'Game of Thrones' review: All men truly must die

All men must die. That’s what the Game of Thrones posters warned us, even before the fourth season began. Back then, hard-core Thronies were probably still playing “The Rains of Castamere” on their lutes, mourning Catelyn and Robb Stark, and Talisa and her unborn baby, so the idea that more heads could get staked very soon shouldn’t have come as a surprise. And yet, it still felt like a shock every time we lost someone.

Maybe the hardest to grieve was Oberyn, who evolved from a silly impersonation of Inigo Montoya into a great hero by the season’s end. He was our best hope for happier episodes to come, until his dreams were crushed through the back of his eye sockets. Then there was poor little Jojen Reed, who sacrificed himself for Bran, and the Hound, whose tutelage of Arya made us almost like him, despite his cruelty toward her little redhead friend. It even felt slightly ignoble to let the once revered Tywin Lannister — the savior of Blackwater! — expire while sitting on a toilet. On the upside, Joffrey finally got what was coming to him. But his quick death was heartbreaking in its own way. You could be forgiven for thinking, That’s it? This evil moppet ordered babies to be killed, and all we got to see was a few meager blood tears squeezed from his eyes?

Still, Joffrey’s death underscored the same lesson that Game of Thrones keeps teaching us, over and over again: Anyone can die at any time. As the Hound tells Brienne in the season finale, “There’s no safety.” There’s something smart about that form of storytelling too. History is written by the victors, and in Westeros, you can never be too sure who’s winning, so it makes sense that perspectives should change. And the ever-shifting power dynamics between the warring factions have made this season riveting to watch. But, as EW’s own James Hibberd pointed out, there comes a point where you start to wonder, How much more of this bloodletting can we take? Fans have been threatening to defect ever since Ned Stark parted ways with his skull in season 1, but season 4 was the first time it felt like it might actually happen. With Tyrion’s life on the line, the heart of the show was in jeopardy. You could tell by the reaction to his trial on Twitter. “If Tyrion dies,” fans wrote, “We riot.”

All of this made Tyrion’s escape from captivity all the sweeter. True, there was something not quite right about watching Jaime free him from his cell. Wasn’t there a single guard in the whole kingdom prepared to stop them? And the strangling of Shae, complete with that awful throat-crunching sound, felt especially ruthless, even though she betrayed Tyrion. Wasn’t she just doing what she had to do to survive? But the final showdown between Tyrion and his daddy — on Father’s Day, no less — was deeply satisfying. Tywin the All-Powerful looked frail for the first time, camped out on his own private throne. His last words were rich with subtext. Was Tyrion angry that he was calling Shae a whore, or did the word “whore” resonate with Tyrion on another level? This is a man, after all, who abandoned Shae to marry Sansa, whoring himself out for the good of the kingdom. Though, whatever his reasons for shooting that final, fatal arrow into Tywin, Tyrion’s message was powerful: “I am your son. I have always been your son.” Yep. And daddy taught him well.

This season was full of sons and daughters who would’ve made their parents proud. Jon Snow urged Stannis to treat Mance benevolently, in a very Ned Stark move. Sansa manipulated Littlefinger’s feelings for her, much like her mom once did. Cersei and Jaime both heeded Tywin’s rule that family must be protected above all — though both of them used it against him. Jaime saved his brother and got their father killed. And Cersei protected her son by threatening to expose the one secret that would destroy Tywin’s legacy. Also, how great was it when Arya and Brienne bonded over the fact that their fathers taught them to fight? Clearly, Arya is growing up quickly. It’s a testament to her maturity that she denies herself the greatest pleasure — killing the Hound — to ensure that a more fitting form of justice is served. The Hound isn’t dead yet — we won’t know until next season whether he’s still out there with his innards slowly leaking out — but he will die, eventually. Just like the rest of us.

All men must die. It’s not just a warning that no one is safe on this show. It’s a reminder that no one lives forever. (Well, unless you’re a cherubic creature who has lived in the forest since the dawn of the First Men.) That’s what made this season of reanimated skeletons and White Walker babies feel real: Even in this fantasy world, human beings are all too mortal. Old men get left behind when new leaders take over. (No wonder Daenerys let that silver-haired teacher return to servitude. He has no place in her world.) Parents die, and their children take their place on the throne. Hodor literally needs a younger brain to fight off skeletons in battle, since his body isn’t so agile. You get the sense that this whole season was clearing out the old guard to make room for the next generation. It’s telling that Daenerys, the Breaker of Chains, only decides to chain up her dragons when she sees that they’re killing off little kids.

Who’s left to inherit Westeros? Now that so many sons have died in battle, maybe the daughters stand the best chance. Daenerys, Arya, and Cersei are poised to take over, whether they’re pulling strings from behind the scenes or leading the troops themselves. Many people have argued that this season of Game of Thrones was bad for women, especially the moment when Jaime forces himself on Cersei then emerges in the next episode as a deeply sympathetic character. (It didn’t help that the episode’s director, Alex Graves, argued that the rape “becomes consensual by the end.”) But many female characters also figured out how to wield their sexuality like Valyrian steel. Margaery learned to control Tommen with a kiss. Sansa was able to steer Littlefinger just by giving herself a Maleficent makeover. Lady Olenna bragged about gaining control of an empire just by perfecting a certain mind-blowing move in bed. Some fans were upset when Cersei returned to Jaime in the season finale, declaring her love for the man who brutalized her. But she’s more in control than she seems. She’s just shoring up her allies.

Our biggest hope for next season? It’s all about Arya. Yes, her story was extremely frustrating this season. Watching her walk — and walk, and walk — around with the Hound, it felt like she was literally going nowhere. When she finally reached the Eyrie, she had to turn around and go back. (She laughed! We laughed!) So it was a relief to see her in the season finale, galloping across the green hills on her own. This girl doesn’t need anyone to rescue her. She can ride in on that white horse and save herself. How perfect that she owes her freedom to a phrase that Jaqen H’ghar told her two seasons ago: “Valar Morghulis.” It means “all men must die.” And maybe that’s still true. But it makes you wonder: What about little girls?

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