And so our watch on Season 4 has ended.
I’ll say it outright: this was a strange finale. In a sense, it was more of a traditional finale than those in the previous three seasons, which typically left all the big moments for the penultimate episodes (‘Baelor’, ‘Blackwater’, ‘The Rains of Castmere’), and so given the anticipatory nature of last week’s episode, I was fully expecting the finale to be the one full to the brim with climactic moments.
In a sense there were lots of those, though. Most of the static characters this season have been static for a reason: they’re building up to a defining moment. Bran, Tyrion, Arya and even Stannis have all been doing pretty much the same thing for all season, until they are finally able to enact some major change in this episode.
But by the same token, there was more I was expecting and so a large part of me is frustrated at still having to wait for those moments. Book readers certainly will have been expecting other events to occur, but I will save that for the spoilers below.
The episode picks up where it left off, with Jon Snow walking out from under the Wall, off to negotiate terms with Mance Rayder. This was actually a really excellent sequence, I can’t help but wish they had pushed it to conclude episode 9, so as to leave more time for other things in the finale.
Ciaran Hinds as Mance finally returns, with his Mt Rushmore face and uneasy banter with Jon. They drink and break bread, and toast those who have gone from both sides as a result of the fighting. And to remind us all about the point for all of this, Mance declares: ‘We’re here to hide behind your Wall.’
They’re both afraid of the white walkers, but I’m still unsure as to why these negotiations couldn’t have taken place before all the killing. Still, there’s a moment of distrust where Jon seemingly might murder Mance in his tent, but the challenge is there: does Jon forgo tradition and custom like the Lannisters before him, or is he one of the few characters left with an ounce of moral credibility?
Jon relents, but only long enough for Stannis and Davos to storm in with their army. It’s a decisive moment, bringing these isolated characters into the fold and solving Jon’s problems at the same time, but it’s punctuated by two key points. Mance refuses to kneel to Stannis, and Jon stakes a claim on his Stark lineage. Tormund reminds Jon later that he spent too long with the wildlings, and now he understands that kings cannot demand fealty and respect, it must be earned.
Tormund also entreats Jon to carry Ygritte north of the Wall. He takes her to the weirwood, where he swore his oath to the Night’s Watch. Stick in the mud he may be, but Jon is one of the few characters still upholding what is seen as an outdated moral code, even if it has brought him nothing but misery and death.
Elsewhere, further north, Bran and his gang of Hodor, Jojen and Meera finally reach the tree from Bran’s vision. It’s the first we’ve seen of them since Craster’s Keep, and they’re struggling to survive in the cold, Jojen especially.
It’s a weirwood, just to establish further their mystical presence in the world of Game of Thrones, but before the travellers can get any closer they’re set upon by skeletal wights that emerge out of the ice and snow. It’s a thrilling sequence, and a massive nod to Ray Harryhausen with some wonderful CGI work on the wights. But then a lot of strange things happen all at once.
Firstly, one of the titular Children arrives to save the day, shooting fireballs at the wights and saving Bran and Co. Simultaneously, the show leaps wholly into typical fantasy territory, as if it had been there all along. And then, out of nowhere, Jojen is stabbed repeatedly by a wight, and dies.
The shock of this is that it isn’t in the books. Game of Thrones is in bat country now. One can only assume the showrunners are acting upon their inside knowledge and saving themselves some logistical headaches with actor contracts by removing a still-living book character from the board.
The mysterious Children lead Bran, Hodor and bereft Meera under the weirwood into the root system, there to finally confront the three-eyed crow from Bran’s dreams. Only the crow isn’t a crow but a very old man encased in the roots. Again, book readers will know more about this character, but Bran is offered the tantalising insight that while he may not walk again, he will one day fly.
Look, you could think the old guy is talking about Bran warging into a bird, or you could think that there’ll be dragons in the North soon. I know which way I’m leaning.
In King’s Landing, where we’ve spent so much time this season, we get a scene that really isn’t about anything other than set up for later developments. Cersei, Pycelle and Qyburn are inspecting the dying Mountain, having been poisoned by Oberyn’s blade during their duel. Pycelle objects to Qyburn’s treatment, who is offering to keep the Mountain alive, but at a cost. Cersei cares not.
There’s a brief antagonistic scene between Cersei and Tywin, where it becomes apparent that Season 4 has really been about breaking apart House Lannister, and she declares openly the extent of her relationship with Jaime and the truth of her children. This then continues into a scene between Jaime and Cersei that confirms just how wrong Alex Graves handled the direction of episode 3 and Jaime’s rape of Cersei. Given that Graves also directed this episode, the logical and tonal inconsistency shows quite clearly that that whole section of the plot was handled poorly, if not reprehensibly.
