It’s a far fall from the top.
Tywin Lannister began this season as a winner. He devastated Stannis Baratheon’s forces during the Battle of the Blackwater. He crushed the Northern army by orchestrating Robb Stark’s assassination at the so-called “Red Wedding.” He even brought two new Valyrian swords into his family: Jaime Lannister’s Oathkeeper and King Joffrey’s Widow’s Wail, forged from the remains of Ice, the late Eddard Stark’s “absurdly large” great sword.
Fire and steel glimmered in Tywin’s eyes as he lorded over the creation of these two new weapons of war, glorified trophies honoring his efforts to keep the Iron Throne. It was a Lannister world, and everyone else was just living in it.
But that was before Joffrey choked to death at his own wedding feast, before Jaime showed his heart to be just as gold as his new hand, before his impish son Tyrion Lannister stood trial for Joffrey’s murder, before the Viper took on the Mountain, before Cersei told him about her children’s true parenthood — and certainly well before his final, fatal trip to the bathroom.
Game of Thrones deals in death. It always has, and it always will. Major characters die with the same ease as a Star Trek “red shirt.” The death of Ned Stark in season one made it clear that no one would ever be safe — and the subsequent deaths of Khal Drogo, Robb Stark, and more only punctuated the point.
But moreso than many other seasons, the show’s fourth year expanded the carnage to all-new heights. Joffrey Baratheon’s wicked flame fizzled out as early as episode two. Lysa Arryn “fell” out of the moon door some weeks later. One week after that, the Red Viper’s head painted King’s Landing a certain shade of brain. And then there was the battle at the Wall: Ygritte, kissed by fire, killed by an arrow, then kissed by fire again. Poor Pyp was likewise felled by an arrow, and gigantic Grenn crushed by a gigantic giant.
And there’s the finale. The Children claimed the lives of heroes and villains we’ve come to love and loathe. Tywin, who began season four with an iron grasp over the Seven Kingdoms, met his maker while sitting on an iron throne of a different color. Shae, Tyrion’s longtime paramour, lost her life, too, choked to death by the very same imp she helped sentence to death. Jojen Reed, traveling with Bran’s party beyond the Wall, turned into Jojen paste. And it certainly doesn’t look so good for The Hound following his meet-up with Brienne of Tarth.
There’s little doubt that Game of Thrones offered up its bloodiest season yet, in the form of season four. And yet, hope remains alive. It’s so easy to think of Westeros as the place where only bad things happen to good people. But that conclusion only works if you gloss over Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch’s unexpected victory at the Wall, thanks to the arrival of Stannis and his companions. It only works if you ignore that Bran finally met the Children of the Forest, and the fabled Three-Eyed Raven. It only works if you ignore that Arya has finally, finally, left Westeros behind. And it only works if you ignore that Tyrion Lannister is still alive — embittered and broken, but alive all the same.
Make no mistake: Tyrion’s continued survival was far from a guarantee. Everyone in King’s Landing wanted the imp’s head on a spike next to Ned Stark’s. Even for the viewers at home who couldn’t imagine Game of Thrones without Peter Dinklage on a weekly basis, there was at least a tinge of fear that the GRRM reaper would strike again at a fan-favorite character, as he’s done so many times before. And while circumstances are far from great for Tyrion, at least he still has his head — and while he still has his head, he has a chance to make a difference, if not a chance to find happiness.
But “happiness” and “Game of Thrones” are not words that go hand in hand. The HBO fantasy series evokes a wide range of responses from its watchers: dread, anticipation, excitement, pain — but rarely happiness. That’s not the end game for this bittersweet tale, and it never has been. But even though it doesn’t always look like it, Game of Thrones dances at the edge of balance; it stands with one shaky foot on the line that separates possibility from futility. Tyrion’s rise, and Tywin’s fall, is a testament to that balance.
Following the conclusion of its best season yet, Game of Thrones leans toward the realm of possibility, a hopeful place where differences can be made. We’ll just have to wait until season five returns to see how long it can stay there.