How do you follow up one of the most bombastically violent and depressing hours in the history of television? "Game of Thrones" had that challenge this week. After last episode's horrible Red Wedding sequence, where we lost three main characters and respect for a few more (screw you, Roose Bolton), there was really no place to go but up. Or rather, no place to go but on. Several characters did, indeed, move on (like Bran and Arya), and several more returned (Jon and Sam to Castle Black, Jaime to King's Landing). Nothing monumentous happened, but that's "Game of Thrones" for you - the final episodes are rarely more than churners devised to recover from the ninth episode's girth and set the stage for next season. Let's check in with where we leave each character at the end of this episode.
Arya: She may not have seen the Red Wedding first hand, but she did catch the gruesome after party (and saw her brother's mutilated body atop a horse, his head chopped off and replaced with his direwolf's). While riding silently through the woods with the Hound, they pass a group of Frey boys making camp and bragging about their part in the Red Wedding. Arya, in full-fledged vengeance mode, sneaks away from the Hound and infiltrates their camp, offering to pay to sit near their fire. But she just stabs one of them instead, over and over in the neck with a knife she swiped from the Hound, who swoops in to finish the rest of them off. The coin she offered to pay the men with before they met their fate was the one from old pal Jaqen H'ghar - Arya clutches it and repeats the words he taught her: "valar morghulis." All men must die.
The King's Landing Folks: Joffrey is so excited that Robb Stark is dead he almost explodes, but before he can rub it in Sansa's face, Grandpa Tywin sends him to bed without supper, reminding us yet again who's really in charge here. Tywin is the man who apparently orchestrated the Red Wedding, and who now has full command of the realm. If Tyrion gives Sansa a son, the north will truly be theirs. But now that Sansa knows what happened to her mother and brother, it doesn't seem likely she'll let Tyrion near her any time soon. Meanwhile, Cersei spews on about how much she loves her children (even Joffrey), and Varys pays Shae to leave so she doesn't compromise Tyrion's situation (she refuses). No word on what the Tyrells are up to.
Jon Snow: Ygritte catches up to him and shoots him with a bunch of arrows. After he tells her he loves her. Then he returns to Castle Black, where Sam and Gilly have just arrived.
Bran: Speaking of Sam and Gilly, they also had a run-in with Bran and the Reeds (and Hodor!) at the Blackfort, an abandoned castle on the Wall. Bran presses Sam about how to get through the Wall, and eventually Sam caves and tells him about the Black Gate - a secret passageway that guarantees easy entry. And now Bran is even closer to becoming a White Walker popsicle.
Theon: So Theon's captor? He's Roose Bolton's bastard son, Ramsay. Book readers probably saw that coming, but I'm sure show-only viewers were pretty bewildered by that reveal. (Or maybe not. What do I know?) Proof that macabre mutilation isn't just his daddy's game, Ramsay sends Theon's penis to his father, Balon, and sister, Yara, back in the Iron Islands. Balon barely reacts - now that his son is castrated, he can have no heirs, meaning his claim to the throne is worthless. But Yara is genuinely disturbed by the d*** in a box and rounds up a crew to go save her brother. I genuinely forgot that we haven't even seen Balon or Yara all season, so this felt a little abrupt and lackluster, but it's nice to know someone cares about Theon I guess.
The Dragonstone Folks: There's a lot of Davos in this episode, more Davos than I expected, which is fine because Davos is a pretty cool guy. He can read now, which comes in handy. He saves Gendry from Melisandre's wrath by setting him free. (Sail on, little Gendry!) And before Stannis can order his death for this, Davos unsheaths a letter he received from the Night's Watch warning Stannis about the growing threat of White Walkers. Melisandre lights up with this news and changes her mind about her decision to punish Davos by death. Instead, she convinces Stannis to recruit Davos to his mission - to go to the Wall and help the Night's Watch defeat the Walkers.
Danerys: The episode ends on a high note - with Dany freeing the Yunkai slaves and them embracing her with love and adoration. Good for Dany. I guess these people needed a Jesus figure or something, but I don't really see what Dany did in this situation that's worthy of a humble crowd surf and a bunch of peasants stroking her hair. (They should be shouting Jorah's name!) Still, it's pretty powerful to hear them cry out "mhysa," meaning "mother," while they cradle their new leader. While Westeros bloodies itself with betrayal, Dany is winning battles and conquering cities with genuine goodness. Obviously, ascending the throne in her homeland will be more difficult, but with thousands of freed people on her side, a ginormous Unsullied army and three dragons, I think her chances are pretty fair.
And with that, the season is over. I think it was a pretty great one overall, even though the finale felt a tad underwhelming. I'll be interested, as a book reader, to see where they take it from here (this finale was by and large the episode with the most changes from page to screen that has aired yet). But I'm excited too! See you next year!