Dead Season Discussion: Trials of Ice and Fire (and Mountains) in Game of Thrones Season 4 (Part 3)

Title CardWith the passing of Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Homeland’s nosedive, HBO’s Game of Thrones is as close as America has to consensus television. Adapted from George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Fire and Ice book series by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones has racked up Emmy’s and Golden Globes, as well as awards that matter, such as the Peabody and Hugo Awards.

To commemorate the end of Season 4, Jeff (of Slazenger1) and I break down the good, the better, and the occasionally bad of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, which premiered on April 6, 2014 and ended on June 15, 2014.

As per the usual, SPOILERS ABOUND. Also, people die. If that’s a spoiler to you, you have no business clicking on a Game of Thrones link. There are, however, NO BOOK SPOILERS beyond what Season 4 of the show covers.


Jeff: We dedicated an entire part of our season three discussion combing through the show’s “big moments.” We may need more space this year.

Unlike the first three seasons, where it felt like the show was building toward the expected episode nine climax, season four built to several different climaxes over the final 3-4 episodes in various locations throughout the world of ice and fire. Sure, we still got our episode nine showcase, but unlike seasons past, that may not have been the highlight of the year. I personally loved the way the back half played out, with several big moments, and even a small one or two that felt pretty big.

Before diving into climaxes though, we should probably start with the episode two shocker now known as The Purple Wedding. What did you think of Joffrey finally meeting his end, and was the moment robbed of any power by taking place so early in the season?

Patches: Haha. Yeah. I think, more than once this season, I was stupid enough to try and predict what episode something would happen. I don’t think I was ever close. I was either early because 2-3 other important things had to happen first or I was late because I randomly expected everything to be the Episode 9 climax.

The Purple Wedding might have been my favorite scene of the series. It probably was too. Then the rest of the season happened. This scene was great because of what was happening in the background. Don’t get me wrong, Joffrey KILLED IT, before dying, in this scene, as he has for the last three years. He did everything short of snorting and spit-taking during his regal Little Person Show. Joffrey made that scene good, but everyone else made it great. While Joffrey was yucking it up, director Alex Graves went around the horn, getting reaction shots of any character with dignity, taste, or a semblance of decency. And it was beyond powerful.

They’re repulsed. Disgusted. Horrified. Tyrion was flat-out angry, a “weakness” he is usually keen to hide from the world. Sansa’s emotional scars were brutally ripped open. Tywin put on his stoic “this kid is the fucking worst” face. Varys looked like he’d had enough of this shit. Loras stormed off. Margaery looked like she was about to cry, probably because she was about to cry.

PurpleRemember, we’ve seen Joffrey do far, far worse. Yet I never felt as wide a gap between Joffrey’s moral compass and that of everyone else on the show. The arrogance. The cruelty. The lack of empathy. The complete wantonness of it all. It’s not easy to kill off a character or deliver comeuppance. Game of Thrones is just so good so regularly that it looks easy. That whole scene was brilliantly directed, and probably one of my top five of the series.

Jeff: I don’t think it gave me quite the reaction that the Red Wedding did, and as you suggest, the rest of the season (and this post) has a lot more in store for us, so I’ll keep it brief. That said, I’m going to praise the power of this sequence with some recourse to earlier correspondence of ours.

The episode does right by taking a page out of the “Blackwater” book and dedicating its entire back half to the Purple Wedding. We get close to ten little side conversations and interactions between the multitude of King’s Landing characters, which is something the structure of the novel could never give us. Also, this scattered buildup to the big finish makes for a fun rewatch, just to see if there were any clues as to who might be in on the murder.

Purple JoffreyThen there’s the murder itself, which puts a violent end to the supreme assholery of King Joffrey. “It’s ridiculously satisfying, yet strangely sad to see him dying, purple and hemorrhaging, in the arms of his parents,” I noted in an earlier response to the episode. Leave it to this show to make us feel just a little bit bad that Joffrey is gone. Or maybe it’s just me.

Now, unless you have anything to say about Dany launching collar-barrels at digitally replicated slavers (all in a Dany’s work), the “white-walkening” of a baby (interesting, but unexplored) or the deaths of Karl, Locke and the mutineers (kind of a side quest). I want to move on to the final three episodes of the season.

Yes, I know Tyrion’s trial and speech in Episode 6 is big, but it leads directly to a much bigger moment. Also, I know we get Fly-sa Arryn (anyone?) in Episode 7, but I think the fallout (anyone?) from that moment is even more interesting.

Then there’s Episode 9. As epic as “The Watchers on the Wall” was, I’ll argue that Season 4’s real Episode 9 moment actually happened in Episode 8, “The Mountain and the Viper.” We’ll get to the wall eventually, but I want to talk about the trial by combat between Oberyn Martell and Gregor Clegane.

