This Thursday through Monday: The Long Weekend Of Thrones. Full schedule here.
This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven’t read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.
“The Children” is the best season finale of this show by a fair amount, but it’s a season finale that underlines how the series is slowly coming apart at the seams. In this regard, it’s a more or less accurate adaptation of the books, which reach the end of book three and then realize how thoroughly they’ve ripped up the status quo before having to wander around for a bit. It can be fun to rip up the status quo, to be sure, but it also has a tendency of backing the writer into a corner, forcing him to try and come up with something just as compelling to replace it. Much of “The Children” has its eyes turned toward the future, and much of it is uncertain. Some of this is by design of the show—including a final shot that involves Arya looking ahead toward Braavos, rather than backward at Westeros—but some of it is also just a natural inclination to wonder what’s going to follow all of this.
The structural challenge that season four of the show presented is that the material it’s adapting is, by design, a long series of climaxes, building to an endpoint that features some of the biggest, most surprising moments of the whole series, moments like Tyrion killing his own father or Arya leaving the Hound to die (okay, maybe that latter one isn’t so surprising). The show, however, has had to stretch something that might keep a reader up late at night reading well past bedtime to a full season of television, which means that the climaxes have been spaced throughout the action. For the most part, this was a good call. Putting the Purple Wedding in episode two nicely unbalanced the season, and then loading the last three episodes with huge moments gave the whole thing a lot of weight. But the spacing also meant that the season had to, necessarily, become more disparate, and that’s where the problems came in.
I’ll be writing about this more later on tonight, but where previous seasons of the show often managed to find thematic resonance between the characters’ storylines—occasionally by complete accident!—this season has mostly been stuck with trying to properly slot in those climaxes while also finding other things to do in between. One of the effects of this has been that the season has been chock full of invented material, something that I find enthralling (but which you may be less excited about) but also something that creates an unusual sense of imbalance every time the narrative shifts back to what happens in the novels. Particularly since some characters—namely Bran and Brienne—have just plowed straight ahead to what’s going on with them in books four and five, everything is proceeding at its own pace in a way that doesn’t so much invite thematic unity as it does piling incident on top of incident.
Making all of this even more evident is the fact that “The Children” really does have some degree of thematic unity, concerned as it is with parents’ responsibilities to their children (and vice versa) and with letting go of the past to embrace the destiny that awaits you in your future. It’s an episode where literally every scene could have been slotted at the end as a capstone for the season, and it would have made sense in that position. But at the same time, the choice of Arya sailing toward another life felt like the best choice the show could have made. Here is where we have been. Here is where we are going. Nearly everybody on the show crosses some sort of Rubicon in this episode, something that they will not be able to come back from, no matter how much they might want to.
The frequent mentions of children throughout the episode could have felt slightly too literal-minded on the part of episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, but that focus on descendants is at the center of any consideration of the future. As “The Children” ends, just about all of the great patriarchs of the Seven Kingdoms are dead, as well as a few of the matriarchs. (Still alive are the Tyrells, because the Tyrells will survive anything, it would seem.) Tywin’s death at the hands of the son he never loved—by crossbow, no less—bumps off the last major cast member of his generation. Dany and Jon have taken over ancient systems and are trying to change them from within, only to realize how difficult that is. The various Stark children are scattered to the winds in ways that only make any eventual reunion seem all the less likely. The Lannister three are left without a father or an eldest son after the events of the season. Everyone has been torn apart and shattered by the war, and it leaves the children to pick through their parents’ rubble.
Except, of course, the episode is named after the literal Children, known to book readers as the Children of the Forest. Their emissary here takes the form of a young girl. (In the book, her name is “Leaf,” but it is yet to be seen if the show will copy that.) The Children are figures from the dim, shrouded past of Westeros’ history. They were there before the first men arrived, and they’ll likely be there long after men leave the land. Their cave beneath the big, red tree is protected by a magic that makes the wights (depicted here as Ray Harryhausen-esque skeleton warriors) unable to enter, crumbling to bones as soon as they enter the place. And yet there’s something so sad and ethereal about them, about the way that they are trapped in literal reminders of their own history, which they seem doomed to repeat. The Children are unable to break free of the ever-tightening circle of their own lives and pasts; the show’s children (i.e., the descendants of the many characters) are able to, and that’s where much of the episodes power comes from.
