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.

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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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