Father’s Day With the Lannisters: Game of Thrones Thrilling Finale
An absolute ton of spoilers below. Just a ton. Don't read if you're not caught up.
The end of the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall,” saw Jon Snow leaving Castle Black after surviving the first onslaught of Mance Rayder’s Wildling army. Giants, mammoths, Wildlings and Crows were strewn inside and outside the wall, dead and soon to be burned. Jon was leaving, alone, without his sword and, perhaps more inexplicably, without his direwolf Ghost, to attempt to kill Mance Rayder before his army attacked the wall in full force.
“The Watchers on the Wall” could credibly be called one of the most expertly filmed sustained action set pieces in television history. Director Neil Marshall, cinemtagropher David Franco and the entire filmmaking team turned what could have been a confusing, incoherent debacle (it was the rare episode that was focused entirely on one storyline, in one setting) involving two different battle fronts (one from outside the wall, one coming from the south) into a symphony of spectacle. One much discussed sequence was the 360 degree crane shot of the mayhem inside Castle Black. As Marshall told Rolling Stone, the shot was a single take, without CGI, and one he credited to his assistant directors and stunt guys. Marshall’s 360-degree crane shot wasn’t just an effort to show off, he explained. “I realized you had five major characters involved, and at this point you needed to know where they were and how they were all interrelating with each other. That gave birth to that shot in thematic terms. It very literally put you in the middle of it.” This is to say nothing of the brilliant scythe that the Crows used to clean the wall of climbing Wildlings, an invention credited to series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
The episode was a stunner, but so many story lines were left untouched by the action at the Wall that last night’s finale, beefed up to 75-minutes, was going to have to do some pretty serious work tying up some major loose ends. None more major than the fate of the series' most beloved character, Tyrion Lannister, embodied so thoroughly and enjoyably by Peter Dinklage. After Oberyn Martell failed to finish the deal and kill The Mountain in "The Mountain and the Viper", instead getting his head turned into guacamole in Tyrion’s trial by combat (the judicial system in Westeros is, at best, highly illogical), Tyrion’s execution was cemented by Tywin Lannister, his haughty, grumpy, strategically gifted father. As Jeremy Enger wrote for the New York Times, you can only imagine how delicious Benioff and Weiss found it when they saw their season finale would end on Father’s Day.
Yet instead of opening in Tyrion's cell, the finale began where “The Watchers on the Wall” left off, with director Alex Graves following Jon Snow, alone beyond the wall, on his way to attempt to kill the leader of the Wildling army, Mance Rayder. Within moments he’s surrounded by some blade carrying Wildlings and face-to-face with the man who managed to cohere the warring tribes of “free folk” into a unified force. Played by Ciarán Hinds, Mance Rayder is one of those characters on the televised version of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling epic that you wish you got to spend more time with. Only a few minutes of screen time were on offer yet again, but Hinds and Kit Harrington, as Jon Snow, made the most of it.
One question that has seemed to go blindly, self-destructively unasked by many of the Night’s Watch (while the rest of Westeros seems to believe that the drama at and beyond the wall doesn't matter at all) is what could possibly bring all those fantastically hierarchy-immune Wildlings together under one banner, as it were, and attack the wall in such a coordinated effort? Yes, there’s plenty of bad blood between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings—sorties from the former capturing and killing the latter, and vice versa, and a big part of the whole purpose of the Night’s Watch is keeping the Wildlings out—but outside of Jon Snow and a few others, no one seemed to find it a touch odd that a people who would rather die than answer to another man would take orders in an effort to breach the wall to…what? Kill a bunch of people in Mole's Town and slaughter some Crows?
Once seated inside Mance’s winter-chic tent and raising glasses of some kind of rotgut (Jon nearly choked on it, after having to be convinced it wasn’t poisoned), raising toasts to the late Ygritte and Mag the Mighty, the giant who managed to get through the gate but not past Jon’s brave Crow brothers, led by Grenn, who died keeping the colossus out of Castle Black, Mance explains to Jon that despite all the town raiding and slaughtering thus far, the Wildlings don’t want to hurt the Night’s Watch, they just want to hide behind their Wall. There's something much worse coming for the seven kingdoms, and Mance basically gives Jon a "I know that you know what I'm talking about," look, which Jon, of course, does. The White Walkers promise to turn all the political machinations, all the palace intrigue and trials by combat, all the revenge killing and maneuvering and strategizing into a totally laughable sideshow if they are allowed to breach the Wall and enter Westeros.