I think I’ve posited somewhere in these reviews that much of Game Of Thrones is about breaking the flawed cycles of the past, about the characters doing their best to release themselves from the endlessly renewable resource that is trying to find a justice that often curdles into revenge. And “The Children” nails this dynamic, with every single character (save maybe golden boy Jon) having to make some awful choice, exact some terrible price from the universe, in order to get what they want. Arya gives up the life she knew to sail toward Braavos. Dany locks up her dragons in a cave (in a scene that should not have been as sad as it was, given that the dragons exist only on a computer somewhere). Bran loses Jojen Reed. Tyrion loses his father and the woman he loved, both dead by his own hand. And on and on.
What’s interesting is that the series also keeps contriving reasons for the characters to meet one another—even if it’s doing so outside of the strict rigors of adapting the book. Some of this is likely because the lifeblood of any TV show is experimenting with new character pairings, and Game Of Thrones has been stuck with a lot of these pairings for quite a while. Some of it is probably just because it would be fun to see Brienne fight the Hound. And some of it is that Jon gets to hang out with Stannis on the page, too. But the series has sufficiently developed its stakes to this point that the moments when characters meet are moments when anything could happen. We don’t know that Jon will welcome in Stannis. He’s certainly not bound to, even if the guy did just help the Night’s Watch a huge amount. Similarly, we suspect that Brienne and the Hound will fight, even if she keeps giving him reasons to back down. It’s in introducing these people to each other that the show creates new tensions—and new possibilities—and it seems no mistake to me that the series is playing every single one of these opportunities to the hilt.
But it also speaks to what I opened this review by talking about: The show is in serious danger of completely flying apart. With Tyrion imprisoned for much of the season, the series lost anything like what it had previously possessed as a center, and no matter how much it tried to make a location (King’s Landing) that central element, it was unable to. Part of the fun of Game Of Thrones, I know, is in the smorgasbord aspect of the show. If you’re bored with what’s happening with Dany, here’s a little taste of Littlefinger to keep you going. But in the show’s second and third seasons—its best—the series found ways to unify that massive sprawl through both theme and character. Season four was frequently astounding, occasionally strange, and every so often not very good, but it lacked that throughline that might have held everything together. Even the show’s old reliable themes—like the idea of what makes a just ruler or the idea of the disadvantaged taking power in this setting—lost some of their spark this season, weighted down by the need to turn everything that happened up as loud as it could possibly go.
This sounds like a lot of grousing for a review of an episode I really, really liked, but it was an episode that just drove home to me how much of the rest of the season has been lacking to me. As someone who’s read the books, I don’t particularly come to the show for huge, major plot twists. I come to it for its lyrically developed little playlets of scenes between the characters, or for the moments when the actors dig into what they’re handed on the page and find something resonant and human in a setting none of us will ever live in. But Game Of Thrones—both on screen and on the page—has become known for its massive plot twists, for the notion that “no one is safe.” That’s fine and good, as it goes, but the idea that anything could happen becomes, in its own way, a kind of predictability. When anything can happen, there’s a slow, creeping anomie that follows that idea, because it’s much harder to find anything safe to hold onto. That’s thrilling for a while, but there eventually comes a point when both the audience and the author seem equally stymied by the question of what happens next. (See also: the long wait we are currently undergoing for The Winds Of Winter, a long wait that Benioff and Weiss seem to be quite content with just plowing past and developing their own story for. More power to them, I say.)
