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In 1997, I stood up on stage at a rather seedy hotel in the Docklands area of London.  I felt more than a bit surprised to be there. Mark Laidlaw, author and one of the designers of the classic game Half-Life was up there. So was Canadian author Terence Green, along with well-known fantasy writers Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson. Next to me was this bearded guy named George R. R. Martin.

Honestly, George was the most familiar of the bunch. I'd met him a number of times. We'd eaten a lunch or two together and exchanged a lot of emails. I even sent him a small check once to license his short story, Sandkings, for a video game (which I never finished). I felt comfortable enough to talk with George like I knew him.

That didn't stop me from being nervous that night. This, the 1997 World Fantasy Awards, was the first time I'd really been up there at the front of the room, not down with the groundlings. I'd eaten dinner with John Crowley, I had a promise from Felicity Savage to show me around London the next day, and I was on stage with the big dogs, ready to be toasted as the new king of fantasy writers as soon as the prize for Best Novel was handed out.

I lost. Rachel Pollack went home with the award for her rather excellent contemporary fantasy, Godmother Night. Six months later, it was either go get an office job or lose the house. I put down my pen.

George lost too, though it didn't seem to hurt him. The book that he'd been nominated for was A Game of Thrones.

Okay, I've killed enough time without giving any spoilers. Let's go inside and digest the end of season 4.

Last week we spent an entire episode up at Castle Black, watching a battle unfold on both sides of the behemoth Wall. It was an episode solidly focused on Jon Snow and Samwell Tarley, but nearly every named character among both the Night's Watch and the wildlings got his or her chance to shine.

Alliser Thorne, a pretty miserable leader right to the end, nevertheless goes out fighting hard. Janos Slynt is revealed as a babbling coward. Gren and several others of the Night's Watch get perhaps the most emotionally stirring moment of the night as they face the angry giant, Mag the Mighty. With death rushing down on them, one of the Watch invokes the Seven Gods, but another quickly responds that "the gods aren't down here, it's just us." Together, the men begin to recite their vows to each other as doom literally crushes them. Just them... is enough, as they give their lives stopping the giant and saving their brothers.

Previously, the biggest conflict seen on Game of Thrones had been the Battle of the Blackwater, but that fight was shown in only a few snatches, with most of the episode spent with those safely inside the walls of the Red Keep. In contract, the fight at Castle Black is seen almost blow by blow. Despite the darkness and the scrambling, desperate nature of the fight, the ebb and flow of the conflict is still easy to follow. Several times, the fight at the castle is balanced on a knife edge, as reinforcements of just a few men keep the wildlings from taking the base.

Oh, and Ygritte, Jon Snow's undercover lover who has spent the last several episodes decorating villagers with arrows as a tribute to just how much she loves Jon's traitorous ass, hesitates in killing Jon long enough to collect an arrow of her own. Bye, Ygritte.

During the conflict, Jon Snow becomes the accepted, if not elected, leader of the Night's Watch. At the close of the first day's conflict, which the Night's Watch "wins" only at the cost of so many of its members that it will never survive a second assault, Jon Snow sallies forth to confront the leader of the wildlings, not with the intention of negotiating terms, but with a view toward killing him. Jon hopes that without Mance Rayder's craggy face at their core, the wildling force will fall apart. It's a desperate — and not very honorable — ploy but it's all Jon has left.

That's just where the fourth season finale opens, with Jon slogging between snow shrouded trees on his way to the wildling camp. Taken in by Mance Rayder, it takes the wildling leader no more than minutes to deduce Jon's actual intentions. Mance calls Jon out on his deception. "Is this what you are?" he asks. Is this what the Night's Watch has become? So dishonorable that they would kill a man in his own tent when he's offering peace? And Mance is offering peace. All he wants is a chance to get his people to the other side of the Wall before winter closes in.  

This conversation is little more than started before horns sound a warning. Rayder whips out a blade (odds than Jon could have actually taken him: well nigh zero). Only it's not the Night's Watch that is attacking. In formations so neat they are almost a parody of the wildling's undisciplined ranks, the new store-bought army of Stannis Baratheon comes pouring in.

