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

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June 16, 2014 at 12:19 AM EDT

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

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin’s novels
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