There’s a lot going on in Westeros and I’m here to report that it’s not all terrible.

In the penultimate episode to the fourth season of Game of Thrones, we got a lot of fighting at Castle Black. Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch battled against the wildlings led by Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, and the raiders behind it led by the Thenns, Tormund Giantsbane and Ygritte. Dan O’Halloran didn’t dig the episode as a whole, and while I agree that it didn’t live up to its battle-heavy predecessor on the Blackwater, I found the scene with Ygritte and Jon was a perfect culmination of their relationship. I’m a big softie, I guess.

In the finale this week, we get back to the multi-story arcs the series is known for and tie up a whole bunch of loose plot threads, while ripping a whole set of new holes to get lost down. We are shown the horror of governing in the East with Danearys realizing putting things in chains is sometimes for the greater good. We get a crazy turn of events both North of the Wall and in King’s Landing, but the moment that felt the most real was witnessing the closure with Arya and the Hound. The episode, and the season overall, changed the landscape of politics in the Seven Kingdoms forever. The power vacuum set off by the episode’s dramatic events assures the huge audience HBO has built will return for season five.

On to the discussion. Be warned, the following will contain spoilers for the finale of season four, as well as touch on the events of the source material written by George R. R. Martin. Stop reading if you want to stay pure.

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In the scene that should have concluded last episode, Jon Snow walks out to meet with Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall. Snow’s plan, if he has one at all, is to get close enough to Mance to kill him. The King is shrewd though, and sees the glimmer of honor in Ned Stark’s son. He thwarts Snow’s plan by offering him food and drink in his tent. To kill Mance now, after bread and salt have been shared, would be a heinous act before the Old Gods and the New. Jon hesitates just enough for Mance to call him on it. Here’s the thing: Jon Snow actually admires the old crow and can’t abandon his ideals just for the safety of the Night’s Watch.

Also interesting in this scene is Mance’s willingness to concede. He doesn’t want to kill or murder the “crows” of the Night’s Watch like the rest of the wildings seem to – Mance was a crow once after all. He has brought the wildings to the Wall for a different reason. He recognizes there’s a deeper threat, the Others, and that if Jon doesn’t let the wildings past the Wall – to hide behind it – the whole host of a million or more will come back as the walking dead to take it anyway. Jon seems convinced, but then the horns blare.

A large contingent of cavalry has arrived. Cavalry? Men in heavy armor? North of the Wall? What? Well, if you’re surprised, you haven’t been paying close enough attention. Stannis Baratheon and his Hand Ser Davos have been plotting this for weeks. All the machinations in Dragonstone, the travel to Braavos to secure funds, the conversation between Melisandre and Queen Selyse on her daughter traveling with them; All that has led up to Stannis taking the troops he still commands (several thousand knights) to the North to consolidate his power there. His cavalry decimates the unprepared and undisciplined camp of the wildlings, leading to a rout.

Mance lowers his weapons, instantly guessing this new power is now in control, not the Watch, not the wildlings. Stern Stannis assesses the situation with Jon Snow and Mance Rayder when he dismounts, well, except for that silly wildling who thought he’d kill the king. After the poor extra is cut down, Stannis and Davos confront Mance. Stoic, gruff white dudes versus other stoic, gruff white dudes. There’s a lot to be decided in just a few minutes. Stannis begins by asking Mance to kneel, but the wildling refuses again and again. Jon Snow tells Stannis who he is, Ned Stark’s son, and the two share a moment. On Snow’s testimony of the honor of the former King Beyond the Wall, Mance is taken in chains.

Jon goes to Tormund, who is also in chains. He’s not really sure why he’s there, but the audience figures it out when he asks how wildlings prefer to be memorialized after a battle. Snow is asking about what to do with Ygritte’s body. Jon rides out and lights up a bier with her beautiful red hair flared around her head. Jon lights the bier, and, in the end, Ygritte truly is kissed by fire.

