It takes guts to end a television season with patricide on Father's Day. But that's what Game Of Thrones has displayed from the very outset. This is a show that makes bold, bleak moves with increasing regularity, where even the "happy" endings (for now) offer only tidbits of satisfaction. Scores of people die, some we care about, some we don't know enough to care, and we're caught between thirsting for revenge and questioning just how easy it was for a television show to instill such base, animalistic responses. It's still amazing that a world with such a negative worldview, one that provides fanciful escapism while emphasizing the triviality of life and seems gleeful at the prospect of pulling another rug out from under the audience, has grown so insanely popular.
"The Children" isn't a perfect capper, nor has the fourth season been without glaring flaws. Finale director Alex Graves presided over the tone-deaf responses from creative personnel over the Jaime/Cersei scene in the third episode. In this final hour, Graves doesn't make up for that controversy, instead plastering over those comments with compelling direction of an extra-long episode that checks in on almost everyone except the Boltons and those within the Eyrie.
Starting up in the north beyond the Wall, Jon Snow continues to walk the slow path to becoming a leader in the mold of his father—or rather, the man who raised him as his illegitimate son before sending him off to the Night's Watch. (That whole Jon Snow lineage subplot is still confusing; I understand it's been severely cut down on the show.) Snow managed to gain access to Mance Rayder's camp, but his thoughts of assassination prove useless thanks to the surprise arrival of Stannis Baratheon with Davos and a grand army that makes quick work of the Wildlings. After an episode entirely devoted to the struggle between these two sides at the edge of the freezing world, an unexpected third party enters the fray and renders the conflict moot; typical George R.R. Martin chaos.
This is the first instance of the episode putting forth plot complications in the form of an ellipsis instead of proper punctuation on the season. Sure, this seems to put to rest the whole Night's Watch against Wildling conflict for now in a way that clears the way for a northern human/whatever supernatural forces lurk beyond the wall. But the focus shifts to something bigger. Mance just wants his people south of the wall because "winter is coming" and to put a big barrier between them and the scary as hell White Walkers. A religious man like Stannis with his fellow Lord Of Light worshippers showing up at the Wall out of nowhere with a massive hired force hints at some larger design.
Game Of Thrones once had a tendency of wiping the slate clean in the penultimate episode and then using a season finale to set up the board again for the next season. "The Children doesn't suggest that kind of narrative architecture. It's a bit weaker because surprising events happen, but the focus shifts to a new location before any explanation can be given. Stannis still has intentions on taking the Iron Throne, so that he would forgo that conflict to take his newly granted Braavosi fortune and bring soldiers to the wall is a path that will require some explanation. From the significant look Melisandre gives Jon Snow across the giant funeral pyre, there's much more to this development.
So the plot at the Wall ends with Jon Snow unofficially taking a leadership position (the interim Lord Commander's fate still hasn't been revealed), which is in essence following in the footsteps of his family at Winterfell. On Game Of Thrones, families die, or are crushed, or are never seen again, but they have a lasting effect on people. Jon Snow is still Ned Stark's son, and that means enough to Stannis that he takes Snow's advice on what to do with Mance as a prisoner. Arya has no connection to her remaining family—Jon, Sansa, Bran, Rickon—and thus seeks out a way to be entirely free from connection, a solitary traveler.
The fight between Brienne and the Hound might have actually been more satisfying than the Mountain and the Viper. In that pivotal battle, there was Tyrion's life hanging in the balance. Though Oberyn had been the most promising new character this season, and the Mountain held plot significance despite multiple actor re-castings, it's not the same as watching Brienne and Clegane fight it out after trading verbal barbs. These are two characters who have been a part of the show for multiple seasons and endeared themselves to fans (despite the Hound's callous brutality) fighting to the death over a girl who only wants to be alone to plot her vengeance. The fight itself is gritty, dirty, and the epitome of the Hound and Brienne's dual recognition that they are not recognized knights.
