‘Game of Thrones’ Season 4 Finale Recap: A Lannister Pays His Debts

After four years spent on assignment there, I can say it’s no secret that Westeros is a cruel place. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen skulls popped like blisters, throats used for target practice, and blood spilled like wine — a metaphor that only works provided Cersei Lannister is the one doing the pouring. But nothing prepared me for the rank inhumanity of last night’s season finale, when the true, savage depths of the Seven Kingdoms were revealed for all to see. Welcome to Westeros: a land where, even on Father’s Day, a man can’t simply sit on the toilet in peace.

To be fair, “The Children” was a disquieting hour-plus of television well before Tyrion brought new, terrible meaning to the phrase “Dad, do you want to have a catch?” During the week-to-week scrum of a Game of Thrones season, it’s occasionally possible to lose sight of what it is, exactly, we’re watching. Is it a fantasy epic about the battle for control of a vast and warring continent? Is it a family drama, about the crop-to-cup cycles of dashed hopes and bitter disappointment that passes for parenting among the upper classes? Or is it an oddly paced instructional film about one eunuch’s attempt to outsmart the postal service? (Poor Varys. In the end he had to ship himself, too, just to stay alive.) Game of Thrones is all these things, of course, and more. But as mountains fall, the dead rise from the ground, and even privies are made public, it’s increasingly clear that what we’re actually watching is a television show that’s about more than just people changing: It’s about the wholesale reinvention of a world.

The oaths and orders that have propped up the Seven Kingdoms for generations are now about as useful as a polygraph machine in King’s Landing. Coins are more powerful than swords, medical school dropouts have more knowledge than graduates — or perhaps they just are burdened by fewer morals — and a boy without legs has made the longest journey in millennia. As Austrian laptop maester/aging slave Fennesz told Daenerys, “The young may rejoice in the new world you have built for them, but for those who are too old to change, there is only fear and squalor.” It was a touching speech (and it may have set the Essos labor market back a hundred years), but it was almost redundant. The old are always the first people to be devoured by the uncaring jaws of history. But they’re certainly not the last.

But don’t take my word for it. Just take a moment to rewatch one of the more brutal and ugly sequences in a show that specializes in them. Last night, fan-favorite Brienne of Tarth crossed paths with fan-favorite Sandor Clegane. At first, their team-up was classic comic book: Instead of discussing our common interest, we will fight! It was all too easy to imagine a world in which the two, panting and winded after a spirited tussle, laugh over their misunderstanding and ride off together to the nearest inn for some remedial knot-tying lessons and two dozen roast chickens. But while Game of Thrones is classified as fantasy, it is very rigorous about never, ever indulging ours. Instead of gradual, grudging respect, what we got was a slow descent into barbarism. What better way to illustrate the downward spiral of a ruined world than the sight of two not-knights punching each other desperately in the crotch? I realize Arya was just hiding, but I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had walked away then and there. Chivalry isn’t just dead, it’s lying at the bottom of a cliff with its ear gnawed off and its femur showing.

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Game of Thrones isn’t a comic book — well, I mean, it is, but it isn’t — but some of that medium’s lessons still apply: If we didn’t see them die, they’re probably not dead. I have to believe there’s still hope for those of us who want to see a Clegane family feud play out one day — let alone those of us who reach for a flagon of wine at the mere suggestion of the show continuing without Rory McCann in it. Still, the Hound’s temporary farewell managed to be both poignant and pathetic. Because he hasn’t an ounce of sympathy in him (that was burned out by his brother years ago, along with half of his face), the Hound expected none in return. What he wanted was mercy, and even that was asking too much. (It’s interesting and sad that the violence he put into the world came back to him but the occasional acts of fatal charity did not.) The Arya staring back at him, stone-faced, was the one he helped create but could never define.

Growing pains in Westeros are usually quite literal. Jon Snow seemed to find his brain and his soul only after his heart was broken. (Maybe the fermented Maalox that Mance Rayder served him helped, too. Just once I’d like to see a younger man be handed a mysterious beverage in a movie or TV show and drink it down without choking.) And that’s why Arya was denied the ya-ya sisterhood with Brienne they both so richly deserved (I loved the way Gwendoline Christie delivered her origin story; I hope Brian of Tarth — or whatever Dad’s name is — got a phone call and at least a tie for Father’s Day), and why she walked away from the mangy Hound who had, quite against his better judgment, wound up “watching over” her. The truth was, she no longer needed his care, even in a world devoid of safety. And so off they went on their respective journeys: one to the East and the other, by all appearances, straight down. In her long pilgrimage from King’s Landing to wherever she’s headed next, Arya Stark has seen death, laughed in the face of it, and learned just where, exactly, the heart is located. Get your priorities straight, Brienne and Sandor. The Wall needs protecting. Arya will be just fine.

I’m not sure the same can be said for Daenerys. It’s been a rough season for the woman with a title longer than the name of a Fiona Apple album: Just when everyone else (even Sansa!) was finally able to push past the entrenched structures that had been dragging them down, Dany got stuck in the sand trap of Meereen, running a glorified complaints department from a gilded throne. (In fact, an exciting number of characters now seem to be headed straight to her doorstep.) Even Maester Aemon could see the irony of the Breaker of Chains snapping jumbo-size iron leashes around the necks of her scaly, baby-murdering babies. The dragons have the potential to be globe-conquering deterrents but, as they grow, they’re proving to be as unstable as an atom. Take it from a survivor of a Cold War that didn’t involve ice zombies: The only good position in a nuclear-powered world is being the one with your finger on the trigger — and that’s rarely a permanent place to be.

