Everybody is somebody’s child, even cripples, bastards, and broken things.
The fourth season of Game of Thrones has repositioned the series’ focus from King’s Landing to Westeros at large by killing Joffrey, giving rise to Littlefinger in The Vale, bolstering House Bolton, and bringing war to The Wall. Now that our sight has been dispersed along with the cast, a new generation is beginning to take hold of the reins.
“The Children” continues in this season’s trend of telling strong, thematic tales despite putting entire continents between characters who mostly have very little in common. Doing justice to its title, the season finale passes the torch to the next generation of throne-gamers: the children have finally ascended to vitally important roles, no longer playing the victims to the machinations of their parents. Happy Father’s Day!
We begin where we left off last week in “The Watchers On The Wall” with Jon Snow, North of Castle Black, tromping through the battlefield strewn with dead giants and wildling corpses from the night before. He’s on his way to assassinate Mance Rayder.
Right away, with the camera snapping back to Edd’s point of view atop The Wall, it is clear that this episode is a special event. We are treated to an affecting overhead view of a black dot on white, one of many, but the only one moving. It’s Jon walking past the dead in one of the episode’s many shots that say, “Things are moving with purpose again.”
The bastard makes his way into the forest, raising his hands when confronted, lying to say that he’s been sent to meet with Mance. This is a lie: in this episode, children are making their own decisions, and this is no different. Not that Jon had any choice, what with most of his brothers in black (certainly the commanding ones) injured or dead and waiting for either fire or that White Walker wind that’s all the fashion up North.
Mance invites Jon into his tent and they sit face to face. Snow confesses that he was never disloyal to the Night’s Watch, but Mance challenges this with a knowing wink to Jon’s history with Ygritte. Instead of parroting Sam’s excuse from the night before (technically Crows can’t be fathers or husbands but “other stuff” is a bit of a grey area) Jon tells Mance about her death by another’s arrow.
They drink to the dead Ygritte, Mance assuring the boy in front of him that poison isn’t his style. The toasting continues to Mag the Mighty, king of the giants, and Grenn (from a farm) who killed each other in the tunnel. It’s a surprisingly touching scene.
Mance Rayder once again shows the power of a frightening reputation, totally coming off as a really nice, reasonable guy despite commanding an army of nearly a hundred thousand cannibals, barbarians, and mammoth-riding giants.
Ciarán Hinds, as usual, takes full advantage of his short amount of screen time. He plays Mance with a particularly fatherly tone, sounding completely reasonable and making the Night’s Watch look like a bunch of assholes. How could anyone not listen to this guy? He’s all the most lovable parts of Alan Rickman with just enough PTSD to make him a viable candidate for leadership in Westeros.
It’s this reasonable air about him that makes his proposal so chilling. He won’t turn around like Jon asks, but he will promise that no one else will die if the watchers on the Wall allow the horde into the south. This whole siege thing is just the first part in the deadliest game of zombie hide and seek Westeros has ever known, and Mance would rather have a wall between him and the Walkers.
Jon lets spill his false negotiation pretense by lingering his gaze a bit too long on a nearby knife, and Mance all but dares the boy to cut him down. Before any move can be made, though, a horn blows.
Stannis’ army has arrived, underdressed and on horseback. A host of riders performs some sort of double flanking maneuver and manages to subdue the wildling horde. I mention the formation because once again the camera is positioned directly above the action, as if to show a map or game board. Two lines made of men on horseback crash into a dispersing island of wildlings and the landscape of the show has changed: Stannis has brought his midlife crisis to The North.
With his newly bought army now in command, Stannis is not given the reception he believes he deserves, with Mance repeating “We do not kneel,” until he gets the point. Jon introduces himself as the child of Ned Stark, and Baratheon exhibits his penchant for requesting terrible advice by asking what Snow thinks his dead old dad would do.
“I think my father would have taken him prisoner, listened to what he had to say,” says Jon, before imploring that Stannis burn the dead.
