When Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said this past week that their season four finale was their finest yet, it was easy to disregard at the time. Of course they thought it was their best, as any creator might. Little did we know at the time that they were absolutely correct. Season four’s final frame wasn’t just the end of a long, bloody and brilliant season of television. It also serves as an unexpectedly hopeful and wondrous start to the next chapter.
When does season five start, again?
“The Children” picks up immediately where “The Watchers on The Wall” left off, with Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) heading out alone to offer peace to Mance Rayder (an ever-grizzled Ciaran Hinds). Within minutes the episode pulls back, showing us a massive army coming down hard on the Wildling army. In rides King Stannis, heroic as he’ll probably ever be. It’s the finish of a longer sequence that seems like it could have been a nice capper to last week’s episode, but we can’t discount the character moments accomplished in the scene between Jon and Mance. Discussions of honor, vows, the recently lost Ygritte. The entire sequence serves as a great start to a very busy episode. In closing out its fourth season, the show had a lot to do. Not just moving pieces, but major shifts in perspective. As Mance speaks, we finally get the real reason why the Wildling army is moving south. They want to hide behind The Wall, too.
Good luck selling hard-liner Stannis on that. A quandary for next season, for sure.
The best of what “The Children” accomplishes isn’t just the action. Though let’s be honest, the wide birds-eye view of Stannis’ army closing in on both sides of the Wildlings was gloriously massive. The accomplishments of this episode, directed by Alex Graves and written by Benioff and Weiss, is in the questions it presents. Finales, this show being no exception, usually give us answers and tie up loose ends. Season four goes out with plenty of ends tied, but so many new paths being forged (and surprisingly, a number of them that include that rare Westerosi sentiment known as hope.)
Who will lead the Night’s Watch? What will Stannis do now that he’s at The Wall? Which of the Wildlings will Melisandre get to burn?
So many delicious questions for season five to answer. And that’s just the first few minutes.
Now let’s take a moment and allow me to give you some book knowledge, as the show did sort of glance over one of my favorite things about the aftermath of the fight between The Mountain and The Viper. Don’t worry, this is not a spoiler. It’s what I’d like to call supplementary information that matters.
Please give me a moment to push my glasses up my nose and say, “Well, in the books it was better…”
In the second scene of the episode we see Ser Gregor laying still, his wounds being treated by Maester Pycelle and that creepy guy Qyburn. What we don’t see is how much pain Oberyn inflicted by poisoning the end of his spears. Sure, his head got popped like a piece of fruit in a Gallagher routine, but his revenge was carried out in an agonizing manner for The Mountain. The books talk of how the screams can be heard throughout The Red Keep, lasting for weeks and turning his blood black.
It’s a small bit of recompense for the loss of one of the story’s most exciting characters. The show didn’t seem quite so interested in Ser Gregor’s pain as it does in whatever creepy experiments are going to happen to him going forward.
RIP Prince Oberyn. I will continue to be your champion.
“And what, you’ll kill your own father in the privy?”
Back to what did happen in the episode (as there’s such an overwhelming amount accomplished here), we get to see each of Tywin’s children lashing out against their father, proof that even the most powerful man alive can’t control everything. The first is Cersei, who throws her relationship with Jaime in his face in anger over her betrothal to Loras Tyrell. Despite being reunited physically (and consensually) with his sister, Jaime then goes and sets Tyrion free, leading to the series’ best brotherly hug. We’ll always have those late night conversations about beetles.
The final and most striking lashing out of the Lannister children is the one that serves to be the end of Tywin himself. Tyrion, freshly released from his cell and on his way to Varys-assisted freedom, has a pause. “What are you doing?” you may have wondered. Unfinished business, first with Shae and then with his father. The most emotional moment is with Shae, for whom Tyrion has always seemed to have genuine feelings. Remember the emotional resonance in Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion was crushed by her betrayal at his trial. Whether or not she loved him is irrelevant. He cared for her and when she called out for his father as “My Lion”, the man who had long yearned for his death, he snapped. Then in true Tyrion Lannister form, he apologized. It’s not every day you feel bad for someone who basically just committed a cold-blooded murder. And then, patricide on the privy. The presence of Charles Dance on this show will be missed, Lord Tywin not so much.
Even more so than most episodes this series has delivered, “The Children” so wonderfully threads all of it’s vignettes together with a single unifying theme. With the exception of finishing its business at The Wall. It’s curious why last week’s episode couldn’t have been 75-minutes long and finished with Stannis’ arrival, especially considering the thematic harmony that exists in the rest of the episode. The theme of children permeates everything south of The Wall and beyond. Daenerys is faced with a tough decision with her dragons, who have now become large and unpredictable enough to start charring kids in the fields outside Meereen. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and one of Emilia Clarke’s better emotional moments of the series, but you know how teenagers can be.
Bran and his crew finally make it to their destination, where after fighting against the skeleton soldiers from Army of Darkness (complete with some boomstick bomb action), they meet a guy who also appears to be a tree. It’s a very cool sequence that, as with many of the storylines in this episode, opens up an entirely new can of worms. And questions, like did HBO just let them reuse the Carcosa set piece from True Detective? If Bran starts talking in season five about time being a flat circle, I’m in. Anything to make that kid’s story more interesting.
“You can shit later, there’s people coming.”
“The Children” also sets another little one free with one of the season’s best single combat sequences. No offense to Oberyn and Ser Gregor. The Mountain and The Viper was fun, but few badass soldier types have warranted as much investment from show watchers as Brienne of Tarth and The Hound. The engagement is framed with sweeping shots set against beautiful landscape. It begins with form and technique and rapidly devolves into something brutal and nasty. It’s just as you’d expect from these two seasoned fighters. A glorious, towering fight that serves to punctuate a season of exceptional choreography and action directing by the Game of Thrones team.
Watching The Hound beg for death, Jon Snow crying, Tyrion’s goodbye to Jaime, that entire Shae thing, Dany locking up her dragons. It was an episode not short on sadness. It’s strongest theme, however, was ending with hope.
Brienne and The Hound set in motion the episode’s final image. As Grantland’s Emily Yoshida pointed out in the site’s season finale precap, each season’s final shot has been distinctive. It’s also followed a pattern. Season one: Dany’s dragons give us a wonderful “HELLO!” moment. Season two: The Walker army heads toward Night’s Watch, very doom and gloom. Season three: another hopeful shot of Daenerys, racially problematic liberator. Season four should have ended with a dark and broody moment based on that trend, don’t you think? But after all the nasty business this season has delivered, it’s proven itself above the trends. And a shot of Arya sailing off to Braavos for her next adventure is exactly what the show needs. Season four delivered one hell of a body count. Even considering the show’s track record and the death toll the audience has come to expect, a bit of fatigue wouldn’t be unreasonable. Season four has left us yearning for stories and characters to root for. It’s final episode, not without its share of death and grisly kicks to the groin, gives us the heroes we need. It turns out we should’ve been rooting for the children all along.
More to come, as always, in my book reader indulgent spoiler discussion later in the week. So much will need to be said as we continue to unwrap the dense and incredibly well executed season four finale of Game of Thrones.