Welcome, lords and ladies (and smallfolk) to the final edition of this year’s Game of Thrones TV Book Club, a discussion space for Thrones viewers who have also read the five books (so far) of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. This week, Darren Franich and Hillary Busis dive into season 4’s supersized ending, a feast of brawls and murders and missing minor characters. Check out James Hibberd’s full recap of the episode, then join us as we venture into the narrative borderlands of A Storm of Swords (and beyond) below. (You know there’ll be spoilers for both the books and the show, right?)
HILLARY: First and foremost: James knew all along that Lady Stoneheart wasn’t going to show up last night… and he didn’t tell us?! Hibberd, you are no son of mine.
Second and secondmost: Our resident Thrones-master has gone on the record explaining why he thinks Zombie Catelyn’s absence from the finale (and, possibly, all of Thrones the TV Show) is a good thing. This is so ludicrous that I hardly know where to begin, so I’ll just start with the obvious: Lady Stoneheart is awesome. At least, provided you’re into ASOIAF’s more fantastical elements, which I obviously am. Her presence is one of the first real indications in the books that magic isn’t just a force found on the fringes of Essos, or in the wild world above the wall, or in the tiny brains of the Stark children — it’s coming to Westeros, damnit, and it. Is. Pissed. (All that business with the Children of the Forest and the time-traveling three-eyed crow and the Dem Bones warriors, who are supposed to be wights rather than animatronic skeletons, hasn’t happened yet at this point in the books, which makes Catelyn’s resurrection even more shocking and exhilarating.)
On a deeper level, Lady Stoneheart plays right into some of ASOIAF’s richest motifs — vengeance, consequences, the utter hopelessness of being a Stark. You could even turn her into some sort of feminist role model if you really tried — she’s like Jennifer Lopez in Enough, except her skin’s gone gray and she’s missing half her hair and she speaks by closing the gaping wound in her neck and garbling incoherently, and aaahhh, she is so awesome. The main point: Stoneheart is a rich story reserve that deserves to be tapped, and I’m going to be majorly bummed if she’s excised from the show entirely.
Thoughts, Darren? Please try to keep your response to 200000 words or fewer.
DARREN: HIBBS YOU’RE A MADMAN LADY STONEHEART 4 LIFE AARRGHHHH.
Sorry, let me start over.
A Storm of Swords is my favorite book in “A Song of Ice and Fire” so far: This is hardly controversial. But when most people talk about how much they dig Swords, they gravitate to the list of Greatest Hits moments: Red Wedding, Purple Wedding, the battle at the wall, Tyrion’s speech, Tyrion’s murder spiral, the Oberyn/Mountain fight. But what I always remember is the Epilogue. It takes up the perspective of a ridiculously minor character: Merrett Frey. By this point, you’re primed to basically despise everyone surnamed Frey, but in a few pages, GRRM sketches Merrett into a weirdly sympathetic, utterly inessential person.
Merrett gets sent on an inconsequential mission, ransoming a relative who got kidnapped by the Brotherhood Without Banners. And by this point, you’re primed to treat the Brotherhood as a charming, albeit mildly annoying, group of merry men. So it’s a shock when Merrett finds out that they’ve already hung his relative; and it’s an even bigger shock when the Brotherhood reveals that their new leader is Catelyn, who gets reintroduced thus:
Beneath her ravaged scalp, her face was shredded skin and black blood where she had raked herself with her nails. But her eyes were the most terrible thing. Her eyes saw him, and they hated.
In the span of a few pages, you go from mourning Catelyn to being ridiculously freaked out by Catelyn. It’s a classic GRRM twist. (Remember: This was the same book that taught us all to kinda love Jaime.) Storm of Swords is a book filled with horrors, but what I liked about Lady Stoneheart was how she promised that the worst horrors were yet to come. Like, if Ned Stark represented the old rules of honor, and Tywin Lannister represented the new rules of cruel logic, then after both of them were dead, we’d basically be entering a world without even the bare outline of rules: Ice zombies in the north, vengeance-zombies in the south, dragons in the east, freaking Greyjoys doing their Greyjoy thing. That was the first time I really found myself thinking that nobody would wind up on the Iron Throne: That the endgame for “Ice and Fire” would be complete disaster for everyone (besides maybe the people in Tall Tree Towns. The Summer Islands seem nice!)
So I definitely miss Lady Stoneheart, and I find myself wondering what her disappearance means for the show’s next season.
HILLARY: Oh, this is reminding me — should we talk about Coldhands?
Instead, let’s talk about the other big change in the finale. Brienne. The Hound. FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT. How did you feel about that particular showdown?
HILLARY: Brienne v. Hound seems like something built to drive purists bonkers—but I found myself surprisingly on board with this whole sequence, particularly since it gave two of my favorite characters a chance to meet. (In fact, the only thing that’s stopping me from searching for fanfiction about Arya and Brienne is the fear of stumbling upon something gross.)
