All Men First Must Live: Reflections on Game of Thrones S4E10

I didn’t expect much of the Game of Thrones Season 4 finale. Sandwiched between an entire episode dedicated to the Wall and nine long upcoming months of radio silence before Season 5, I figured the final episode would treat us to a bland series of character snapshots and perhaps a few cliffhangers that, being nearly a year from satiation and tied to the frustrating ruts in which many characters found themselves stuck by the end of Episode 9, would just leave me grumpy.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once again, the writers of the show (aka Lords of the Universe/Masters of the Craft/Benioff & Weiss) exceeded my best expectations. Not only did they bring us pivotal changes in every one of the primary plot points of the show, but the protagonists tied to those plots matured or solidified in some of the most profound ways we have yet seen.

To start with, despite my low expectations for the drama of the finale, I can’t help but feel profoundly relieved every time my beloved protagonists make it through an episode alive. I couldn’t stomach closing out this fantastic season on a total downer note, plus I have a few favorites after whose death I might have to very seriously reconsider my dedication as a viewer (the usual suspects – Arya, Tyrion, Jon Snow, even Bran). Taking the lives of popular characters is a real novelty and a fine trick to keep an audience on the edge of their seats for a while, but continuing to kill off characters we have grown to know and love over ever-lengthening periods of time, while the number of likable characters dwindles overall, goes against the most essential principles of storytelling. Inevitably, the longer a tale lasts, the more invested its audience feels in those characters whose depth, capacity for evolution and, even, essential goodness, make them truly come alive. We watch them grow up before our eyes, and we come to cherish their faults as much as their merits as they inspire us with new ideas about how to live our own lives. If we lose too many of them, the emotional depth at the heart of the story begins to hollow out.

Of course, my Friends Who Have Read the Books (aka Cherished Sherpas/SPOILER FIENDS) insist on attempting to delicately prepare me for some kind of distinct…tragedy…yet to come, so I might not nail myself to the cross of future abstinence on behalf of any one of my precious favorites quite yet. But I will continue to passionately and tearfully defend the necessity of SOME GOOD OLD-FASHIONED STORYTELLING DECORUM, OKAY MR. MARTIN?!*

Anyway. Moving on.

In addition to relief at the continued livelihood of my heroes (/friends/future husbands…), I was downright impressed by the number and quality of genuine advances in their various situations. With the obvious aid of George R.R.’s blueprints, Benioff & Weiss managed to elegantly assemble no fewer than three complete reversals of fortune, and at least two additional twists with potentially massive implications for future reversals, into a single episode. Each shift represented a complete enough thought to leave viewers emotionally satiated, while severing the characters completely from their suffocating pasts.

Interestingly, if we hadn’t seen such clear reversals in this episode, I think we might have all just yawned, settled back and waited complacently for next year, oblivious to the incipient mold creeping over many of the plotlines. As in real life, the best times often come when your routine undergoes a drastic change that you don’t even realize you want or need until it happens. The changes that took place in this episode were surprisingly refreshing and seemed to promise that old routines will continue to be upended with a vengeance in Season 5.

What is more, as each of the characters’ individual experiences up to this point crystallized, one after the other, in a life-altering point of crisis, we saw these characters take action and truly come into their own. It is a rare privilege of life to watch someone undergo a change that is at once consistent with their character and at the same time a marked departure from certain habitual inconsistencies. They seem to solidify into a more whole, understandable human being – no longer flitting about from idea to idea, no longer cleaving incoherently to behavior patterns that can be, at best, only awkwardly understood in the context of their most sought-after principles. As Tyrion, Arya, Daenarys and even Cersei (antagonist that she is) finally made crucial decisions that pushed them in one clear direction, we were treated to very real moments of maturation – the moments that make life worth living and well-crafted stories infinitely worth ingesting.

When Tyrion, for example, began to struggle murderously with Shae, I felt a moment of panic. Something wasn’t right; Tyrion isn’t vengeful. But the tragic, half-accidental conclusion of their struggle, provoked after all by very real betrayal on the part of someone with whom Tyrion had seemed to share very real love, ultimately made all too much sense. He didn’t suddenly become a vengeful maniac. He simply reached a breaking point in a series of increasingly brutal life events and finally stood up against the people who not only wielded considerable psychological power over him but who had demonstrated a remarkably callous willingness to discard both his feelings and his life.

It never sat well with me that Tyrion held onto King’s Landing in the first place, remaining loyal to a family and a populous that showed him no reciprocal consideration. He was clearly at irreconcilable odds with his cold-hearted dick of a father, not to mention his cruel sister and the thousands of others who simply failed to recognize him for the brilliant, kind and honorable pragmatist that he is. When Tyrion finally looked Tywin dead in the eyes, stopped asking for his approval, and put an end to his gross emotional tyranny for once and for all, he (Tyrion) had never been more pragmatic, nor more just. In short, Tyrion simply became more himself than ever; he summoned all of the strength and resolve that we have come to admire him for and wiped out the forces that most belittled that strength. And then he escaped. Who knows what trials he will face next, packed into a wooden crate on a mysterious ship, but we are left with the triumphant sense that, come what may, he broke his last chains, delivered justice, and got the fuck out of King’s Landing.

Arya faced similarly enormous implications for her character when she found herself suspended between one captor and another, her fate seeming to hang in the precarious space between their swords. When she threw fate to the wind and chose a surprise third alternative of striking out on her own, she chose between the child she had always been and the brave warrior she had always felt capable of becoming. Traveling with Brienne, Arya might have developed a loving bond with a protective adult for the first time in years, but she would have remained a little kid under supervision – which was her chief complaint for as long as she traveled with the Hound. I had always found it difficult to take her complaints seriously because it was hard to believe that she would have been fine on her own. It was hard to believe that she believed she would have been fine on her own. After all, she never took the opportunity to run away. But in the crucible of change, she chose to muster the strength that she had been striving for, professing, and ultimately believing in, for the whole of her life. Essentially, Arya finally had nothing left to lose. That she could recognize this terrifying reality and not succumb to the facile comfort of a loyal female mentor and companion, spoke volumes in confirmation of her very real fortitude and commitment to independence. And as with Tyrion, her life did an about-face for the better after her bold decision. She too set sail for a mysterious land where she will no longer (necessarily) be persecuted, and where she may actually be able to make a new life for herself. Again, come what may in an uncertain future, one thing is for sure: Arya is no longer an adorable little girl who thinks she wants to play big kid games. She’s a grown-ass man.

We saw a third major reversal of fortune, if not one tied to any distinct maturation, when Stannis rescued the North from the Wildling army. Then we saw two portentous shifts that demanded a great deal of strength on the part of their respective protagonists, when Cersei threatened her father with the truth about her relationship with Jamie, and when Daenerys locked up her dragons for the first time. All of these changes in situation and character added up to a fascinating episode overall.

And so here we are, at the conclusion of Season 4, sailing into fresh air ahead, and allowing the spectre of untimely death to fade happily into the background of our memories. We may have nine long months to crawl, parched and suffering, through a television desert, but remember, that’s a good nine months to spin pretty daydreams about what the future holds for our friends in the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Because let’s face it, when Season 5 arrives, all of our best-laid plans are bound to be, well, burned, frozen, pushed off a cliff, squeezed to the point of explosion, or just shot with an arrow – straight through the heart.

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