‘All of a sudden’ is an overused phrase, but seriously, all of a sudden two large cavalry regiments sweep into the forest, slicing through Wildlings like shawarma meat, ending this very promising conversation between Jon and Mance. It's Stannis! It seems his fingerless number two, Davos, and his brilliant bit of salesmanship in front of the brass at the Iron Bank convinced them to loosen their purse strings and provide the perpetually gloomy Stannis his army. Davos, doing his usual “you are in the presence of the true king” routine with Mance, while Stannis glowers, cannot get Mance to kneel. He and his people aren’t the kneeling type. Jon explains his lineage to Stannis, who knew and respected his father, and when asked what old Ned Stark would have done with Mance, Jon tells him that Mance had his chance to torture and kill him many times over, but he never did, and that Ned Stark would have taken Mance prisoner and learned what he knew.
And just like that, Mance is a prisoner and Jon is back at Castle Black, now with Stannis, Davos and their rather large assortment of troops, burning all the dead and hopefully taking very seriously the things Mance can tell them about what's coming for them all. There's a final shot at Castle Black of Melisandre staring intently (it's the only way she knows how to stare) at Jon from across the burning bodies. If you're a bastard, and Melisandre is staring at you, run.
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys is once again on her throne, listening with growing confusion (and not a small amount of frustration) to a former slave who, since being freed, has found his life spiral into homelessness and despair. He wants to return to his master, to Dany’s total bewilderment, where he was respected as a teacher of children, had food and shelter, and more or less felt he had it pretty good. It seems the barracks Dany opened for all the former slaves is something of a bully breeding ground, where the old and infirm are beaten out of their beds and meals. Ruling Meereen is complicated, forcing Dany to change her own rules on the fly as the facts on the ground she so swiftly conquered keep presenting her with conundrums. She is probably the most morally inflexible character on the show—not a small issue in the moral gray zone that is the world in which she operates.
The next Meereenite to win a moment of her company comes in weeping and holding a bundle of rags. Never a good sign, the weeping and the holding of a bundle of rags. Sure enough, that bundle contains the charred remains of his three-year old daughter, another victim of the Mother of Dragon’s unruly children. Without Jorah Mormont’s counsel she’s one clever mind down when trying to figure out how to make it all work. She chains her dragons up in the catacombs as a result, weeping while she works, although the real bruiser of the bunch, the biggest, baddest of her dragons with the let-down of a name, Drogon (meet my dragon…Drogon?), is off probably torching some terrified sheep herd's livelihood somewhere.
North of the wall, on a quest that seems to be entering its twelfth decade, Bran, Hodor, Jojen Reed and his feisty sister Meera are at the point of collapse when they reach the mystical Weirwood tree where Bran is supposed to hang tough with the three-eyed raven and potentially save the seven kingdoms, or at least give Hodor a break from all that schlepping. They’re just about there when a skeletal hand bursts from the snowpack under Jojen’s feet and grabs his ankle, unkindly. In a vivid tribute to the late, great VFX legend Ray Harryhausen’s work on Jason and the Argonauts, Bran and Co. find themselves under attack from sword and scabbard wielding skeletons who come exploding out of the snow-covered ground. It's all pretty exciting. Once again Bran has to get inside Hodor's mind in order to get the gentle oaf into battle mode.
Jojen, who we all knew wasn’t long for this world (Jojen himself kept insisting he wasn’t long for this world) gets stabbed repeatedly in the chest by one of the skeleton-warriors, while Meera and Bran-as-Hodor, do their level best to take down as many of skeletons as they can.
All of a sudden one of the skeletons explodes in a burst of orange flame. Huh? Turns out the finale’s title “The Children,” while referencing all the various kids (Tyrion, Cersei, Dany, Jon Snow, Sansa, Arya, etc.) who have been fighting for, or against, their fathers’ power and/or legacy, refers specifically to the Children of the Forest, these tiny supernatural creatures who once roamed Westeros with their merry grenades and who, despite looking like children, are super ancient. Luckily for Bran, Meera and Hodor, one appears with a pocket full of the aforementioned grenades. Jojen is beyond saving, but the rest are sent dashing into a cave system that made the skeletons, upon entering, explode (?). There Bran meets his three-eyed raven, who’s now in the form of Gandalf’s brother, Bandalf (he looks wizard-ish, is the point), and who tells Bran that he’s been watching him, watching all of them, since they were born, with his one thousand eyes (not cool) and that Bran is about to find what he’s lost. Turns out it’s not going to be the use of his legs, but Bran will be able to fly. Which I guess means this whole quest was undertaken to finally spare Hodor from having to haul him everywhere. Or, he's going to save the entire world. Or something else entirely—Bran's character arc, for those of us who haven't read the book, consists almost entirely of him being schlepped around by Hodor to some potentially crucial but wholly murky end.
