So, yeah. Lot of things to talk about. If you step back and look at the bigger picture, it's obvious that the end of Storm of Swords was intended to be a bit of a breaking point in the series. Martin's original intent was that he would put in a gap of five years or so to allow the political situation to settle and also allow the child characters (Bran, Arya, etc.) to grow so that their roles weren't restricted by physical issues. Of course, when he was several hundred pages into the next book, he realized that he had spent the majority of those pages re-capping what had happened in that five-year period, so he scrapped it all and started over (thus creating part of the extraordinary wait for Feast for Crows.) In that respect, the show is no different in that they've spent a great deal of time over the past couple episodes not only bringing stories to their logical conclusion but also killing off a large portion of the cast. (Don't worry. They'll be replaced in number by next season. Off to Dorne! Woo hoo!) But there were still plenty of segues to the continuing epic with a couple high points and a couple that were just off.
For as important as the events at the Wall were for character, resolution, and plot, I thought they spent a bit too much time there. While Ciaran Hinds continues to play it stately, I'm not sure we needed his perspective on Jon and Ygritte's relationship when we were already going to have the burning scene and Tormund's perspective (who spent much more time with the two of them.) Also, once again, the budget limitations kind of killed this scene, since there was probably no money left to show Stannis' armies crashing into and scattering the Wildling army rather than simply surrounding Mance's camp. It would certainly leave a first time watcher wondering where the hell the other 100K are, although Stannis accomplished what Jon's goal was in the first place: cutting the head off the beast. There was a great moment there while Stannis and Jon came to grips with who each other happens to be and the expected roles they'll follow in the future.
The collection of Cersei scenes that followed was fairly skillfully written, in that it reestablished her influence over her own choices (ordering Qyburn to proceed on the Mountain, refusing Tywin, getting Jaime to screw her in ceremonial places, etc.) but also tied up things that need to be tied up in order to lay the groundwork for next season. Furthermore, it clearly arced the story toward its conclusion as far as Tywin is concerned, since everything began to slip beyond his determined grasp. I think it's interesting how they've played his knowledge of his twins' relationship, in that he seemed willing to tip his hand to Jaime during Tyrion's trial but just as willing to play stupid while Cersei confronted him with it here. In the books, he's somewhat less concerned about all of that and it certainly raises one of the central cultural questions that I've always had about the story: why do the other houses care so much about incest?
Certainly, the Targaryens were 'other' in that they were Valyrian while the rest of the population are Andals (except the Dornish), so it was natural to look on the practices of the ruling house as something that would never happen with proper folk except that they, you know, had the dragons. The practice had also become less common as the dynasty had proceeded. Even so, many of the houses still had a deep attachment to their Targaryen overlords and custom has deep roots in Westerosi society. If you're willing to accept overlords who had long since passed their prime simply because tradition says so... Of course, one of the pillars of the story rests upon the fact that Robert had essentially said that that much adherence to tradition, in the face of the Mad King and his depravities, was no longer acceptable. Furthermore, one could argue that Aerys was one of the clearest examples of why not to continue with the practice of incest. I suppose the fact that Robert's wife was pursuing the Targaryen tradition even as he overthrew them is one of the little faux ironies of the story.
Meanwhile, one of the other social constructions begins to have even wider repercussions: How do you cripple an economy overnight and still make it work? (Well, one way is to be Goldman Sachs, but then it only works for a few...) The fact that many slaves in the Bay had become accustomed to their lives or even favored them because of the station that they brought was something that was clearly not considered by the clarion song of freedom and, if played to its fullest extent, is rife with story possibilities...
HOWEVAH, a lot of those story possibilities are interesting to people like me who enjoy social transformation (some people refer to it as 'revolution' (still hoping)) but they tend to lack drama unless said drama is packed together at a very rapid pace which then makes that transformation somewhat illogical and trivial. Thus, the famed Meereenese Knot of Martin's dismay. Even worse, a lot of those situations don't play as well visually as they do in prose. You can go off on extended descriptions of issues of the day in prose and make it work. On TV, it can come off like C-Span, dragons or no dragons. I'm certain they included the Missandei/Grey Worm relationship to add a bit more character meat to Meereen and they're going to have to do more with it if they want to keep people interested in Dany's story at all. Of course, now that we're arcing full force into Dance of Dragons, there are a lot of ways to go. One note here is that we did finally get some screen time with Viserion and Rhaegon... only to see them chained up in a dungeon. Remove the chains from the slaves and add them to your real children. That'll solve everything.
