Earlier this week, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss proudly exclaimed that tonight’s Season 4 finale episode, “The Children,” was the finest hour of television that they have ever crafted; and they just weren’t whistling “The Rains of Castamere.”
While I think it might be a bit early to settle on whether it is the HBO juggernaut’s finest episode, it most clearly is its best season finale, which caps off what has been a one-two punch of superb quality from the writers, actors, and even directors during Season 3 and Season 4 of Game of Thrones. And tonight, the lions came home to roost in a four-year journey of Lannister ascension coupled with family squabbling that has finally crossed the line from political intrigue into Shakespearian tragedy. Yet who is the villain, the father who like old King Lear could not see the worth in his youngest child until it was too late, or that Richard III lookalike who finally lived up to his infamy when he committed patricide? It is something to ponder along with much, much more—Arya’s on a boat!—in this epic capper on Game of Thrones’ best vintage yet.
The first thing that “The Children” did is focus on who is now the oldest of Ned Stark’s remaining kids: Jon Snow gets the rare back-to-back beginning-and-end closer between this week’s opening and last week’s final shot of “The Watchers on the Wall.” And he looks tired. In fact, he’s so damn tired that he can barely stand when he is taken to “talk terms” to the triumphantly returned Mance Rayder.
Seeing Ciarán Hinds again was good tonight. Like really good. As in that he’s by far the best actor of all the performers running around the Wall, so why has it taken this bleeding long to get a glimpse of him this season?! good. And the man who once brought Gaius Julius Caesar to life for a generation of HBO subscribers does not disappoint as the King Beyond the Wall. Much like Hinds’ Caesar, he treats Jon Snow favorably in seeming defeat, perhaps a little too much so. He should probably check to see if Tobias Menzies is creeping around outside….
Fortunately for Mance, his men are much more leery of the Crow who once broke his vows before. Despite honoring the Guest Right and sharing food and drink with Mance, and even toasting to the memories of Grenn and the giant that slew him, Jon Snow cannot keep his purpose discreet: he is here to kill Mance. It is a wonderful scene where Harington feels elevated to be acting against one of the best thespians this show has had the pleasure to hire, and one could even sense that Jon Snow could be convinced to side with Mance again if he were given a little bit more time. The look on Jon’s face when Mance suggested they should all be south of the Wall before the Walkers come with winter spoke volumes. However, the more likely scenario for this scene’s ending if left uninterrupted was a fate worse than Theon when news spread around the Wildling camp about what he did to Ygritte. But fortune smiles one of its few grins for the Stark family when the biggest surprise of the night came early with the arrival of Stannis Baratheon, Davos Seaworth and, well in the background, the Lady Melisandre.
It is actually quite amazing how quick a job that the Baratheon cavalry makes of Mance’s men given how grisly the bloodbath was last week. But these are still at the end of the day barbarians with loose organization while Stannis lives and breathes this kind of warfare: out in the open, orderly, and with columns so straight that even Cornwallis would marvel. It is also Stannis’ first impressive moment in the whole series.
To date, there is a cult of personality around the middle Baratheon brother that even baffles George R.R. Martin. Often described in the book as brittle, proud, and unloved, fans have flocked to this character as their standard-bearer over the years. For show watchers who have always been perplexed as to why…well this is pretty much it. Stannis saves the Wall and the Night’s Watch!
Personally, I still tend to keep Stannis at arm’s length. It is a terrific moment that makes Stannis relevant to the broader narrative for the first time since “Blackwater” all the way back in Season 2. Further, it shows that of all the “kings” that titled The War of the Five Kings, Stannis is the only one who seems to have the Realm’s interests at heart. The men of the Night’s Watch begged for assistance, and Stannis answered the call. He saved the Wall, which despite Mance’s assurances, is probably more than good for the smallfolk of the North, especially with the icy fingers of Walkers coming. If Stannis’ army can do that to Mance’s forces, they certainly are a stronger fist against Ice Zombies than Jon and 80-something still-breathing brothers of the black.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Stannis is there because of the influences of Davos’ morality and Melisandre’s spirituality. It is also the same spiritualism that chilled Jon Snow and all viewers when she made eye contact with him tonight.
