Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode 10, “The Children”
June 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m. (EST), HBO
Note: I have read all of the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and therefore am capable of having discussions about things that will happen down the road in this series. I will NOT be doing that in the body of these reviews, and any time I make reference to a future event in the series, it will come at the very end of The Roundup, and be clearly marked with a SPOILER warning.
Generally, every season of Game of Thrones ends with a bit of an anti-climax, with an episode that mostly just checks in with everyone and sets things up for the next season. The real work of most seasons is accomplished in the penultimate episode, where big things happen and the game is changed forever. The finales are usually just cleaning up whatever mess has now been made, clearing away brush before the next fire starts. Perhaps that is why “The Children” manages to be the best season finale Game of Thrones has done yet, and for my money, one of this series’ finer episodes to date. It is a breathless hour of television that swings from high to high. The character moments and emotional stakes that “The Watchers and The Wall” lacked are here in spades (even Ygritte’s death means more here than it did last week), and there are multiple moments where the weight of all of the accumulated hours we’ve spent with this show finally land. That quiet moment when Daenarys weeps as she locks two of her dragons up, closing them in the darkness, or the way the show’s theme suddenly becomes choral as Arya Stark is swept away from the land that’s caused her so much pain and to a future of her own making, these are moments this show has built to so that when they happen, they are something marvelous. We’ve seen these people grow and change, we’ve seen them lose and lose and lose but never be beaten. “The Children” isn’t just the name of those mystical creatures beneath the tree far North of the Wall; no, this episode is an elegy for all of the children we have lost over the course of this show, all of the innocence that has been stripped away until there was nothing left.
Season four has been arguably the most consistently eventful season of the show. It didn’t have the death of Ned Stark, or the Red Wedding to call it’s own, but it had more tectonic shifts than anything that came before. From Joffrey’s death to Dany’s ascendance, from Oberyn’s vengeance to Stannis’ sweeping victory, from the Hound’s tragic pleas for death to Tywin Lannister’s final bout of arrogance, this has been a season absolutely packed with moments designed to unbalance things, to keep the characters, and us as viewers, on our toes. It has also, of course, had its problems, both in the way it has approached nudity and sexual assault, and in some of the subplots it tried on for size and failed to give much weight (the Craster’s Keep story was nothing but a stall, and it has been eons since Theon mattered even remotely). But here, at the end, “The Children” manages to remind us why these big things matter, and why those little things can always be overcome: it’s the people that matter here, whether or not they see it, whether or not they care about the others around them, whether they are angling for power or just struggling to stay alive. When this show hews close to its characters and focuses on them more than on the titanic shifts that upend their existences, it becomes something wondrous, and unlike anything else on television: it becomes a true epic unfolding before our eyes.
“The Children” is all about the way we outgrow the past or let it destroy us, the way we close the door to our monsters (as Dany does, almost literally), or free them from their cages (as Tyrion does when he confronts his father). It is less that this episode changes the format of previous finales drastically, because it doesn’t; what makes it so miraculous is the way it, for once, manages to feel like a capstone for the journeys of each character over the course of this season. Part of that is the nature of the end of A Storm of Swords, which has the most natural conclusion of any of Martin’s books (while also, of course, ending on a cliffhanger which this episode perhaps rightly eschews), but part of that is just the fact that this episode does a lot of work to weigh where each character is and to comment on how they have evolved or failed to over the past 40 hours of television. The parents won’t live forever; at some point, the children have to come into their own.
Bran meets the actual children of the episode’s title, an ancient race that predates the First Men, but the way that they never grow, age barely at all and live virtually forever works incredibly well as a metaphor for the evolution going on all around them. The tragedy of the children is that their lifespan makes their long, slow decline last centuries, leaving them trapped, considering the past far more than they turn their eyes to the future. But everyone else here is casting their eyes forward, pushing past whatever stands between them and who they are trying to become, seizing themselves from the various forces that attempt to control them. Cersei refuses to be married off again. Mance Rayder won’t let his people die, and won’t let them be turned back from the wall built only to keep them out. Dany will become the queen her people need, even if it means walling off some parts of herself. Tyrion will not be crushed by his father’s disdain for one moment longer. Only Jon Snow is still locked in the past, but even he is using the name Ned Stark to create his own power, leveraging the past as a way forward with this new king he finds in his midst. The past is a cage that will hold you back if you let it. The future is a door willing you to walk through it.
