In the latter stages of its now-concluded fourth season, any number of fans and critics and critic/fans have been advancing the opinion that this has been the best season of "Game of Thrones." Meanwhile, a smaller, more pessimistic contingent of book readers are worrying that the next couple of seasons are doomed, due to both the source material and the fact that Season 4 will, by default, come to be seen as something of a high point.
Not having read the books — nor, for that matter, having seen the future — I can’t confirm the latter. As for the former, I would say instead that Season 4, rather than being the best season (I would say Season 3 holds that honor for now), is the season that is the most "Game of Thrones" season of the show, as a show. This cuts both ways: At its best, it was a beautifully shot and ferociously acted bit of epic drama, and at its worst it was extremely careless with the implications of its much-discussed sexual and violent (and especially sexually violent) content. Its finale, "The Children," is fortunately far more of the better parts of "Game of Thrones" as a show than the worst, with its greatest failings being a bit of ultimately forgivable cinematic sloppiness.
The opening, though, slightly exacerbated the frustration elicited by last week’s episode-long battle scene, as the first few minutes of "The Children" consist of the dramatic conclusion that the "Watchers on the Wall" battle lacked. Jon Snow’s long walk toward Mance Rayder’s camp leads to some ace acting by Ciaran Hinds, and marks a decided shift in the show’s perspective: Who were once the Wildlings are now, even in Jon Snow’s words, Free Folk. It transpires that despite their vastly superior numbers, they’re every bit as ready as Jon Snow for there to be less bloodshed (this almost certainly being the reason for this business to be in this episode rather than an anticlimactic "sorry guys, we’re really pacifists in spite of the giants and mammoths and stuff" ending to the battle). But the ultimately civil parley is interrupted by the arrival of Stannis Baratheon’s ruthless retinue of mercenaries, who show up ready to kick ass and take names in a very "late-period Ridley Scott without Ridley Scott’s camera eye" kind of action scene, before Jon Snow convinces "the true king" to calm down and treat Mance with honor.
Jumping down south, we find that the Mountain is in very bad shape following his rather Pyrrhic trial by combat victory over the Viper. Grand Maester Pycelle advises loading the Mountain up on "milk of the poppy" in the absence of any actual medical treatment, but Cersei turns instead to former Maester (and rumored necromancer) Qyburn, who has a more, shall we say, experimental treatment in mind. "Will it weaken him?" Cersei asks. "Oh no," says Qyburn. Oh, boy.
With her worries about the fate of her favorite skull-crusher abated, Cersei proceeds to flatly refuse Tywin’s order that she marry Loras Tyrell, and, clearly feeling her oats, further accuses Tywin of adhering to an idea of family that is more theoretical than practical.
It’s these scenes of Lannister family intrigue that, even more than the literal and figurative swordplay, are the episode’s most robust source of entertainment value. Assembling wildly talented actors to play rich people who a) hate each other and b) are family is a recipe for good times dating back to at least Shakespeare. And Lena Headey is in particularly inspired form opposite the wondrous Charles Dance and, for once, emerges from the pas de deux victorious with her revelation to the patriarch that all the rumors about she and Jaime are true. For once, Tywin Lannister is wrong-footed.
Riding high from this triumph, Cersei heads over to Jaime’s and tells him that she fully intends to stay in King’s Landing with him forever, which leads to a bit of rough, spontaneous forbidden sex that can’t help but feel like a response to the now-notorious rape scene earlier this season (also the work of the same director). It doesn’t justify that ghastly mistake, but at least aids in understanding how it came to be.
A similar sort of understanding and futility can be found in Meereen, where Danaerys’ failure to plan beyond the moment of liberation leads to another tough administrative choice, wherein she is forced, out of kindness, to allow a former slave to re-enter service to his previous master. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with in one day, her dragons have killed a man’s child, forcing Danaerys to chain up the two dragons she can currently find. Whatever happens in Essos going forward, it’s almost certainly not going to be the sweeping triumph it initially looked like was in the cards when Danaerys liberated the slave cities.
Returning North, we check in with the mass funeral pyre at Castle Black, presided over by a very awkward-looking Baratheon family, and then Jon Snow’s private ceremony for Ygritte. Then we’re off, for the first time in what feels like forever, to catch up with Bran Stark and his faithful companions.
