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Cult Recap

Game of Thrones season 4 finale recap: 'Brutal, funny, heart-breaking'

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Season 4, episode 10 | Aired Monday, Jun 16 2014 at 21:00 BST on Sky Atlantic

As Game of Thrones reaches the end of a hugely successful fourth season, it climaxes on perhaps one of its busiest episodes ever in 'The Children'. Now, by their very nature, all Game of Thrones episodes are busy, but this one feels like it has more to get through than most. That it manages to rattle through so many stories, bringing satisfactory ends to most of the year's strands whilst setting up plenty for next year is a minor miracle.

Game of Thrones S04E10: 'The Children'

© HBO


Things open immediately as they left off after last week, with Jon Snow trudging out into the North to murder Mance Rayder. Ciarán Hinds' reintroduction to the series is welcome, but it begs the question: why wasn't he featured last week? He might have given the enemy a human face behind all the CGI giants. His talk with Jon is particularly interesting, given his confession that he and his army don't want to invade and pillage the Seven Kingdoms: they simply want to hide behind their wall. Put like that, it doesn't seem an unreasonable request.

Things get more interesting once Mance realises Jon's real reason for being there, and he poses a question of Jon that he never gets to answer, as his dilemma over whether to kill Mance and sacrifice his own life is negated by the arrival of a rather large army.

The surprise arrival of Stannis and Davos definitely works as more of a shocker in the books, but it's still a fantastic moment on the screen thanks to some nicely shot CGI cavalry. It's about time that Stannis remembered his quest to ride up and help protect The Wall. It was at the end of last season that the idea first came to his attention, but he's not mentioned it since. Still, better late than never, eh?

Game of Thrones S04E10: 'The Children'

© HBO


Speaking of better late than never, it definitely feels like the opening scenes in the North here should have been situated at the end of last week's episode. The big, rousing moment of Stannis' arrival might have had more power coming as a welcome release at the end of a hopeless battle. Where last week's episode tapered off at the end, the scenes here would have left it feeling far more rounded as a special event episode. Game of Thrones is such a serialised story that it's difficult to show a plot from start to end within any one given episode, but with the battle at The Wall they probably could have.

Elsewhere in The North and Bran – who has had by far the shortest shrift of the major characters this year – finally reaches the three-eyed raven. Bran and co are also treated to the series' most outrageously fantastic set-piece yet, as a bunch of undead skeletons leap out of the frozen ground to halt their progress – and it's a real doozy of a sequence! The late Ray Harryhausen would doubtless approve of the skeletal creature design, while the gang's diminutive rescuer seems to have magic grenades at her disposal! We even get more examples of Bran / Hodor kicking ass and taking names. What's not to love?

As fun as the sequence is, it also comes with a shock - the death of Jojen Reed. In the books, Jojen survives the equivalent battle, so it's an interesting curveball by Benioff and Weiss. It's also somewhat of a shame, as Thomas Brodie-Sangster is a far more enigmatic performer and Jojen a far more interesting character than his sister Meera, but such is life. Quite who the mysterious and curiously adult little girl and the old bloke in the tree are is a mystery that will have to wait until next year.

Game of Thrones S04E10: 'The Children'

© HBO


Another change from the books is The Hound vs. Brienne. Those two are not meant to cross paths here, and though book-fans will doubtless know the way things are going to play out, it's still incredibly exciting to see them face off against one another. Game of Thrones has long excelled at duels, and the sword-fight between two of the show's strongest fighters is thrilling, and then, when the weapons are down and it's hand-to-hand, particularly, wincingly, savage. Props to director Alex Graves and his location scouts, too, who managed to find the most dramatic backdrop imaginable to film their crunching encounter.

Arya stays out of the melee, but gets her moment in the aftermath. Maisie Williams is terrific, even in her silence, as she stares pitilessly as The Hound tries to get a rise out of her. That all she does in response is to steal his money is grimly humorous. Clearly The Hound taught her well – but not that well. We know that The Hound would offer mercy in that scenario, but Arya opts to walk away.

