about how he ended up with the Night's Watch, after murdering his brother's killer, a man he fixated on for years, muttering his name like a prayer every night before he went to sleep, a practice Arya picks up for her own enemies, listing them out in a litany: Cersei, Joffrey, The Hound, Ser Ilyn . . . and then the King's men attack, looking for Gendry, and Yoren takes out an entire squadron of men with crossbows sticking out of his chest. A glorious death for a wonderful character.
Episode: "What is Dead May Never Die"
5. Sam sees White Walkers. I didn't actually think we'd get to see this one for a long time, and not just because the description of the Walkers in the books is always cloaked in mystery. This is a huge reveal, and it happens in the very last scene of the episode, as Sam (John Bradley-West) and his black brothers hear the dreaded horn blown three times, an event that hasn't happened in thousands of years. Sam gets left behind as Grenn and Pip outrace him, and as he cowers behind a rock, a White Walker comes up beside him and grins, an army of ice zombies close behind him. This is the show telling us, "Good luck waiting ten months after THAT." And it definitely gets the message across.
Episode: "Valar Morghulis"
4. Melisandre gives birth to the smoke monster from "Lost." In what is probably the craziest thing I've ever seen on TV -- and I watch a lot of TV -- the red priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten) is smuggled into a drain culvert where she strips naked in front of a horrified Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham), revealing herself to be inexplicably nine months pregnant, and proceeds to give birth to some sort of grasping magical shadow baby. Melisandre did promise Stannis (Stephen Dillane) a son in the previous episode, but I'm not sure this is what he had in mind. The shadow baby then proceeds to kill Stannis's brother Renly (Gethin Anthony), but really that's just anti-climax, because nothing could be freakier or more unexpected (even if you knew it was coming because you read the books) than seeing that thing claw its way out of Melisandre's uterus.
Episode: "Garden of Bones"
3. Cersei ponders whether Joffrey is her punishment. Cersei of the TV show is a much more complex character than Cersei of the books, who is pure evil, and much of the credit goes to Lena Headey for humanizing a rather demonic and selfish character. Cersei had a lot of great moments in the second season, but the most striking was in a rare moment of honesty with her despised brother Tyrion. The moment was all the more affecting because she was having it with Tyrion, whom she blames for the death of her mother. She admits to him that her children are Jaime's children as well, and maybe it's the first time she's admitted that to anyone. She confesses her worry that the completely twisted Joffrey is her punishment for the crimes she and Jaime committed together. Tyrion feels genuine affection for his sister in that moment and rests his hand on her knee. It's a lovely scene, even as Cersei ruins the moment by insulting him. She can't allow herself to be human for long.
Episode: "A Man Without Honor"
2. Tyrion leads men into battle. The dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is almost everybody's favorite character, and for good reason. He's smart and devious without being cruel, and he has a kind heart despite (or perhaps because of) being raised a fool among Lannisters. Being made the Hand of the King was the best thing Tywin ever did for him, and he turned out to be very, very good it. His climactic moment came in the Battle of Blackwater, as the King had deserted his men and Stannis was threatening to break down their gates. The men were in a panic, ready to run, but Tyrion rallies them by urging them not to fight for their king or country or honor or other things that in reality mean nothing to men about to lose their lives, but for themselves, their homes, their money, their families. "Those are brave men knocking at our doors; let's go kill them!" he finishes, and the men roar, chanting "Half-Man! Half-Man!" without derision. It's his finest moment. Perhaps the finest he will ever see, because after his father came in at the last minute to save the day, you can bet he won't get any of the credit.
1. Jaime Lannister talks his cousin Alton to death. In what is hands down my favorite scene of the entire series, a captive Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is momentarily imprisoned with one of his lesser cousins, a young man named Alton who had been acting as a messenger boy between the Starks and Lannisters. It's a nice enough scene even before you realize how it's going to end. Jaime lets Alton talk about that one time he squired for Jaime, how it was the best day of his life, and Jaime in turn confides in him things I'm sure he's never told anyone else (something he's safe to do, with Alton lying dead at the end of it). He tells Alton that he too had heroes as a boy: knights were painters who used only red, how being a part of that life was like "stepping into a dream you've been dreaming your whole life, and finding out the dream is more real than your life." Jaime may be the "man without honor" of the title, but if so, it's something he's never questioned because he hasn't had to, because he's had everything he's ever wanted handed to him on a silver platter. ”It’s a good thing I am who I am; I’d have been useless at anything else,” he tells Alton, right before luring him over and bashing his head in, leaving both of their fondest memories as nothing more than mud and excrement on their clothes. The whole thing was a ploy to get Alton close and use him for escape, but the best part is the purpose of the conversation doesn't negate how frickin' awesome it was, and that he clearly meant every word he said.
Episode: "A Man Without Honor"
- - -
What did y'all think of the finale? And which of your favorite moments did we leave off the list? Is the wait for season three going to be as agonizing for you as it will be for me? Sound off in the comments.