A review of tonight's “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I do a poor job hobbling the horses…
“I am your son. I have always been your son.” -Tyrion
In previous seasons, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have tended to use the finales in the same way that “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” so often did: as a time for reflection after the climactic events of the different episodes 9, and as a preview of what's to come in the following season.
“The Children” didn't work quite like that, in part because “The Watchers on the Wall” wasn't a climax of the season in the way that “Baelor,” “Blackwater” and “The Rains of Castamere” were. It was exciting action, but it resolved exactly nothing (other than the Jon Snow/Ygritte romance), and left most matters up to “The Children” to either dispense with or push forward into season 5. As such, it was a finale with many big denouements – too many, arguably, given the need to squeeze them all into a single episode, even a slightly longer one than normal. Some had the desired emotional impact, but others simply got lost in the trans-continental shuffle.
Stannis appearing out of nowhere to rout the wildling army, for instance, arguably would have been better served as the conclusion to “The Watchers on the Wall” than as the first major movement of “The Children.” It allowed the Jon/Mance scene to play out at greater length (in the process giving Ciaran Hinds something to do in his first appearance in nearly two years), but the notion of the cavalry riding to the rescue immediately after Jon's fatalistic reaction to the battle would have seemed more dramatic than this. Alex Graves, as he so often does on this show, worked wonders with the battle choreography (the overhead shot of the wildlings fighting chaotically while Stannis' men rode and fought in perfect precision neatly told the story of the entire battle in just a few seconds), but the overall effect was muted. There's also the matter of the show trying to keep Stannis' desire to go to the Wall a secret so it feels surprising here, which meant that most of his scenes this season undid the strong work from the season 3 finale where Stannis seemed like the one powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms who understood what was really important. Having him spend most of this season pouting some more about his birthright, the Lannisters, etc. may have rendered the rescue more surprising, but it also rendered Stannis more annoying in the process, and he's a character the show can't really afford to do that with.
The Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Knitter of Sweater-Vests having to become the one who chains her own dragons is the biggest sign yet that Dany wasn't prepared for the burdens of ruling Meereen. But the moment didn't feel so much like the conclusion of the latest stage of that story as simply the last thing she does before the new season begins. It's a tricky thing, trying to juggle stories that are moving at different paces, and trying to build these climactic moments into the end of each season (or, for George R.R. Martin, each book), even as many of these characters have years' more story worth telling. But the writers have usually done well at that, and “The Children” felt muddled in that area in a way the show hasn't in the past at season's end.
In some cases, of course, the creative team is stuck with the impact of a decision they made earlier in the season, not realizing how it would play with the audience and influence all that followed. It's one thing if different members of the team publicly disagree about the intention of the Jaime/Cersei rape scene in the aftermath of their son's murder, but when the characters appeared together again in “Oath Keeper,” neither acted as if that was what happened – we were meant to view Jaime's actions not as a massive reversal of course on his road to redemption, but as just one more kink in an unholy sexual alliance. But if you're an audience member who viewed that event as something more – something that Cersei would perhaps pretend to forgive, all while silently seething and plotting her vengeance – then the Cersei/Jaime scenes in “The Children” made clear that Benioff and Weiss did not share that viewpoint. The Cersei who is willing to finally turn against her father for the sake of her love for Jaime – who looks joyful as she tells her brother that she chooses him over any other option – is not someone who has ever viewed herself as her brother's victim. And that is problematic at a minimum, as well as wildly distracting from the story that the show's writers are actually trying to tell.
And the amount of time devoted to Lannister family dysfunction – some intended in the text, some accidental – has meant that other characters in this sprawling narrative get shorter shrift. This was an issue last week when so much of the drama at Castle Black involved a bunch of non-characters defined solely by their friendship with or dislike of Jon Snow, and it was an issue tonight when Jojen Reed died trying to get Bran to the three-eyed raven (or his Gandalf-looking human incarnation, played by Struan Rodger). Because of the brevity and scarcity of Bran scenes across the last few seasons, the Reed siblings have always come across as more plot device than people we are meant to understand or care about, but the lack of emotion from his death spoke to the underfed nature of this storyline in general. It was exciting to see them fighting zombie skeletons in the snow (with Bran once again turning Hodor from ineffectual simpleton into gigantic fighting machine), but on the whole this entire trip has felt like exactly what Benioff and Weiss have told me they are trying to avoid: a journey from Point A to Point B on the map, rather than something with actual character stakes to keep things interesting until people get to where the story needs them to be.
Still, there were two big moments in “The Children” that landed exactly as designed: the deaths of Tywin Lannister and the Hound.
