Chris: Another season of Game of Thrones concluded, Andrew, with a host of major events and plot points and changing of the Westeroi dynamics in “The Children.” The biggest events, the Lannister family Father’s Day and the incredible heavy-weight match-up between Brienne of Tarth and The Hound, we’ll get to those in a moment. But today I actually want to start in the far far north, with the least compelling story of the season: Brandon Stark and the search for a tree and a bird.
One reason Game of Thrones has managed to find the broad appeal it has, I would argue, is the show’s willingness to keep fantasy in the background. The politics and drama of Game of Thrones are the heart of the show, and for politics and drama, this is the best show going. Which is why the development in Bran’s story was perhaps the most significant to unfold last night. With “The Children,” the show took its biggest bite out of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and I’m very curious to see how it will shape the world of the show, and how it will affect audiences.
Game of Thrones is not historical-fiction, such as some consider it. A story of knights and heroes, in the era of kings vying for thrones, populated with men and women one might find in our own history, plus some fantasy. I have at times thought of the story as analogous to something like The History of the King’s of Britain, the 12th century fantastical history of Britain from Geoffrey of Monmouth. The characters and places of Kings of Britain are rooted in history, but the stories are fantasy adventures. There has been a lot of talk about these details, about how to situate Westeros into our own world. Here, we’ve asked where Westeros is, and others have asked when and where this story is set, too. The answers to these questions matter, because, as Benjamin Breen recently wrote, “fantasy worlds are never just fantasy. They appeal to us because they they refract our own histories and speak to contemporary interests.” Martin and Benioff and Weiss have put great effort into creating a Westeros that audiences recognize as familiar but have never been able to put our finger on. Politically this could be today; visually it could be 1000 years ago; medically it could be 19th century. The world-building in the Game of Thrones, for my money, is the best thing going in Game of Thrones.
Which brings us back to Brandon Stark and friends, and the significant world-building that took place in the north. We’ve glimpsed these moments in the show before, but never has fantasy been as central to a storyline as it was last night, when Bran battled an army of zombie-skeletons through the warging mind-meld of a paralyzed child and a developmentally challenged adult. When a mystical fire-throwing child led Bran to an ancient man who lives in the roots of a tree, who told Bran he will fly. Brandon’s story has been (unequivocally) the most boring of season 4. I have no idea what is going on underneath that tree North of the wall, where The Children have been since before the first men. What I do know is that after four seasons of slow-build–dragons, a giant, the occasional White Walker–last night the world of Westeros took a huge step towards fantasy, and that is something we should not overlook.
Now, to the KILLING!
Andrew: I was struck by the same thing. The Bran storyline has not been among the show’s most interesting, but last night it became the show’s most obviously fantastical—and I’m sad to say that it really didn’t work for me. The scene where Bran and his companions fought the skeletons by the mystical tree was the first scene I can remember in the entirety of GoT’s run that played as silly to me. Ever since Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, I can’t see walking/fighting skeletons without laughing just a little; and the fireball-hurling girl’s cheesy line delivery was straight out of A Neverending Story.
GoT is known as a show that brought HBO production values and prestige to a fantasy story, bringing some level of cultural respectability to a formerly despised genre. And it’s succeeded admirably. But it’s done so by focusing on the strong characterizations and realpolitik of Martin’s source material, and it hasn’t yet taken a serious look at the truly fantastical elements of Martin’s world. Last night represented the show’s most extended look at those elements—and, sadly, it felt a little bit like a throwback to the campy film fantasies of the 80s. The scene felt like it was from a different show.
The fantasy elements we saw last night will undoubtedly be part of the show into future seasons—but what last night’s episode will probably be remembered for is its handling of the Tyrion Lannister plotline, which has been a major question mark this whole season. Freed by Jaime, Tyrion went on a mission of vengeance before fleeing King’s Landing, strangling the woman who betrayed him and killing his father while he sat on the toilet. Happy Father’s Day!
