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'Game of Thrones' fourth season finale, 'The Children,' recap: Valar morghulis

Charles Dance in season 4 of

Charles Dance in season 4 of "Game of Thrones." Credit: HBO / Macall B. Polay

With the rip-roaring fourth season of "Game of Thrones" now history, best to begin at the end of last night's finale, "The Children":

"Valar morghulis," Arya says to the initially reluctant captain, and with this High Valeryian phrase secures passage to Braavos - the "free city" on the edge of Essos, the vast unknown land across the seas where Arya's story moves next season.

He responds: "Valar dohaeris..."

Hers roughly translated means: "All men must die..." - which of course has been the tagline for the entire fourth season, and - at times - a fairly reasonably description of the fourth as well.

And his: "All men must serve..."

Both phrases were also episode titles in previous seasons - "Valar Morghulis," the final episode of the second season; and "Valar Dohaeris," the first episode of the third.

Both phrases are conjoined in "Game of Thrones" mythology; neither one is necessarily meaningful on its own. Together they mean something...but in the context of this season, what would that be?

Fans will recall that the mysterious shape-shifter from season two (and the episode in question), Jaqen H'ghar, had told Arya to come with him to Braavos where she could learn how to fight; she declined, but he did give her that well-rubbed coin, along with the advice that should she ever meet a man from Braavos, those were the words to say...

And so she did. Arya then is the one who finally offers the catchphrase for the entire fourth season - "All Men Must Die," and it is offered only in the closing second.

But why here? Simply because the meaning of the phrase is ambiguous: All must die, means that all men are mortal. They will in time die, but first they must serve. 

However, Arya is not a man, but a woman. All men must die, but where does that leave all women? Speaking of conjoining, the fates will someday conjoin Arya and Daenerys Targaryen. For as the Yoda-like Three-Eyed Crow (who we learned last night has neither three eyes nor is even a crow) might say if he were Yoda, "GoT" is about the past and the future; the present is a mere bridge between both...

So ends the fourth, the best season of four - the richest, most complex, most visually spectacular. All men must die and many did, though not all of them did  last night - while, speaking of ambiguity, both brothers, the Mountain and the Hound, were last seen only half-dead. The Hound was essentially left for dead by Arya, although when someone is not actually killed on screen, one is probably still alive (an Old Hollywood rule).

The Mountain, meanwhile, may yet live too - revived by bloodletting hocus-pocus that will salvage his poisoned body. Tywin died - that was written, both on the page and in the stars. Both George R.R. Martin and D.B. Weiss and David Benioff gave him the final dignity of dying on a throne, and final indignity too - for that "throne" was a toilet.

Women died, too, or one - Shae, garroted by Tyrion, who could muster only minor regret afterward..."I'm sorry." And Jojen Reed, stabbed repeatedly by a wight, and then finally killed by his sister, Meera. All men must die, and even children too.

That was one of the major departures from the book - or, rather, books, because much of this remarkable scene - the prelude to the hookup with Crow himself - was plucked from "A Dance With Dragons," the fifth book in the "Ice and Fire" series; "A Storm of Swords," upon which the fourth was (largely) based, is the third book. This scene or parts of it essentially leapfrogged the next one in the series. 

 What of the title, "The Children"? More ambiguity: Clearly this referred to the famed "Children of the Forest," a mythological race of beings from Westerosian prehistory that may exist or may not, but clearly - as evidenced last night - do indeed: The child that hurls fireballs at the scrambling wight skeletons, thus saving Bran and the other survivors.

As winter approaches in Westeros, the thin line separating "myth" from "reality" is increasingly frayed - and that which was previously considered the stuff of legend in fact is the stuff of nightmares, and very much a part of the real world of men and wildlings - one very big reason Mance Rayder wants to escape through the tunnels...but to escape from what? Not just the cold...

"The Children" also refers to the children: The children of the Lannisters and the Starks. With the death of Tywin at the hands of Tyrion, only the children are left now to direct their own fates. The past is now the past. They are the future.

How great an episode was "The Children"?

As promised by Weiss and Benioff last week, it was great indeed - a deeply satisfying tapestry of ends and beginnings and ends. Every major story line of the season, save Sansa's - to be continued, of course, in season five - reached climax and resolution, while beginning all over again. Alex Graves, who directed this episode, wasn't content to follow the book, chapter and verse, but instead borrowed and finally ended up crafting something uniquely his - and "GoT's"- own.

More than any other finale to date, "The Children" established "Game of Thrones' '" independence from the source material. Either it directly drew from the source material, in some instances word for word (Arya's greeting to the captain), or it mashed up scenes or created them entirely out of whole cloth, or "part" cloth: The epic battle between Brienne of Tarth and Rory McCann's Sandor Clegane - the Hound - as the supreme example.

That was last night's single biggest surprise simply because that was a surprise.

With "The Children," "Game of Thrones" has now truly and fully come into its own: A TV series that may draw sustenance and life from "A Song of Ice and Fire" but which has enough confidence and depth to draw its own breath too. Like Arya setting forth for Braavos, "Game of Thrones" is heading into an unknown future - one that will reliably handcraft its own stories and journey. "A Song of Ice and Fire" is the map but now it's up to "GoT" to fill in many of the blank spaces or certainly some of them.

For fans of booth book and series, that may be welcome indeed, because "A Feast for Crows," the next book in "Ice and Fire," is not exactly a fan favorite. This could then be an instance of series improving upon book...

In fact, with "The Children," Benioff and Weiss essentially said: Don't worry about "A Feast for Crows." We have a few ideas of our own. Based on last night, they are - and should be - immensely satisfying ones.

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