Heading over to King’s Landing, it looks like The Mountain’s victory over poor Oberyn Martell might have been slightly more decisive than it originally appeared. He’s still alive, but is slowly succumbing to the Manticore Venom that was on Oberyn’s spear (so that’s why they called him the Red Viper).
Cersei, Pycelle and Qyburn (the Dr. House of Westeros) are debating over the dying Clegane’s life. Pycelle, ever the naysayer, says that The Mountain is about as good as dead, but Cersei isn’t about to just let this brute that helped her achieve justice for the death of her child slip away. The old man is dismissed and Qyburn is set about his mad science, taking a comically large syringe to the prone warrior, warning that the process may change him and make him even stronger.
Leaving the too-edgy-for-the-Citadel doctor to his pulpy machinations, Cersei pays a visit to her father with some more untenable demands. She refuses to marry Loras Tyrell and would rather not have Tommen given over to Margaery.
Tywin launches into a story about Cersei when she was just a stubborn child, but she revolts. No more stories about the time he won. She interrupts Tywin and describes being on the verge of killing Tommen during the siege of Blackwater.
Cersei’s attachment to her children, juxtaposed with Tywin’s equally insane need to control his family, creates one of those rare moments in which the Queen Regent is actually a sympathetic character. She has recently had her children taken away from her, and for a control freak that must be a terrible feeling.
Tywin, on the other hand, gets the opposite treatment. Charles Dance always comes off as a reasonable but tough genius surrounded by obsessive maniacs. His lack of sympathy here betrays his constantly disguised need to control his family.
His daughter jumps on this weakness. She threatens to expose the family secret, that her blond little children are all the product of incest, and the first of the finale’s jaw dropping Tywin revelations is exposed. He actually doesn’t know that Tommen, Joffrey and Myrcella are each his grandchildren twice over.
“Everything they say is true about Jaime and me” she says. “Your legacy is a lie.”
As if to prove it to herself, Cersei pays a visit to Jaime’s chamber, starts an argument over Tyrion’s unjust death-to-come, resolves it quickly with a kiss, and declares her love. Again, here we have children taking their lives into their own hands and the camera looks down on them, as they prepare to fuck on top of the image of a crown.
The board keeps changing.
In Meereen, Daenerys is dealing with some parental issues too, having some serious trouble controlling her own little monsters. The Mother of Dragons is on her throne taking complaints for the citizens. Jorah’s presence is missed, Barristan only telling her about mistakes after she makes them.
After allowing a former slave to form a contract with his old masters, the Khaleesi is forced to come to terms with the fact that her babies are growing up. A poor man, crying, brings before Daenerys the charred bones of his own three year old child.
She retreats to her chambers, gets the full details, and has two of her dragons chained up in the catacombs.
Drogon (the black one) can’t be found, but the other two cry as their mother closes the door on the poor lizards. For a scene that is essentially Emilia Clarke in a dark room surrounded by computer graphics, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.
The dragons have been a symbol of uncompromising strength and freedom ever since they were born thirty episodes ago. With Dany shackling them underground, we have to see her, in turn, chained by the responsibility of rulership. It’s painful, and it highlights what has made Daenerys so compelling over this whole journey: she refused to compromise.
Excellent animation is also to thank here. The dragons are ugly reptilian creatures with mean expressions, and unpleasant screams. Both are made to evoke sympathy simply through the context and their movement. I’ve never been one to let Daenerys get away with murder, but as the door rolls closed in this scene, I suddenly care much less for the toddlers of Meereen.
Back in Castle Black, after some foreshadowing eye-tag with Melisandre at the funeral, Jon pays a visit to another chained monster: Tormund Giantsbane. There is some ideological talk, Giantsbane rolling his eyes at how luxurious the treatment of prisoners seems to be under charge of the Night’s Watch. The captive brute assures Jon that Ygritte loved him, and asks that she be burnt in the North.
