I’m always surprised at how fast a series can whizz by when you’re really into it. Game of Thrones is, I have no doubt now, the best show on TV at the present moment. And, of course, we are at the end of season four.
Whereas at the last season, I felt that the plot arc had dragged, padded out to fit ten episodes, here I think they have room for a few more. The story has pelted along at a frightening pace, with some truly well-made episodes. And the last of these is tantalisingly titled “The Children”.
At the Wall
At the end of “The Watchers on the Wall”, we left Jon Snow heading out to the wilding camp to assassinate Mance. “The Children” opens with Jon picking his way through the carnage of the battlefield. Mance is welcoming and accommodating, mostly because he knows that he has the Night’s Watch on the ropes. He offers terms — only wanting passage south of the wall — and sees through Jon’s purpose in being there. But we never get to find out whether Jon could have cut him down, as a mounted host led by Stannis and Ser Davos attacks the wildlings without warning.
The writers have been keeping Stannis on ice (no pun intended) this season, presumably for precisely this moment. It puts things starkly in perspective, Stannis’ army beating the wildlings in moments, whereas it had been all the Night’s Watch could do to to hold them off for a night.
Jon’s story this season has been about his living up to his new position. He has matured a lot, and here we see the result. He plays his lineage to Stannis, and with it buys Mance’s life. A shrewd move which will help keep the wildlings under control. But he needs to learn how to play the game properly — he’s at one of the political nexii of Westeros now, and though Stannis says that Eddard was an honourable man, that didn’t save him in the end.
The last shot of Jon, burning Ygritte’s body north of the wall, is the culmination of this journey.
Beyond the Wall
Meanwhile, Bran and co finally get to where they are headed. This has been, for two seasons now, one of the dullest storylines, but now it seems to have found some purpose. Bran, Hodor, Meera and Jojen reach a huge wierwood, in time to be attacked by reanimated corpses coming out of the ice. Cool, huh?
A strange girl, identifying herself as one of “the children”, leads them to safety, but not before Jojen gets a good stabbing. Meera slits his throat and makes a run for safety, where they find an old man sat on a throne of tree roots. Bran will never walk again, he says, identifying himself as the three-eyed raven. But he will fly.
This is off the edge of the map stuff, leading into God knows what next season. Jojen’s macabre certainty of his death comes to pass, but more exciting is what this means. Bran has been ordinary for the entire series so far. Even taking over bodies of wolves and Hodor, he never really seemed special. Now, finding creepy old men under trees, that is changing.
I’ve been saying all along that both Brienne and Pod and Arya and the Hound deserve their own spin off shows. But here is where they meet. Brienne promised to find Arya and keep her safe, but the sword that Jamie gave her paints her as an enemy. I’m never quite sure what the Hound’s game is, but he won’t hand the Stark girl over.
Their fight is as epic as it is brutal, with the two fighting fist to fist when they drop their swords. It ends with the Hound taking a tumble, but Arya eludes Brienne. When the Hound first goads and then begs Arya to ease his passing, all she does is rob him and leave him to a slow, painful death.
Whereas Jon’s journey has been towards maturity, Arya’s has been darker. She has been watching Clegane closely, and has learnt from it. She wants to hurt those who have wronged her, and now she thinks nothing of leaving him to die slowly. And when she finds a ship, she buys passage to Braavos and an uncertain future. Valar morghulis.
In contrast to others, Daenerys has been dull this season. The writers have parked her in Meereen, and aside from woefully awful decision to banish Jorah, she has been dealing with the bureaucracy of abolishing slavery. And the same again, as an old man wants to sell himself back into slavery, scared of Dany’s new world.
However, when a poor peasant shows up with an armful of charred bones, Daenerys gets her finest moment of the season. See, dragons are dangerous, and that has been underplayed. Dany’s decision to chain two of them in the catacombs is the right one, but the look of grief on her face is one which all fans will share. It ain’t easy, being Queenie.
And back to the capital.
After the shocking heartbreak of Tyrion’s trial by combat, it looks like Oberyn “The Viper” Martell got his revenge after all, with the poisoned Mountain given over to Game of Thrones’ own Dr Mengele. Meanwhile, a furious and emboldened Cersei stands up to Tywin, rejecting his plan to part her from Tommen, and threatening to use the truth about her and Jaime’s relationship to “burn” House Lannister. She then commits herself to her brother, seducing him on the table of the Kingsguard room and dismissing his worries that someone will catch her with the inverse of his line in that scene a few episodes back: “I don’t care.”
Tyrion, meanwhile, waits for his death. But Jaime, of course, was never going to let his brother die. He breaks him out of his cell, and has conspired with Varys to have a ship waiting to take the imp to safety. But Tyrion, of course, can’t resist one last confrontation with his father.
When he finds Shae in Twyin’s bed, though, he cracks, choking his former lover to death in a horribly emotional, yet cathartic moment of revenge, which seems to break him. When he confronts Tywin — on the privy — he does so with a crossbow in hand. Twyin has Tyrion’s skill with words, and tries to talk him down, even calling the dwarf his son. It might have worked, but for Tywin’s dismissive attitude towards the now-dead Shae. “Say that again…” Tyrion threatens when he calls her a whore, and true to his unspoken word, he leaves his father dead with two bolts in him when he does just that.
Summing up a season finale is hard. Especially one as busy as this one was. There is, as I mentioned, a powerful symmetry between Jon and Arya’s journeys to become the people they need to be in order to survive. It is a little heartbreaking, then, that by the end they are headed in different directions. Stannis arrival at the wall, too, makes him relevant again. What is he now, the King at the Wall? It should make life a bit more interesting in the North then — them Bolton boys have had it their own way a bit much.
Daenerys, meanwhile, is parked. Well and truly. I’m not holding out much hope of her doing anything for a few seasons, but hopefully we can see some of the adventures of captain friendzone (Jorah Mormont).
The real fun has been with the Lannisters. Jaime has had a heck of a character arc, but his relationship with Cersei still makes no sense. Part of the problem is that it’s only brought out for occasional shock value; Nikolaj Coster-Walder and Lena Headey are great actors, and they could both carry something like this being properly explored. And time and again Cersei’s overriding motivation has been shown to be the safety of her children.
The Tywin and Tyrion bits through the series, and especially this episode, have fascinated me. Contrasted with other father son relationships — Roose and Ramsay, Eddard and Jon — it gives an interestingly dysfunctional dynamic. Tywin is a man, as Cersei says, obsessed by the idea of his family. And yet he is consumed with hatred for Tyrion, for no real reason aside from his being a dwarf (N.B. In the books part of the reason for Tywin’s loathing is his wife’s death in childbirth, but the show has clearly established that as Cersei’s territory). All of this despite the fact that of all his children, Tyrion is the most like him: smart, cunning, ruthless when he needs to be.
This season didn’t change on a ground-shifting shock moment like previous seasons have, but if anything it is more influential. This is the season where the story really hit its pace, and the sight of Arya on a ship bound for Braavos underscores this point. The journey is well and truly underway.