Mountain v ViperI don’t think any TV moment has reached me on such a visceral, gut level like Oberyn’s death did. The buildup was great (including the nice scene between Tyrion and Jaime). The editing of the fight is pretty great too, even more so for the inclusion of telling reaction shots throughout. Finally, the double sucker punch of the Mountain turning Oberyn’s head into beef stew and seeing Tyrion realize exactly what this means for him is outstanding. I could watch this whole sequence on loop for a solid hour if I want to be hyperbolic (and if I wasn’t worried about the psychological effects of overexposure to head implosion). It’s that good.

Now I’ll let Patches talk for a while. First, is there anything between episodes 2 and 8 that you feel I should have spent more time on? Second, the trial by combat was the season’s biggest moment, right?

Patches: Hmmmm… fascinating question. After some deep thinking and two deleted paragraphs, I think I would agree. The unfolding of the story might prove that some other moment in Season 4 was far more important (Children of the Forest, anyone?), but the trial by combat was either consequence or cause of everything else important in the season. If we look at Season 4 as its own story, independent of the preceding three, it is clear that Season 4 is the story of Oberyn Martell’s quest for vengeance. “Hello. My name is Oberyn Martell. You raped and killed my sister. Prepare to die.”

And yes, that scene was an indescribable kick to my stomach’s balls. That might make no sense, but it is only way to describe it. I’m not sure it outdid the Red Wedding, but I’m pretty sure I felt more disgusted (in the good way?) after this. There was just something about the “pop” of his skull. That noise, Jesus… Sickening. Which, of course, makes it perfect.

ReactionAnd like the Purple Wedding, it was a very good scene made great by quick cuts between the fight and the reactions. It’s what gave it importance and meaning. It was the most important moment of the season because everyone in the scene acted like it was the most important moment of the season. Bravo to everyone involved.

As for anything I think merits more mention, I have to stress the extent to which this was Peter Dinklage’s season. If Game of Thrones was its own theme song, it would be this. Perhaps no actor is better than Dinklage at carrying on his face the weight of an unjust world. His testimony in Episode 6, “The Laws of Gods and Men,” was a damn powerhouse a lifetime in the making. Tyrion’s entire life has been the butt of some cosmic joke, with punchlines repeated ad nauseum by his hateful sister, resentful father, and every random asshole who liked picking on easy targets.

Finally, he snapped. Not only did it make perfect sense that Tyrion snapped, but even the manner in which he snapped was perfect. He didn’t break into histrionics or start uncontrollably weeping. He just started dropping the most vicious truth bombs imaginable on everyone. It’s the most Tyrion thing possible. That’s what happens when an intelligent, reflective person cuts loose on a vapid audience, corrupt government, and unjust world. It was brilliant.

TrialAll the other big moments of the season were products of multiple people. The Purple Wedding and the trial by combat were made great by the reactions of everyone in the background. The Battle of Castle Black was made great by the special effects, director, and cinematographer. Tyrion’s trial was made great by Peter Dinklage.

We’ve both mentioned the Battle of Castle Black, which was Season 4’s version of the Episode 9 climax GoT loves so much. What did you think of it and how do you think it compares to previous Episode 9’s?

Jeff: The best, or saddest, part about Tyrion’s speech is the sheer number of deaf ears it falls upon. That’s Westeros!

Now, in thinking about your last question, and this season, I’ve come up with this. Game of Thrones has given us epic climaxes like “Blackwater” and more intimate, but no less impactful climaxes like “Baelor” and “The Rains of Castamere.” Lucky for us, Season 4 gave us both. “The Mountain and the Viper” is smaller and more character-centric while “The Watchers on the Wall” is an hour-long spectacle. How do they all compare? It depends on exactly what you want from the episode, I guess.

I don’t want to diminish “Watchers,” because it does pepper in some nice little character beats (Pyp, Grenn, Thorne), however, if there’s one non-Bran storyline that diminishes an interesting locale with uninteresting (or unexplored) characters, it’s the Wall.

Don’t crucify me just yet. I’ve really liked a lot of the business with Sam and Aemon, and Jon and Ygritte’s doomed love is compelling, if not always compellingly acted. Often for me, the Wall is great just because it’s the Wall. It towers over the people who toil on either side of it both literally and figuratively. I will say this: I feel like there are many more important things to happen at (and beyond) the wall. I just hope they don’t get lost because of the amazing stuff in King’s Landing and the wilds of Westeros.

I know I’ll probably have a hard time defending what I just said, so let me switch gears and call “The Watchers on the Wall” a(nother) near perfect adaptation from book to screen. The camerawork and editing are tremendously well executed. The geography of the battle is always clear. Nobody is forgotten in the fracas. The 360-degree shot is one of the most technically ambitious (and non-CGI) things the show has ever done. It’s a marvel.

Castle BlackThat said, comparison is difficult as I think it kind of stands alone. It’s a slightly different beast than “Blackwater” because it only involves four members of the main cast, all of whom are a part of the battle, which covers a major chunk of the episode. It washed over me like a war movie, filled with heroic sacrifices, courage finding and bloody action. To its credit, it isn’t a movie, it’s an episode of a TV show (albeit an HBO show, which isn’t TV), and the technical achievements it displays are impressive. I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again soon, at least not outside of this series.