He does so, dragging her corpse to the forest beyond The Wall and building a pyre. She burns, Jon cries and dammit it all seems so silly now. Communication and compromise have always been this show’s secret door to success (its a pretty good rule for life too). Now, understanding Mance’s motivations, the death of Ygritte seems particularly unnecessary.
Even further north, we are treated to the biggest finale set piece and the most literal explanation of the title. Bran, Jojen, Meera and Hodor arrive at the tree that they’ve been dreaming about just as the sun is setting, making everything look really pretty. Then the dead rise.
As the kids try to make it to the cave under the tree, skeletons crawl out of the ground, kill Jojen and are destroyed by a child using pyromancy (or possibly throwing firebombs). The fight scene here is up to the season’s high production value standards with little details really telling a story of their own.
The reaction shots of Jojen as he tells his companions to leave him to the wights project an urgency that betrays his usual confidence born of future sight. There’s a worry in his face that shows particularly when he sees that Bran is using his old warging Hodor trick to save him. We find out soon that the little Reed boy knew that he was going to die when they got here as a condition for Bran’s ascension. He’s fighting to be left behind.
All of this is not even to mention that for the second time in the episode, heavy CGI is taking centre stage, with clever animation beats selling just how terrifying the walking dead are in Westeros. The best example is the relentless rhythmic stabbing of Jojen by a skeletal arm, each blow exactly as forceful as the last. It’s almost like director Alex Graves wanted to say, “Oh yeah? You thought George R.R. Martin’s treatment of characters was machine-like? Check these guys out.”
The pyromancer immolates Jojen’s corpse (no dead prophets) as the party escapes into the cave beneath the tree.
Once inside, things get somehow even more hardcore fantasy, with some sort of consecrated magic causing the wights to shatter as they enter. It’s here that the the little bomber name-drops the episode.
“The first men called us the Children,” says the fire child, “but we were born long before them.”
Fire Child leads Bran, Hodor and Meera to the centre of the cave beneath the tree and we are finally introduced to a character we’ve seen all series long: an old man, tangled in roots, who has appeared to Bran many times as a three eyed raven.
Since this is the season finale, Bran doesn’t get any answers, but boy-oh-boy does he get some nifty riddles. The old man says that he’s been waiting for the little lord, watching him and everyone he knows. The old man instructs Bran to find what he has lost.
Bran offers a guess that this means he will get his legs back, but the tree-man corrects him. The Stark boy’s legs will never walk again, but he will fly.
Having taken care of the giant mythology dump, it’s reunion time in The Vale. Pod and Brienne are on their way to the Bloody Gate in search of Sansa, but the squire didn’t hobble the horses properly overnight leaving them without a ride for the remaining ten miles.
Brienne finds Arya practicing her water dance nearby and the conversation we’ve been waiting for since season two actually occurs. Yes, they are exactly alike: they loved their dads, they named their swords, they are enthusiastic about being badass.
As soon as Brienne actually figures out who she’s talking to, the big difference gets in the way. Miss of Tarth invokes her oath to Catelyn as a pretense to bring Arya with her, but The Hound isn’t about to give up his guardianship.
A fight ensues and Arya escapes to a hiding place. The brawl between Sandor and Brienne is more wish fulfillment – brutal and filled with groin kicks and battle cries – ending with The Hound taking a fall off a small crag.
Pod and Brienne wander off, searching for Arya in the wrong direction, and the littlest cool dude emerges to say goodbye to her partner, teacher, and reluctant father figure.
The Hound is dying, and having taken a liking to his companion, urges her to go with Brienne before begging Arya to stab him in the heart. She doesn’t though. Instead, Arya loots The Hound and allows him to succumb to his wounds, walking away as Sandor Clegane slowly cries himself to death.
It is emotionally conflicting, and a brave move in a show that generally has two modes of character death: the shocking and upsetting or the exploitative and gratifying. This is neither, it’s just truly a sad goodbye.
