The Game of Thrones Finale: Too Much Good Stuff?

Our roundtable on "The Children," the 10th episode of the fourth season of the HBO show.
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Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones.


Sullivan:

You hate me, you hate me, you hate me.

I’m the son you wish you never had.

You just ordered my execution.

Well, Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

A lot happened in this season finale—more than a lot, way too much—but I’m guessing that Tyrion’s murder of Tywin Lannister with a crossbow on the privy is the moment most viewers will remember months from now. In the book, the act is shocking. It’s even more momentous on the show, which has really beefed up the character of Tywin and made wonderful use of the impressive Charles Dance. He will be missed, as will his character’s repartee. But as for Tywin?

Only Tywin Lannister could make his daughter seem moral and sympathetic. At least when Cersei hates someone, she’s very upfront about it. Here is Tywin, cool as can be, lying to the very end. “I’d never let them execute you,” he tells Tyrion. “Is that what you fear? You’re a Lannister—you’re my son.” Then not a minute later, “You shot me. You’re no son of mine.”

“I am your son,” Tyrion reminds him. “I have always been your son.” And with that, Tyrion—and Varys—are off across the narrow sea, and the power in Kings’ Landing is once again up for grabs. It was not so long ago that a whole cast of major characters populated the capital, forming and dissolving alliances, and battling for position in the game of thrones. Now they are dead or scattered: Littlefinger and Sansa in the Eyrie, Stannis and his 4,000 troops are bunking at Castle Black, even the Hound is (presumably) dead, and only Cersei and Jaime are left to hold sleepovers in their royal chambers.

Oh, and Arya is headed to Braavos. Who would have thought that the cruelest, most cold-hearted thing we would watch Arya do this season is refuse to kill somebody? Okay, yes, the Hound killed her friend, the butcher’s boy. But that was like, a few years ago, and he’s clearly been her protector and mentor for a while now. He didn’t argue with Brienne over getting a decent ransom for Arya but over who could better protect her. “There’s no safety,” he tells Brienne. “If you don’t know that by now, you’re the wrong one to watch over her.” “That’s what you’re doing—watching over her?” she retorts. “Aye, that’s what I’m doing.”

That should have been a heart-warming moment right there, but instead we got that massive gladiatorial combat that ended with the Hound over a cliff and Brienne frantic to find Arya. And in an episode that saw so many characters choose sides, Arya chose no one. Despite the fact that she was clearly intrigued by a lady warrior, she hides from Brienne, and then takes the Hound’s money while leaving him to die slowly.

I’m very surprised the season ended with the scenes of Arya on the ship to Braavos. There were so many other choices, including a certain supernatural appearance many of us expected but will apparently have to wait another season for. Perhaps, though, it’s an appropriately dark note to carry us into season five. The scene looks deceptively uplifting, with Arya in charge of her own destiny and finally escaping this country that has, as the Hound reminded us, killed nearly all her family and burned her home to the ground. In reality, we’re watching the final hardening of Arya into a ruthless killer who has no ties and no motivation except revenge.

I’ll leave it to you two to discuss the many, many other storylines in this finale. It feels churlish to complain about an abundance of good plots and characters, but this was a hard finale to watch—my head was swimming as we jumped from Meereen to Castle Black to the Eyrie to north of the Wall to that Neverending Story-like tree really north of the Wall. Wait—who is that quack performing experiments on the Mountain? Whoa, what? Jojen is dead? And what were those amazing fire grenades that girl shot out of her hands? The dragons are killing children now, a powerfully difficult development for Daenerys, and yet now we’re already back at Castle Black listening to Maester Aemon’s eulogy for the dead Crows.

Spencer, you haven’t read the books, so you’ll have to tell us whether you followed any of these scattershot scenes. As it is, I’ll be going back to re-read the relevant parts of the books and re-watch this episode a few more times. If this was just what Benioff and Weiss thought they needed to do in order to wrap up season four and make way for a calmer entry into season five, then it’s slightly annoying but understandable. If, however, this finale is a sign of things to come, as our characters are necessarily scattered across the map so that they can be gathered together again by the end of the series, we could be in for a bumpy ride next year.