On both page and screen, Game Of Thrones seems intent on finding a way to top its two biggest shocks to the system, the beheading of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding. But “The Children” is so good because it grounds all of its own shocks in beautiful, believable character moments that put pins in so many of these stories, wrapping them in ways that may not have been unexpected to this reader, but were just a little exciting. This is by far one of the best episodes the show has done, but that’s largely because it clears the playing field for the next season. I’m hopeful about this in some ways—in that Benioff and Weiss seem to be cognizant of the challenges adapting the next two books will pose and are getting out ahead of many of them—and skeptical in others—in that the cast is so widespread and so all over the map at this point that I’ll frequently just forget, like, Bran is even on the show. But if season four of Game Of Thrones left me ever-so-slightly letdown by the trajectory and pessimistic about what’s to come, “The Children” suggested that the showrunners understand clearing the board of many of the pieces carries with it its own set of challenges. They could have ended on any scene tonight, but they ended on a girl sailing toward an uncertain but potentially better future. Time to leave the world of the parents behind. Time to embrace the world of the children.
Season grade: B+
- It’s been a blast as always. Now we wait for season five to arrive in 2015. That year will never stop sounding futuristic to me.
- The first shot of the episode features a literal feast for crows. Ha.
- In “disturbing sexual politics” news, Cersei declares, “I love my brother! I love my lover!” to a man who raped her back in episode three, and then the two of them reunite. Okay, then. Guess you two kids worked it out.
- Qyburn’s practicing some wild experiments on the slowly dying body of the Mountain. I’m all for a little mad science in my fantasy shows, so I wish to subscribe to this newsletter.
- Ramin Djawadi’s music in this episode was really terrific. I don’t know if he submitted this episode for Emmy consideration, but he deserves to win, as far as I’m concerned. The choral version of the theme song should have been goofy, but it, instead, gave me some goosebumps.
- There’s also some really great direction from Alex Graves in this episode. In particular, I loved the shot of Tyrion sitting straight up next to the bed where he just killed Shae, her corpse’s head lolling down next to him. I also liked that the show didn’t attempt to make this a big conclusion to a doomed romance or anything. It was just a nasty, brutal act, undertaken because of Tyrion’s need for revenge. Another great shot: Jon spotting Melisandre through the flames.
- Look, I love Mance Rayder as a character, and I love Ciarin Hinds as an actor, but I can’t help but feel as if the show has used neither to the best of their abilities. It seems like we got a couple of scenes with him in season three, then a really nice one here, and that was it. (On the other hand, if you need someone to play up the sadness of the death of a giant king, Hinds is your guy.)
- So many of the characters who die in this episode die so very far from home, from Ygritte—who at least gets a proper funeral pyre north of the Wall—to Jojen, who gets stabbed by that skeleton.
- Looks like Varys is headed overseas with Tyrion. That could make for an interesting storyline come next season.
- Adaptation corner: I don’t care how boring Bran is 99 percent of the time. That shit with the three-eyed raven beneath the tree is one of my favorite scenes from the books, and I liked that the show chose to keep the whole “but you will fly” bit.
- The scene with the Hound trying every trick he could think of to get Arya to kill him—including talking about how he should have raped her sister—was brutal but also strangely sad. My guess is that we see him again next season, and probably fairly soon. But if you’ve read the books, please continue with me to…
Here be spoilers! (Don’t read if you haven’t read the books.):
- My wife thinks this section should just be “WHAT THE SHIT, LADY STONEHEART?!” but I am too much of a gentleman. Anyway, I am a bit intrigued that the show didn’t adapt that part somewhere in here, because, c’mon, they’re going to have Lady Stoneheart as a part of the show. Right? And I get actor contracts and all, but it would have been one scene! C’mon, Michelle Fairley. Do us a solid.
- As far as the Hound goes, I’ve always thought he was still alive in the books, too, and I liked that the series kept that ambiguous, as far as these things go. (This is the kind of show where you need to see the long dead corpse before the person is really dead.) On the other hand, it will be a lot harder for the show to play around with whether the Hound is alive or not than it was for the books.
- Varys going overseas with Tyrion is an… interesting choice. I’ve heard some thoughts from some other book readers I sometimes talk to online about what the show is doing with this, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. (To be honest, I briefly thought Varys wasn’t on that boat and was, instead, sitting on the dock for some reason. That’s how much my brain tries to trick me with denial.)