Arya has grown a lot from when she was a naïve but headstrong little girl accompanying her father to King's Landing. She can take care of herself, smite enemies with outrageous cruelty (her final act to the Hound is coolly punishing) and finally cashes in her Braavosi coin for passage away from Westeros. Though she isn't the last remaining Stark, she feels adrift, without anyone close to her, newly baptized in the uncertain violence and harsh reality of the world around her. In that desperation to survive, she flees the continent for the great unknown. It's not a retreat, nor is it a triumph. It's a new challenge on a clean slate.
Bran's journey north with Jojen, Meera, and Hodor ends at the tree in Jojen's visions—just before things go all supernatural and an undead skeleton army rises from the permafrost to attack them. The ensuing struggle claims Jojen's life, but Meera, Hodor, and Bran escape into the cave below the tree and arrive at their destination, the Three-Eyed Raven, a mysterious oracle figure. The North has always held some of the more magical and mysterious elements of the show, and the skeleton army is no different. Game Of Thrones explains nothing about what's going on here—it's all a big tease for next season, which is kind of a bummer considering all Bran and his group got to do this year was see Jon Snow, walk to this tree, watch a beloved companion die, and then hear more prophetic words from the withered man who apparently represents the three-eyed raven. This plot in particular always feels like a rock the writers (and George R.R. Martin by extension) are kicking down the road just a bit further, but never giving up on it.
Justifiably, the season ends back with the Lannister conflict in King's Landing. Despite all the myriad plot threads intersecting across this world, for me the fourth season of Game Of Thrones has been about the Lannisters, and chiefly about Tywin Lannister and his obsession with family legacy. "The Children" refers to whatever magical people reside within that tree up in the north, but symbolically it signifies Tywin's three children. After years of emotional abuse, denying any meaningful display that he cared about them as anything more than a bargaining chip for reputational value, each of Tywin's offspring defy him.
Stannis' claim to the throne has more legitimacy than ever, at least in the eyes of viewers, thanks to Cersei's most rationally powerful moment all season when standing up to her father. Whenever the show grounds her motivation in maternal protective instincts, it has proven most effective. So Cersei once again defies her father's wish to marry her off to Loras Tyrell, but not out of some selfish desire not to be treated like a pawn. She wants to be close to Tommen, so that Tywin and Margaery can't get hooks in him and fight over the young king for control of the realm while Cersei sits idly at Highgarden unable to protect an innocent boy from the machinations of others. But what makes it Cersei's finest moment is how she then goes after her father's pride, spitting the truth about her and Jaime's incestuous offspring in Tywin's face, sullying his legacy forever.
Because Graves directed this episode, the scene directly following that one, where Cersei reunited with Jaime and gets on her knees in front of him, will certainly draw some more suspicious glances. But it plays like Cersei knowingly manipulating her brother's feelings for her as well as reveling in taking a stand against Twyin. Though that seems to ignite Jaime's passion again—though he hates his sister kissing his false hand—it doesn't stop him from going against Cersei's wishes, but more importantly, defying Tywin's will that Tyrion be sentenced to death. When Jaime springs Tyrion from his cell, they share one final, meaningful hug—a great capstone to what has been one of the most emotionally rewarding sibling relationships on this show. The whole point of this show is to depict characters who don't completely occupy one extreme or another on a good/evil spectrum. Jaime is horrible toward his sister, but he is the only Lannister to stand up for Tyrion, and finally in a way that will save his life. Cersei is a cruel, vengeful woman, but she staunchly defends her children and eventually can't take any more from Tywin and does something about it.