Tyrion taking a detour from his escape to settle all family business with Tywin is a huge moment in the series' power scheme. In a way, he accomplishes what Jon Snow was hoping to with Mance, wiping out the charismatic old soldier holding various alliances together through sheer force of will, though we'll see how well Cersei and Jaime do running things, and how quickly the Tyrells are able to exert influence over Tommen. But that, of course, is not what Tyrion is interested in, and that's what makes the scene so effective. It's not just that it's our last chance to watch Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance work together, but that Tyrion has literally been waiting his whole life to finally have power over this man, and that he has been pushed so much by the cruelty and manipulations of his father and sister that he would feel the need to end Tywin's life. Shae's testimony during the trial broke something inside Tyrion, and finding her in his father's bed only made his homicidal urges louder and clearer. It's a great scene because Tywin assumes it will be like every other scene he's ever had with his unwanted younger son, with Tyrion being disrespectful but ultimately bowing to his father's will, even as we know from having seen Tyrion's reaction to strangling Shae that this will not be like the other times. He has been pushed too far, and he is a man who will absolutely keep his promise to shoot Tywin(*) if he uses the word “whore” again. If you are rooting against the Lannisters in general, it's a satisfying moment, but if you are interested in Tyrion in particular, it's all the more effective.
(*) Excellent timing, having this episode air on this particular Sunday. Happy Father's Day, Tywin!
Politically, the Hound's death(**) is of far smaller import, but it affected me even more deeply. First, the Hound/Brienne battle was everything I might have hoped for from the moment I learned that both sets of characters were heading for the Eyrie. The Hound isn't at optimal fighting strength (in the same way Jaime wasn't when he dueled Brienne early last season), but his willingness to fight dirty – and her ability to match him ugly move for ugly move (including playing Mike Tyson to his Evander Holyfield and biting the Hound's ear off) – made it an impressively brutal piece of fight choreography, enhanced by the sweeping, green and seemingly peaceful setting on which it took place. As nasty HBO drama brawls go, it wasn't quite at the level of Dan Dority vs. the Captain, but it was still tremendous in its own right.
(**) UPDATE: Been getting a lot of “we didn't see his corpse, so how do you know he's dead?” comments and tweets since the review published. My feeling is that the scene has the power it does precisely because it is the end of the Hound's story. We don't stay to watch him die in the slow and difficult fashion Arya is consigning him to because the show doesn't have time for that, and if he should happen to survive through extraordinary intervention (say, Thoros of Myr happening to wander by at the right moment), it neuters the scene, even if Arya made the decision that she did. But we'll see, I suppose.
And the Hound's defeat at Brienne's hands set up two marvelous Arya character beats in short order. First, she refuses to go along with Brienne, which dashed some additional dreams of mine but also feels like exactly the decision Arya would make after spending too much time in the custody of tall and deadly nanny types. (Also, the Hound has a point: if Brienne actually believes there is a safe place to take Ned Stark's youngest daughter, she's probably not up for the task.) Second, she watches impassively as the Hound pleads with her to show him the same compassion he gave the dying man a few episodes back, then simply takes his money pouch and leaves him to die in slow and agonizing fashion. It's a powerful culmination of everything these two have been through together – and argued about – over the last season and a half (even bringing back old problems between them like the murder of the butcher's boy), brought home by two great performances by Maisie Williams and Rory McCann. It's a conclusion of this stage of Arya's character arc while also advancing the larger arc of her turning into the kind of cold and cruel person who would leave even a cold killer like the Hound to this fate.
It was the sort of moment the show reached for elsewhere in the finale but couldn't quite pull off.
Some other thoughts:
* We certainly will have some interesting things brewing next season to the east, as it appears Arya, Tyrion and Varys (who got on the ship as soon as he realized the meaning of those bells and how badly he would suffer for his role in the escape) are all heading somewhere or other on Essos.
* The Mountain isn't dead just yet, but the defrocked maester's words to Cersei suggest an unsettling transformation is in store in the event he pulls through. Shame the Hound won't get closure with his brother, but the Tyrion/Tywin encounters tend to be the exception in this universe, rather than the rule.
* Melisandre doesn't really do anything in the episode, but she sure seems interested in Jon Snow as the two get a look at each other through the flames that are consuming the dead rangers.
* Dance also had an excellent moment in the earlier Tywin/Cersei scene when she forces him to realize that all the rumors about her and Jaime are true. Very little can hurt the old man, but that did, and I was glad we got to see that moment before Tywin died.
As a reminder, comments for this show are moderated, and we are here to discuss “Game of Thrones” AS A TV SHOW, NOT AS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF COMPARISONS TO THE BOOKS. Therefore, here's the only rule you should remember: if your comment contains the phrase “the books” without it being immediately preceded by “I haven't read” – whether it's revealing upcoming plot, a motivation that hasn't been entirely clarified in the show yet but was explained in detail by George R.R. Martin, discussing the differences between a scene in the books versus on the show, etc. – then you should probably delete what you've written and start over. Anything even vaguely questionable will not be approved.
Also, along similar lines, let me remind you of the other anti-spoiler rules for the blog: even if you haven't read the books, things that have yet to air are off-limits, whether that's previews for the next episode, interviews that actors or producers give, or even episode titles.
But with all that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org