But all that is for another season. The moment at hand is about Jon Snow burning his brothers, so they do not come back as Ice Zombies, as well as paying respect to one above all else. Jon says his final goodbyes to Ygritte, and they’re more painful than when she was dying in her arms. In life she was called the girl kissed by fire, and now in death she finally feels the true flames’ touch. As Giantsbane told Jon, she’s dead and no words will matter. But his silence in this moment meant so, so much more.
Farther north still, we see very quickly what happens when you don’t burn the dead in the land of eternal winter. Did I mention Ice Zombies? Yes, their technical name is the “Wights” or just the “Dead,” but just as “White Walker” (a different creature) sounds better than “Others,” Ice Zombies is much more fun to say. Plus, these were some especially cool looking zombies with the ice having removed the flesh from their bones. As much a technologically more sophisticated take on Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts as anything seen on that AMC show that shall not be named, this sequence is also far more delightful than anything in the latter. Meera actually looks downright heroic as she slaughters one Wight after another, and Summer (Bran’s direwolf) gets in on the action too. Best of all, Bran has resorted to turning Hodor into his personal video game avatar—a chance to walk like a man or at least a giant approximation of one. And to crescendo the action set-piece is our first glimpse of a Child of the Forest!
Yes, it’s time to brush up on some Westerosi history for the passive viewers: long before the First Men or the Andals came north and befriended, and then subsequently betrayed, the Children of the Forest, the north and perhaps all of Westeros were ruled by these ancient creatures who can live for an eternity and look ever so much like children. Essentially the Kokiri of the North, ready to take Bran’s gaming skills to the next level in the Great Deku Tree, these little guys will have a much bigger role as winter comes, but we can forgive you if your first instinct is to have the “child” say to Bran, “Bastian, why don’t you do what you dreamed? Say my name!” [a gold star to the commenter who can name the reference].
However, while the show has never been nerdier than in a scene that features walking skeletons and magic smoke tossing elf-girls, it also ends in a way that is sure to leave a certain class of book readers furious: they kill off Jojen Reed.
In the books, Jojen Reed is still very much alive and well by Bran’s side with an unwavering complaint at his lips. I partially wonder if actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster wanted off the show since Bran’s storyline has been marginalized so much in the last season. But whatever the reason, Jojen, a major literary character who has been extremely sidelined in the series, met an untimely end when he got Wight’d right in the guts. We even see why the bodies must be burned because before Meera has finished mercy-killing her brother and running across the white tundra toward the safety of the tree, Jojen’s eyes become an unnerving crystal blue. As luck would have it, the Children of the Forest have a remedy for this kind of nonsense.
It is a shocking moment given the character’s literary pedigree, however, as he was never a major player on the show, I honestly must admit this is the least important or traumatic death of an entire finale littered with corpses—and it was the only one that I didn’t expect.
Bran’s storyline ends this year with him finally finding the three-eyed crow…or at least the man who commands it. An old greybeard who looks like he stepped off the set of one of the Hobbit movies, this figure welcomes Bran to the finally exciting part of his storyline.
Yet if one Stark kid got to shine this week, it was invariably Arya. My personal favorite character this side of Tyrion, I have waited for this scene ever since Arya got her Needle back. To be sure, I have loved her scenes with the Hound too, especially with the surprising chemistry that Maisie Williams and Rory McCann have displayed. But their best moment was always destined to be their bitterly sweet parting. And it was done in absolute fantastic fashion with the surprise reveal that it would be Brienne who instigated it.
In the novels, Brienne never gets within a dozen miles of Arya Stark—though she does get to be the one who kills Rorge in the books (the guy who got a last minute addition to Arya’s kill list four weeks ago). But also seeing her be the one to put the Hound out of commission, as opposed to his festering wound, was a brilliant stroke by the writers in giving Brienne a major job to do. In fact, I longed to see Arya go along with Brienne, who is as much a kindred spirit as she is ever going to meet. I’d even daresay that Arya wanted it too. That is until Brienne conceded the sword was a gift from Jaime Lannister. It is remarkable how much darkness could immediately cloud into Ms. Williams’ eyes at just the mention of the “L word.” If she had a dog in the fight to come, it was undoubtedly the Hound.
Two weeks ago, we might have gotten The Mountain and the Viper, but that is nothing compared to the Hound and the Maiden Fair. Now, this was a knockdown drag-out fight worthy of a boxing promoter. Hell, Brienne even pulled a Mike Tyson when she took the Hound’s ear before sending him flying from a cliff like he’s Sylvester Stallone in the first act of Rocky III. It is particularly fascinating that the Hound and the Mountain, two brothers seemed destined for mortal combat, were both defeated by outside parties they had shrugged off. At least neither has died…right?
Intentionally left ambiguous, the Hound gets a momentous send-off when Arya pays her final respects to the man who saved her from the Red Wedding by choosing not to kill him. While the final King’s Landing scenes may be the moments of the night (we’re getting there), Maisie Williams was the episode’s most valuable player, giving a tour de force without even uttering a line. When the Hound pleads with her to kill him, even mocking the childhood friend that he butchered a seeming lifetime ago and the sister he wished he’d rape, she never gives him the pleasure of a parting goodbye or the reason why she chose to “spare” his rapidly decaying life.
Part of me truly believes that Arya cares for the Hound too much to kill him. She tried to stab him once before with Needle, but she has reached the point where she cannot cross his name off her prayer list, because he is all she has left to believe in. But the scary thing about Arya that came through in spades tonight is that after living through so much death, horror, and heartache, she has changed. Those weren’t sad eyes, but rather the empty portals of death staring back at the gasping Sandor Clegane. She is no longer Arya Stark. She had a flicker of hoping that she could be again when she saw Brienne, and the Maiden Fair talked of taking her somewhere “safe,” but that time has past. There is no going home for this girl even if that home still existed. It is a beautifully tragic moment. Only on Game of Thrones can a child giving into despair be treated as a moment of euphoria and triumph. Yet, I think we all feel more like Sandor, bewildered and wounded by this revelation as we’re left sitting on a rock to die.
But if any child gave into the dark side during this finale, then his name is Tyrion Lannister. And why not? The children of consequence in this episode’s title are most certainly the offspring of the Rock. The Lannister kids. And their pettiness towards each other and their father has finally reached a tipping point where there is no salvation for any of them to come.
It began early when Cersei admitted to Tywin that the rumors about her and Jaime are true. Tywin denies her confessions, but he knows. Deep down he’s always known. Similar to how they probably both know on some level that Tyrion didn’t do it.
While the thought of their baby brother who “murdered” their mother getting his head chopped off turns Cersei on—to uncomfortable degrees for some undoubtedly since Alex Graves directed this episode after earlier backlash—Jaime is clearly not so sure. And in his most purely chivalric moment in the entire series that doesn’t involve a bear, Jaime cements his status as the “good one” just as viewers are forced to reconsider their feelings toward Tyrion Lannister.
Jaime truly is the perfect knight for a world as screwed up as Westeros, and he comes out smelling more rosy than Margaery Tyrell when he frees Tyrion from his black cell at night with a boat waiting to spirit him out of the Capital, compliments of Varys. But as wonderful as this scene is, I am troubled by it for two reasons. The first is that this moment of brotherly love and true compassion is rushed over due to undoubted time constraints. However, more shocking, is the absence of Jaime’s complete motive from the books. Jaime truly does love Tyrion like a brother, and I believe that he would have freed him no matter what. Nevertheless, there is an ulterior reason in the text. Guilt.
In the book, Jaime saves Tyrion, in part, so he can confess that Tyrion’s first wife, the “whore” Tysha, was never a whore. Tywin simply put a young Jaime up to tell Tyrion that so Tywin’s lesson could be well learned. Tywin hated her because all lowborn women are whores in his eyes.
This is the stone that pushes Tyrion to not immediately take the boat out of King’s Landing, but instead confront his father in the most uncomfortable of positions. At first glance, I was shocked by the bravery of the removal, because it makes Tyrion’s actions all the darker. His deciding to murder Tywin, and consequentially Shae, in cold blood is a far more calculated decision on the show. Except that the series then softens it one more time by having Shae reach for the knife in self-defense when she sees Tyrion (I’m not touching the gender politics in that). Still, she had every right to defend herself, because, sure enough, Tyrion strangled the “whore” to death.
This is really the moment where readers and now viewers are forced to reevaluate Tyrion. Is he their hero? Shae betrayed Tyrion through and through. Worse still, she slept with his father; she slept with his father within a day of him condemning Tyrion to death. BUT this is still a woman that Tyrion has taken in his hands and called his own. A woman he proclaimed to love. And he pulled on that necklace until her eyes bulged and mouth would close no more. Tyrion is not the hero of this story. In fact, he is more his father’s son than all the other Lannister children put together.
And that is exactly why Tyrion is the one to kill Tywin. Jaime fears and respects his father too much, and Cersei worships the monster, mistakenly believing that she is his heir apparent. But Tyrion is his father’s son writ small. Actually, that is the exact line he says in A Storm of Swords right before he fires a crossbow bolt into his father’s colon. And I really did miss it here, because it is so much better than “I have always been your son.” Nevertheless, it is at the very least one of the best scenes of the season. Tyrion Lannister kills his father while he is in the privy. It is so emotionally charged that one can almost sense Tyrion wants to believe that Tywin never planned to have him killed. When Tywin even suggests that he admires Tyrion’s desire to survive and persevere in spite of his father’s best efforts, it feels like the most tender words that have ever passed between them. And in another season they might have even saved Tywin’s life from the crossbow. But not this time. Not after he sentenced Tyrion to death, and not with Shae lying slack-jawed in his bed. Instead, Tywin’s loveless disdain for his children finally caught him on the receiving end in this finale, and as it turns out, he does not shit gold.
This is an amazing moment for more than just another character’s death. Since the Red Wedding, the Lannisters have been the series’ protagonists, and try as some viewers might, we even root for them due to their entertaining dysfunction. But the dysfunction that makes them so watchable has come at a high cost. Tywin Lannister won the war, but he could not stop his own son from killing him in the dead of night. Tywin built a legacy meant to last a thousand years, but it is not Starks or Reynes that doomed it, but the brats he raised to be as uncaring and monstrous as he. Tyrion knows this better than all the rest.
Still, it is a true shame to lose Tywin in the same season as Joffrey. We are now tragically lacking in villains we love to hate. Joffrey was just…fun; Tywin earned any viewer’s respect because he plays the game of thrones better than any other character on the show, save perhaps Lord Petyr Baelish. Now that they are both gone, we are left with sickos too revolting to hate in the Boltons, and other squabbling factions like the Greyjoys and the slavers of Meereen to shrug at. The White Walkers’ wintry descent cannot come soon enough at this point to kick it back into overdrive.
But before we look forward, the finale had one more breathtaking scene: Arya’s voyage to a new home across the Narrow Sea, away from the feuds that have taken her soul whole, leaving the hollowed husk pretending she does not care that her last protector has too died. And with Ramin Djawdi’s epic score blaring it feels almost Tolkien-esque with the wide, sweeping helicopter shots of Arya riding on her glorious pony to the last boat out of town. Like the end of the first act for Debbie Reynolds in How the West Was Won, Arya is leaving her old life behind to begin anew. Only when George R.R. Martin is the author, it is sure to be as bloody and unpleasant an existence as always. But let’s not think about that. Let’s savor Arya on the bow of the ship headed to Bravvos, headed to Jaqen H’ghar thanks to the Valar Morghulis token that he gave her. If you have been paying attention, this is as happy an ending as you are like to get on Game of Thrones.
So ends Game of Thrones’ fourth season, and for my money, its best one. This finale hit every point perfectly, except perhaps Daenerys’ rather emotionless locking of her dragons (this should have tore her soul out). And like the season itself, it delivered on the catharsis after so many, many years of endless suffering.
Ned Stark has died. Catelyn and Robb too. Even his daughter-in-law and unborn granddaughter learned far too soon the definition of “Valar Morghulis.” But this season, the winds changed. In the Lannisters’ greatest victory, they cannibalized each other to the point where nothing was left but that precious taste of ash in their mouth. Their figurehead and brains are gone, and the thief in the night who took him was the only one who could save them. And Joffrey died hard and early too. For that enjoyment, we saw Tyrion speak the first honest words that the Iron Throne has heard in decades, and perhaps the best hyped duel in modern fiction. And oh yes, the Night’s Watch fought TV’s greatest battle to a victory that made even Stannis Baratheon awesome.
This has been a super year of television that utilized the fact it was mostly based on A Storm of Swords’ climactic chapters to its greatest benefit. Looking forward, there are dark waters to come, for both a eastward bound Arya and Tyrion, and even the show itself as it faces the Gordian adaptation knot that is A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. But that is another feature for another day. For the moment, let us savor the splendors at hand with wind on our face and sea at our back, as we sail into that good night and dimming light with a smile on our face.