GAME OF THRONES: “The Children”

The fourth season rumbles to a close, with more shocks, more death, and a very special Father’s Day gift.

The young may rejoice in the new world you have built for them, but for those who are too old to change, there is only fear and squalor.

–Fennesz the Slave

There are never any clear victories on Game of Thrones. Two beloved characters cross paths, and one kills the other. A young man reaches the place he has sought for more than two full seasons, but ends up with far more questions than answers. A dwarf escapes a death sentence, but must leave behind everything he has ever known. Nowhere is the hard cruelty of Westeros more exhibited in the handoff to the next generation, as the members of the old patriarchy have met their ends one by one, leaving the future of the realm to a handful of lunatics and a more righteous few who now want nothing to do with it.

“The Children,” the title of the finale to Thrones’s most sprawling, powerful season yet, has a double- (even triple-) meaning: the Children of the Forest, who we meet for the first time; Daenerys’s “children,” her dragons, who have now gone too far in hunting human children; the unending soap opera of the House Lannister, with Cersei readying the nuclear option, and Tyrion finally exacting revenge on his hated father. Three of the most intriguing developments, including the “destined-for-what-exactly?” Bran, involve the children of late Ned Stark, with Arya bound for the East, and Jon Snow earning the uncertain attention of Melisandre (and that doesn’t even include Sansa, who two weeks ago finally took control over her own story.)

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It is with Jon that we begin, picking up where we left off, seeking a parlay with Mance Rayder — but secretly planning to kill him, of course, which would surely end with his own slow, tortuous death. Ciarán Hinds makes his first appearance on the show in well over a year (though it doesn’t feel that way, with how much people talk about him), and he doesn’t disappoint, taking the measure of Jon right away and dueling him with words. They drink to Ygritte, and to Grenn and Mag the Mighty (the giant slain in the tunnel last week); Mance wonders why Jon has bothered, as all the Wildlings have to do is hit them and keep hitting them until Castle Black breaks. In fact, he already sent some hundreds over the wall a few miles down. But what Mance wants, we know, is to simply get his people the seven hells out of the haunted forest. He doesn’t want war, but peace.

Just when Jon is about to answer with a stolen knife, prompting a perfectly laconic “That’s why you’re here!” from Mance — horns! The cavalry! The newly-bought army of Stannis Baratheon is here, riding through the trees in perfect military formation, mowing down the undisciplined Wildlings like grass. The anticlimax of last week’s “Watchers on the Wall” plays a little bit better now, even if the arrival of the Last Baratheon has been heavily hinted at for over a year. The writers have long obfuscated Stannis’s goals ever since Davos read that letter last season, the better to “surprise” viewers now, but it came at the expense of fleshing out Stannis’s character. Now that the shadowcat’s out of the bag, Stannis finally has something to do other than brood and frown; he has shown up where he was needed, like a good king would do (though he may be underdressed for the weather.) He also listens to Jon, who invokes the honor of his own father in advocating for Mance being taken prisoner rather than killed.  But the Wildlings don’t kneel, and the Night’s Watch hasn’t hosted a king in centuries, so the Wall is quickly becoming a different kind of tinderbox.

For reasons unknown, Melisandre is fascinated by Jon, staring intently at him across the flames of the funeral pyre. (Great, another young man for her to shame! She’s such a cougar.) Eulogies are given, but the Wildlings don’t care: “The dead can’t hear us,” Tormund Giantsbane tells Jon. Even as a captive, he has an assignment to give: bury Ygritte in the “real” North, where she belongs. “Did you love her?” Tormund asks. Jon stares. “She loved you.” When she talks about how much she wants to kill you, that’s love, I guess. So Jon takes her body beyond the Wall, and that’s it for Jon this year.

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Meanwhile, his half-brother Bran’s Magical Mystery Tour has finally arrived at its destination, the roots of a great weirwood tree, with pale bark and bright red leaves. But before his group can reach it, they are attacked by skeleton monsters — quicker than the Others, and tenacious, bursting out of the ground to explosive effect. Meera and Summer defend the group as well as they can, but it isn’t long before Bran has to warg into Hodor, and Jojen ultimately falls victim to a dozen tiny blades. (R.I.P., Jojen Reed, who served more as plot device than human being, and whose death felt strangely inevitable from the get-go.) Just when Bran is about to be overrun, they are rescued by what seems to be a little girl, hurling magical grenades at the skeletons and ushering the group inside the tree. She is a child of the forest, one of the land’s original inhabitants, and long-thought to be the stuff of myth (just like giants and White Walkers, sure. If only Maester Luwin were still alive to see it.).