Regardless, I will miss Charles Dance and Pedro Pascal, who made more of an impression in just one season than others have made over four. I’m thrilled to see that Netflix has cast him to star in its new drama “Narcos.” Goodnight, Joffrey. Goodnight, Sandor the Hound. Goodnight, Crazy Aunt Lysa. All Men (and Women) Must Die.


Kornhaber: I have no complaints about the episode, other than that it’s daunting to write about. Scenes upon scenes were so well-composed, so dramatic, so world-altering that they individually would have been the high point of nearly any other hour of the series. Scattershot? Sure. But we come to Thrones, foremost, to gorge on plot—and I feel more than satisfied.

We also come to Thrones for well-made TV, and this finale had plenty of it. I don’t know which visual was most striking: the red-stained snow outside the Wall, the Lisa Frank sunset behind the big tree in the North, the tomb door closing on the screaming dragons, or Daenerys’s next-level braids. I also don’t know which was scene was more well-acted and compelling: the tete-a-tete between Mance and Jon (yes, praise for Kit Harington as an actor!), Arya’s quiet listening as the Hound pleaded for death, or Tyrion’s lavatory chat with Tywin.

As for the episode’s pile-up of plot surprises: Amazingly, all of them felt earned. The show’s been preparing for these twists, in some cases for years. The lead-up to the Stannis-ex-machina moment was particularly sly. In the previous season finale, Maester Aemon sent ravens all over Westeros, warning of the impending Wildling onslaught. Stannis was the only person to respond with any urgency. The show had since let viewers mostly forget that fact, instead distracting with logistical wrangling about loans and marital tension in the Baratheon plotline. So when all that cavalry showed up north of the Wall, this non-book-reader’s first reaction was a “whoa, huh” followed by an “oh, right, duh.”

Even setting the army aside, the episode’s Wall-related material was more interesting than usual. Prior to Stannis asking WWND (what would Ned do?), we were reminded of Jon Snow’s un-Starkly evolution away from the black-and-white worldview that got his father and half-brother killed. Jon admits to Mance that he lied to him, but says he did it to stay true to his original cause. Of course, the entire conversation is a front for a plot not unlike the Red Wedding: Jon wants to stab Mance during what’s supposed to be a neutral, bloodless interaction, so that others might live. One problem: Jon’s not subtle enough with his knifeward glances.

Besides, actually serving the greater good probably would have meant letting the Wildlings take refuge in Westeros. Stannis may get a political bump for staving off the barbaric horde, but he’ll be faced with a huge headache—and maybe a human-rights crisis—before long. What do you do with tens of thousands of men, women, and children you can’t feed, stuck in cold, with nefarious supernatural undead bearing down?

Those supernatural undead, by the way, are pretty committed fighters, as poor Jojen found out. If his character is really gone for good, it means he’s one of the only secondary figures who never got the backstory development he seemed destined for. If you forced me to recite, off the top of my head, who Jojen Reed was besides a boy who tells another boy to do mystical things, I wouldn’t have much to say. And I don’t have much else to say about the Bran stuff in this episode other than that Amy beat me to the Neverending Story reference. With the skeletal warriors, the adolescent protagonists, the nymph speaking portentously, and the old man entwined in tree roots, it was all very ‘80s space fantasy, no? Another pointless aesthetic comparison: Is that arboreal lair Carcosa?

The confrontation between Brienne/Pod and Sandor/Arya made for another well-earned twist, and it may have provided the most riveting material in the episode, which is saying a lot. Brienne’s trying to save a little girl who doesn’t want to be saved, and who probably can’t be saved. The Hound seems to be protecting her out of pure intentions as well—there’s no one he could sell her too; why not give her up? Everyone here is trying to do the right thing, and yet spectacular violence ensues.