Game of Thrones itself will always struggle with the past as it forges the future. The show is an adaptation of a story that constantly tries to transcend its source material, or at least, to find ways to change the effect it has on us as viewers. Tonight Brienne of Tarth actually finds herself a Stark, only to lose her as she does mortal(?) battle with The Hound, as if Benioff and Weiss had a late night brainstorming session and decided that, yes, it would be awesome to see one of the show’s most honorable characters cross swords with one of it’s least. Of course, Brienne discovers she might not be quite as noble as she expected, and we’ve long known Sandor isn’t quite as unscrupulous as he lets on. Yet the fight between them reveals legions about each, as Brienne is forced to rely on instinct over form to ensure her survival, and The Hound is left yelping for an end Arya refuses to provide.
Season four of this show was often about nothing so much as the next twist, that next big climax, another high to match whatever shocker has just destroyed our image of this world and its rules. It lacked the thematic coherence of the show at its best, and often, it became a plot machine grinding up its characters as grist for a story mill. But “The Children” goes a long way towards fixing that, seemingly acknowledging that the show is at its best when it is about not this world but those that populate it. The big moments only land as well as they do because we actually care about these people and what happens to them (this, I think, is one of the major reasons “Blackwater” is a more affecting piece of television than “The Watchers on the Wall”), and the more often this show stops to just look Arya in the eyes as she makes a decision, or to travel that dark, dark path with Tyrion, the better it will be. The big moments are always coming, but its who these people are when they arrive that is truly fascinating.
And so we reach a crossroads. Winter is coming, and it brings with it many a night that will be dark and full of terrors. But after even the longest winter, there will be a spring. After all of the systems are torn down, something will come along to replace them. Our parents will die, but we will replace them, just as our children will replace us. The world doesn’t always arc towards the good, but the future always holds promise. Even in a world as bleak as Westeros, and even on a show as dark as Game of Thrones, there remains a ray of light, a possibility the future holds that maybe someday everything will be ok. In the rubble that is Winterfell, a weirwood try still grows strong and tall. In the darkness of the blackest night, the sun still waits to rise again. The parents must fall, in part, so the children can rise. Valar morghulis. Valar dohaeris.
- -“Of all the ways I’d kill you, poison would be the last.”
- -“Are you capable of that, Jon Snow? Of killing a man in his own tent when he’s just offered you peace? Is that what the Night’s Watch is? Is that what you are?”
- -“It is customary to kneel when surrendering to a King.” “We don’t kneel.”
- -“You should know, the process may…change him, somewhat.” “Will it weaken him?” “Oh no.” “Very well then.”
- -“People will whisper. They’ll make their jokes. Let them. They’re all so small I don’t even see them. I only see what matters.”
- -“The First Men called us The Children, but we were born long before them.”
- -“I’ve been watching you. All of you. All of your lives. With a thousand eyes and one.”
- -“Come with me, Arya. I’ll take you to safety.” “Safety? Where the fuck is that?”
- -“I have no wish to kill you, sir.” “I’m not a knight.”
- -“Jaime…Thank you. For my life.”
- -Seriously, that choral version of the theme song is the sort of thing that shouldn’t have worked, and it absolutely blew me away. Ramin Djawadi should probably get an Emmy, I think.
- -SPOILERS: So, no, we didn’t get Lady Stoneheart, even after me putting it down in this section every goddamn week for basically this whole season. But, actually, I think it was a smart choice. That would have been one more “Holy shit!” moment in a season full of them, and I respect the show’s choice to end on a character beat rather than another big twist. Bravo, I say. Also, Brienne finding Arya and fighting the Hound is, I think, the single greatest departure from the books this show has yet pulled off. It is a beautiful, brilliant, brutal scene for all involved, and it works without forcing itself. It works like it should have been there all along. Tyrion is much nicer to Jaime for saving his life here, which really worked for me, even if I kind of buy Tyrion’s bitter fury in the book more. Varys is going overseas with Tyrion, which…huh. As book readers know, Varys lies low after he secrets Tyrion away, but we learn at the end of A Dance with Dragons that he is still very much in King’s Landing and very much has his own agenda. I am mostly just intrigued to see where this is going.
- -Thank you all for reading along with me this season. It’s been a pleasure.
“The Children” isn’t just the name of those mystical creatures beneath the tree far North of the Wall; no, this episode is an elegy for all of the children we have lost over the course of this show, all of the innocence that has been stripped away until there was nothing left.