June 15, 2014
“You remember where the heart is?”
Each season of Game of Thrones has been an exercise in selective adaptation, but its fourth season has been a feat of adaptive engineering. Working primarily with material from the third book but leaning heavily on the fourth and fifth in certain storylines, it is the season that has emphatically taken the “book-to-season” adaptation comparison off the table.
At the same time, though, the season has been organized around key climaxes taken directly from the third book in the series. Moreso than in other seasons, you could tell the writers were having to stretch storylines to maintain the timing they had established, creating material to flesh out the scenes on The Wall to justify the Battle of Castle Black taking place in episode nine or finding things for Arya and the Hound to do so that their scenes in “The Children” wouldn’t take place until the end of the season.
By and large, I would argue the show was successful in making the season work despite the delaying tactics. This is in part because the storyline in King’s Landing, arguably the most consistently substantial, was built for this timeline, clearly marked by two major events—the Purple Wedding and the Mountain vs. the Viper—with plenty of political intrigue in between. The other reason is that even if the material at the Wall was a bit thin in ways that even last week’s epic showdown couldn’t make up for, the season as a whole maintained a sense of forward momentum. Did this momentum extend to Bran, forgotten for multiple episodes, or to Stannis and Davos’ trip to Braavos? No. But it extended to pretty much every other storyline, and makes “The Children” the most climactic finale the series has managed yet. The inconclusiveness of “The Watchers On The Wall” may have been frustrating, but it guaranteed that there was still lots to resolve even for those of us who aren’t sitting at home with checklists of what’s “supposed” to happen in the episode.
And “The Children” resolved some of it, left some of it untouched, and by and large served as one big—and mostly effective—teaser for what’s to come.
The arrival of Stannis to The Wall is really a non-event in “The Children.” It had been expected as the climax to the previous episode, the transition into this week’s finale, but instead it’s the punctuation mark that starts the episode off. And yet coming so quickly after the “Previously On” segment reminded us of Melisandre’s plans to ride North (something that they hadn’t been reminding us of as much earlier in the season), it was sort of predictable that Stannis would arrive, and the actual impact of his visit is ignored. Jon instead spends his time at The Wall closing the previous chapter, saying goodbye to his fallen brothers and taking Ygritte north of the Wall to allow her to rest where she was born and raised.
What gets delayed is any sense of how the new dynamic at Castle Black is going to unfold. We might have lots of questions about what will happen with Stannis now sharing space with the Night’s Watch, and we might appreciate the rather great shot of Jon spotting Melisandre amidst the flames, but it’s all delayed until next season. The same goes for Bran’s arrival at the mythical tree of the Three-Eyed raven: the dead rise, Jojen dies, and then a child of the forest smites them with some magic, but there’s absolutely zero sense of what any of this means. In the case of those two stories, this is problematic because I wasn’t necessarily all that invested to begin with, meaning that these events did not feel like a conclusion to one story and a transition into another. It feels like they’re just extending the existing story, another small pivot instead of a definitive turning point.
The same cannot be said for other storylines in the episode. Central as it was to the season, Tyrion’s final moments while being shepherded through the underbelly of the Red Keep were as large a turning point as you could imagine. He’s saying goodbye to his brother, knowing he’ll likely never see him again, and there’s a timeline where he makes a clean exit. But Tyrion had been through too much for a clean exit: he needed closure, which is why he murdered Shae and Tywin. Or rather it’s one of the reasons he murdered them, caught up as he is in a set of complex emotions that make all of this more than he can manage. I wouldn’t say that he achieves closure so much as he attempts to, and ends up doing things in the heat of the moment that he might not have anticipated. Peter Dinklage does a fantastic job in the moments where Tyrion is entirely conscious of what he’s doing and what he’s done: choking Shae, apologizing to her corpse, and then the chilling scene as he reloads the crossbow for the second shot. The season has given Tyrion plenty of reasons to take the actions he does here, but Dinklage makes the scenes work by bringing that all to the surface, and it’s still on his face as he crawls into Varys’ crate, headed somewhere else to start a new life haunted by his old one.