In sharp contrast to the previous several millennia of Bran episodes, about several seasons worth of stuff happens in about five minutes: First, they find the home of the three-eyed crow, which looks just as Bran envisioned all those decades ago. Then a bunch of ice zombies attack, in an action sequence that feels like Ray Harryhausen screwing around with a computer he sort of knows how to use in an "Evil Dead 4" directed by a slightly distracted Sam Raimi. Then, a little elven child shows up and starts blowing things up with magic laser fireballs and urges everyone to take shelter in a cave, which they do after Jojen Reed non-canonically dies the proverbial (and never actually logistically necessary) "for the good of the team" action movie death.
Once they’re all safely ensconced in the magic cave, their savior explains "The First Men called us ‘the children,’ but we were born long before them," and introduces Bran to the three-eyed crow, who is in fact an old man (who may or may not be who he is in the books, so I’ll not name him just yet). He lays a bunch of beguiling but opaque old wise magician talk on Bran and assures him "You’ll never walk again, but you will fly."
Okay. That was an awful lot of magic all at once. For non-book-readers (especially Tolkien-hating ones like me, who initially had to be convinced to watch an epic fantasy series at gunpoint), it’s probably for the best that the show waited four entire seasons before letting it fly this flamboyantly, as within the context of something we’re already enjoying, it’s more likely that we’ll be like, "Cool!" than turn off entirely.
In any case, this sequence definitely feels like a Rubicon of sorts for "Game of Thrones," as scenes like this are what non-hardcore fantasy fans think all "fantasy" is. (Those non-hardcore fantasy fans, judging from the show’s massive ratings, include a considerable number of viewers.) Thus, "Game of Thrones" can no longer, as it sort of could until now, pretend to not be "what you think" the fantasy genre is. It’s a calculated risk, but one the show can doubtlessly take with its robust popularity.
As if to reassure casual fans that the "Game of Thrones" they know still lives, we cut to a meeting of everyone’s two favorite road buddy comedies, with Brienne and Podrick randomly stumbling across Arya and the Hound. Which, as you might expect, leads to Brienne and the Hound settling an argument over who has Arya’s best interests closer to heart with a sword fight, which quickly degenerates into two large, angry people savagely beating the crap out of each other.
Surprisingly, to this non-book reader, it ends with Brienne victorious, tipping the Hound over a low cliff to slowly die. Brienne loses sight of Arya, and sets off blindly into the ether with the hapless Podrick, before Arya emerges from hiding to watch the Hound die. He tries to goad her into angrily finishing him off, but she won’t bite, instead coldly watching him, expressionless, for as long as it interests her, before she robs him of his silver and walks off, tiny and alone. It’s an extraordinary sequence, brilliantly played by all.
But tiny and alone, not to be too insensitive, brings us to Tyrion Lannister, languishing in a dungeon awaiting execution… Until Jaime springs him, hurriedly apprising him of the makeshift escape plan that will work if he sets out at that very instant. Tyrion, though, cannot leave before settling a debt of sorts to his father, and heads first for Tywin’s bedchamber. Where he finds Shae; the scorn she heaped upon him at his trial apparently insufficient, she had to compound it by sleeping with Tyrion’s father. They struggle, ending in Tyrion strangling her. In a cold rage, Tyrion corners his father on the toilet — the Lannisters being so fabulously wealthy they can afford indoor plumbing even in this world — and after choking out some words of rage, shoots Tywin to death with a crossbow. Happy Father’s Day!
Smartly, showrunners Benioff and Weiss do not leave off their season finale there, instead picking up with Arya attempting to buy passage on a departing ship. She first attempts to head North, but upon hearing that the ship is headed for Braavos, she remembers her long-ago encounter with Jaqen H’ghar. Handing the ship’s captain the coin the Faceless Man gave her, she says "Valar morghulis," as instructed. The captain immediately replies "Valar dohaeris" and offers her a cabin for the journey. As the ship sails off into the unknown, and as we descend into the darkness between seasons, Arya looks calmly ahead, unafraid.
It ends the season on just the right note for the kind of popular entertainment "Game of Thrones" is: A familiar, unsubtle image with positive pre-existing associations, a major key emotionally speaking. Is it a little corny? Sure, but twenty minutes ago undead skeletons were disintegrating the moment they set foot in enchanted caves. Throw the civilians a bone now and then. It’s only polite.
And now begins the long dark winter that is summer and fall without "Game of Thrones." Valar morghulis.