The first tragedy of the scene is that circumstances shatter what clearly could have been an awesome friendship between warrior women Arya and Brienne. And then there’s that duel: Oof. The way it turned from sword fight to literal knock-down-drag-out brawl—featuring groin punching, blade grabbing, and rocks to the face—offered a perfectly meta Thrones moment, symbolizing how the show takes medieval-fantasy-fiction conventions and wrestles them into the bloody dirt. I gasped a few times, most loudly when it seemed Clegane was about to snap the Lady of Tarth’s neck. She ended up knocking him down a ridge, a triumph cut short—perfectly—by her realization that she let Arya get away. What, did anyone really expect this girl to just stand there, waiting to see which warrior gets to take possession of her?

Compared to that drawn-out, in-daylight drama, I’ll confess that Tyrion’s travails this episode burn less brightly in my memory. Which is nuts, of course: He was freed from certain death,  found out his ex lover was sleeping with his father, strangled her, crossbowed his father on the toilet, and then got in a crate headed to places unknown. That’s a lot. But it happened relatively quickly, and it’s hard to feel anything but sadness about the whole sequence of events.

The show has, again, done a nice job over a long time in setting up Tyrion’s motivations. His emotional scars really do seem profound enough to trump his inherently practical nature, plausibly resulting in the rare Game of Thrones killings done out of pure spite. But the motivations of Tywin and Cersei remain a tragic mystery. Like Jaime says, it’s not Tyrion’s fault their mother died in childbirth. The hatred towards Tyrion is irrational and cruel—but then again, so is most of the hatred in the real world.

What’s next? The cliche of “game changer” is just so warranted here: the show’s titular tussle looks quite different after this episode’s events. I have little idea what to expect in Braavos for Arya, nor would I wager on where Tyrion and Varys’s ship is headed. Will the Lannisters reign for much longer, sans Tywin? Will Bran find a spaceship? And what superpowers will Franken-Mountain have? With luck, Maester Qyburn bestowed upon him a fascinating personality. We could use a few more of those, after all of the ones we lost this season.


Orr: Okay, first a brief digression: A few days ago, Grantland’s Andrew Sharp offered up one of my favorite cross-pop-cultural references in a long while when he noted that Pat Riley, the team president of the Miami Heat, “might be the closest thing we have to Tywin Lannister in real life.” Is there any way he could have known how perfectly their fates would align tonight? I mean, obviously Riley didn’t get literally shafted on the john. But having his team blown out for the third game in a row to lose a not-at-all close NBA Finals must have caused some severe intestinal agony. Riley’s reported quest to add Carmelo Anthony to the lifeless Heat roster even offers a neat parallel to the Lannisters’ efforts to reanimate a terminally poisoned Gregor Clegane. And don't even get me started on the future (current?) zombie-hood of Greg Oden.... (A side note: Thanks a lot, TV execs, for arranging to have two of the events I most wanted to watch all year broadcast simultaneously. Valar morghulis to you, too.)

But back to Westeros. You guys know (as do regular readers of the roundtable), that I’ve been worried for a while now that Benioff and Weiss were cramming too many Big Moments into the last few episodes and, ultimately, the finale. And like both of you I think one could still easily argue that this is exactly what happened tonight. As noted, there were several scenes that qualified as among the most jaw-dropping moments of the entire season. But it’s hard to complain, given that the episode nailed pretty much every one of them: Mance and Jon Snow and Stannis above the Wall; Tyrion paying a mortal visit to Shae and Tywin in the Tower of the Hand; Arya bidding farewell to the Hound. Even the smaller scenes—such as Cersei revealing to Tywin that he’s Tommen’s granddaddy-twice-over, or Daenerys discovering that Drogon has graduated from goat to girl—buzzed with intensity. Again, maybe it would have been better to apportion these dishes out across the season. But damn, they made for a substantial final meal.

The opening scenes above the Wall were among the best we’ve seen in the North all series. I’ve been waiting to get another look at the great Ciaran Hinds as Mance Rayder for, if arithmetic serves, 16 episodes. But he proved worth the wait, owning his interactions with both the headstrong Jon Snow and the self-important Stannis Baratheon. Moreover, he highlighted the point that both of you noted last week: The wildlings aren’t venturing south out of a desire for conquest, but rather out of a desire to live. Winter is coming, after all, and its blue-eyed minions are not known to play well with others. “We’re here to hide behind your Wall,” Mance explains. “Just like you.”