Chris: Ah, the Lannister family Father’s Day. As a fan, I am quite relieved that Tyrion did not die. This was an open question for me, and if Tyrion–and Peter Dinklage–had been added to the casualty list of season 4, it would have resulted in some serious soul-searching on the part of this viewer. But as it stands, Tyrion lives, and The Lion himself is dead. Director Alex Graves has done dynamite work most of this season, and this scene for me was special. Tryion is loosed upon the castle to seek his revenge, and the manner in which his lone walk through the stone halls is captured is simply stunning to watch. Tyrion has been hard done by, and his revenge could have been manipulative and overwrought. Graves made the murder of Shae a tragic affair, blunt and unyielding. Her death is no victory for Tyrion, or for viewers. And Tywin, as confident and assured as ever, simply cannot believe that his hated child could pull the trigger. As Tywin shares his “hate isn’t as strong as family obligation” spiel to Tyrion once more, it is Tywin’s casual disparaging remarks towards Shae that end his life.
The only complaint I have to make about the death of Tywin Lannister is that the revelation of Cersei and Jaime’s relationship was made known so close to the time of his death. Given Tywin’s obsession with lineage and legacy, the most prized piece of knowledge on the subject was put to ill use. I had thought, once Cersei revealed the truth to Tywin, that his life would be safe for the remainder of the episode, and the consequences of his illegitimate grandson King would be forced upon him next year. But this is a small complaint. Good riddance to one awful father.
Andrew: Good riddance indeed. Though Tywin wasn’t a villain as blatantly hissable as Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton, he may have been among the worst men in Westeros. Even aside from how he screwed up all his kids, let’s not forget that under his leadership, his men went across the countryside wreaking havoc among civilians with impunity. His end was darkly ironic, almost Shakespearean in the logic of its relation to his fatal flaw: his obsession with his legacy at the expense of those who would carry it, his children. Confronted with the truth of his grandson’s parentage, then killed in the privy by the son he’d scorned, Tywin got exactly what was coming to him.
The other bit of violence that we have to talk about is the confrontation between Brienne and the Hound over Arya. The relationship between Arya and the Hound has been among the show’s most complex, which is saying something—she started out as his prisoner, someone he hoped to sell for ransom. But gradually, the relationship turned into a friendship of sorts, or even a mentorship. Last night, when the Hound went sword-to-sword with Brienne, it wasn’t because he didn’t want to lose his ransom. He’s got no one left to sell Arya to. Rather, he didn’t want to give Arya up to Brienne because he sensed her Lannister backing and feared for Arya’s safety. Their fight—brutal as it may have ultimately been—was over who could best care for Arya.
As for Arya’s decision not to mercy-kill the Hound after Brienne dumped him over a cliff—well, I don’t know quite what to make of it. Let’s just say the complexity of this relationship runs both ways. The Hound has been Arya’s protector, yes, but he also killed one of her friends in Season 1. And though she seems to genuinely care for him at times, she’s also put him on her kill list and called him “the worst shit in Westeros.” But after last night’s episode, I’m worried that Arya may be making a bid for that title herself. Her caution with both Brienne and the Hound make it clear that she’s lost her ability to trust. In the end, she’d rather be alone than be hurt again. She’s managed to stay alive through everything she’s seen—but her soul is dying.
Chris: Arya looks to be committing herself to the cause of revenge and pain. That’s what I took from her decision to walk away from the Hound as he begged to be killed. The way to hurt him most is to steal his coin and walk, much like the Hound had done previously to the Farmer. Arya has learned what she can from Sandor Clegane, and this is what she has learned. Her trip to Braavos, it seems, will only put the finishing touches on her decision to become a killer.
As for Brienne, she continues to amaze. She’s now defeated both The Kingslayer with a sword, and The Hound in brutal hand-to-hand combat. With Jaime’s lost hand, the deaths of the Viper and the Hound, and the Mountain having a poisoned blood transfusion (ps: what the fuck?) Brienne has become the most powerful combat-oriented character in Game of Thrones. Is there a single man or woman in Westeros who could stand against Brienne? That her character is riveting, funny, and actually likable is a delightful bonus. Still, it’s hard to imagine she’ll have much more success claiming Sansa when she arrives at the Eyrie than she had with Arya.
