'Game of Thrones' closes its fourth season with a finale packed with fatal twists and turns

By James Hibberd
June 16, 2014 at 12:19 AM EDT
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This is it. The Game of Thrones showrunners say “The Children” is the show’s best finale ever — if not the best episode ever — and it’s capping what many (including myself) believe is the show’s best season ever. We know it’s a super-sized 66 minutes, and we know several big plot threads are dangling precariously — Tyrion’s pending execution, Jon Snow’s suicide assassination mission, Dany’s latest judicial rulings for goat-herders. It’s all very tense. Book-readers keep leaving comments on posts saying they know exactly what’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t be so sure about that…

So c’mon, let’s go. There’s one more episode this year. Let us conquer this hour-plus of TV awesomeness. Tonight we recap! And in the morning, this recap will stand! So in the battle-cry words of the awesome-as-of-last-week Ser Alliser Thorne: With me now! Now! With me!

North of the Wall: Jon’s weary goodbye to Sam last week  — “You’re right, it’s a bad plan. What’s your plan?” — was one of Kit Harington’s best moments on this show. This week we open as Jon treks North to meet an army of brutal killers who all know he’s a traitor. He’s going to Mance Rayder. We haven’t seen the King Beyond The Wall since near the start of season 3, and doubtless many viewers are wondering, “Who is this guy again?” Mance knows the Night’s Watch are screwed, and articulates the Wildling’s motivation for their invasion: With winter coming, they need to get south to escape the White Walker threat or they’re all going to die. I thought last week’s battle episode was stunning, but I heard from many who felt underwhelmed (it’s best that Thrones producers stay off the Internet, I couldn’t imagine pulling off that hour on a TV budget and then reading “meh” comments. I would have lost it on Twitter: “Your standards for entertainment are entirely unreasonable!” … or maybe even something less dorky-sounding than that).

Yet I also can’t help but think that if The Wildlings’ perfectly sensible motives, here reiterated by Mance, were more clearly articulated throughout the last couple seasons — rather than just the Wildlings seeming like an evil gang of killers — perhaps last week might have played stronger for casual viewers. My prediction is that the Battle of Castle Black will be an episode that viewers appreciate more when re-watching this season in years to come because they won’t be nagged by thoughts of “Aren’t we going to find out anything about Tyrion this week?” and they can just sit back and enjoy the action.

Mance offers Jon terms for the Night’s Watch to surrender: Open the gate, the Night’s Watch will be spared. Refuse and they will kill everybody. Not a bad deal, but his Night’s Watch brothers will never accept it — they can’t even accept a colorful scarf to wear, let alone open The Wall’s gate for the Wildlings who just killed a bunch of their friends.

Suddenly, commotion. Attackers, fighting. But who? Stannis Baratheon to the rescue! We see very-rare-for-Thrones overhead battle shots. We’re surprised Stannis has showed up, but mainly surprised that he effectively accomplished something for the first time in this series. Like he had a goal, set out to achieve that goal, then actually accomplished that goal — without somebody else doing it for him. No more moping around his giant wooden table grousing about Blackwater. Moreover, this is a true kingly move — he set aside his own ambition toward the Iron Throne and instead went to protect the realm against an invasion (take that, Tommen!). “You’re not dressed for this weather,” snarks Mance to Stannis, who might have the bigger army, but Mance has the wittier wardrobe jokes.

NEXT: Judge Judy Targaryen is now in session

Mance’s good graces all this time toward Jon pay off when Jon suggests to Stannis that they treat the Wildling king mercifully. See, sometimes even on Thrones it pays to be nice.

Turns out Stannis brought his whole mopey team with him, including mistress Melisandre. The Red Woman gives Jon an appraising look over one of her favorite activities — burning bodies. Careful, Jon, that one is dark and full of terrors.

Later, Jon takes Ygritte’s body North of the Wall and burns her by a Weirwood tree.

King’s Landing: You thought The Mountain was dead? To continue this season’s Oberyn/Princess Bride motif, he is only Mostly Dead. Seems Oberyn wasn’t taking as many chances as we thought during his fight. The doomed prince poisoned his spear. So he only had to cut The Mountain once guarantee his enemy would eventually die a horrible, slow, and painful death. So at least he died with the knowledge that his killer would also perish.

But will The Mountain actually die? Pycelle says there’s nothing that can be done to save him, but Cersei has more faith in her younger new doctor Qyburn, who is like a Dr. Oz to Pycelle’s Trapper John. She wants Mr. Mountain saved, and if you’re wondering why she cares about this thug so much, it’s because Cersei always operates from a position of paranoid insecurity. With Jaime crippled, she wants the biggest, strongest alpha male in the realm available for any horrible errand she might need accomplished — killing her enemies, sacking villages, standing in line at the DMV, etc.

Feeling like she’s on a winning streak having secured Tyrion’s death sentence, Cersei tells Tywin she won’t marry Loras — she refuses to go to Highgarden and be parted from her remaining son Tommen. “I will burn the house to the ground before I let that happen,” she declares, and finally threatens to play her incest trump card: She openly declares, probably for the first time to anybody, that Jaime is the father of her children. “Your legacy is a lie,” she tells him. It’s never been entirely clear if Tywin knew this, but I just assumed he did. Tywin looks truly rattled for once.

She goes to see Jaime — and kisses him: “I choose you,” she says, shocking us and him. “I love my brother.” She kisses his metal hand. This is everything Jaime has ever wanted from her.

Meereen: Judge Judy Targaryen is once again in session. First there’s a former slave who is bummed at all this freedom she’s given everybody. “The young may rejoice in the new world you have built for them, but for those of us too old to change there is only fear and squalor,” he whines. Next, she discovers one of her dragons has moved his appetite a few notches up the food chain, having torched a little girl. Unlike with the goat herder, she can’t exactly offer him three new daughters in return, so this is a pickle.

She decides to place her dragons into chains, which has to be tough for her since she is, after all, the Breaker of Chains, and this decision goes against her off-leash policy. But clearly her pets are out of control. Her biggest dragon, Drogon, is nowhere to be found, however, which is a behavior pet owners will recognize — they usually know when they’ve done something wrong. I want to see Dany smack his nose with a newspaper or spray him with the water bottle — “Bad Drogon! Bad! Don’t kill children!”

NEXT: The wight of way

Way, Way North of The Wall: Bran and the Reeds head toward the Weirwood tree of his vision. They’re trekking through a field when a hand bursts from the snow — a “wight” in Thrones-speak, a re-animated corpse. (We haven’t really dealt with this for a while on the show, but as a refresher: The White Walkers are the evil demons of the North; wights are reanimated dead men or creatures, typically spurred to zombie-like evil by nearby White Walkers. That’s why the Wildlings burn their dead.)

The field is full of wights. Bran takes over Hodor once again to fight them. The skeleton creature effects are great — zombies are relatively easy because it’s simply actors in make-up, but making skeletons come alive has been tough since back in the days of Jason and the Argonauts. There is something a bit jarring about the scene, though, where you’re reminded, Oh yeah, this is really a fantasy show. Jojen Reed, who had a vision of his own death earlier this season, is killed during the battle.

Bran’s group is rescued by the fire-bomb-flinging Children of the Forest. More Wiki-ing for casual fans: “The Children” are a mysterious non-human race that inhabited Westeros before the First Men arrived from Essos. The Children and the First Men fought for many years before both were nearly wiped out by the White Walkers. As conceived in the books, The Children are sort of like a cross between elves and Native Americans, and the people of Westeros now believe them to be extinct. But as we’ve seen, pretty much everything the folks in Westeros think is extinct is not actually extinct.

The Children take Bran to an old seer who’s hanging in a creepy cave. He’s the Three-Eyed Raven — the physical manifestation of the metaphorical raven of Bran’s dreams since the first season. He explains Bran will never walk again, “but you will fly.” He presumably means via psychic bonding with flying creatures, not actual Superman-style flying.

Riverlands: Arya and The Hound come upon … Brienne and Pod? Until last week’s finale preview that unwisely hinted at this scenes, fans on the boards had no idea this off-book mash-up was coming even though in retrospect it seems inevitable: Brienne and Pod are searching for Arya and Sansa, and both were headed to The Eyrie — so of course they’re going to meet up.

Love having Arya meet strong female warrior Brienne here — finally, an awesome role model for Arya. Too bad it’s short-lived. Brienne is determined to fulfill her quest to rescue the Stark girl. The Hound is determined to keep his hostage. They’re like two surrogate warrior parents having a custody dispute. They fight.

It’s amazing, fantastic, brutal, grueling to watch. This is a fight where every blow hurts because we don’t want either character to lose. And both actors are clearly giving this scene everything they’ve got. In a show full of epic fights, this could be one of the best we’ve had (we can only hope Gwendoline Christie will get a scene with a lightsaber that’s well staged in her mysterious role in the next Star Wars film … in fact, if there isn’t a doctored YouTube version of this scene with lightsabers instead of swords by the end of the week, the Internet will have failed me). She beats him right over the side of a cliff … but then she can’t find Arya.

Arya goes down to see a seemingly fatally wounded Hound, who tells her to go with Brienne. “Remember where the heart is,” he tells her, ironically. The Hound actor Rory McCann has been great this season. He begs Arya to kill him, and it’s heart-breaking. She takes his money … and leaves him.

So is The Hound dead? I don’t know. In general I subscribe to the Hollywood rule that if you don’t see the person die, they’re still alive (I suspect we’ll figure this out soon enough — it’s tough to keep whether or not somebody is employed by a TV show quiet).

NEXT: Happy Father’s Day!

King’s Landing: “What’s going to happen to Tyrion?” fans have wondered. The method of his escape isn’t clever, but the sequence concludes with a scene that is among the most impactful in the show’s history. On the eve of his execution, Tyrion gets a visitor. It’s his brother Jaime. Earlier this season, when Jaime asked if there was anything he could do to help him, Tyrion said he could simply let him out. Turns out, the method of Tyrion’s escape from his season-long nightmare is exactly that simple: One person (two, actually) deciding they care enough about the Imp to risk their lives for his freedom. This alone is heartening — Tyrion believes he doesn’t have a friend in the world, that everybody hates him, and that’s very much proven wrong. (Book readers will notice there’s a rather huge exchange missing from this scene; I was initially surprised and disappointed by its absence, but then I realized the move helps keep Tyrion’s rage focused in this next scene on Shae — the one relationship in his life that we’ve seen actively portrayed on the show).

Jaime ushers Tyrion into a passageway. He says goodbye and gives him a rare Game of Thrones hug. Tyrion decides to visit his old chambers, the Hand of the King’s chambers, where his dad now lives.

Once again, Tyrion is shocked by the presence of Shae, waiting for her new lover — Tyrion’s dad. We expect a conversation. We get instead a fight. She lashes out at him. And in his darkest moment in this show, Tyrion strangles Shae with her gold chain necklace (marking the second time a necklace has proved fatal this season). “I’m sorry,” he says meekly when it’s over.

Tyrion grabs a crossbow. He goes down the hall and opens the door to something we’ve never really seen on Thrones before — a throne. And there’s Tywin, in the privy, sitting on it. Naturally Tywin doesn’t for a moment relinquish his assumed authority in this exchange, despite being on the toilet with a weapon pointed at him. He commands Tyrion put down the crossbow and claims he had no intention of carrying out the death sentence (which I don’t believe for a second).

Tyrion is upset about killing Shae, and Tywin dismissively calls her a “whore.” Tyrion orders his father not to use that word again, and when he does, Tyrion instantly pulls the trigger, shooting him. “I am your son,” Tyrion says as he re-loads to shoot him again. “I have always been your son.” And Tyrion kills his father, his teacher, his tormentor, his benefactor (and another of the show’s strongest characters).

