Game of Thrones wrapped up its fourth season in Sunday with one of its most slam-bang episodes of any season, "The Children." Showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff upped the ante this season, ensuring audience thrills and surprise whether one has read George R.R. Martin's books or not.
Things picked up right where last week's "The Watchers on the Wall" ended — with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) heading, unarmed, beyond The Wall, into the Wildling's camp, in search of their leader, Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds). The tension was ramped up — would Jon make it out of the camp alive — And never quite let up throughout the rest of the episode, even when the action shifted to King's Landing; to the Riverlands; to way, way beyond the Wall with Bran & Co.; to Meereen and Daenerys and her dragons; and back to King's Landing again, where viewers who have fretted and wondered at the fate of the incarcerated Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) all season got their answer — and then some.
"Hodor! Hodor! Hodor!" (Hodor fights off some undead wights)
I held off reading Martin's latest entry in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons, until recently. I'm about halfway through the novel, and was surprised to see a scene that I had read that very afternoon depicted in the finale — Bran, Hodor, and Jojen and Meera Reed finally finding the three-eyed crow who had been speaking to Bran in his dreams since the first season. Things went a little different on screen than in the book — their guide, Coldhands, was missing, and Jojen didn't quite make it all the way to the weirwood tree, but their attack by the wights (zombies) was beautifully shot, and reminded all of us still reeling from battles like Oberyn Martell's two episodes earlier that there is way more in heaven and Earth in Westeros than battling for the Iron Throne.
Another epic scene that didn't occur in the books but was perfectly placed in the series was a face-off between Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and The Hound (Rory McCann). There have been two road trips this season, Brienne with her clumsy squire Podrick, and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and The Hound, both headed for the Eyrie, although for very different reasons. Brienne believes it her sacred quest to honor the dead Catelyn Stark by finding her daughters, Sansa and Arya, if they are still alive. The Hound, for his part, knows how valuable Arya is, and hopes for a big ransom for her safe return to her family.
Last week his hopes for gold were dashed when the pair was informed that Arya's Aunt Lysa was dead. When Brienne (in some beautiful acting from Gwendoline Christie) realized that she had run across Arya, her quest quickly turned into a rescue attempt (and a kick-ass fight scene) as she tried to get her away from The Hound. This scene was not only beautifully staged, with the rocky cliffs of Iceland as a backdrop, but especially poignant, as both Brienne and the surly Hound have wormed their way into the hearts of both book and television show fans. It was not Brienne's time, but when she looked for Arya post-fight, the bird had flown. No one is going to push around, or lead, the Stark girl. Not anymore. Even more upsetting than watching The Hound lose his fight was watching Arya walk away from him, refusing to ease his passage. "You remember where the heart is?" Valar morghulis.
Two of the best fighters and fan favorites, Brienne and The Hound, head-to-headBack in King's Landing, Tyrion was expecting his executioner, but surprise — his brother Jaime came to spring him from his cell. He and Varys had teamed up to get everyone's favorite Game of Thrones character out of town, and fast. But wait — instead of going up and out a passage, and to freedom, Tyrion decided to take a detour to his old rooms, now occupied by dear old dad Tywin (Charles Dance). Book readers will know that there was a strong motivation for this visit — Jaime had just revealed that Tyrion's first wife Tysha was not a prostitute at all, and his father only let him believe that to end their marriage in such a way that Tyrion would never go looking for her. The series has given Tyrion enough reasons to hate his father, but to leave out this bombshell drop did take away some pretty important emotional subtext for Tyrion's next move.
He entered his father's bedchamber, expecting to confront the old man, but instead got an eyeful of his ex-lover and honest-to-goodness prostitute Shae, in bed, waiting for Tywin, and calling his name. Tyrion saw red and strangled her in a heartbreaking scene — our hearts breaking along with him and for him. He spied Joffrey's old crossbow on the wall, and headed down the hallway, to the privy, in search of his father. Charles Dance as Tywin has always been magnificent. As always, he looked at his son, disbelieving that he had managed to escape, but maybe also a little impressed. He also was superior as always and dismissive of the potential danger. No one would dare challenge Tywin Lannister, right? Wrong. Plonk. The crossbow fired. Plonk. Twice. Happy Father's Day!
"Say that word again ..."Varys helped conceal Tyrion in a breathable wooden box and saw him safely loaded onto a ship leaving King's Landing. After a moment's consideration he decided to join him on board. Another variation from the books, but a nice one. Streamlining the massive text and tons of characters can be an improvement sometimes. Also headed out of Westeros was Arya, who used her magic coin and the phrase "Valar Morghulis" [All men must die] to book passage to Braavos and Season Five.
I still have some more of A Dance with Dragons to tide me over until the next season begins. Will I want to rewatch this episode? Most definitely. And probably a few others from this season, like last week's "The Watchers on the Wall," with the Night's Watch and Wildlings episode-long battle at Castle Black. But never "The Mountain and The Viper." Never again. With Martin still writing (supposedly two more books), and Benioff and Weiss privy to at least some of the upcoming plot turns, it looks like Game of Thrones will be able to continue to surprise both fans of the fantasy book series and "The Unsullied" (folks who haven't read the books but just watch the show). Probably the most surprised after seeing "The Children" are all the internet mavens who were convinced they would catch at least a glimpse of Lady Stoneheart as a season finale coda. We'll have to wait until next year, guys ...