Benioff and Weiss had to be pretty sure of their work. After episode nine aired, they promised that the conclusive episode of season four, titled “The Children”, would be the best season finale up to date. If you’re making such a claim, shoring up expectations, you have to have real confidence of having pulled something big. Or else, it’s your last season anyway and you don’t care. Since Game of Thrones is now officially the most popular HBO series ever, it’s not exactly in need of additional hype, and it wouldn’t be good business practice to create one where none is warranted – there are three seasons to go, after all, and you don’t want viewership to break down under unrealistic expectations.
So, was it the best finale ever? Simply, I’m not sure. It was good, all right, but not exactly the wash that D&D’s announcement promised. There were many highs, but, unfortunately, some lows as well. And in the usual places too. We will have to tackle several questions in this review, and to address a number of elephants that try to hide in a room that’s really a tad small for that, so bear with me. I’m still firmly in the camp of those people that like the damn series. And yes, that goes for the book deviations as well. Although I will evoke comparisons here (no way around it) I’m still trying to judge the series as a series and not as a translation of Gospel.
So, let’s go at it. The episode starts off where the last one ended, with Jon marching out of Castle Black to meet, greet and kill Mance Rayder. The scene is well done, with Mance getting much of the dialogue that Tormund had in the books – fitting for Mance, too – and greeting Jon a lot friendlier than he would have expected. When they talk about Ygritte, we’re missing the “kissed by fire” part, but we’re getting a look into Jon’s troubled soul and the people knowledge that Mance has. While Kit Harrington still doesn’t provide Emmy material, it’s at least partially the character’s fault: Jon has to constantly suppress and hide his true emotions, and at least we can see a littlebit of the inner turmoil this puts him in, and we will see it again later, stronger, when he lays first his brothers and then Ygritte to her final rest, a beautiful scene that was really well done. Plus, you absolutely have to love that scene about Mag the Mighty: “He was the last king in a line going back before the First Men.” “Grenn was from a farm.” In your face, wildling egalitarians!
Mance Rayder, in the meantime, comes out the bag and tells Jon that he wants to settle the wildlings south of the Wall. If memory serves, this point wasn’t known in the show canon until now, which makes this a rather huge revelation. Suddenly, there’s the possibility for a peace, but Jon’s still looking at the kitchen knife – and Mance knows it. I also liked the bit about the 400 climbers that are on their way to finally get rid of Castle Black – it makes sense, to think of it, and one might ask why Mance didn’t resort to that tactic more in the books. Of course, this is all moot, since Stannis comes to save the day. And boy, the sequence is shot well! We get the riders in perfect formation, mopping up the wildlings (who unfortunately seem a lot less than 100.000) – the story of the battle told in a few seconds of shots. That’s effective camera-work.
Stannis and Davos then come to Mance, who instantly yielded (true to his word of avoiding more bloodshed) but refused to kneel. The characterization in this bit was well done, and Stannis called out to Jon what Ned Stark would have done. I half expected Jon to give the truth (cut off his head as an oathbreaker), but Jon did the wise thing with Stannis: don’t answer his question but another one (“He took me captive when he could have killed me”), and so Mance gets to live another day. I suspect he’ll play a bigger role than in the books, or else the constantly frowning mouth corners Ciaran Hinds displays would go to waste real soon. Arguably, that would resolve the need for Tormund to live, so I’m interested to see where this is headed. At least, the first of the “children” has proved himself: Ned’s son is coming into his own, after only four seasons.
No, the first elephant in the room: yes, the scenes were well done and all, but they fell a bit flat. That’s not the fault of the scenes themselves. It’s a question of pacing. I expect this to be a non-issue once you binge-watch the show, but in the traditional one-episode-per-week formula, starting the episode off like this seems a bit wrong to me. It was just “I’m going to make a huge sacrifice for the Watch!” from Jon, and then “Oops, never mind, the cavalry saves the day”. It feels like this should have been either in the end of episode nine, or at the end of this episode. Will we feel the same way about the beginning chapters of “The Winds of Winter”? One wonders.
Let us remain in the North, where yet another elephant is waiting for us. No, not Hodor, still metaphorical ones. Bran reached his destination, the Three-Eyed-Raven, and this was…strange, to say the least. Not only is his journey greatly accelerated from the books, letting you wonder what’s in store for the seasons to come. Somehow, I doubt that the material from “A Dance with Dragons” will suffice for more than one or two episodes at the most, which leaves only two possibilities: spoilers for the upcoming books starting in season five, or a completely new storyline. Wonder what it will be. Anyhow, Bran’s storyline has always been one of the weaker ones – a fate everyone remaining north seems to share – and it doesn’t really get better here. They arrive at one artificial looking weirwood, where they are suddenly attacked by the leftovers from “Army of Darkness”. The skeletons are really cool looking, I guess the best I have seen on television so far, and the sound design is also well. I can go with it. Skeletons under the snow, ok, my book reader’s heart is put to OH MY GOD FIREBALL!
Yeah, the Children of the Forest (“children”, again) are throwing fireballs around. What the fuck…? They seem alchemistic in nature, ok, but still…this looks really, really silly. The fight that goes before is well done, with good choreography, and Jojen dies a pretty gruesome death and needs to be euthanized by Meera, all of which would make for real drama if Jojen and Meera were characters we care about, which, unfortunately, they aren’t. Jojen’s death might for some be considered a spoiler as to his fate post-ADWD, but given how much the series is already deviating, I’d stay away from such prophecies short of a glass ball. Bran and the others are then led down to the Three-Eyed-Raven, who tells Bran that he’ll never walk again, but he will fly. Bloodraven is looking a bit like Gandalf here, or Grand Maester Pycelle, but perhaps we’ll get a better closeup next season. I liked the scene well enough on its own, but the “children” here, who risked life (Jojen) and limb (Bran) to get here still aren’t connected to the main narrative.
I guess the reason for them to pull the “A Dance with Dragons” material was to exactly create this connection, and perhaps the tree network will serve to this end better next season, but so far, Bran’s storyline seems like checking boxes on a list. And that’s not doing it justice. For this storyline as well as for the Wall, we have to hope that next season it will get more attention. At least the Wall has some chance of that now that more characters of consequence are gathered there. Let’s hope for the best.
We don’t get any look at Theon and the Boltons this week, so we can head right down to the Vale, where Brienne and Podrick Payne are running into Arya and the Hound. At first, I wasn’t sure whether to like this idea or not, but I think it was a good call in terms of the show. In the books, it would have been endlessly stupid. So, why the divide?
For Arya, Brienne showing up gives her a clear-cut choice: she could either change her protector and continue on with Brienne, or she could make her own luck with a certain iron coin. For her, it’s the first time that she is really on her own, and this is important. For Brienne, it doesn’t really make a difference whether or not she met Arya. Instead, she gets to fight and defeat the Hound in a duel that I really like, because it feels much more real than most duels we’ve seen so far on television. The show confirms that she’s Dunc’s descendant along with it, too – you have to be when you’re winning a duel in a brawl. It is known. But to get serious, Brienne’s off the picture quickly enough, calling for Arya who made her decision. The Hound was right on this, after all – if Brienne really thinks there’s a safe place for Arya Stark, she’s the wrong person to protect her. The search for Arya might as well bring her back to the Riverlands; in the world of Game of Thrones, those are only an hour’s march away anyway.
Arya, in the meantime, searches for the mortally wounded Hound, who let’s sentimentality get the better of him for once. He thinks Arya has the same feelings for him he has for her; only minutes ago, he said as much aloud: he sees himself as her protector now. But Arya feels nothing at all. She just watches the Hound, a “children” of Eddard Stark’s in a very twisted way, listening to his last words and then denying him the mercy, but robbing him of his valuables. The Hound is slowly realizing it, trying to first angering her into killing him and then really pleading. But both is wasted breath on someone who feels absolutely nothing anymore. Arya and the Faceless Men will fit each other very well, I have no doubt. The show is more explicit and straightforward here than the books are, but it has to be. And the emotional impact of Arya’s story was great – how cool was that scene with her sailing in the sunrise! -, so much so that by this point, her story is much of what we in German call a “Selbstläufer” (literally: something that walks by itself, a sure-fire success). I have no doubts about her storyline for the seasons to come.
This gets us to King’s Landing, where Ser Gregor is laying on a bier, reminiscent of Ygritte only moments earlier. He’s laying still, unlike in the books, because the show wants to focus on creepy Qyburn. Yes, he’s still around. Haven’t seen him in a while. I wonder where the emphasis of him is going, and I predict now that he’ll play an important role as Cersei’s advisor in season 5 once her breakdown starts in earnest.
After his little incident, we see Cersei meeting Tywin. His “children” are now both in open rebellion. Not only does Jaime apparently not consider the bargain with Tywin valid anymore (and Tywin doesn’t want to spare Tyrion), which leaves him in the Kingsguard (noted the open White Book with his own story?), but Cersei doesn’t want to marry Ser Loras, really not, and she sticks it to Tywin by telling him the whole incest story. Tywin is in full denial, accusing her of lying, but he’s only with difficulty keeping his posture as Cersei walks off. Both “children” then meet and reconcile in the Kingsguard Tower, where they sleep with each other.
Which brings us back to the rape discussion. I see this scene as the final proof that Alex Graves – who directed this episode and also the unfortunate scene – really didn’t intend the thing as rape. Both characters are definitely not going to address it. Unfortunately, it did happen for a lot of people, which brings a big rift with it, a load of baggage that will be carried over in the next season. I’m fully aware that the writers couldn’t possibly address the rape issue in this season. It was all done when the episode in question aired – but I wouldn’t expect them to change course anyway. I guess for the show canon, there never was a rape. We as viewers will have to make up our own minds about this.
While serving no direct purpose in the episode’s structure, both scenes are a good build-up for the coming season, once again preparing the ground for plot to come and also once again bringing up the pacing issue. I know that these scenes are necessary – Cersei’s fixation on Tommen will resonate so much more after we have seen that she’s willing to defy Tywin for it, and the relationship to Jaime will break so much harder – but they throw the pacing of the episode off. Once again it shows that Game of Thrones isn’t really made for weekly installments. It’s one big 70-hour-movie, and I’m convinced much of this stuff will really gain on a binge-watch. “The Wire”, for example, suffered from the same issues.
With that, we’re with another of the “children”, Tyrion Lannister. Without any warning, he’s freed by Jaime Lannister, who gives him a brotherly hug and is off. Farewell, Jaime. But pray, didn’t you forget something? Like telling Tyrion a certain story about Tysha? Ah, well, perhaps Tywin will tell, to demonize him further. Nope, Tywin doesn’t tell, either. This is…unexpected. But let’s get to that particular elephant in a moment.
Tyrion chooses not to immediately go to Varys (who doesn’t seem to have needed any coaxing by Jaime, interestingly enough) but instead confront his father. What he finds in his father’s bed is, of course, Shae, whom he immediately attacks and throttles with the chain around her neck. The pain is on his face, and Shae’s reaction – violent and full of enmity – shows instantly that her break with Tyrion was real. So for those of you who hoped that she forced into the charade at court – no, she wasn’t. She was really feeling betrayed be Tyrion and lashed back. And now, Tyrion, feeling likewise betrayed, killed her, and it breaks something in him that no sobbing of “sorry” will be able to fix. He then takes the crossbow and has a chat with his father on the privy.
The whore in question this time around is Shae. Still no mention of Tysha. Charles Dance gives a rousing closing performance as he completely maintains his façade, trying to dominate Tyrion as he always did, and failing. He lies without flinching, and dies a man of his word. The “children” have all deserted him, but he deserted them long ago, and Cersei and Tyrion both told him explicitly in this episode. He never saw them for what they were, he never cared about them, and now he’s lost and dead on the privy. Tyrion then flees with Varys, who, when the bells start tolling, looks back in resignation and goes on the ship as well. He will accompany Tyrion, it seems, which is not exactly a small deviation from the book, but it’s promising, to say the least. Tyrion’s arc is, after all, at least as much a Selbstläufer as Arya’s.
So, biology hour. Elephants. In a room, you can’t avoid them, so you have to start talking about them. The elephant in question is Tysha. Why wasn’t she mentioned, and what does this do for Tyrion? I have a theory as to why she wasn’t in there: the last time we heard of her was in the first season, way back, and by now, no one who hasn’t read the books will remember. In the books, thanks to internal monologue, she’s always present, but in the show, not so much. So, that explains it. But what does it mean for Tyrion? He definitely loses an aspect that was important for his character in the books, true enough. But the show has always emphasized Shae’s role a lot more, and the scene provides the final nail in that coffin. It’s all about Shae now, for better or worse. And frankly, it won’t change that much. Tyrion needs another drunken line now that we don’t have to wonder where whores go, but they will come up with something. And his tearful admission to Tywin that he really loves her will suffice. I have really no fear on that count. So please, don’t get enraged. Tyrion’s not broken because Tysha was written out. He still remains the same character. I would have loves her in there as well, but I can understand the show creator’s decision. Really, I can.
And with that, we’re at the last point: Daenerys and her own “children”. After she is once more confronted with the ramifications of realpolitik by the educated slave who whishes to be enslaved once more, and reminded by Barristan that the Masters will abuse the rule she – as always – improvises on a whim, we as the audience are once more instilled with the theme that is clearly becoming central to Dany’s story arc: ruling is really, really hard, and good intentions buy you nothing. This theme, of course, is the same that runs through the whole of “A Dance with Dragons”, and I’m really interested and invested in Dany’s arc now for the first time since the series began. This is really promising, and I hope the writers won’t botch it.
Of course, fucking up the social order she only just created isn’t the hardest thing that Dany will have to face in this episode: the farmer with his dead daughter comes, telling the story of Drogon’s killing. You can see the shock on Dany’s face, and – as always – she makes a decision instantly: Rhaegal and Viserion are locked up in the giant catacombs of the pyramid. Dany betrays her “children”, and she knows it, walking out without looking back and sealing the tomb with a round stone. Will the dragons rise again after three days again, I wonder? The metaphoric is pretty stark, but it works. And with that, the episode’s story arcs are wrapped up, but not this review, because we have one elephant left to discuss.
Lady Stoneheart wasn’t in it. Now, this leaves two possible solutions. Either she will arrive later in a Brienne story arc, or she’s out for good. I don’t know which of the two solutions it is going to be, but I understand why they didn’t end the episode with her like “A Storm of Swords” ended back in the day. It would have neither fit the ambience of the episode (which, for all the sadness in it, ended hopeful) nor the storylines. It would have if they had ended with Stannis’s arrival on the Wall and Melisandre’s stare, but they didn’t, and so it doesn’t. And, even if they write her out completely, it won’t be that big a deal. So, let’s see what will come out of it. As to closing words for the season (although we will surely tackle that bit on its own), I really liked it. I think it was none that needs to hide behind the others, to say the least, and it might even be the strongest yet. Game of Thrones has come into its own, for good and ill alike. I can’t wait for season five, and I’m really enjoying this show and I’m glad that we have it. And with that, I’m leaving you to it. We’ll meet again at this place next April, when season five starts.