Stannis and Ser Davos look good on horseback, and the Bravosi-funded army forces the wildlings to surrender in moments, but Mance Rayder won't kneel before the "rightful king." Which is probably a good omen of just how much trouble the ramrod-stiff Stannis is going to have with these people. Jon Snow's last appearance for the year again has him being, if not deceptive, at least highly political, as he argues for Mance's life, says confusing things about his own allegiance, then takes Ygritte's body back to be burned north of the Wall.

Later, Aemon eulogizes the fallen in a way that would serve for most any soldier in most any era, and the bodies resulting from the mini-war in the far north are set ablaze. Red priestess Melisandre, making her only appearance of the night, stares at Jon Snow across a fire. Not a word is said between them, but it's clearly a "stay tuned for future developments" moment.

Not so far away,  Brandon Stark, Hodor and the Reeds approach their destination: an enormous weirwood tree standing alone among craggy peaks. The little party seems home free, when suddenly the entire skeleton cast of Jason and the Argonauts bursts through the snow and begins some undead swordplay that would make Ray Harryhausen proud. Jojen Reed dies, stabbed by a grimly persistent partial torso sans head, but the rest make it into the sheltering base of the tree thanks to the timely intervention of a "child of the forest" flinging fireballs. Then, in the root-tangled heart of the tree, Bran comes face to beard with a Merlin-esque character who tells Bran that he "will never walk again, but... will fly." Is that fly as in metaphorically, fly as in by warging into a bird, or fly as in mounted on a dragon? Ten months till the next episode, people.

The most amazing thing about this whole sequence is just how flagrantly High Fantasy it is. Call them what you will, but these are magical elves, living in a magical tree, fending off evil magic creatures, and aided by a wizard with a long white beard. It doesn't get more fantasy unless it all happens mounted on unicorns.

People who have been going through this show saying "there's really not much fantasy" may now collect their jaws from the floor.

Back in King's Landing, Cersei wants to renegotiate her deal to marry Loras Tyrell. Not only is there never likely to be any attraction between them, Cersei is concerned that if she leaves young Tommen alone with Margeary and Tywin, they will turn him into a creature she doesn't recognize.  

Cersei is so determined not to leave, she spars openly with her father, going so far as to confirm that all the rumors are right: she has been sleeping with Jaime.  Tywin refuses to believe her, which Cersei finds amusing. Tywin, the realist, has his own set of fantasies when it comes to the true nature of his family. Leaving her father, Cersei throws herself at Jaime, declaring that she's not embarrassed by their relationship (hey, the Targaryen's did it).  Of course, Cersei has to know that actually going public with their incest would put Tommen at risk, but having burned bridges with Tywin, she seems determined to bond Jaime to her cause.

Cersei also encourages a little mad scientist work in trying to save the wounded and poisoned Mountain using highly unconventional treatments. Perhaps both this and her sudden reunion with Jaime grow from a conviction that she will soon need some swords on her team.

Far across the sea, Dany's time as queen of Meereen is swiftly turning into a very bad day. She's freed thousands of slaves, but made only middling provisions about how they are to live. Her throne room looks spiffy, but the streets are swiftly turning to rubbish and gangs.

Plus one of her dragons has killed a three year old girl, whose grieving father lays the child's scorched bones at Dany's feet.  

In a scene that's rife with unpleasant imagery of defeat, Dany leads two of her dragons—the two who have done nothing wrong—into the deep catacombs and puts heavy chain collars around their scaly necks.  The breaker of chains has chained her children.  The mother of dragons has abandoned them in the dark.

Along the rocky road to the Vale, Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark finally meet. The first moments between them are charming, with the comparison of swords and the discussion of what brought two women to become warriors in a place that doesn't respect them. But once Brienne realizes who Arya is, and once Podrick Payne recognizes the Hound, hand baskets, and hell, are close behind.

Brienne tells Arya of the promise she made to her mother, but the Hound has the right of it. Arya's father is dead, her mother is dead, her brother is dead, her aunt is dead, her home is in ruins. There is no safe place, Brienne might take the girl, no person who can be trusted with her safety.