Andrew: The one worry I have with both Arya’s and Tyrion’s storylines going forward is that they both seem to be headed across the Narrow Sea—and as we’ve seen with Dany, Essos is where compelling stories go to die. Chris Orr confirmed in The Atlantic roundtable discussion that these stories founder in the books. Which means that Benioff and Weiss will have to start getting creative from here on out and keep departing from Martin’s source material.
As for Dany herself—well, if you’ve ever had a pet it was hard not to have some feels about the scene where she locked her dragons up in a dark catacomb. Other than that, Dany’s portion of the finale was basically a retread of existing material: more petitioners complicating her self-image as “Breaker of Chains,” and yet another mourning subject bringing news of her dragons’ violence. I’d make a case for Season 4 of GoT being the best yet—but Dany’s stuff was dull dull dull throughout. When Bran Stark’s storyline is more compelling than yours, you know you’re in trouble.
So, my main wish for Season 5 is for events in Essos to be actually interesting: for Tyrion and Arya’s stories not to die, and for Dany’s to find new life.
Chris: Just FYI, Andrew, Dragos the dragon didn’t go crazy and burn up a child. Dragos went Dragos. You keep dragons around, they’re gonna act like dragons.
I share your worry about what happens–or doesn’t–across the Narrow Sea, especially since Arya and Tyrion are fan favorites and carry a lot interest in the show for some of the viewers I know. As the map continues to expand and characters get farther afield, it’s more important than ever for Benioff and Weiss to maintain intrigue in these plots, in a way they have not managed with the Mother of Dragons. Dany was a favorite for both of us going into season 4, and now her arc is almost without attraction.
We’re getting to the end of our time here, but it’s incumbent upon us to address the action at the Wall. The tete-a-tete between Mance Rayder and Jon Snow was the best scene at the Wall all season, and left me wondering why the writers and directors have been unable to plum these depths for Jon previously. Their remembrance of their fallen comrades–the King of Giants and the dead farm boy–was moving. And it set the stage for a key player in the Game to stake his claim to the Iron Throne.
It was way back in the finale of season 3 that Maester Aemon sent out his dire warnings to the Seven Kingdoms for help protecting the wall from the threats that lie to the North. And a full season later, it is Stannis who answers the call. His arrival to stave off the armies of Mance Rayder will perhaps lead him to his first real challenge as king. The threat now at the Wall is not so much an army of 100,000, but an entire civilization of refugees, seeking to “hide behind the wall, just like you,” as Mance told Jon Snow.
The problem before Stannis Baratheon is difficult…what will he do…cut to lingering shot of the Red Priestess’s face behind flames.
Andrew: Jon Snow’s meeting with Mance Rayder was surprisingly poignant—and for me, a reminder that on some level the fighting between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings is completely absurd. The Wildlings aren’t the enemy. They’re just people who happen to be unlucky enough to live north of the Wall. Peace treaties don’t make for very good TV, though. Plus, I suppose the lords of the North wouldn’t be too fond of 100,000 refugees streaming into their lands. Particularly when some of them are Thenns.
Stannis’s intervention was a great moment—but his character is another representation of my concerns about the show as Season 4 ends. Renly once said that Stannis had “the personality of a lobster,” and I’m inclined to agree. But the show’s ranks have been seriously thinned by late-season deaths, so that lobster’s going to have to carry things in the absence of more compelling characters like Oberyn Martell, Tywin Lannister, and the Hound. GoT’s penchant for scattering its plotlines to the wind is occasionally exhilarating—but where do you go when, once again, everything’s disintegrated.
Season 4 was a great season of TV. It’s probably GoT’s best so far. But can the show pull off the same feat in Season 5? I wonder.
Either way, I hope you’ll be there with me next year to find out. Thanks for the fun this season. I raise my glass to your recapping prowess.
No, not wine. A real Northern drink.