Tyrion gets on a boat, aided by Varys — who has long helped the forces of “good” when he could, but always protected his own interests first. With Tyrion killing Tywin, Varys calculates that going back to the Red Keep would be rather unwise. He decides to leave with Tyrion.

I’m not talking that much more about Tyrion’s murders because Martin analyzes it during our interview, link below, and how can I possible improve upon Martin’s own take? I will say that as satisfying as the scene was — and it was played perfectly by two master actors that you expect nothing less from — it was really hard to lose three characters in particular this season: Joffrey was a wonderfully bratty, hate-able villain, Prince Oberyn was an intoxicating rebel, and Tywin was a whip-smart, regal chess-master. Somewhere there is an alternative universe where Daenerys and Arya return to Westeros in season 6 or 7 and match wits, wills, and swords against Tywin and Joffrey. I don’t know what the future holds for Game of Thrones. I hope whatever happens is somehow even more compelling than that.

Arya goes to a seaport and gives a captain headed to Braavos the coin that was given to her by the “Faceless Man” assassin who helped her during season 2. She then says the words he told her to speak: “Valar Morghulis.” That translates to “All Men Must Die” in High Valyrian (and is also the tagline on the Thrones season 4 posters, finally coming into play at the very close of the season). She gets on the ship and, thankfully, gets the hell out of Westeros — which is apparently the thing to do this season, since Tyrion and Varys are fleeing, too.

NEXT: Final thoughts, interview links

The Eyrie: Aww, nothing at the Eyrie for the finale? Was curious what was the next beat following the reveal of Darth Sansa. Is she having Littlefinger call her “Catelyn” while she designs sultry black outfits in the middle of his newly constructed hedge maze labyrinth? To paraphrase Henry Jones Sr.: “Sansa left right when she was getting interesting.”

The Thrones showrunners like to reject the idea of the show’s episodes or seasons having themes — the stories are too disparate. But the finale, “The Children,” definitely had a common thread, and it’s right there in the title — Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion all defied papa Tywin. Dany’s dragon “children” defied mom. Jon Snow took a leadership role. The Children of the Forest rescued Bran. And Arya set out on her own.

From the links below I suggest, frankly, that you read all the interviews. I know how that sounds, but look at this lineup: Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss answer several finale burning questions (Why they killed Jorjen, whether Brienne is alive, and have a riff about toilet scenes that I still can’t believe happened). Author George R.R. Martin gives some fascinating psychology behind Tyrion’s decision. Gwendoline Christie gives a blast of enthusiastic energy exclusively detailing the filming of her fight with The Hound and makes you feel like you were right there with her. And for book readers upset about no Lady Stoneheart, I give my take — and you’re probably going to hate it — on why the lack of LS in Thrones is actually a good thing for the story. Tomorrow, we’ll have brief interviews with Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance on the finale, a deep-dive version of our Book Club discussion, and another must-read post where the showrunners answer some big questions about their season 5 plans.

EW’s mammoth Game of Thrones season 4 finale storm of mega-coverage:

POSTED

— ‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners talk season 4 finale

‘Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie talks about that brutal fight scene

— ‘

‘Game of Thrones’ [BOOK SPOILER]: No Lady Stoneheart! My apparently annoying take on why that’s a good thing / Director explains  absence

‘Game of Thrones’ finale ratings up from last year (but don’t break record)

‘Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance talk about that ending

— ‘Game of Thrones’ Book Club: Finale roundtable from book-reader perspective

‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners tease season 5: ‘There will be Dorne’ 

Once again, James of House Hibberd takes a knee to humbly thank you all for reading this year’s EW coverage, and all of your comments, tweets, compliments, and complaints. I’ll see you next year for season 5. Until then, my watch has ended. Think it’s only appropriate that jail-break Tyrion takes us out:

HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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