The Hound may be right, but admitting that he is right would mean accepting that Brienne’s quest has been a farce from the beginning. The Hound and the Maid of Tarth bring their swords together as inexorably, and inevitably, as falling night. Previously, we’ve seen that Brienne is an unparalleled tournament fighter, besting even Loras Tyrell, but this isn’t a tournament. The struggle between Brienne and the Hound has none of the panache and theatricality of the fight between Prince Oberyn and the Mountain. This is a brutal clash. Mailed fist to Brienne’s face. The Hound’s ear torn off in a desperate bite. Swords brought together with no elegance, but with the force of battle axes.

Finally, the Hound tumbles from a steep bluff and lies at the bottom of a stony ravine, battered, bleeding, and almost certainly dying. That’s where Arya finds him. You want a real picture of the horrors we’ve seen in this show? It’s not in the bloody battlefields. Not in the marching undead. It’s in the expressionless face of Arya Stark as she watches the Hound ask, ask again, and at last beg her to kill him. It’s in her silence as this big, brutal man is brought to agonized tears. I dare you. Go back to the first episode and find the scene of Ayra, the mischievous little girl shooting arrows with her brothers. Now watch her again as she robs her traveling companion and walks away. That’s the price of war in one young face.

Finally, we head back to King’s Landing where Jaime, despite his reconciliation with Cersei, still can’t allow her plan to off their younger brother to come to fruition. He makes arrangements and releases Tyrion from the dungeons.  All Tyrion has to do is make his way to Varys and he’s free… only Tyrion instead turns to a secret passage he knows well and emerges in the apartments of the Hand of the King – the apartments that were once his own. There he finds Shae, the woman he loved—loves—in his father’s bed, calling out for Tywin using the same endearments she once used on Tyrion. Is Shae just a shameless golddigger, ready to jump into the bed of anyone in power, or was her heart really broken by Tyrion’s mock-marriage to Sansa? We may never know. As soon as she spies Tyrion, Shae grabs for a knife. Tyrion responds by twisting her necklace until Shae is dead. “I’m sorry,” he says softly.

Tyrion is still weeping as he opens the privy door and faces down his father. Caught literally with his pants down, Tywin struggles mightily to maintain his icy dignity. He promises Tyrion that he was going to save him, and that while, yes, yes, he may have wanted Tyrion dead himself, he’s come to respect his will to live. He’s accepted Tyrion as his son. Much as Tyrion might have longed to hear these words, at some other time, in some other place, they only bring confusion. Tywin’s fate hangs in the balance, but is tipped over the edge when he can’t stop calling Shae nothing more than a whore. Tyrion lands a crossbow bolt in his father’s chest, slowly and carefully reloads, then fires again.

As the season ends, Tyrion slips into a unremarkable box and is shipped out of the capitol on a freighter.  Meanwhile, Arya uses the coin she got from the assassin Jaqen H'ghar to earn herself a spot on a boat bound for Braavos. Danerys Targaryen may not be getting back to Westeros very quickly, but if she waits long enough, all of Westeros may cross the sea to meet her.

We started this season with the Starks all but eradicated and the House of Lannister in apparent triumph. However, as the season rolled on we got a different image of the Lannisters. Behind the scenes, they were broke and broken, divided against themselves and with few if any friends. Jofferey, the apparent winner of the “war of the five kings” didn’t live to see his wedding night. Tywin, the much touted most powerful man in the kingdom, was hugely in debt, unable to steer the peace as neatly as he had the war, and without an heir.  As we close out the season, Tywin is dead under about the most ignoble circumstances imaginable. Tyrion is on the run, and if Jaime and Cersei have formed a momentary union, it's unlikely to last if Jaime’s role in setting Tyrion free comes to light.

In the north, Stannis now has an army, ships, and money. In the south Dorne still hasn’t replied to Oberyn’s death. In the Vale, Littlefinger plots his next move with an increasingly political Sansa at his side. And Arya Stark is on her way to Braavos, home of bankers… and assassins.

One more thing to note: how many of those "sexposition" scenes have you noted lately? You know, the ones where we gather characters in a brothel or bedroom for some heavy 'splaining time while breasts and bottoms provide an entertaining backdrop? The answer is, if not none, then pretty close to it. That's probably because at this point HBO has begun to trust that viewers can keep track of characters and plot lines without T & A punctuation. I just wish they'd figured that out sooner.

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