For all of TV’s emphasis on season-ending cliffhangers and twists, “Game of Thrones” has carved out a near-unique niche with its memorable penultimate episodes, and the fourth season’s edition proved another epic of theatrical-blockbuster proportions.
As traditions go, it’s a relatively unorthodox if welcome one. Each previous year, the hour that has left viewers with jaws agape and buzzing has usually occurred before the finale, which then helped reset the table for what’s to come. Not to put them on the couch, but showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff must enjoy eating dessert before their entrees.
Just to recap (and needless to say, this will be filled with SPOILERS, so be warned), the series’ second-to-last episodes, by season, have included the beheading of Ned Stark (played by Sean Bean, at that point probably the show’s most recognizable star); the pitched break-the-budget battle for King’s Landing, and the rout of Stannis Baratheon’s forces; and the by-now infamous, YouTube-video christened, “Did they really just do that?/Hey, stop videotaping me, you bastard!” “Red Wedding.”
Add to that esteemed roster the show’s 39th hour, another massive set piece built around the Wildings’ assault on Castle Black, the forward line of defense against an invasion that would threaten to overrun George R.R. Martin’s mythological world.
As with the preceding hour – and the gut-churning fight between Oberyn Martell and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane – much of the pleasure could be derived from the anticipation and tension leading up to the action. In this case, that primarily involved Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and particularly his doughy if resourceful pal Sam (John Bradley), capturing the fear of young men on the eve of war.
Certainly, the scope of the episode was enormous, if not equal to the grandeur – or, for those who haven’t read the books, surprises – associated with the aforementioned chapters. That said, there were several dazzling moments, from the unleashing of Snow’s wolf to the noble sacrifice to hold off a giant to the massive anchor used to sweep the invaders off the towering ice wall.
Of course, the history of “Game of Thrones” has been that its annual finales are usually relatively sedate by comparison, although the way this season has gone thus far, all bets are off – especially with all the juicy plots that were left idling in order to give this rare single-location hour its due.
As praiseworthy as the show is, let’s also be honest: Much like “The Walking Dead,” “Thrones’” mix of genre zealotry, huge ratings and prestige has incentivized the press to write about it ad nauseam, whoring for traffic (guilty as charged) in a manner that resembles Tyrion before he sort-of settled down. As a practical matter, with the series already renewed for two more seasons, it also becomes HBO’s most formidable launching pad to help the pay service promote and cultivate other programs.
Yet while one can debate whether this latest flourish equaled past ones, in a year where ratings have crested to new highs and the show’s zeitgeist-iness seems to have reached its apex, whatever one thought of this second-to-last episode, in terms of ambition the show remains second to none. Perhaps that’s why with the finale looming, one suspects many fathers will turn to their younger kids next Sunday and say, “You really want to give me something I can use? How ‘bout leaving me alone long enough to go watch ‘Game of Thrones?’”