From that beginning, the episode branched out in fascinating ways. I’ve written before about how Benioff and Weiss have been incrementally wresting the show’s narrative away from the George R. R. Martin novels, both for good and for ill. Tonight’s finale represented not only one of their most ambitious efforts to put their mark on the material, but arguably their most successful. The bitter encounter in which Cersei cut off another of her father’s “smug stories” in order to taunt him with her incest was new, for instance. And the scene where Brienne, Arya, and the Hound intersect…

In the books, Brienne’s storyline is one of a handful where very little happens—she never encounters Arya or the Hound—and this is a prime example (and, I hope, one of many to come) where Benioff and Weiss have given a little extra oomph to Martin’s material. In the original, the Hound dies—or at least, as tonight, is left to die—from an infected wound he sustained in a bar fight. (The infected bite on his neck from a few episodes ago is a sign that the showrunners are cleverly toying with the expectations of book readers.) But the fight with Brienne grants Sandor Clegane a much more fitting death than he receives in the books. And Arya’s pitiless stare before she denies him even the charity of a Needle through the heart was perhaps the most memorable image of the entire episode.

The Bran-Jojen-Meera-Hodor storyline, too, is a bit dull in the books, and Benioff and Weiss have (again, I think wisely) accelerated it considerably. Notably, this is the second time they’ve played with the idea of Bran taking advantage of his warg abilities to turn huge-but-gentle Hodor into an extension of his own crippled-but-ready-to-tussle id. But Jojen dead? Where did that come from? If I’m not mistaken—and please be generous if I am, fellow book readers; it’s late as I write this—he’s still alive and well for a couple more Martin novels. Seriously, Children of the Forest, you couldn’t have started lobbing your incendiary water balloons at the creepy snow-wights a couple minutes earlier? And, yes, like you Spencer, I had the exact same idea about the under-the-tree set design bearing a distinct resemblance to the crazy Carcosa-scape of the final episode of True Detective.

As you’ve both noted, this episode was so packed with meaningful developments—and so expertly executed—that, no matter how satisfying it was as a viewer it poses a brain-melting challenge for late-night recapping. (Yes, yes: world’s smallest violin. I know.) What have we missed? The Daenerys scenes were brief but evocative: She’s based her entire political ideology on the idea of freeing her subjects from chains, but she is confronted in short order by a slave who wants to be (essentially) re-enslaved and dragons whose freedom she must curtail. (Notice that Drogon, the most problematic of the latter, has yet to be found and leashed.) And as someone who was disappointed that Ygritte’s death last episode wasn’t accorded more weight, it was nice to see her get a little posthumous recognition tonight.

Which brings me back to where you began, Amy, and the scenes every book reader has been waiting for all season: Tyrion, Shae, and Tywin. This is right up there with the Red Wedding and Ned Beheading in the pantheon of holy shit moments, though it has the distinction of being a rare instance in which the (mostly) sympathetic have vengeance on the (mostly) unsympathetic. Was it a grisly inside joke for this episode to air on Father’s Day? It must have been. I was sad to see that the show cut one of the more emotionally brutal segments of the books from this sequence (a revelation regarding Tyrion’s first wife, Tysha). But it was an understandable simplification in an episode already bursting with narrative developments.

So: a tremendous end to a (mostly) tremendous season. But there are reasons for concern moving forward. As you note, Amy, we’ve lost Pedro Pascal and Charles Dance—but also Rose Leslie as Ygritte and Rory McCann as the Hound. Barring some creative rewriting by the showrunners, we’re also mostly done with Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg). And both Arya and Tyrion are headed across the Narrow Sea, where every storyline in the novels seems to succumb to the same narrative entropy that often afflicts Daenerys’s.

But these are all problems for next season, and ones that Benioff and Weiss seem already to be making efforts to correct. For now, let’s be content with a stunning season-four finale that warrants—that arguably even demands—a re-viewing or two.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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