Game of Thrones S04E10: 'The Children'

© HBO


It's amusing that Arya gets to cross The Hound off her list by, well, not crossing him off. You'd think The Hound might have earned some mercy, but Arya has grown increasingly cold, and Game of Thrones is rarely kind to its heroes – and as good as Rory McCann is – you'd be hard pressed to call The Hound one of those. As one of the most popular fan-favourites, there'll doubtless be many people hoping there somehow was a Maester hiding behind that rock, but it certainly looks like the end of the road for Sandor Clegane (and what a shame we won't get to see him face off against his brother).

Arya, meanwhile, finally cashes in the iron coin that Jaqen H'agar gave her way back at the end of season two. The captain's change of heart upon seeing the coin is interesting, and it'll be fun to see what adventures await Arya in Braavos next year. Other moments of intrigue include Melisandre taking a particular interest in Jon Snow, and Cersei having her creepy not-Maester Qyburn tending to the wounds that The Mountain picked up in the duel, and the implication, both spoken and visual, that things are about to get a little bit Doctor Frankenstein in King's Landing…

Game of Thrones S04E10: 'The Children'

© HBO


Over in Meereen and Daenerys continues to deal with the political fall-out of liberating the slaves, but it's when the man brings in the charred corpse of his daughter that things really get interesting. After all we've seen of Dany over the past few seasons, forcing her into a position where the Breaker of Chains has to place chains on her own dragons – essentially enslaving her own children – is an awful predicament. Daenerys' story has stalled somewhat since she took the city, but this was undeniably poignant. And there's still Drogon, the largest of the dragons, somewhere on the loose.

Down in King's Landing and Cersei, faced with the prospect of marrying Loras, stands up to Tywin and uses the only defence she has left – admitting her relationship with Jaime. For a man as obsessed with his legacy and his family name as Tywin, this is the ultimate slap in the face. Cersei then runs to Jaime and pledges herself to him. Whether she does this out of genuine love, or simply because he's the only one she has left, is certainly up for debate.

And then there's the big one: the fate of Tyrion Lannister.

With Tyrion sentenced to death, it's up to Jaime and Varys to team up and help him to freedom. But after all that's been said and done, he can't up and leave without a parting exchange with his father. Tyrion and Tywin have one of the best developed relationships on the show, and Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance one of the best dynamics. What Tyrion finds when he reaches Tywin's chamber, however, is just cruel.

It would have been reasonable to assume that Shae's time on the show was done, so her appearance here, in Tywin's bed, mumbling his name – even calling him her Lion – is as surprising as it is gut-wrenching. Tyrion genuinely did love her, and no matter how many people told him she was just a whore, he believed that she loved him. When he mutters "I'm sorry" through his tears after murdering her, you believe he means it. Tyrion has had a life riddled with misery, and his father – so dismissive of whores – taking Shae into his bed is the ultimate hypocrisy; the final indignity.

Game of Thrones season 4: first look -  Peter Dinklage and Sibel Kekilli as Tyrion Lannister and Shae

Visiting Tywin, Tyrion takes Joffrey's old crossbow with him, letting it scrape along the floor of the dark corridor in true horror movie fashion, before finding him in the privy. It's a surreal stand-off, as Tyrion confronts his father yet again over the years of mistreatment and disdain, but for once standing in the position of power. He's the one with the crossbow, and Tywin's literally caught with his trousers down. And even now, after everything, even in this position, Tywin can't see the shift in his son's eyes, can't imagine a scenario where he doesn't ultimately exude his power over him, and he can't help but be disdainful yet again, both of Shae and of Tyrion himself. And it gets him killed.

It's an ignominious end for Tywin Lannister and Charles Dance, who has provided one of the show's true behemoths; a towering, imperious oak of a man, and one of the series' greatest assets.

As Game of Thrones finales go, 'The Children' is a strong one, and like the best episodes, has a distinct thread running through it (hint: the clue's in the title). It can be argued that certain moments might have held more power had their set-up been handled differently (Stannis' arrival) or more time spent with the characters (Jojen's death), but given how much the series has to cover, they're still wonderfully entertaining, and the big moments with Daenerys, Brienne, Arya, The Hound, Tyrion and Tywin are as brutal, entertaining, funny and heart-breaking as we've come to expect from this magnificent series.

It's going to be a long wait for season five.

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