Back in King’s Landing for the last time, Tyrion is broken out of the dungeon by Jaime, with instructions to find Varys.
He sneaks into his father’s chamber and a number of surprises happen in sequence: first, Shae is in Tywin’s bed; second, Tyrion murders her with his bare hands; third, Tywin is in the other room, shitting, and Tyrion goes to visit him; and four, Tyrion shoots his father twice with a crossbow killing the head of House Lannister.
The commode scene is perfect, leaving absolutely no regrets in a confrontation that we’ve been waiting for all series. Tywin continually tries to use his old “let’s do this like men” strategy to get out, but Tyrion is all too aware of how deft his father is at playing games when he’s not in the bathroom.
After the first shot, Tywin uses his fatherly powers of disappointment to forsake Tyrion, but the child no longer needs to accept his dad’s word as reality.
“I am your son. I have always been your son.”
The second arrow lands in Tywin’s heart and Tyrion meets up with Varys. The Imp hides in a crate, and is shipped off to season five just as the alarm bells begin to toll.
In the Riverlands, Arya rides alone on her pale horse and finds a spice ship. She wants to go to The Wall, but the captain is going to Braavos. Taking the coin from her pocket, the one given to her by the man with no face, she hands it to the Braavosi sailor.
“Valar Morghulis,” she says, earning a cabin on the ship, sailing away into the future where she, one of the children, is bound to become one of the greatest warriors in fantasy fiction.
The final shot of season four is one of an open ocean into which a child sails alone. Vast and dark, the water dwarfs the little wolf: a future filled with danger. But it’s a future filled with possibility now that the torch has passed to the next generation.
The Children have succeeded their fathers.
– So how about that addition of Moat Cailin to the title sequence? Always fun to see new models on the map, even if they are of locations that don’t appear in the episode.
– They sure went out of their way to make The Mountain’s operation seem transformative.
– I love how these last two episodes really went to town on embracing the fantasy genre. A skeleton battle, fire magic and dragons all in the episode after giants rode woolly mammoths into war during a blizzard.
– Anybody else kind of hoping the Night’s Watch forget to burn Mag the Mighty? The bright blue eye of a zombie giant would be great cold-open material for season five.
– Those were some pretty significant stare-downs happening between Melisandre and Jon.
– That all wrapped up pretty nicely, didn’t it? All season I’ve been praising the episodes for their tight thematic writing, but the season sometimes felt a little without focus when it came to the big picture. After “The Children” it’s hard to criticize season four as ten episodes in which not much happened. The whole board changed. Boltons rule the North, Arya’s on her own in Braavos, Tywin’s dead, Littlefinger and Sansa are some kind of power-couple and Bran might be an angel. Also a dragon is missing and Jorah is unemployed. See you next year Game of Thrones!
Legacy of Quotes
The Bad Guy Who’s Actually a Good Guy Award: “Here’s me being honest, Jon Snow, which is more than you’ve ever done for me. My people have bled enough.” – Mance Rayder
The “They’re coming for you Barbara” Award: “If my father had seen the things that I’d seen, he’d also tell you to burn the dead before nightfall.” – Jon Snow
Encouraging Audience Literacy Award: “I can speak the common tongue if you wish.” – Fennesz
The Episode in a Single Line Award: “For those of us too old to change there is only fear and squalor.” -Fennesz
The Jon Knows Nothing Award: “The dead can’t hear us, boy.” -Tormund Giantsbane
First Guess Award: “You’re the three eyed raven.” -Brandon Stark
King of the North Pole Award: “I’ve been watching you, all of you. All of your lives with a thousand eyes and one.” -Old Man Beneath the Tree
Teacher of the Year Award: “You remember where the heart is.” -Sandor Clegane
Speaking For the Audience Award: “Thank you for my life.”- Tyrion Lannister
Best Father’s Day Ever Award: “I am your son. I have always been your son.” -Tyrion Lannister