Next we have Brienne and Podrick, sans their horses, running smack into Arya and the Hound. In another life, Brienne and the Hound would have been a fearsome duo, but in this one, they're sort of like the irresistible force and immoveable object meeting each other on a cliff. After some small talk, Brienne finds out that she’s staring at Arya Stark, and goes on to explain that she made an oath to Arya's mother (but for some reason doesn't mention looking for Sansa?). Some unpleasant words get exchanged between Brienne and the Hound, and the inevitable fight breaks out. And what a fight. Good Lord. These two battle tested ace swordsmen/women slash, stab, and bludgeon each other all over the place. As bad as it was seeing that giant, horrible Thenn smash Jon Snow's face against that anvil in "The Watchers on the Wall," watching the Hound repeatedly punch and then headbutt Brienne was not fun. That is, until Brienne gets the better of him and pounds his face into sour mash, and then right off the side of the cliff goes the Hound. Arya finds him bleeding horribly about the face and with a leg that looks to be severely, grotesquely broken. He’s dying. He asks Arya to be merciful and kill him, to check him off her list that she's always nattering on about. Arya, with nothing but frost in her eyes, relieves the Hound of his money but refuses to put him out of his misery. Arya’s cold, turning colder, and one can only hope she either gets reunited with someone she actually cares about (Sansa, Jon Snow) before she turns into Cersei-with-a-sword.
It also reasonable to argue, as Nina Shen Rastogi at Vulture points out, it's hard to remember all the awful things so many of these characters have done. The Hound, albeit occasionally tender towards Arya, didn't necessarily deserve her mercy, either.
But arguably the most thrilling events in this very packed, satisfying episode involved the incestuous, diabolical, demented Lannister clan. Cersei has been pushed far enough by dear old dad, and while Tywin delivers his usual set of “family first” commands to his daughter, specifically that she will marry Loras Tyrell, fulfilling her duty to her family, Cersei drops a nuke right on top of his usually composed, strategic brain—“Your legacy is a lie,” she tells him, and goes on to assure him that all the rumors about her and Jamie are true, and the Lannister kings, both Joffrey and now Tommen, are the products of incest.
Ah, Charles Dance, the man who plays Tywin—you are so, so good. Perhaps the very first flicker of self-doubt we’ve seen on the regal mug of Tywin flickers in that moment. Cersei repairs to Jamie’s room, where she tells him what she’s told their father everything and that she chooses to stay in King’s Landing, with Tommen, and Jamie himself, and that the only family she cares about is her son and her brother. Whether or not this is another of her cheese piece maneuvers is unclear as of now, but Jamie seems receptive to it, save for one part—the killing of their other brother, Tyrion, who Cersei still blames for killing their mother when he was born (whether she really believes he killed Joffrey is also still unclear). So it’s Jamie to the rescue, freeing Tyrion at night and telling him that he’s to be taken away—the playing chess-while-others-play-checkers Varys will help ship him out of Kings Landing in a crate, the very Varys who had gone against Tyrion during his sham trial. The Lannister boys have a touching moment, where Jamie hugs and kisses his beloved little brother. All Tyrion has to do is go up the dark staircase and secure his freedom.
Only that’s not what Tyrion does. Instead, he creeps back into the castle, finds his beloved Shae, quite undressed and in his father’s bed, and, after a struggle, chokes her to death with the necklace he gave her. We are spared the sight of seeing Shae's last breaths—the camera stays on Tyrion's fury and grief, finally pulling back to reveal his beloved, now lifeless, her head hanging off the bed right next to his. It's the impossibly sad ending to a relationship that the world in which Tyrion lives would never allow. He weeps, apologizes to her for what he's done, and then, gathering himself, glances at Joffrey’s infernal crossbow hanging on the wall…
Down the hall he finds dear old dad sitting on another type of throne. Tryion is holding the crossbow and aiming it right at his father, who's in a loose fitting robe (Tywin, in a loose-fitting robe!) and sitting on the privy. First, he's resisted by his daughter and given some supremely distressing information, and now he's in the crosshairs of his son's crossbow, while sitting on the toilet, in a loose-fitting robe. Oh, Tywin.
Tyrion tells his dad that ever since he was born, his father wanted him dead. Tywin is too smart to think he can lie his way out that obvious fact, so yes, he wanted Tyrion dead, but Tyrion wouldn’t die, and not only was he impressed by this fact, he respected it. He goes on to tell his son that he would have never allowed the execution to be carried out, he’s a Lannister, after all. Tyrion, however, has Shae on his mind. He loved her, he tells his father. But to Tywin, Shae was nothing more than a whore, one he ripped from his son, turned on him, and then took for his own. “Say that word again,” Tyrion says to his father. The conversation goes south. Tyrion shoots dad, twice, at point blank range
On Father’s day.
Tywin is dead.
Tyrion (and Varys, having turned around after hearing the bells announcing the Hand of the King’s death) are on a ship headed for the Free Cities.
Bran is about to become interesting.
Arya, having utilized the coin Jaqen H'ghar gave her two season ago, the one that, coupled with the words "Valar Morghuilis," makes any man of Braavos take her to his home country, is doing just that.
Westeros, as always, remains on the brink of winter, which seems to be finally close enough to compel warring factions into some kind of cooperation against a common enemy.
And we just wait for season five, definitely the most brutal aspect of this entire series.