Brienne is sort of like Arya’s alternate universe Ghost of Christmas Future: If the Stark hadn’t lost her noble father so early in life, there’s a good chance she’d have grown up to be just like the relentlessly honorable and loyal Maid of Tarth. But Ned did get beheaded, sending Arya down a darker, murkier path — and her invented meeting with Brienne serves as a sort of last chance for Show Arya to get back on the straight and narrow. By having Arya not just not take that chance but utterly reject it—she’s so cynical now that she hardly entertains Brienne’s professions of oathkeeping, which might have been enough to sway Season 1 Arya to Brienne’s side—the show actually sets up her eventual transformation into a badass ninja murderer even more powerfully than the books.
Then, of course, there’s the fight itself, a heart-stopping affair fought (for once) by two characters in which we’ve become equally invested. (Assuming you ascribe to the “Hound isn’t such a bad guy!” school of thought, which is understandable judging by the show but pretty indefensible based solely on the books.) Because of Rory McCann’s pathos and the relatively large amount of screen time Arya and the Hound have shared, I thought the girl’s decision not to grant her kidnapper the mercy of death resonated more on the screen than it did on the page. Agreed? And how do you think this revamped scene compares to the finale’s other other major adaptive change: The Great Tysha Extraction?
DARREN: I’m with you entirely, Hillary. I think we’ve spent about half this season singing the praises of Rory McCann and Maisie Williams, so let’s do it one more time. I never entirely got the obsession with the Hound and Arya on the page. But in the show, their story arc kind of became the main showcase for all the stuff I love about the books that has occasionally gotten lost from page to screen. The careful attention to the little people whose lives are up-ended by the Throne Gamesmasters. The interplay between Arya’s passionate sense of justice and the Hound’s all-encompassing sense that nothing really matters. That last shot of Arya walking away from the Hound is my personal pick for Best Moment of the Season.
I’m sad to lose the Hound/Arya dynamic, although I’m excited that the final shot of the season seems to promise big things in store for Arya. And I hope that those big things involve more than just a season of ninja-monk “Karate Kid” training. And this might be a good moment to ask whether we really have seen the last of the Hound—see also, the Gravedigger Theory. Although I’d kind of love it if he becomes for this show what The Russian was for The Sopranos. #ReallyOldHBOReferences
But Tysha! On the page, Tyrion’s first wife was introduced mainly in the context of providing everyone’s favorite Lannister with an origin story. Swords ended with the revelation that everything he knew about her was a lie. I always liked that revelation—again, it goes back to the feeling of all-encompassing bleakness at the end of Storm of Swords, a bleakness that faded a bit in the bureaucratically-minded, road-tripping books 4 and 5. I can totally understand why they deleted it from the show. Tyrion’s already got a lot on his mind; I’m not sure he needed any more motivation to kill his father.
But then there’s Shae. Shae has been a particular bugbear for this Book Club, and I don’t want to spend too much time on her…BUT I MUST! TV Shae didn’t get to explain herself, like Book Shae did. TV Shae also went for a knife, which felt a bit like an attempt to “justify” Tyrion killing her. It all felt a bit off to me, even if it was gorgeously shot, and it leaves me a bit unclear on what Tyrion’s character arc will be going forward. (It reminds me a bit of the furor over Jamie’s rape of Cersei back in episode 3: You get the sense that the creators maybe don’t realize just how awful one of their lead characters has become.) What did you think of Shae’s exit, Hillary? Also, are you intrigued by the implication that Varys might be traveling with Tyrion? Are they season 5’s Arya/Hound?
HILLARY: I, too, am fine with Thrones forgetting about Tysha; the primary relationship in TV Tyrion’s life is and will always be the one he shared with Shae, and bringing his first wife up at this late juncture (when she only merited, oh, one mention in previous episodes) would dull the shocking nature of Shae’s murder. I’d also like to take this opportunity to formally declare that Tyrion’s tiresome post-murder refrain (“Where do whores go?”) is, by far, the most maddening thing about A Dance With Dragons. Tyrion: Your father didn’t mean that phrase literally. There is not a physical WhoreLand where Tysha is waiting for you. Now GET TO MEEREEN ALREADY, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
Ahem. What were we talking about? Oh, yes: Shae, Shae, Shae. Well, more precisely: Tyrion, Tyrion, Tyrion. It’s safe to say that TV Tyrion is softer, kindler, and gentler than his book counterpart; we never really saw Peter Dinklage’s character trying to bed Sansa, and his King’s Landing scheming always read more shrewd than devious. Even the TV character’s appearance is easier to palate, though that’s at least partially because the showrunners didn’t want to hide Dinklage behind costly prosthetics or CGI. Hence Shae shooting first, as it were—I agree that this move seems like the show’s way of preventing Tyrion, who for all intents and purposes remains Thrones‘s central character, from becoming too unsavory. Given the increased attention put on Tyrion and Shae as a couple, though, I was a little disappointed that TV Shae didn’t get a chance to explain herself or sputter out so much as a word after she realized that Tyrion was standing before her. The Jaime/Cersai comparison, though, is an apt one; the rape read as a misguided way to make Cersei more sympathetic. The murder, revamped to become less cold-blooded, is an attempt to do the same for Tyrion.