A bit later in the episode, there’s a memorial held in the courtyard of Castle Black for all the fallen brothers of the Night’s Watch. Maester Aemon presides, and it’s a touching moment to say goodbye to Grenn, Pyp and all the rest who lost their life in the defense of the castle, the Wall and the realms. The scene gives emotional weight to the previous episode’s events, sure, but it’s more effective as a preview of the drama to come in season five. Castle Black is full to bursting. Not only are Stannis’ knights housed there, but so is the Queen and her daughter. Stannis and Davos look on. Tormund is below, captive, as is Mance Rayder. Ser Aliser Thorne is still alive, wounded, somewhere in the castle. Even Gilly and the babe are there.

But through the flames set by Jon and Sam to burn their brothers’ bodies, we see Melisandre: The Red Woman. She gazes on Jon Snow and sees something. Important! Portent! Season Five!

As a reader of the books, I’m curious as to why they left off the election until the next season. The made-up storyline at Craster’s Keep felt like filler, but now it has finally come to its awful fruition. Because we wasted three or more episodes, events integral to the ending of A Storm of Swords had to be pushed back. Far too many events were packed into the end of this season, but it didn’t have to be so. That was the creation of the show runners Weiss and Benihoff.

At least, it will add some drama to the next season. We’ll get quite a lot of politicking at the Wall in season five, which should give it enough importance, but I worry that it will be stretched to a season long arc it can’t sustain… unless they make up something else to fill it in.

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Moving east, Daenerys is still reeling from her dismissal of Jorah Mormont and dealing with an unhappy populace. An old man comes to her throne room, a tutor for a rich merchant, and he actually begs her to let him back into slavery. She relents, reluctantly allowing a contract for one year at the maximum for all slaves to become indentured servants. Before Selmy Barristan can warn her that the Masters will use this decree to their advantage, a goat herder is shown in. He bears a bundle and he’s openly weeping. What’s in the bundle? Another burned goat? Nope.

“It was the black one,” he says. “He came from the sky. My little girl…”

Horrified, Daenerys just stares at the bones of the three-year-old child. She immediately brings her two other dragons, Rheagal and Viserion, to the catacombs, luring them in with freshly killed sheep. The representations of these creatures in the show continue to be extremely well-executed. Their wings feel like leather and canvas sails, and the reactions with their eyes and mouths are animated perfectly. Perhaps it’s the sound design that sells it, really – the screeching and crying at being chained up and left in the dark is dreadfully similar to wounded dogs or babies left in a crib.

The symbolism may be heavy, but Daenerys must consider her actions before she can be a true leader. She has married her image to breaking Slaver’s Bay. She has said over and over again that ending slavery is her only goal. But she’s confronted with people who’d prefer to be part of that system, seeing its imperfections preferable to the imperfections in her new world order. Her dragons are the source of all her power, but they are just as much of a menace as the slave masters were. Her dragons kill little girls. Enslaving them is better than more murders.

Being a queen is hard.

It all goes back to King’s Landing, doesn’t it? The Lannisters are in a shitty situation, for being on top. Tywin rules the Seven Kingdoms in all but name, yet Cersei is openly defiant at being forced to marry Loras Tyrell. It’s not clear why she flip-flopped from her stance before the trial of Tyrion to support her father’s decision, but she returns to her strident self. When threatened by her father’s words, she stands her ground and defiantly throws her and Jaime’s incest in his face. “If you had taken one look at your family, you’d have known,” Cersei says, and she’s not wrong. For all that Tywin goes on about his family, and the Lannister name, he doesn’t know any of them. He is the perfect patriarch: Making decisions on their fate without ever deigning to know their wishes, dreams or desires.

Cersei goes straight to her brother Jaime, perhaps thrilled by her independence from Tywin. She reneges on everything that transpired between them – you know, that whole rape thing in the Sept. Cersei promises to support him, to be with Jaime in King’s Landing instead of locked up at Highgarden or Casterly Rock. The two siblings do it on the table of the Kingsgaurd barracks, racking up another “Weird Place to Screw in the Seven Kingdoms” item on their list. Let’s see, they’ve got Top of the Tower in Winterfell, The Funeral Pyre of their Dead Son in the Great Sept and now this? Where do they fuck next? Braavos? Tune into Season Five of Game of Thrones on HBO to find out!

