"Game of Thrones" just wrapped up its terrific first season, and I have a review of the finale coming up (and, for anyone who DVR'ed "The Killing" finale but hasn't seen it yet, I briefly discuss my opinion of it in a non-spoiler-y fashion), just as soon as I favor my fingers...

"When dead men, and worse, come hunting for us in the night, do you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?" -Commander Mormont

That, boys and girls, is how you do the first season finale to a sweeping TV epic.

On the same night, back to back, "Game of Thrones" and "The Killing" presented finales that were more interested in serving as a prologue for a second season than in wrapping up certain first season story points. But where "The Killing" finale largely functioned as a thumb in the eye to its audience and disintegrated whatever interest I had in continuing with that show (for more on that, go read my review), the "Game of Thrones" finale only made me more interested in what's coming next.

It comes down to what I've talked about before, the difference between good cliffhangers and bad ones. The good kind are a promise of exciting new stories to come; the bad kind tend to treat the viewer as a sucker who will only come back if there's some immediate question to be answered or jeopardy to be revolved.

Again, I'll leave discussion of "The Killing" finale for that review, but "Fire & Blood" was definitely the good kind of cliffhanger. It turns out that most of the resolution to this season's stories came in the two previous episodes: whiny punk Joffrey remained the king, noble but foolish Ned Stark was beheaded, Robb successfully outmaneuevered the superior forces of Tywin Lannister, Drogo clung to death as Dany went into labor, etc. The finale clarified a few things - that Dany lost the baby and ultimately had to euthanize a living but vegetative Drogo - but for the most part was moving pieces into place for season two:

• Joffrey remains king, but also remains a mama's boy and will therefore wed Sansa, even though she understandably despises him for murdering her father;

• Arya will try to escape the capitol and the forces of the Lannisters disguised as a boy, in the company of a bunch of recruits to the Night's Watch (including one of the bastard children of the late king Robert);

• The bannermen of the north decide that, rather than keep fighting the Lannisters, they can simply break off from the south and form their own nation, with young Robb as their new king;

• Rich old Tywin, with his favorite son Jaime a prisoner of war and idiot grandson running amok, finally takes clever outcast son Tyrion seriously, assigning him to be the new Hand of the King;

and, in the thrilling back-to-back sequences that closed the finale:

• After being talked out of running away from his duty on the Night's Watch to avenge Ned's death, Jon Snow and the rest of his brothers prepare to march north of the Wall to confront the White Walkers and whatever other danger awaits;

and

• Dany burns Drogo's corpse (and murders the witch woman responsible for the baby being stillborn), walking into the flames herself because she knows that, as the true daughter of the dragons, she's impervious to heat and flame - and because she wants to hatch the three dragon's eggs she has to give her the literal firepower she'll need fight back against all those who have betrayed her in her short but eventful life.

If the Night's Watch sequence (with Commander Mormont's speech accompanied by the pounding, addictive "Thrones" score by Ramin Djawadi) and then the final image of a naked but unharmed Dany revealing the three baby dragons didn't get your adrenaline racing for a second season, then you should check with your internist, because that was one hell of a one-two punch.

That is a lot to deal with in a second season (and I'm sure the second book, "A Clash of Kings," offers up even more), and I'm thrilled by the possibilities of almost all of it, from Arya trying to survive and conceal her identity among that motley crew of prisoners and outcasts to Dany and her three new babies massively upending the plans of both the remaining Dothraki and the feuding, insular factions back in Westeros.

It helps, of course, that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are working with all these strong, well-rounded characters that Martin created, and that they've assembled a cast so strong that Sean Bean's exit just seems like an opportunity for others to shine brighter.

In terms of shining, how about Emilia Clarke as Dany? Think about all the impediments there are to making that character interesting and/or consistent. She starts off as a scared, barely-vocal teenager. She spends many of her scenes appearing opposite characters who either don't speak English or don't speak, period. Her storyline literally takes place on another continent from the rest of the action, and only a couple of times had any direct connection to what's going on in Westeros. And over the course of one short TV season, sometimes with fairly brief appearances (or in one case, no appearance at all), she has to convincingly evolve from terrified girl to fierce, regal warrior queen - a woman who can stand up and lead without her giant superhero of a husband by her side. And Clarke has sold every bit of that transformation, and was incredible in every one of her scenes in the finale. Dany is one of a handful of roles that were recast after the original pilot was shot. I obviously can't speak to what Tamzin Merchant was or wasn't doing in the part, but they hit a home run with Clarke. Great performance, and someone perfectly situated to take on greater importance as the series goes on.

But everyone's terrific. Consider Sophie Turner as Sansa. That character has to take an abrupt, if understandable, turn from insufferable spoiled brat to a sympathetic girl trapped in a horrible circumstance as prisoner and betrothed to the abusive little fool who had her father executed, and Turner nails it. The scene where Joffrey forces Sansa to look at her father's head on a pike, then has one of his guards slap her around because his mother taughter him that a king should never strike his lady was so uncomfortable, and yet redeeming in the way that Sansa finally seems to be finding the strength to stand up to Joffrey, even if she has absolutely no power to do anything against him.

And, of course, there are the performances/characters who have been a pleasure all along. As Tyrion, Peter Dinklage has come close to stealing the entire series lock, stock and barrel a few times. There wasn't a ton of screen time for him this week, but his reaction to Tywin not only entrusting him with this huge responsibility, but to hearing his distant father say "You're my son," was so beautifully-played.  And the prospect of Tyrion - a very smart man who's had precious little opportunity to use those smarts for anything but his own leisure - taking on this hugely important, powerful role in the capitol is just marvelous. (Though I fear that putting Tyrion, Varys and Littlefinger into a room together could cause such an overload of cleverness that King's Landing could implode.)

In the end, not only does "Fire & Blood" feel like a prologue to season 2, but the entire season feels like one long prologue to the major conflicts of the series proper. (And viewed in that light, Ned's death is a bit less shocking in hindsight. A bit.) This civil war between the Starks, Lannisters and Baratheons has been bloody, but it's got nothing on what's coming if the White Walkers breach the Wall and head south, or if Dany's able to use the dragons to rally a big army to cross the Narrow Sea with her.

But where Martin in the book, and now Benioff and Weiss on the show, have understood is that you keep people hooked to a long, continuing saga not just with shocking deaths and surprises, but with strong characterization and colorful storytelling along the way. "Game of Thrones" season 1 feels like even less of a complete story than, say, "The Wire" season 1. I don't mind, though, because it was damned entertaining along the way - with the finale as possibly the most entertaining so far - and we know that at least one more season is coming. And if the creative team can keep up this level of quality, it's hard to imagine HBO shutting things down anytime soon, even with a budget that only figures to get higher. Dragons aren't cheap, but they're also amazing, and I can't wait to see more of them, Dany, Tyrion and all the rest.

Some other thoughts:

• Heh. Tywin Lannister uses the same pronunciation of "whore" that Ralphie Ciffaretto did.

• After starting out as a world where magic hadn't really been seen in centuries, "Thrones" wholly embraced magic by season's end, with the witch, the zombies, the dragons and even young Bran and Rickon Stark having the same dream about their father.

• Bran's little history lesson to Osha the wildling woman also helped clarify a few pieces of backstory the show talked about all season but never went into complete detail on, like how Ned's sister came to die.

Michelle Fairley and Richard Madden were both quite good in the scene where Catelyn and Robb wind up in the woods, each grieving in their own way for Ned. And I loved Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's portrayal of Jaime's fatalistic sense of humor in the scene where Cat comes to possibly murder him - particularly the long pause as he wonders what lie he can (or should) tell to explain why he threw Bran out the window.

• With Jaime captive, Tywin has to turn to Tyrion to do his bidding (and Tyrion doesn't listen to all his instructions, as he's going to take Shae with him to King's Landing), while Cersei has to turn to cousin Lancel as her new bedmate. Trying to imagine an alternate version of this series told as a reality show about the famous, completely messed-up Lannister family: "Living It Up with the Lannisters," maybe?

• Apparently showing a man getting his tongue pulled out in a tight close-up is a visual bridge this show isn't ready to cross yet, so that particular mutilation was kept in the background of the shot and well out of focus.

• I liked seeing Sam finally discover some courage in the way he tried to block Jon's path from leaving Castle Black, and later when he organized their other friends to chase him down and convince him to go back. The scene where the guys all recited the Night's Watch oath simultaneously was as weirdly stirring in its own way as Mormont's speech later.

• In a way, I'm more startled by the death of Drogo than I was by Ned's. In the end, both had to die to create additional conflict and force other characters to stand on their own, but I feel like we were only just starting to scratch the surface of that big guy in the last few episodes. Nice work, Jason Momoa, with a character arguably even harder to play than Dany.

• With all due respect to the many fine directors we've had on this series so far, can we have Alan Taylor back as much as possible in season 2? The story itself obviously dictated much of the emotional quality of these last two episodes, but Taylor still directed the hell out of the story he was given.

• What an odd but potentially fascinating pair of scenes with Maester Pycelle, who to this point has been a fairly minor character. He seems like a doddering old fool with Roz the whore, but as soon as she leaves, he limbers up easily, and in the next scene we see that his stooped posture and shuffling walk are all an affectation - Pycelle playing a role in the same way that Varys and Littlefinger do. It's a role that's kept him alive and close to many kings over the years, and I wonder if those scenes were a signal that we should prepare for a lot more Pycelle going forward.

For the last time this season, let me remind you that we are here to talk about this show AS A TV SHOW, and not just as an endless series of compare/contrasts with the books. If you want to bring up events from the books that have already been depicted on the show, that's fine to a degree, but anything - plot, backstory, motivation, what have you - that has yet to be revealed on the show itself is absolutely off-limits. Any comment containing anything I find even remotely questionable will be deleted. Period.

I recognize that this rule is maybe trickier than ever this week, since so much of the finale is setting things up for season 2, and therefore those of us who haven't read the books will be doing more speculating than usual, but you're smart people. You can figure out out how to comment without giving stuff away. And if you can't, please save your comments for elsewhere. Thanks.

What did everybody else think?