“The First Men called us the Children, but we were here long before then,” this one tells Bran, leading he, Meera, and Hodor deeper into their cave of mysteries, a supernatural Carcosa. It is here Bran finally comes face to face with his destiny…who turns out to be a Gandalf-type in a throne made of tree limbs; the three-eyed raven of his visions is simply an old man. “I’ve been watching you…with a thousand eyes and one,” the man intones. Jojen knew what would happen, he says, but brought Bran here anyway, “though the hour grows late.” Bran wants to be able to walk again, still believing that that’s what this is about; “You’ll never walk again,” the old man says, “but you will fly.” Coooool.

So as the show takes a turn for the overtly magical, I am less troubled by the Children of the Forest and the Tree-Man than by the weight of Bran’s “destiny,” which would reduce even the most gallant hero into a mere cog in a machine. Part of the fun of Thrones is the near-absence of supernatural forces; men make their own decisions and are forced to live with the consequences. Many characters pray to gods, but no one can agree on whose gods are better; only the Lord of Light appears to have done anything at all, and that’s through Thoros of Myr, not Melisandre. Does Bran having a Grand Purpose cheapen the development of those other characters, squabbling over seats of power while the real power resides north of the Wall? I don’t think so, but as the show enters into uncharted territory (this episode takes Bran’s story into the fifth book of the series), Benioff & Weiss will have to be careful. Most of all, Bran needs to not be so deathly boring.

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Looking to the East, Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Queen of the Planet, Maker of Scrapbooks, Knitter of Potholders, is settling down for another round of civil court (man, ruling really does look like it sucks; the show totally nails that) when she is surprised by the request of Fennesz, a former slave who actually wants to return to his Master. There are others who feel the same, he says, but Dany doesn’t understand. These older slaves have been institutionalized, to an extent; slavery is the only life they’ve ever known, and like Brooks and Red, they can’t handle the “freedom” of a life on the outside. So Dany grudgingly agrees to draw up a contract so he can return to servitude, and worries her day is getting off to a bad start. She’s wrong — it’s about to get even worse, as next a farmer tenderly carries in a bundle and sets it at her feet, revealing the charred remains of his daughter. Ohhhh no.

It is obvious to everyone what happened here, painfully so to Dany, who has no choice now but to chain up her dragons in the catacombs below the city. Well, two of them — the white one and the green one are herded below, bellowing after Dany once she walks away (a surprisingly emotional scene, and Emilia Clarke plays it well), but Drogon, the largest, the black one, is AWOL. All she can do is hope that he doesn’t kill any more innocents before she can catch him, but a dragon that size will not be caught if he doesn’t want to be. She is now another parent who has lost control of her children.

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But she doesn’t have it as bad as Tywin Lannister, who gets the Real Talk from his daughter and a couple arrows from one of his sons, in the night’s biggest moment. Before we get to that, however, we have to talk about — hang on, Qyburn, I’m talking here — I need to mention what’s going on with — Qyburn, what are you doing with those? Are you… are you Frankenstein-ing the Mountain? Geez-a-loo. Ser Gregor has been poisoned, of course; it turns out Oberyn Martell had a plan for everything, except saving his own skull. Pycelle just wants to give him milk of the poppy and call it a day (milk of the poppy: Pycelle’s solution for literally everything), but it’s disgraced former Maester Qyburn who has…other ideas. “The process may change him…somewhat,” he tells Cersei. That’s fine, but “will it weaken him?” “Oh no, Your Grace,” Qyburn replies, as he sets about turning The Mountain into The Monster. BOOOOOO.