By comparison, Arya Stark makes a relatively clean break. Whereas Tyrion is forced into exile by his father’s charges, Arya makes a clear choice to sail to Braavos on her own. By presenting her the option of Brienne, the show makes a concentrated effort to make clear Arya had other options than trading the coin she received from Jaqen for a ride to the Free City, much as she had a choice of whether or not she wanted to give the Hound the mercy he desired. The expanded arc for Arya and the Hound was always going to lead to this moment, but the way it was fleshed out gave Arya more to think about when making that choice (foreshadowed by the dying man they gave mercy to earlier) and creates greater significance to her choice to take her fate into her own hands. Maisie Williams and Rory McCann absolutely nail that scene, and it’s a better scene for the greater amount of time we got to spend with the two characters together. It’s the part of the episode that works the best, and the delay tactic in the season’s narrative that works the best, and that it ends the season confirms the series’ confidence in Arya’s story.
The rest of the finale around these four key storylines was a bit more muddled. Qyburn’s plans for Gregor are a hint but lack substance, while Cersei and Jaime’s reconciliation felt haphazard (and is entirely thrown for a loop by Tywin’s death, an aftermath we don’t get to see). The same goes for Daenerys’ time in Meereen, as we get a brief check-in to effectively remind us that she is struggling to run the city effectively. It meaningfully picks up on threads from earlier—Drogon and the sheep, the struggles of former slaves and former masters alike in her new Meereen—but it’s a reminder that Dany’s big climax this season was—like last season—early on, meaning that everything else is largely a variation on a theme. That doesn’t make it dull, necessarily, but it makes her appearance in an episode like this one pale in comparison to those stories that ended long-running narratives in a climactic fashion.
The struggle for “The Children” is that it doesn’t have a single global development that it can use to build momentum for next season. There’s lots of reason to be invested in Tyrion and Arya, but Bran and Jon’s stories—the ones that have the most global consequences—were the least developed, and have the least weight in this finale (in part because, in Jon’s case, the episode emphasizes the local rather than global consequences). The situation in King’s Landing remains plenty complicated, but it has become increasingly isolated from the larger fate of Westeros, and Daenerys has been isolated from that ever since she began marching through Slaver’s Bay. Earlier in the season we saw the glimpse of the White Walkers’ home and what they do with the children given to them by Craster, but this finale is framed primarily around individual characters and their journeys, even breaking two of them off from other characters to head out on their own.
I like this choice in the sense that it understands characters are more important than plot, but it leaves some characters—like Bran and Jon—stranded in search of a purpose. The weight now falls on next season to not only complete the requisite work of expanding the series’ focus, but on making sure that the pivots evident here are paid off when the next seasonal structure unfolds in 2015.
- I’ll have some book-reader thoughts on the season later tonight, so if you have book reader thoughts, hold off on commenting until then. There’s lots to talk about on that front.
- Alex Graves does some fine directing here—I was particularly taken with the shot of Tyrion as he finishes strangling Shae and the way it forces us to witness the gravity of his actions, but I also liked the aerial work in the opening battle (which nicely mirrored the satellite shots in “The Watchers On The Wall”).
- Speaking of Graves, though, I’m wondering how much his problematic reading of Jaime’s rape of Cersei earlier this season was informed by his having shot the scene where she—in an act of rebellion against her father—returns to him and threatens to claim his love. I’m reserving judgment on where that relationship goes until we see where it heads next season, but it definitely reinforces Graves’ reading of the previous scene (or at least suggests that Cersei is looking past the reality of that scene in this moment).
- Given how rarely the show gets to show a knock-down, drag-out fight, I liked what Brienne and the Hound’s battle devolved into. I also enjoy how the initial injury from Biter was a complete red herring, throwing us off the scent of Brienne’s arrival.
- Hats off to Charles Dance, whose Tywin was a revelation early on and sustained beautifully until the end. I was particularly struck by the smoothness with which he tried to claim he never intended to kill Tyrion, never once displaying the desperation implicit in his words.
- Thanks to everyone for reading—writing about this show is more a hobby than anything else, and it’s been another great season of discussion and dialogue both here and with other reviewers. As I said, there will probably be something else later tonight, but for now it’s so long until season five.