Speaking of: This episode’s so overstuffed that I almost forgot it also includes TV Cersei diverging from Book Cersei in a pretty major way, confessing her incest to Tywin right before falling again into Jaime’s arms. Does this indicate a completely different path for the show’s version of the queen? Her book self’s downward spiral comes largely because she no longer has Jaime to lean on; it’s difficult to imagine how Thrones‘ Cersai could end up in a similar position if she’s still got her twin by her side.
DARREN: TV Cersei’s character arc is a bit more zig-zaggy than her book counterpart, but the two iterations have one thing in common. In season 1 and book 1, Cersei is the most obviously villainous character: Even when Joffrey kills Ned Stark, there’s a clear sense that Cersei is at least indirectly responsible. In the ensuing chapters/episodes, the playing field becomes more complicated, and Cersei beings to take a back seat: The only real action she takes in books 2 and 3 is various failed attempts to kill Tyrion. This regression became much more pronounced in the TV show, because Cersei was always a central character: So it was even more obvious when she had became a pawn for greater forces. (The show even literalized this, with Tywin promising to marry her off to Loras.)
So I kind of read TV Cersei’s acts Sunday as an explicit attempt by the show to re-establish Cersei as a power in her own right. It’s not so much that she loves Jamie (although she does) — it’s more that she’s done being someone else’s pawn, and done hiding what she wants from the world. This sets Cersei up nicely for her Feast for Crows arc, when she finally gets everything she ever wanted (complete dominion) and quickly turns King’s Landing into the fantasy version of Rome right before the barbarians came. I’m hoping that next season turns into a Lena Headey showcase, with Cersei attempting to cement her rule and launching an all-out court war against Margaery.
Certainly, I’m more excited for a Cersei vs. Margaery Queen-Off than I am for the slow boat to Meereen. Which brings us around to the big question hovering over this finale: When Game of Thrones comes back, how much will it still resemble A Song of Ice and Fire? It appears that they punted Jon’s ascension to Lord Commander into season 4, along with Lady Stoneheart (maybe), but other than that, we’re firmly into the Book 4 and Book 5 narrative space. Easy money says that next year will feature a lot more Martells. I love the Sand Snakes…but what exactly do they do in Feast for Crows? And how does that fit into a season that also needs to account for Stannis in the North, Bolton just south of him, the intriguingly weird Littlefinger-Sansa coalition at the Eyrie, the Cersei-Tyrell duel in King’s Landing, and whatever’s up in Meereen?
HILLARY: And don’t forget Bran’s Pure Moods journey to the center of the heart-tree, which must be particularly frustrating for all the Unsullied viewers tuning in primarily to see swordfighting and full-frontal nudity.
DARREN: I’m going to throw this out there, Hillary. Storm of Swords managed to take up almost two seasons of TV time. I’m betting that season 5 races through both Feast and Dance (farewell, Victarion!), and I’m betting that the last shot of the season is of snow beginning to fall in Westeros. Am I overestimating Benioff & Weiss’s instinct for acceleration? Will next season’s “Blackwater” be a whole episode about Quentyn Martell?
HILLARY: I have every intention of answering your insightful question, but first I’d like to pose this insightful question: F/M/K, Tyrells, Martells, Greyjoy-ells?
DARREN: Ohhhh, this is an insightful question! I’m tempted to say that F the Martells, on account of them being all gods and goddesses of premium-cable sexuality, and M the Tyrells, on account of the Tyrells being a good family with lots of prospects who manage to remain tight-knit and not kill each other as frequently as the other families in Westeros do. But that means I’d have to K the Greyjoys, and realistically—and this is me being painfully honest—I’d probably get along with the Greyjoys better than anyone else. Like, IMHO, the Starks are basically Catholics, and the Greyjoys are basically lapsed Catholics. Also, the Greyjoys have boats! So maybe I’d M the Greyjoys, F the Martells, and K the Tyrells. (Grandma Tyrell is dangerous! I gotta watch out for myself!)
HILLARY: Trick question! The correct answer is this: “Kill them all, the proud men and the terrified women and the mewling little ones. Burn their strongholds to the ground and sew their fields with naught but ashes. Laugh as they cry out to their Seven and their Drowned God; there are no gods here, only men, stinking and sh–ing and begging for death. Also, boobs.”
But better luck next season.