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In advance of Game of Thrones' season finale, there was a lot of back-patting going on amongst the show's writers and show runners, lots of murmuring about "the best season finale ever." Considering how this series works, I don't think it was unreasonable to assume the boasting meant that viewers were in for a fucking world of pain. Jon Snow was headed back to the wildling camp to assassinate Mance Rayder even though he's in a terrible place emotionally. Tyrion was on deck to go to the gallows (or whatever more horrible killing place you're sent to when you kill a king). And of course there was/is the residual trauma of Oberyn Martell's meeting with the Mountain. I purposely didn't eat a big dinner before the finale because I was afraid I might stress-puke.
The season started (well, it was episode two) with a bloody-eyeballed, broken-blood-vesseled bang and wrapped up by again reminding us that there's great satisfaction to be found in violent murder. Like, fake violent murder. The show so frequently makes masochists of us—I usually hate Internet meme-y shit like this, but the Game of Thrones Cycle is pretty accurate—that the moments when we get to be good old-fashioned vengeance-bent sadists are pretty pleasing.
It's more fun to be a Ramsay than a Reek, no?
This isn't to say the episode didn't have its share of crushing (RIP Oberyn) moments, and not just the kick to the crotch the Hound gave Brienne of Tarth. There were four major deaths. Maybe. OK, there were at least three major deaths: Bran's trusty companion Jojen was killed by skeleton monsters; then there was Tyrion's double homicide of his former lover Shae and his father, Tywin, who was caught while squatting over his chamber pot. I emerged from a conversation with a coworker not entirely convinced that the Hound is really dead. If we don't see someone die onscreen, it might not be wise to assume they actually died (although that compound fracture looked pretty nasty). That might just be wishful thinking, though—I certainly didn't want Brienne to lose their fight to the death for Arya, but I didn't want the Hound to, either.
Meanwhile, Daenerys is having trouble juggling being both a mother of dragons and a breaker of chains. There'd been some prior collateral damage associated with having three sentient killing machines flying around free, but, c'mon, I'm a little too busy abolishing slavery to worry about your goats. Alas, it's a lot harder to adopt that attitude when you're presented with the charred corpse of a small child. Daenerys makes the tearful decision to shackle her own babies, not unlike those toddlers you see walking around with backpack leashes. Except they're in a dungeon. And there's still one dragon—the big one—on the loose.
Stannis, the worst of the wannabe kings, apparently got that loan from the bank—thanks in no small part to Ser Davos—because he has an army and they've descended on the wildling encampment north of the Wall. Mance refuses to bow to Stannis because he's cool and tough, and is taken away after Jon Snow diffuses the situation somewhat by suggesting how his father might've handled the prisoners. The most unsettling thing about this story line? The look Melisandre gave Jon. Does she have designs on a more potent potential leader? Stannis is kind of a jerk, so who could blame her?
And, following a battle with skeleton monsters and Jojen's untimely death, Bran—though who cares, kind of—arrives under the tree his vision led him to, where he finds a creepy childlike something-or-other and a moderately less creepy old man. The old man tells Bran he'll get back something he lost. So, naturally, Bran's like, "I'm gonna walk again?" And the old guy's like, "Nope."
The episode concludes with both Arya and Tyrion on boats, the former headed to Braavos, presumably to find Jaqen H'ghar, and the latter headed—well, I guess we don't know where, but at least Varys has his back.
So was it the best season finale yet? I mean, I don't know. It's become progressively more difficult to watch GOT with too critical an eye because I've become so invested in all of the characters (the ones that haven't been killed off) and story lines, Arya's and Tyrion's in particular. The minutes that elapsed between when Tyrion was released from his cell and when he stole away in the crate were among the most exciting, most harrowing of the entire series. And not just because the sadist in me wanted to see Shae punished and Tywin prevented from continuing as the Lannister family's evil mastermind. He said he wasn't really going to kill Tyrion. It would take a real fool to allow him the opportunity to keep his word.
If this was the best season finale ever, I imagine they'll just keep getting better.