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Speaking of Braavos, that’s where Arya is going to start her new life. In many ways, the story of Arya and the Hound is the best plot arc in season four. She has been traveling with him for nearly 15 episodes now, after the Hound defeated Beric Dondarrion in season three and took her out from under the Brotherhood’s protection. She has learned Sandor Clegane is both more of a villain and a hero than she realized, and there’s grudging respect between them. The two were last seen trying to get through the Bloody Gate to deliver Arya to her Aunt Lysa, and the mirth the girl showed when they were told of Lysa’s death was spot-on.

Also traveling to the Eyrie are Podrick and Brienne of Tarth. As I predicted, these two storylines intersect in the foothills of the Vale of Arryn. Brienne sees Arya by herself, although the girl does indicate a man is with her doing his morning business, if you know what I mean. Brienne and Arya’s conversation is tinted with portent – it was great to see these characters interact when they never do in the books. They chat about named swords, and how the big woman learned how to fight from her father, of all people. It was sweet.

Brienne isn’t sure who she’s talking to, though, until the Hound stands up. His grisly visage is unforgettable, and she rightly assumes his ward is none other than one of the Stark girls she’s sworn to protect. She tells Arya to come with her, but Sandor Clegane will have nothing of it. He recognizes the Lannister gold on Oathkeeper’s hilt – it is in the shape of a Lion after all, hard to miss. The two big warriors confront each other, sparring with words before weapons. I was actually surprised that Clegane admitted he was “looking after” Arya now, and he wasn’t going to let someone take that from him. What an apt symbol of reluctant fatherhood! The Hound would never say he’s responsible or that he’s protecting anyone from anything, but he sure as shit won’t let anyone take Arya from him. Not after all they’ve been through.

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What follows is one of the greatest fight scenes the show has produced. It wasn’t as showy as the Mountain versus Oberyn, or as epic as the scene at Castle Black, but it felt extremely real. The pain, the agony of just trying to kill another person with whatever tools are available was exhilarating to watch. Brienne and the Hound are evenly matched swordsmen. The ease at which the two exchange blows ranges them far away from Arya and Pod. Swords are lost, and the pair resort to punching, with Brienne picking up a stone to help bash in the Hound’s already messed-up face. Through it all, her grunts and exhalations echo in the hills. I love that the show-runners did not take away her femininity in the fight. Brienne is strong. She is a skilled warrior, but she is also a woman. Her grunts are high-pitched, yet powerful, like Monica Seles or Serena Williams.

But what made the fight so compelling was that, at least for me, I wasn’t sure who I wanted to win. Brienne is a likable character, but the Hound has the most at stake. We’ve seen him at rock bottom this season. He recounted how he was burned by his own brother to Arya, comparing his lot to hers makes the Stark’s story feel like a theme park. For him to die now would mean the character never received redemption.

He is beaten. Brienne flips him off a short cliff and she survives with most of her person intact. Of course, she can’t find Arya, and Brienne screams at Podrick to find her. To come all this way without one of the promised Stark children when she had her within her grasp is too much.

But Arya doesn’t want to be found. She hides, then goes to say goodbye to the Hound. He is bloodied and broken; the femur protruding from the middle of his thigh. Sandor knows he is done for, and he expects Arya to give him the same mercy he gave the peasant in the Riverlands. She doesn’t. Clegane even taunts her with all that he’s done, including riding down the butcher’s boy, Mycah, all the way back in the first season. You know, the act that put the Hound on Arya’s little list. He begs her: “Kill me! Kill me! Kill me!”

But in the end, Arya walks away. Withholding the one thing Clegane craved, his own sorry death. The Hound, for all the relationship they have built together, is not worth the nothing he has brought to so many souls.

Arya takes his silver though, and makes it to the harbor town and boards a ship. The Wall is too cold, says the Braavosi captain (with a finally authentic accent!) Oh wait, she’s got a special iron coin from Jaqen H’Ghar, the shape-shifting assassin who broke her out of Harrenhal in season two. The captain looks at her incredulously. “Valar morghulis,” Arya says. He replies, “Valar dohaeris.”