Tyrion and Tywin's confrontation in the Tower of the Hand is a showdown four years in the making, ever since the Lannister patriarch was introduced while skinning and butchering a deer mid-monologue, and then looked down his nose at Tyrion's ability to stay alive despite Catelyn Stark's pursuit of hasty justice at the Eyrie. After everything that has happened, from Joffrey's constant torment—including the recreation of the Five Kings at the wedding and forcing Tyrion to be cupbearer—to the young king's death, a sham trial, and a near-escape through a trial-by-combat, Tyrion is the Lannister pushed furthest to the breaking point. But sitting on a chamberpot in the privy, staring at his supposedly imprisoned son holding a crossbow, Tywin still believes so ardently in the idea of Lannister superiority that he thinks he can talk his way out of danger.
And that's just it. Tywin has been consumed by the idea of family, a sustaining dynasty with a powerful grip on the Iron Throne, and by devoting his life to that idea, has neglected his actual family. In Tywin's eyes, he was robbed of a long, happy life with the noblewoman he loved, and it has caused him to force upon his children the belief that all decisions must be made to benefit his desire for lasting Lannister significance. And the only arbiter for what constitutes the best decision going forward is Tywin, so he can do whatever he wants so long as he believes it to be for the good of the family. Tywin's hateful parenting wound his children so tight that they all snapped at the same time. So when Tyrion emerges in the tower, not knocking for Varys to whisk him off to a waiting galley like Jaime planned, it only takes seeing Shae, his former love, to send him over the edge into becoming the monster he denied being at his mockery of a trial.
It's not entirely surprising that he should find Shae there. Though Tywin projects an image that he's so distraught over his wife's early death, it's not like he's the celibate type. But what Tyrion sees is complete and utter betrayal. He tried to protect Shae from forces that would kill her in order to hurt him, and instead she's calling his father the same pet name she used for him. Tyrion met her back when he was in his father's war camp when fighting Robb Stark's forces, so the beginning of this deception has questionable roots dating all the way back to the first season. The struggle between Tyrion and Shae is fraught with emotional turmoil, and the most memorable camera move in the episode is the pan just after Tyrion chokes her, from his distraught face to her lifeless one, a symbolic point of no return.
George R.R. Martin deserves ample credit for coming up with how Tywin Lannister meets his ends. For all his machinations, exploitation, bullying, and arrogant preening Tywin dies in a fitting circumstance: swimming in his own shit. That's Joffrey and Tywin gone—two infuriatingly key characters on the show who previously held the balance of power in King's Landing in place. Now it's open season once again, yet another way this finale achieves punctuation while suggesting future complication. And thus do these generations of House Lannister come crumbling down. Tywin impaled; Cersei and Jaime seemingly reunited but embroiled in more political conflict ahead; Tyrion bound for some destination across the Narrow Sea.
Varys smuggles Tyrion onto a ship leaving King's Landing, and upon hearing the bells in the Red Keep, realizes his absence may be too suspicious, and decides to stay. It's a wonderful sequence conveyed without any words, and one that links with the beginning of Arya's solo journey directly after. The fourth season of Game Of Thrones ends with a young girl, having gone through a crucible that opened her eyes to the cruelty of the world, emerging to look at the bright horizon at the edge of the sea. What's waiting on the other side will no doubt still be dark and full of terrors, but with such a hardened commitment to vengeance, this show will keep providing spellbinding events as winter approaches.
• It appears the Mountain may get a rejuvenation to make him the Westerosi Six-Million Dollar Man. We can rebuild him…but only with an experimental healer expelled from the Citadel.
• The only plotline I didn't get to in detail was Daenerys over in Meereen. It's a fitting end to a season where she's challenged with making the tough decisions. Not only does she have to face down the idea that, in some isolated circumstances, slavery may be a better alternative to freedom (and requires even more complicated enforcement to prevent mistreatment), but she has to put the literal uncontrollable beasts, two of three dragons, into chains in a dark catacomb simply to protect the people she has freed. It's powerful symbol of how one idealist cannot hope to singlehandedly enact sweeping social change as a white knight.
• That's it for Game Of Thrones this year! I hope you've had a good time following along, and I hope to be back next year to see where everyone ends up, especially Arya, because damn she's going to have a crazy time in Braavos. How could she not?