And so another season of Game of Thrones comes to a bloody end, with four major character deaths bringing us completely out of the adaptation of A Storm of Swords. And what a finale it was - besides the fact that so much happened, so much of what happened was really awesome.
The stuff at the Wall got sort of wrapped up as Stannis Baratheon and friends showed up in the nick of time to save Jon Snow from getting killed by Mance Rayder. Mance, who isn’t a warring king but the leader of a band of refugees, quickly surrendered to Stannis’ army, who nailed the Wildlings in a nice and clean pincer attack. While there was plenty of CGI used to give the sense of the size of Stannis’ army, this was really the least interesting part of the episode - it was basic clean-up and set-up for the story at the Wall next season.
There were much more interesting things happening all across Westeros. The Hound and Arya found their sitcom coming to an end as they stumbled across Brienne of Tarth, who wanted to take Arya to safety. The Hound refused, thinking she worked for the Lannisters… but also because he cares. At this point it’s clear to The Hound that there’s no one left who wants to buy the girl, so why is he still hanging out with her? Because he cares, and in the world of Westeros that’s really a recipe for disaster. Sure enough, The Hound gets dispatched in a totally badass, absolutely brutal fight with Brienne. It starts as a great swordfight and then turns into Mike Tyson’s Ear Spit-Out. But when the time comes for Arya to put the mortally wounded Hound out of his misery, she refuses. Very coldly, without saying anything and after stealing his purse. This is perhaps the nastiest thing she has done so far. Sometimes it’s crueler to withhold the blade.
Way farther up north Bran and friends finally made it to that magic tree, only to get attacked by the undead who popped out of the ground. I’ve not been a huge fan of this storyline, but the Ray Harryhausen-esque battle was one of my favorite scenes in the entire series to date. The skeletal warriors looked incredible, and the action was a blast - literally at one point, as the elfin Children of the Forest showed up, saving the day. For everybody but Jojen, anyway, who got himself stabbed but good - a holy shit moment for me as a book reader because that character has not yet died in the books (he has also not become useful). The spoiling of the books by the TV show continues apace.
The Children take the kids down into the weirwood where they meet the Three Eyed Crow, who is actually a very old wizard-dude. After four years Game of Thrones has really gotten to the hardcore fantasy stuff - elves tossing fireballs at skeleton warriors at the behest of an ancient wizard. Sure there have been other fantasy elements, but this scene was like something right out of a D&D module. And I liked it.
Across the sea Khaleesi has to deal with repercussions she didn’t predict. She sort of assuemd everybody she freed would be psyched to be free, and didn’t think through the next steps, like where would all these freed slaves live, and where would they work. It turns out some of them lived their whole lives as slaves and have no ability to confront freedom. This feels very timely as Iraq crumbles - just walking into a country, kicking some ass and telling everybody they’re free isn’t enough.
I know a lot of people find this stuff boring, but I could watch a whole series that just follows the intrigues of Dany running Mereen. The question of how to rule is so meaty, so difficult to answer and so demanding of sacrifices moral and emotional that it makes for stunning drama.
Dany’s issues with ruling got more complicated this episode as it turns out Drogon roasted an innocent little girl. The dragons are growing and they’re animals, not cute exotic familiars. They will hunt and kill and they are at the size where children make nice meals. Earlier in the episode we got the full string of Dany’s titles, including Breaker of Chains, which makes her need to put chains on the two remaining dragons (Drogon is still missing) painful. The dragons’ cries as she leaves them in the catacomb and closes the door were heartbreaking - the scene played out beautifully.
In King’s Landing lots of big stuff went down. Cersei, refusing to marry Ser Loras, told Tywin point blank she had boned Jaime and that Tommen was the product of their incest. Tywin doesn’t want to believe, but what can you do? The scene is great for a number of reasons, one of which is the performance of Lena Headey, who is taking Cersei down an emotionally unstable path. She lashes out at her father in the only way she knows how, undermining everything he has fought for over the years.
Not that it much matters, as Tywin gets offed just a few scenes later. Jaime helps Tyrion escape prison, but before the dwarf gets to the boat that will take him across the Narrow Sea he stops by his dad’s room, where he finds Shea in Tywin’s bed. Tyrion strangles her to death, sitting for a moment in stunned guilt before taking a crossbow and shooting his dad to death on the toilet.
What a way for Tywin to go, pants down and butt dirty. For a control freak it’s about the most humiliating finale possible, and it’s made doubly worse coming from Tyrion. Not because he was Tywin’s son but because he outmaneuvered Tywin yet again. Tyrion reiterates that he is his father’s son, and in many ways he seems to be the Lannister who most follows his dad’s cunning path.
The final shot of the episode has Arya on a boat headed to Braavos, and towards an uncertain future. She doesn’t know where she’s going but she knows she’s following in the footsteps of the assassin Jaqen H’ghar. Also headed east is Tyrion and Varys, while Stannis settles in at the Wall. The story has reached something like the halfway point, and the board has been cleared of many main players. The series has caught up to much of what was interesting in the novels, and now book readers are beginning to wonder what else will be spoiled for them on HBO. I guess we have a year to wait until we know.
As a book reader this finale is tough to parse. It was great television, but there were things I didn't expect that happened and things that didn't happen that I expected. And some of the scenes didn't play out as strongly as they did in my head - I kind of like how the death of Tywin went in my head more than on the show, which is rare for this series. But the episode was confident and beautifully made, and those qualities give me hope as the show heads into less intriguing plot waters next year.