Cersei’s on a rampage, counting down the hours to Tyrion’s execution, and is bold enough to ask her father once more if he could let the whole “marry Loras Tyrell” thing go. Tywin won’t hear of it, leading to an epic meltdown from the Queen Regent: “I will burn our house to the ground,” she seethes, before letting Tywin and Margaery fight over who can get their claws deeper in Tommen; he’s the only child she has left, and she’ll do anything to keep him — even, to Tywin’s growing shock, reveal the secret of her and Jamie’s twincest to the world. “Your legacy is a lie!” she sneers to her father, who it seems has refused to believe the rumors until confronted so directly. Tywin has never looked more befuddled, the man who is in control of every conversation, finally at a loss for words.

In a rush, Cersei runs straight to her brother, and tells him of her conversation with daddy. The shock of it is enough to make Jamie forget to be mad at her for arranging for Tyrion’s beheading, and when she comes on to him, he responds in kind. “They’ll make their jokes; let them,” Cersei says. “I only see what matters,” that being Jamie, and her creepy, awkward, uncomfortable love for him. She’d rather give up all of her power, take away her son’s illegitimate crown, and leave her family’s legacy in tatters than give up her brother/lover. It’d be sweet if it wasn’t sickening.

Tywin, as one of the last of Westeros’s old guard (and most interested in the status quo), has misjudged her — and worse, he has misjudged his sons. As Tyrion waits in his cell, he is surprised by none other than Jamie, here to spring him from King’s Landing for good (with Varys’s help! “You have more friends than you thought.”) I don’t know why Jamie couldn’t have just done this before, and saved us all from the sight of the Red Viper’s broken melon, but perhaps he can see the writing on the wall for his family: if Cersei’s ready to lay all of her cards on the table, what is he doing any of this for, and why does Tyrion still have to die? Whatever the reason, he earns a brotherly hug and Tyrion’s eternal thanks, even if it unfolds so quickly, and amidst so much other action this hour, that it’s almost hard to process. It seems almost laughable, now, that Tyrion would die; the groundwork has been laid all season for Jamie rescuing him.

Even though there’s a ship waiting in the bay, Tyrion decides he has some unfinished business, sneaking back into the Tower of the Hand. Had he already planned to kill his father before he finds Shae in Tywin’s bed, cooing for her “lion” like she once did for Tyrion? Something tells me no, but that final betrayal is all Tyrion needs to snap, strangling his former beloved with her golden necklace, before picking up a crossbow to face down his father. Shae, we realize, is who she always was. She loved Tyrion as long as it was convenient, or until she felt wounded enough to lash out. (Recall, back at Joffrey’s wedding, when Tywin asked for Shae to be sent to his chambers. We didn’t see her again until the trial.) Murdering Shae all but breaks Tyrion, muttering “I’m sorry” to her lifeless body when the deed is done. It’s the second time Tyrion’s father has taken away a woman he loved; now this Lannister will repay his debt.

He comes across Tywin at his most vulnerable, in his privy, but the old Lion masks his surprise well. “Is this how you wanted to speak to me?” he asks. Tyrion pays him no heed. “All my life, you’ve wanted me dead.” “Yes…but you refused to die. I respect that.” Tywin claims he was never really going to execute Tyrion, either lying or bargaining. Either way, he doesn’t believe Tyrion has what it takes to really pull that trigger. Tyrion admits that he has already killed Shae; “She was a whore,” Tywin shrugs. Tyrion stiffens. “Say that word again.”

He says it again.

Tyrion fires.

“You shot me!” Tywin gasps, uncomprehending. He was in control; he was always in control; orchestrating massacres from behind a desk and manipulating his children since they were born, always smacking them down anytime one rose up to challenge him. But not this time. The last time pays for all; Tyrion lays down the final rebuke: “I am your son. I have always been your son.” And then he fires again.

“What have you done?” a distraught Varys asks when Tyrion meets him. Tyrion says nothing; he only climbs in the box, the box that is raised onto a ship that will take him far, far away. And when the bells began to ring out — the Hand of the King is dead! — Varys, ever the survivor, realizes that “far away” might be the best place for him, as well.