Arya is off across the Narrow Sea, then. To Braavos to become what, exactly? We shall see.

What will Gregor Clegane become? We speculated the Red Viper used poison in his duel with the Mountain, but it wasn’t completely clear. In this episode, we see Maester Pycelle tutting about his laboratory with the Maester stripped of his chain, Qyburn. Cersei Lannister oversees the proceedings. Qyburn tells her the Mountain was poisoned with manticore’s venom, and Pycelle says that he’ll surely die. Qyburn disagrees, and at Cersei’s behest, begins the process of bringing Ser Gregor Clegane back to a healthy life. Sort of. Long Live Ser Strong!

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Finally, we get to see the culmination of Tyrion’s sentence and his beheading for the regicide … no wait, Jaime is letting him out of jail. Why the hell didn’t he do this before the fight with the Mountain? Oh well, plot holes aside, Jaime sends Tyrion through the secret passages of the Red Keep to meet with Varys and get the hell out of dodge.

Missing from the Brothers Lannister Jailbreak is the admission that Tyrion’s first wife – the Tysha mentioned in that drunken monologue with Shae and Bronn in season one – wasn’t actually a whore at all. In the books, Tywin forced Jaime to say she was a whore, and Jaime comes clean at this point, saying that Tysha actually did love Tyrion for who he was, not for his money.

All that’s gone from the show, which I don’t think I like. I guess Shae was a bit more fleshed out in this telling, but her betrayal is a poor substitute for the shit Tywin has done to Tyrion his entire life. Back in season one, Bronn said he’d kill the man who ordered 30 Lannister guards to rape his young wife in front of him. Well.

Tyrion doesn’t tarry long in the passage. He goes straight up to the chamber of the Hand and what does he find? Shae sprawled naked in his father’s bed. She even murmurs “my Lion” in her sleep before she realizes it’s him. She goes for a knife, but Tyrion jumps on the bed. They struggle, and he eventually grabs a hold of the chain she wore to sleep. He pulls. Her dead head hangs over the bed in a mockery of the smile he once loved. Tyrion says he’s sorry, crying, before his eyes alight on a crossbow.

Man, the shot of the little man carrying the crossbow and dragging a metal tool on the marble floor. There’s work to be done.

Tywin is pooping. Thankfully, he also wears a robe to the privy so we don’t have to see his man parts. Even though Tywin is the one with a crossbow on him, he shows nearly no respect to his son. He calls him Lannister, even says he wasn’t going to execute him on the morrow, but he never respects his son. Tyrion admits to killing Shae, and his father’s dismissal of her death is even more damning than the betrayal. “One more dead whore,” Tywin says. “Say whore one more time, motherfucker,” Tyrion says, channeling Samuel B. Jackson. He does, and Tyrion shoots.

Add patricide to the list. As if one bolt wasn’t enough, he reloads and shoots another after Tywin still hasn’t learned. Tyrion leaves his father for dead in the only place worthy of such a villain, the shitter.

Varys smuggles Tyrion out in a box, similar to the one that shipped Varys’ ex-wizard master to King’s Landing but now it will be used to get the dwarf out. The bells start ringing in the Red Keep. Someone has detected that either Tyrion is escaped or Tywin is dead, probably both. Varys hears the bells, and decides to get on the ship to leave King’s Landing.

So that happened. Politically, things could not be more fucked up. Tywin Lannister is dead. The true ruler of the Seven Kingdoms is no more, while power in the North is yet to be determined between the Night’s Watch, Stannis’ knights, and the new Warden in the Boltons. Across the Sea, Daenerys is unsure of herself, especially after dismissing her most trusted advisor. And two more major characters will be headed that way soon, Arya and Tyrion. Will they meet? Will they make love? Who knows with this show?

There’s a lot more to discuss about what was left out and what was changed, but I’ll have to cover that in a different column. And there is a ton to talk about in our Game of Thrones Cast this week. I can’t make time pass quicker, but you can check out all of our Game of Thrones coverage as we anxiously await season five and book six.

Get writing, George! The show is catching up to you!

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