Later, Tyrion is freed by Jaime from his cell, dissipating all the tension that has existed for Tyrion since he was arrested at the end of the second episode. Why has Jaime not done this sooner? Why is there still loyalty between Jaime and Cersei given how much she has driven Tyrion to near execution?
Tyrion doesn’t leave immediately, but instead detours to Tywin’s quarters, where he finds Shae in Tywin’s bed. For once there is restraint from the camera, and Shae’s murder is kept mostly out of frame, though the scene still underscores just how monstrous Tyrion has become, having been called such all his life.
Tyrion finds Tywin on the toilet, but no words will save him now. All his protestations about family and his paternal responsibility for Tyrion is entirely hollow, registering nothing with Tyrion nor us. In the end, he’s an old man on the toilet, and it’s his repeated use of the word ‘whore’ that brings Tyrion to fire a bolt through his father’s chest.
He escapes finally with Varys, bundled away in a box on a ship set for the east. But Varys halts, hearing the bells ringing from the castle, and knows Tywin’s death has been discovered. He chooses instead to stay on the ship, and travel with Tyrion. Again, this is very strange. This does not happen in the books. And not to be one to harp on about fidelity to source material, but the differences are stacking up, and demanding acknowledgement. Where is Varys going? Who will serve the realm now?
Daenerys is still being Daenerys in Meereen, and dealing with governance and all of that. Come on, why couldn’t they inject a bit of free-form adaptation to this part of the story? The impact of this scene comes when Daenerys must accept that her dragons are killing people. Freedom is easily fought for, and won, but difficult to maintain. She locks up two of her dragons, aware that the most dangerous one, Drogon, is yet to be found.
The challenge for Daenerys next season is twofold: how do you rule over freedom? And, when one is the Mother of Dragons, how do you control chaos?
Back to the Riverlands, and more departures occur when out of nowhere, Brienne and Podrick run into Arya and the Hound. In many respects, this works and works well, even if it does have the air of fanfic about it. There’s a really nice moment where Arya briefly spies in Brienne the model of who she might have once become, in better days. Additionally, they exchange notes over their named swords, and Arya is completely unaware that the sword Brienne carries was forged from the Stark greatsword. From Ned to Joffrey to Tywin to Jaime to Brienne – and yet the significance of this is missed.
Arya consciously decides on her future, and chooses not to go with Brienne and Podrick. The fight between Brienne and the Hound is well staged, and leaves us in much the same situation as the Hound was last seen in the books, though we just got there very differently. But there’s more impact in having his wounds inflicted by Brienne, and having Arya actively flee safety, even if there’s a bit of coincidence about the whole thing.
Arya’s refusal of mercy to the Hound is one of the lasting moments of the episode, perfectly matching the scene from episode 7, when the Hound helped ease a wounded man into death. She takes his money and runs, receiving passage on a ship sailed for Braavos, paid for by the coin given to her by Jaqen H’ghar so long ago.
And so it ends, for another year. And everyone seems even further apart than they were before. The Starks are effectively nonexistent, and none of them seem as concerned with returning to Winterfell as they once did. The Lannisters have spectacularly imploded, and a power vaccuum hovers over the Iron Throne once again. With Littelfinger, the Tyrells and now the Martells all gunning for revenge, succession and power, a vastly different Westeros is shaping up for Season 5.
Oh yeah, and winter is still coming, remember.
- Valar Morghulis: well, that was a bit unexpected. Jojen Reed died thrice over, having been stabbed by a wight, had his throat slit by his sister, and then vanquished in a ball of flame from one of the Children. A peasant girl is similarly destroyed by Drogon. Many wildlings are killed by Stannis’ men. Tywin shot twice by Tyrion, who also strangled Shae.
- Brienne and Pod must be the worst searchers in the Wall if they can’t see Arya hanging around the Hound’s falling place. I mean, come on.
- Credits have been updated to include Braavos, in a nod to next season.
- Mance and Jon’s toast to both the giant and Grenn is great.
Okay, now, SPOILERS BELOW FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT READ THE BOOKS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Where the hell was Lady Stoneheart? Why was this not included in the finale? Even the actors seemed to acknowledge this was going to occur in the pre-episode buzz, and yet it wasn’t there.
Very strange, given how much of a shockingly natural conclusion it would be for the season, and the effect it would have on the audience in the months off before Season 5. This, coupled with Jojen’s death, Varys’ sudden departure, and Brienne and the Hound’s fight made the whole episode be exceptionally surprising and somewhat maddening for a book reader.
UPDATE: Alex Graves has commented on this, casting doubt on whether Lady Stoneheart will ever appear at all.