One reason I say that we are full on into Dance because Bran and Co. are firmly there. I wasn't even certain that they were going to do the wight fight outside the tree (which I keep wanting to call a 'world tree' because of World of Warcraft; read/play/see enough of these damn things and they all start blending together) but I'm glad they did because Ray Harryhausen FTW, dammit! I'm enough of an old-timer at SF/fantasy films to basically always think of Jason and the Argonauts whenever anyone shows me animated skeletons. They were a lot smoother than his, of course, since CGI is often leaps and bounds better than stop-motion from the 60s, but there is a certain intelligence that seems to be conveyed to the automatons by the hesitation inherent to the older technique. Anyway, decent scene, although I was a little disappointed by the look of both Leaf and the interior of the cave, especially given that Mr. Three-Eyed Raven was depicted far differently than in the books. I'm, again, hoping that this was a money issue and not a step down from the immortal Gemma Jackson. It also has me wondering how they're going to get around to explaining who Mr. T-ER is, since the relevance of his identity is basically absent in the TV show to date and is really only prominent for careful readers and those who've followed the Hedge Knight stories.
And now we finally get to the one major departure from canon: the showdown between Brienne and the Hound. Here's where I offer all of D&D's excuses about how they're doing an adaptation, not a note-for-note simulacrum. They are, of course, correct. They have to do an adaptation. But I thought they were going to end Brienne and Pod's travels this season with a far more powerful scene, so I was a little disappointed on that front. In the process, they also managed to seed character problems into the rest of the story and spoil the subtlety of one of my favorite moments from the book.
The seed: Brienne knows that Arya is alive. That means that she can carry that information to other people and make it part of their worldview. One can suggest that this was already done by Arya and Sandor naming her at the Bloody Gate, but how hard would it be to write in disbelief on the part of the Arryn guardsmen that some dirty little girl was claiming to be Arya? Not very. Brienne, OTOH, is a person of some respect and stood in Arya's presence. That has little ripples across a lot of ponds, given that most people assume Arya to be long dead. It doesn't mean it's blown the lid off of anything, but it can significantly alter the perceptions of a number of characters.
The spoilage: In the book, the Hound's infection is what brings him to the point of death. Arya abandons him in the same way she does here, but it's because he can't walk any farther, not just because she wants to let him suffer and die. In that way, his ending is kind of the ultimate denouement to a life completely driven by violence. There was no violence to his end in the books. He just finally exhausted his ability to keep moving and keep killing. That plays to me in a way that him being mortally wounded in yet another fight simply doesn't and I think the possibilities for both actors would have been far greater with her simply watching him sit down and die, rather than all of the slam-bang action that took place in this sequence. It was worthwhile for a few quotes and for hearing the unbridled rage in the scream of Brienne as she slammed away with the rock, but I think the idea of 'less is more' is what has always made that scene memorable for me in the books, above and beyond the fact that it was my all-time favorite character from ASoIaF meeting what was probably the most appropriate end of any of them.
Finally, the escape. I know some people will complain about the lack of interaction between Jaime and Tyrion in this sequence, but I think a lot of that interplay in the books really kind of detracts from what's happening around them. The whole sequence is already anguish enough for Tyrion without piling on and I think the relationship that's been built up in the show between the brothers is even stronger than what Martin wrote, so leaving them on a good note with a heartfelt embrace felt right to me.
As for the rest of it, they got it all spot-on. I was so concerned that they wouldn't follow through with the strangulation bit, but they got it and Peter Dinklage was brilliant in the performance. We miss a little on the details (in the books, he strangles her with the chain of office for the Hand), but since those were absent earlier, it didn't make that much difference. Charles Dance also played Twyin's last actions somewhat differently but, in many ways, I think he played them better. Tywin is a manipulator and being spiteful while sitting in the privy is just no way to make things move better for you (more fiber!) Trying to convince those that you are sure must be weaker than you is usually the way out. Of course, when confronted with someone who has just murdered the woman he loved with his bare hands, your options become few, if not non-existent. That, of course, becomes the road down to the docks in a ventilated crate and a further destination unknown.
Lines of the week:
"Of all the ways I'd kill you, poison would be the last." - And then he offers him the Wildling equivalent of rotgut...
"We're not in the Seven Kingdoms and you're not dressed for this weather." - This is what Michigan people say when any Southern state gets a little snow.
"You should know: the process will change him. Somewhat."
"Will it weaken him?"
"Very well, then." - Cersei and Qyburn, still the molders of men(?)
"I'm not interested in hearing another one of your smug stories about a time you won." - This line was so true about Tywin that I was cracking up.
"They're so small I can't even see them. I only see what matters." - Cersei, taking control.
"They young may rejoice in the new world you have made for them. For those of us too old to change, there is only fear and squalor." - Truth, especially iPhone squalor.
"She loved you."
"She told you?"
"No. All she ever talked about was killing you. That's how I know." - Tormund talks about marriage.
"You can shit later! There's people coming!" - Arya should have told Tywin...
"Go on, Brienne of fucking Tarth! Tell me that's not Lannister gold." - Still my favorite.
"Going it alone... You won't last a day out here."
"I'll last longer than you." - The student finally leaves the master.
And the winner, for Dinklage's masterful performance:
"I am your son. I have always been your son."- In more ways than he ever knew.