I feel kind of bad now. I think I’ve done more “damning with faint praise” than “praising with faint damnation,” despite being more in the latter camp. Sorry, I can’t help it if “Watchers” wasn’t my favorite episode of the season. Nothing can take away its scope, scale and ambition. On the battlefront, it delivers. Please say you’ve got a little something to counter my negativity. Or bring up the Wall’s elevator, which is always good for a laugh.

Patches: Hahaha. The one carrying all the people that could be operated by a small child? Hey, if the Panama Canal was so perfectly balanced it could be operated with a motor that runs lawnmowers today, the Wall’s elevator could be operated by Westeros’ Butters-equivalent.

I think I was prepared to disagree with you a lot more before reading your explanation. I think everything you said to praise “Watchers” was dead-on your criticisms are well-warranted. The Wall is the most interesting character at The Wall. That’s both awesome and a source of concern because you don’t have that actor or personality to anchor those scenes. King’s Landing has had various Lannisters holding down the fort. Davos steals every scene with the Stannis crowd. Jaime, Petyr, Tyrion, and Hound/Arya have roamed all over the place being awesome. The Wall just doesn’t have anything, aside from a certain wildlings’ immaculate posterior, that exceeds it. The Wall casts as large a figurative shadow as it does literal.

To be honest, though, I kind of like that. I’m cool with a place that bigger than its denizens. At the very least, there’s not another place like that on the show. More importantly, I think it also makes sense. I mean, there’s three types of people at The Wall, right? 1) Awful criminals 2) Inconveniences to Lords 3) Solemn, honor-filled individuals. Do any of those groups of people sound particularly interesting? I think the show has done pretty well for itself given the premise of The Wall and the Night’s Watch.

To be fair, however, I think we’d both agree that I took to the miscellaneous Black Brothers a bit more than you did. Maybe it was the Great Expectations jokes I could make with Pyp. Maybe it was Grenn’s beard. I don’t know. I just thought Jon & Friends play off each other’s’ personalities effectively. I liked the romance between the dour Jon Snow and lively Ygritte. I liked the sense of brotherhood and that they hold each other to their oaths and responsibilities.

Ygritte DiesAnd I loved “The Watcher on the Wall” because it paid those things off so perfectly. You take three seasons to get to know Grenn, Edd, and Pyp because it’s gonna mean something when they die. You read off the Night’s Watch Oath ninety times in previous seasons so that when you need to rattle it off in an emotionally swelling moment, viewers can appreciate it in full. You establish a running joke between two characters (“You know nothing, Jon Snow”) so it can be repeated when one dies in the others’ arms. It was an insanely epic battle that felt four years in the making in every sense. So, yeah, I loved “Watchers on the Wall” pretty unabashedly, even if I totally get where you are coming from.

The Purple Wedding, Tyrion’s testimony and trial combat, and the Battle of Castle Black. Those struck me as the “big moments” of the season. Is there anything else you think qualifies?

Jeff: If you can’t tell from above, I’d say that every one of the final 5 episodes of the season feature a big moment. Also, there’s that certain big moment that wasn’t. I want to give a quick mention the fight between Brienne and the Hound, a confrontation that didn’t happen in the book, but played out oh so brutally and heartbreakingly on the show.

The last things that I’ll bring up are the deaths of Shae and Tywin by Tyrion’s hand. This is Tyrion saying goodbye to everything he’s ever known, possibly forever. His killing of Shae is shot and blocked beautifully, with him hanging off the edge of the bed. This was the way it had to go down.

As for Tyrion taking out his dad, I initially felt like the scene didn’t quite feel worthy of Charles Dance, considering all that he’d done up to this point. The more I think about it though, it’s perfect. Tywin is caught in a compromising position from which he has no escape. Even his silver (or should I say golden) tongue fails him at this moment. He has no idea how to talk to his son, and in fact never has.

tywinPoor Tyrion is resigned to this situation that his family has put him in. Sure, he could have left without visiting dad, but it just seems right that he puts an end to the man who likely bears the blame for the complete dysfunction of the Lannister clan. So long, Tywin.

Also, Arya gets on a boat, but we won’t know just how big that moment was until next season. Any final thoughts from you, or are you ready to move on to our superlatives, where we probably just talk about things we’ve already mentioned?

Patches: Yeah, that Brienne/Hound fight was excruciating, wasn’t it? I found myself so invested in both characters that I flinched every time they teased a bloody conclusion and I don’t know how they could have almost-ended the fight any more times.

I also have to agree with everything you said related to Tyrion, Tywin, and Shae. I somehow missed Shae’s death in the book and then found out about it in the next one or something. It was beautifully shot and Dinklage really sold the agony of what he was doing. I’m not sure if this or Shae’s testimony – or his knowing her testimony was a result of his lies designed to protect her – destroyed him more.

As for Tywin, there is definitely a certain poetry to it. The most powerful man in Westeros… The man who overthrew a king… The man who single-handedly built the Lannister name (while paving the way for its demise)… killed on the shitter.

Memento mori, bitches. Memento mori.

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