So what of this bold, uncertain future? “The Children” offered glimpses of a number of possibilities, some good, some bad, but all intriguing. Of the three status quo–altering sequences, I thought Stannis’s snow day was by far the most successful. Was it suspect that Jon Snow wandered into Mance’s tent with the same convenience I experience when I run to the bodega for dish soap and bubble gum? Of course. But if there’s one thing Game of Thrones does not need more of, it’s shots of Jon Snow wandering through his namesake substance. The parley with Mance was a great bit of theater, thanks to Ciarán Hinds’s winking performance and the fact that, other than consorting with parent-murdering cannibals, his behavior has been generally spotless. He wants safety, not war.

And I’m rooting for him to get it. Davos seems to think Stannis is both wise and merciful (though a Hand of the King really ought to at least suggest wearing gloves), and here’s our chance to find out. Let’s all raise another cup of moonshine milk to one of Thrones’ singular pleasures: the sight of long-standing characters finally crossing paths. Stephen Dillane’s Stannis may be stiffer than a weirwood tree, but it was still plenty dope to see him finally stitched back into the main story.

Speaking of magical trees, I was less thrilled with the conclusion of the children’s crusade north of the Wall. Don’t get me wrong: A deadly attack by stabby skeletons made for thrillingly nutso viewing (and a wonderfully Proustian callback to one of my all-time favorite video games), and I was into the grenade-throwing goth girl and the spooky tree house that appeared to be on loan from Carcosa. (Too bad there wasn’t time for a flagon of ale or six with the current Lord of House Cohle — its sigil is an aluminum man talking out of his own ass.) The truth is, I’m always a sucker for a glimpse of the story going on behind the story, the next level of crazy that the certifiably sane can’t see.

But let’s look past the explosions and deal with the debris. It was hard to get worked up over the death of Jojen Reed, because I didn’t much care about him when he was alive. This is a problem familiar from all types of fantasy/sci-fi stories, even those that do their best to subvert the form: Once you wander into the realm of magical destiny, even the most dashing knight is reduced to little more than a pawn. Game of Thrones can do its best to tell me that Bran Stark is important, that this creepy old English actor who has apparently been pulling the strings all along is worth paying more attention to than the other old, string-pulling English actors on display. But until it starts showing me, I’m always going to prefer the characters stuck mucking about with their normal allotment of five senses. I like Game of Thrones for all the things magic can’t accomplish, not the other way around. Flying is cool, but walking is infinitely more interesting.

There are more compelling skeletons in the South, too, though they tend to reside in closets. The scene in which Cersei confronted her father and flipped the truth like a blackjack dealer was electric; neither Lena Headey nor Charles Dance has ever been better. And yet the electricity felt more like a blown fuse than a live wire. It’s not that I needed the scene itself to be longer, it’s that I wanted it to be humming long before and long after it played. This is the flip side to Game of Thrones’ outrageous ambition, of course: There simply isn’t time for everything. The foundation for what Cersei did — and the devastating way in which she did it (“Your legacy is a lie” is basically the Westerosi version of this) — was laid in incremental steps over four years. It had been so long since the marathon started, it was disorienting to find ourselves suddenly at the finish line.

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And sometimes a sprint just leaves you breathless. I was thrilled when Jaime came to rescue Tyrion, though I couldn’t help but wonder why he didn’t do this weeks ago. (Oberyn would still be writing love poems by the beach!) But even though Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance sold me on every emotion in the scenes that followed, they couldn’t manage to sell me on the timeline. From brotherly love to the thrill of escape to a crime of passion and cold-blooded patricide in just less than five minutes? That’s the sort of escalation usually reserved for anchorman melees. More problematic was the treatment of Shae. When last we saw her, she was damning her little lion from the witness stand. This was a betrayal, but an understandable one. After all, Tyrion had hurt her in the worst way possible in order to get her to leave. (In our world, it’s called “Old Yellering” and it rarely works.) But for her to be lounging happily in Tywin’s bed was an emotional retcon of the worst order. She was a strong, sensible woman. She ran with the big cats; she wasn’t their prey. That she died doing whatever she could to survive is a popular irony in Westeros, but not a particularly new or insightful one. Saying sorry after the fact doesn’t make it any better, not for the killer and certainly not for his victim.

At least Tywin finally got what was coming to him — and he got it, irony of ironies, while sitting down. It’d be hilarious if it weren’t so awful: The nobleman who orchestrated a massacre from the comfort of a desk chair was brought low while hunched over the crapper. The only way the most powerful man in the world could have appeared less dignified would be if Tyrion had discovered him thumbing through a Far Side compendium and working his way through the better part of a matchbook as a courtesy for the next lord. Names are power in the world of Game of Thrones, but it wasn’t being born under a particular banner that made Tyrion a Lannister. Children of all ages model their behavior on that of their parents. It’s why Jon Snow operates with a quiet dignity, why Ramsay Bolton uses human lives as science experiments, and why Tyrion Lannister finally paid back the most terrible of debts. I’ll miss Charles Dance and his magnificent malevolence more than any of the other actors who have expired before him on this homicidal show. But Tywin had to go. He was an inevitable victim of the sadistic world he had fought to maintain and, perhaps, an early casualty of whatever is coming to replace it. It’s unclear what’s next, both for Game of Thrones as it attempts to follow up its best season and for Westeros itself as it begins to crater from the inside out. Only one thing is certain: The temperature is finally dropping and we all know what comes just before winter. The fall.

[Note on these recaps: I have not read the books, and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So, please, no spoilers or “I told you sos” in the comments, OK? OK!]

[Further note: Any questions? We will answer them! Email us at askthemaester@gmail.com and come back tomorrow!]

Filed Under: Game of Thrones, TV, HBO, Charles Dance, Peter Dinklage

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald