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Game of Thrones Season 4 Finale Recap: I Have Always Been Your Son

And now our watching is ended (for now).

Last night’s season finale, written by showrunners David Benoioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Alex Graves, was titled “The Children.” And while a wee wittle Child of the Forest did, in fact, make a fiery appearance, it was the children we’ve been following for 40 hours now that were the heart of the episode. The relationships between generations has always been one of the show’s major themes, and GoT used it in resonant ways throughout the hour — and not just at that one big moment, which we’ll get to anon.

The Free Folk may not put a lot of stock in rules and rulers, but they do believe in tribes and lineage, just as the “civilized” people of Westeros do. Following the watchmen’s Pyrrhic victory at Castle Black, Jon and Mance Rayder sit down for a tense parley and Mance notes — halfway approvingly — that Jon’s men killed Mag the Mighty, a giant who was the king of his people, with a bloodline that stretched back for generations. Jon retorts that Grenn, the man who killed Mag and was killed by the giant in turn, came from a farm.

As the two tired soldiers share a “proper Northern drink,” it’s clear how, in different circumstances, they could have been close. The big, lordly man has more than a bit of Ned Stark in him — not least a shared inability to bend one’s internal rules for the sake of safety or convenience. Mance’s drive as a ruler comes from a fatherly need to protect; as he tells Jon, he’s not here to conquer, he just wants to shepherd “his people” to safety and some rest. (Of course, he also let his people slaughter a bunch of innocent villagers on their way south, but I’m not here to question anyone’s parenting techniques, particularly on long road trips.) When Stannis’s men arrive, streaming into the frame in those crisply beautiful grid formations — which the camera returns to multiple times, underlining the fact that it’s rigid, geometric-thinking Stannis who manages to take down those free-loving hippie anarchists — Mance puts his money where his mouth is and surrenders. But in Ned Stark-y fashion, he won’t kneel. Later, at Castle Black, a captive Tormund will tell Jon that he’s been with the Free Folk for too long and that he, too, will never be “a kneeler” again.

So Jon now has two father figures, Mance and Ned, who shape his sense of the world. But with all he’s seen, he can only be his own man: When he meets Stannis and reveals his parentage — earning the dour man’s trust and respect — Stannis asks him what his father would do with Mance, and Jon’s answer draws its weight equally from Ned’s lessons and his own experience. Mance could have tortured or killed him at any time, but he didn’t; Ned would have taken him prisoner, Jon says. And if his father had seen what Jon has seen, he would also burn their dead — immediately.

Across the Narrow Sea, the orphan Daenerys is having a somewhat harder time coming into her own. An orderly, organized fighting pattern may have brought down the wildlings, but Meereen is messy, and the neat social system Dany has been trying to impose on the cities of Slavers Bay has been straining for some time now, as more and more citizens step forward to request something the conquering queen didn’t foresee. Last night, it was an old man who wanted Dany’s permission to return to servitude, which brought him not only protection (in the mess halls and barracks Dany has set up, just as in Westeros, the strong seize any opportunity to prey on the weak) but also the more rarefied tiers of human needs: love, belonging, the respect of others. Dany makes a spur-of-the-moment adjustment to her ethical framework and allows the man to enter back into service for a year, saying, almost like she believes it, that freedom means being able to choose. Her father figure, Barristan Selmy, points out that the masters will soon take advantage of this loophole, but what’s a girl queen to do?

My gut churned as the second man approached Dany’s throne and it became clear what was in that bundle of rags he was crying over. A few weeks ago, in a similar situation, we were spared the sight of a charred child’s corpse; last night, however, we were not so lucky. The trade Daenerys was forced to make — locking up her “children” in penance for having robbed the man of his — had a brutal symmetry to it. It’s as if Dany, unable to make clean, uncomplicated rules stick with her people, punishes herself with the same.

Or at least, the scene was supposed to be brutal. Did anyone else find themselves totally unmoved by the scene? I feel like Daenerys’s love for her dragons is regularly insisted upon, but I personally needed more development to find that bond emotionally believable. That’s the second big good-bye Dany’s had to make that left me Stonehearted.

A more moving farewell, in my book, was the one we paid to Jojen Reed. Oh, Jojen, I barely understood what you were talking about half the time. But your sister loved you, and you loved her, and when those Pirates of the Caribbean skeletons came punching their way up through the snow and stabbed you all those times and then your sister had to cut your throat to keep a bunch of angry wights from eating you, or whatever it is wights do to people when they catch them, I got very, very sad. Given how many times Jojen insisted that Bran would have to push forward to … wherever he was going, Jojen’s death wasn’t actually a surprise. And the show did sweep past it pretty fast in its rush to get to the juicy fantasy revelation: not only the Child of the Forest, but a Gandalf of Bran’s very own. (Children of the Forest, you may or may not recall, belong in the grumpkins-and-snarks category of supernatural creatures that once roamed Westeros but haven’t been seen for eons. Apparently they have been spending the intervening years living underground and perfecting their cherry-bomb tricks.) 

The Three-Eyed Raven, a.k.a. Fantasy 101 Old Wizard Man, tells Bran that he’s been watching all of them for all their lives with his thousand eyes (geez Dad, get off my back and just let me livemylifealready). He also tells him that Jojen knew he would die, and did so in order for Bran do “find what he lost.” Bran asked – with what struck me as unseemly eagerness, given his friend’s very fresh demise – if the raven was going to teach him to walk. The old man replies that he will never walk again – but he will fly. Robin Arryn will be so sad to miss it!

It remains an open question, to me, what the show creators think of Bran continuing to warg into Hodor whenever he needs to use the man’s body as a weapon. There’s a little thrill that comes from watching Bran’s mind click into place in Hodor’s body, as if the boy and the big man are some kind of magic meat Gobot. And the show encourages this; it’s fun and satisfying to watch Hodor suddenly move with a precision and focus that he didn’t have a moment before. (Kudos to actor Kristian Nairn for pulling off that transition.) And in this case, Hodor was being beaten by the wights when Bran made the transition. But I also feel like the ease with which Bran is falling into this habit is part and parcel of how, in his slow transition into something of a grumpkin or a snark himself, Bran is pulling away from humanity.

Something similar is happening to Bran’s big sister, Arya. As the Stark children make their way in the world, their sweetness is being wrung out of them – they’re becoming ice queens, dudely kings, heartless wizards, and, oh yes, stone-cold killers. It’s like a very, very heavy Narnia fanfic.

As I watched Arya watch the Hound die, I thought, Arya has learned a lesson that I, as a Game of Thrones viewer, haven’t managed yet. Which is: how to remember when someone has done something awful. Given the sheer number of complicated story lines in Game of Thrones, it’s easy to forget who did what way back when. Add that to the show’s have-it-both-ways relationship to on-screen violence (you can indulge in it even as you deplore it), and its insistence that every character has shades of moral murk – so that even terrible people who murder little boys and maim single fathers can, on other days, be plausibly tender protectors – and it’s easy to just let it all go and have wildly incoherent reactions to a character. I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer who was feeling a little soft toward the Hound there, at the end, and wanted Arya to not only put him out of his misery but share a Tender Moment with her Big Buddy. And even though I don’t always want to root for the hard new Arya (or rather, the hardness in the new Arya), I, for one, am glad the show didn’t indulge my mawkish bullshit. Because, well, it was mawkish bullshit and I have enough things to feel conflicted about on this show. And ultimately, ending the Hound’s story line on such a painfully complicated emotional note felt like a proper wrap-up of his story line. (Assuming he’s really dead, of course.)

I loved the interaction between Arya and Brienne, especially the way they shared stories about their fathers. Watching Arya slowly size up this other, older warrior woman, it was easy to imagine what Arya’s next road-trip buddy comedy might have looked like. But Arya is clearly past the point where she needs a father or mother figure. And so she pulls out the coin Jaqen H’ghar gave her two seasons ago – the one that, along with the magic words “Valar Morghulis” (“All men must die”), will compel any man of Braavos to whisk her away to his home country – and gets herself passage on a ship. Braavos is the homeland of her beloved water dancing teacher, Syrio Forel, as well as the home of Jaqen H’ghar’s Faceless Men assassins (as well as the home of the Iron Bank – all of which must keep the Braavosi tourism board very busy). The final scene of the episode begins with Arya and her white horse galloping across a wide swath of green fields and ends with her sailing off into the wide ocean – it was a visually and emotionally expansive conclusion, particularly in an episode with so many scenes in caves, catacombs, and other dark, claustrophobic spaces. I’m not crazy about yet another location for season five, but I think Arya abroad will be able to hold my attention better than Daenerys does.

Okay okay, let’s get into the big season-ending twist.

The children of Tywin Lannister had some special Father’s Day F Yous for their Papa Bear. For their entire lives, Tywin has been impressing upon them the importance of family ties above all else. Well, in “The Children,” the siblings make good on Daddy’s advice – but instead of orienting themselves toward the light of their father, they turn to one another. Cersei, in a mother-bear rage, tells Tywin that she won’t marry Loras and be shipped off with him to Highgarden; she has to stay in King’s Landing to protect Tommen, her “last boy,” from the tug-of-war for his soul that will surely ensue if he’s left to Margaery and Tywin. (So I guess she’s retracting that nice mother-in-law bit from a few episodes ago?) Cersei reminds her father of how, at the end of the Battle of Blackwater, he came upon her in the throne room, holding Tommen in her lap and on the verge of giving him nightshade. Cersei will destroy what she loves to keep it safe. She “burns the house to the ground” by speaking the truth that Tywin has tried to stay blind to for all these years: that Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen are Jaime’s children, not Robert Baratheon’s. (Watch Tywin fiddle with his keys as Cersei storms off – the only nervous tic I remember seeing him exhibit in four seasons.)

Cersei then goes to Jaime to declare her “love” for him – though it felt more like something allegiance to me. The scene comes right on the heels of Cersei’s encounter with Tywin; at multiple points, she brings up their father and Tommen. She compares her father to her lover, saying she doesn’t choose Tywin, she chooses Jaime. Cersei’s father and son are in the room just as much as her brother is. This scene isn’t just about rekindling a past love; it’s also about shoring up a future ally in a time of crisis, just as Cersei once tried to do with Oberyn. The notion that Cersei has this renewed passion for Jaime just doesn’t make emotional sense to me – and yes, I realize that this may be a willfully resistant reading because I can’t write off the rape scene as a bit of character complexity or an unintended continuity error. By season five, maybe I’ll have forgotten more.

Jaime, meanwhile, caps off the fraternal bonding that’s been building for the last half of the season and frees his little brother from his dungeon, risking Father’s displeasure by sending him off on a ship, procured by Varys, to the Free Cities. But Tyrion, of course, takes a little detour first. And sadly, for him, he sees Shae in his father’s bed before he meets his intended target.

It’s sad for us, too. I don’t take offense at the idea that Tyrion killed Shae; their love had a terrible, inevitable arc that bent toward a dark end. But her death was little more than an amuse bouche before the real meal. And it only seemed to mean something in so far as it affected Tyrion – which is why the camera focuses on his teary, screwed-up face through the long moments in which she sputters and dies. His reactions, his feelings, are the real money shot here. Tywin dies on the toilet but is dignified with speech; Shae, like Ros before her, is a barely clothed woman who dies without words. Did she betray him because he hurt her? Was she trying to survive in the only way she knew how? We’ll never know, and in the end, did it matter?

When Tyrion does finally confront Tywin and bristles at his father’s casual but barbed use of the word “whore,” I don’t get the sense that he shoots an arrow into him because he’s slagging his true love. It’s because “whore” is a reflection on Tyrion. It’s a term that cuckolds the younger man; it renders him foolish, unmanned. In the end, the figure of Shae and the shame she embodies is simply the last straw in the long, grinding battle between these two lions.

In Game of Thrones, the drama of the parent and the child is the alpha and the omega; it’s the bedrock of everything else. “I am your son. I have always been your son,” Tyrion says to his father, just before he plants one more carefully loaded arrow into his father’s chest. Tyrion may have burned down his house and brought down his primal enemy. But as he sails off in that crate to the Free Cities, how free do you think he really is?

Well folks, thanks for letting me wade through Westeros with you all once again. It’s been a pleasure, even though you’re all so small I can’t even see you.

Before we part for another long winter, a few final questions and observations.

  • I’ll be damned if I can remember how Stannis knew to ride against the Free Folk. Did Melisandre see something in the fire? And speaking of the Red Priestess – note the way she and Jon locked eyes at Castle Black, during the funeral rites for the fallen Watchmen. Given her history with young, pretty bastards, could this be some juicy foreshadowing?
  • Did Jon build Ygritte’s pyre at the same weirwood tree where Bran and Co. met the Three-Eyed Raven? All weirwood trees have blood-red leaves, and apparently they are plentiful in the North, so maybe not. The scene continued last week’s motif of the spaces that surround Jon and Ygritte, which can either make intimacy possible or drive them apart: Outside the confines of Castle Black and his duty as a Night’s Watchman, in the protected, divine sphere of the weirwood tree, Jon can openly and properly mourn his love. The shot of Ygritte’s white face swallowed up by the dark of her hair, her furs, and the pyre operated like a spotlight, focusing our attention, and Jon’s, on the woman herself, not the wildling culture she came from.
  • The Clegane brothers do not seem destined to make it through their lives without getting horribly maimed. What do you think Qyburn is going to do the Mountain that will bring him back changed but not weakened?
  • Watching Brienne battle the Hound was a good reminder that this woman once faced against a bear. She’s so regal and composed lately, it’s nice to be reminded of the rough side we first came to love her for.
  • Loved how calmly Varys just turned right back around and got on that ship with Tyrion’s box once he heard the bells tolling for Tywin. Nothing keeps a good Spider down.