So who does that leave in King’s Landing? Jamie, whose part in this escape may not remain secret, and Cersei, who will take on Margaery Tyrell herself in the fight for the soul of her only remaining son. The rest are dead, or scattered, leaving the capitol more vulnerable than ever. This season, really, has been about the fall of Tywin Lannister, whose face filled the frame in the opening moments of the premiere. And now that he’s gone, the power vacuum will be difficult — if not impossible — to fill. Death Count: Three. I will certainly miss Charles Dance, who was an imposing and compelling figure every time he was on the screen. He commanded our respect if not our love. Sibel Kekilli, despite her limited range, also took advantage of her character being much more fleshed out on the screen than on the page. But it is Dance who earned a curtain call.

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And this was a super-sized episode, so that’s not all! (This thing is easily cracking 3000 words, you guys.) Tyrion Lannister is not the only one making his way east; Arya uses the coin she got from Jaqen the assassin to earn passage on a ship to Braavos, after a violent separation from her protector and almost-friend, the Hound. Brienne and Pod come across the pair, and Arya catches herself admiring the Lady of Tarth, in the last bit of childlike wonder we could see from her for a long time. But as soon as Pod recognizes Sandor Clegane, Brienne recognizes Arya, and nothing Brienne says will convince them that she can be trusted. Sure, Brienne swore a vow to protect Catelyn Stark, but Catelyn is dead. She also swore a vow to bring the Stark daughters to safety, but as the Hound points, out, nowhere is safe. Winterfell is rubble. Arya’s family has been wiped out. Who’s going to watch over her? Brienne: “And that’s what you’re doing? Watching over her?” Clegane, defiant: “Aye. That’s what I’m doing.” (Aww!)

It’s a tough thing, to watch two fan favorites go at it; you would hope that they could just, you know, talk it out, realize their interests are aligned, and join up, but this is Game of Thrones. Instead, we get one of the more brutal (and evenly matched) duels yet on the series, which begins with some outstanding swordplay derring-do — but these are not knights, neither of them are, so it’s only a matter of time before it turns nasty. They punch, kick, hit each other with rocks; Brienne actually bites Clegane’s neck — and ultimately, it is the Hound that takes a tumble off the cliff. Brienne and Pod search for Arya, but Arya doesn’t want to be found.

She goes to Clegane at the bottom of the hill, watching him breathe his last, ragged breaths. “Killed by a woman — I bet you like that,” he laughs darkly. Arya sits, watching, impassive. The Hound asks her to “remember where the heart is,” assuming that she will put him out of his misery like he did that farmer, but…nothing. He starts to beg. He reminds her of Mycah, the butcher’s boy he ran down in cold blood, earning a place on Arya’s list; he says he wishes he’d raped Sansa when he had the chance; he says all sorts of things, hoping to get a rise out of Arya, something, anything instead of watching him coldly. Doesn’t she want to finish him off? If not, hasn’t he earned one final act of mercy?

Without a word, she takes his money bag and walks away. “KILL ME!”, he calls after her. It is a more just fate, Arya has decided, for the Hound to die without her help; the name goes off the list either way. The little girl of Winterfell is long gone, and, finally free of her connection to that life, a hardened and bitter Arya can form a new identity. Standing on the deck of the Braavosi ship (as a stirring choral rendition of the main theme plays, a children’s choir naturally), the sea — and the world — has opened up to her, and anything can happen. For the first time, she can choose her path. Valar Moghulis; Valar Dohaeris.

Death Count: 4. Rory McCann’s impeccable line readings were a joy, and he made what could have been a flat, remorseless killer into a man with unknowable depths. It’s a shame that the two best scene partners Maisie Williams ever had leave in the same episode, but now she must carry the load all on her own.

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So what to make of this season as a whole? Without a doubt it included the best raw story material of the series to date; episode after episode built and twisted up itself, carrying the momentum all the way through all ten episodes. This wasn’t a typical GoT finale, which in years past served as a denouement following a shocking event in episode nine; instead, we got multiple payoffs on multiple storylines, and seeds planted for more that will hopefully carry us through what us book readers are calling the “lean years.” How the producers will navigate the narrative dead-ends of books 4 and 5 is a question for another day, but I’m optimistic.

Later this week, we’ll be having a site-wide roundtable on this season, so there will be much more to say and discuss. Stay tuned for that, and thank you for reading!

Season Grade: A-

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