Only 11 days and counting until the Game of Thrones season 6 premiere! We have a guest contributor stepping in today to pay tribute to “The Children,” the staggering finale of season four- please welcome back Greatjon of Slumber! – Sue the Fury
What every parent realizes eventually – and Game of Thrones drives this point home with full force in season four’s closer, “The Children,” is that they have only so much control over the actions their children take, and the actions others may take against them. And that measure of control, or influence, wanes with each passing year as children age, until, perhaps, having established a strong relationship during their youth, a parent may be able to influence their actions through wise counsel and advice, compared with their younger years, when they can rely on punishment and reward.
So much of “The Children,” then, is tied to this theme – what kind of influence parents are able to exert over their children, and while the title of the episode ostensibly refers to the Children of the Forest, the non-human inhabitants of Westeros from centuries past who make their first appearance far north of the Wall, they refer as much to Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Jojen Reed, Bran Stark, Arya Stark, and their parents and in some cases, their children, or parents.
The finale doesn’t close with the kind of epic wonder that ended “Fire and Blood” – Jeor Mormont’s rousing speech, Robb Stark accepting the title of “King in the North,” the birth of the dragons – but instead closes with a number of sometimes lovely, sometimes tense moments that essentially re-set the board for coming seasons of Game of Thrones, but also put a stamp on the themes that have driven the story forth until now.
In the world of Game of Thrones, the two fathers whose influence is most heavily felt in the actions of their children are Eddard Stark and Tywin Lannister. The latter symbolically closed the story of the former at the outset of the season, in the wordless cold open where Eddard’s great sword Ice is melted down. Both men had their flaws when it came to their children: Eddard’s sense of honor and duty, forged by years of harsh Northern winters that demanded communal piety, left his children in some respect unprepared for the less forgiving world that lie to the south – and north – of Winterfell. It doomed his eldest son Robb, and his appeal to the better nature of people arguably hamstrung the development of his daughter Sansa and bastard son Jon (his younger daughter Arya seemed born with an innate ruthlessness, oddly enough).
For all of Lord Stark’s flaws, however, he grounded his children, and allowed them to understand how to forge relationships involving at least some measure of trust in a way that Tywin Lannister’s three children never did. For Tywin Lannister, his children were a means to an end – extending a family line that would retain dominion over one of the richest lands in Westeros, and occupy a notable position among royalty for generations to come. But he did so in a most harsh, uncompromising manner, one that drove two of them into each other’s arms and for the third, the unwanted child, to develop an intense dislike of his father, one only matched for his longing for some note of affection, which Tywin only fleetingly offered Tyrion.
This episode features the final confrontation between Cersei and Tywin and Tyrion and Tywin. Neither goes well for the old man, who, for all of his pride in the Lannister name, never nurtured emotional ties; in a sense, it’s no wonder that Cersei and Jaime chose each other, if only as a means to protect themselves emotionally from their unforgiving father. Cersei says this much to Jaime, essentially forgiving him for his sexual assault earlier in the season. They say one cannot choose family, but Cersei does. She tells Tywin what his children had done, under his nose, and Charles Dance, being a superb actor, betrays little of his disgust, even though he’s been shaken in a way that he’s never been shaken before. “No…I don’t believe you,” he tells Cersei, but his words come out strained, and as she departs, his hand is shaking as he nervously twitches at this revelation. Lena Headey more than matches Dance in this scene; her Cersei is central to the show’s success, and her acting is thrilling.
It’s natural that Cersei would envelope her children in the kind of smothering love that comes from having been left to her own devices, without a firm, but warm, hand from a parent that Eddard Stark might have provided. So she rails against her father, saying that she won’t marry Loras Tyrell, and leave for Highgarden so that Margaery and Tywin can tear apart her surviving son, King Tommen Baratheon. Instead, she resolves to stay – declaring that she chooses “her brother…her lover,” before finally having sex with Jaime again, this time with full consent.
The episode also closes Tyrion’s story with his father. Tywin, when speaking on the privy, after Tyrion has murdered his lover Shae – who Tywin also took into his bed – actually describes Tyrion accurately, after Tyrion asks whether his father really wanted him dead. “But you refused to die. I respect that, even admire it – you fight for what’s yours.” He’s not wrong – but Tyrion learned to fight because his father was an active detriment in his development, not an asset. And, like his sister, it’s no surprise that Tyrion rejects his father, tells him specifically of what his love was – for Shae, a common whore – before killing him in the most undignified fashion.
Tywin Lannister’s legacy, ultimately, was this: his children bore three children of their own, products of incest, and therefore without a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne should anyone truly find the wherewithal to do anything about it. He left the world unloved, having overseen the reign of his abominable grandson, informed of the scandalous relationship that produced Joffrey and his siblings, just days before he was murdered – on a toilet.
The Stark children, oddly, fair better for once in this episode. While Sansa’s story was closed two episodes previous, Arya finally comes to the end of her time with The Hound after the latter’s fierce battle with Brienne of Tarth in the Vale. With the Hound lying broken, bleeding, and certain to die, Arya, in another step in her cold development, elects not to kill The Hound. Rory McCann in many ways owned this season, and so it’s heartbreaking to see Sandor Clegane go from a resigned expectation that Arya will do the honorable thing and send him on his way, to attempting to provoke a violent response from her by saying awful things about her sister, to eventually his being reduced to begging for Arya to kill him. Arya’s a survivor, in part because she has learned, far from the sight of her dead father and mother, to protect herself.
Jon Snow is learning those same lessons, in an odd enough way. He goes to Mance Rayder’s tent after the battle at Castle Black fully prepared to kill the King-Beyond-the-Wall. He’s there, supposedly, to negotiate terms, and Mance rightfully notes the dishonor in attempting to kill a man who has taken him into his tent and offered him a drink (again, it should be noted, by an oathbreaker himself) – but Jon’s plan was also a sacrificial plan, to hopefully take out the leader of the famously undisciplined Wildlings in an effort to get them to scatter to the winds, and not threaten the Wall anymore. I was a fan of Ciarán Hinds from the beginning back in Season 3 – but Mance’s alternately genial and cunning nature really comes across here in a great scene that manages a salute to Mag the Mighty, the giant, and Grenn, one of several men who took him out defending the gate.
Further north of the Wall, Bran Stark, also a son of Eddard, finally makes his way to the Weirwood Tree where the Three-Eyed Raven awaits. In doing so, he loses a companion, Jojen Reed, with the others escaping from the terrible skeletal wights that attack them from the Child of the Forest that emerges from the cave. Season six is about to premiere, and we will finally see Bran again, now played, it seems, by former basketball star Bill Walton, or someone perhaps slightly taller.
A recap of this episode would not be complete without a reckoning of the actions of the children of the Mother of Dragons. The scenes in Meereen are brief, but Daenerys Targaryen, Daenerys the Stormborn, the Unburnt, and several other titles faces the reality of her actions, having become “Mhysa” to those slaves she has freed, and realizing that as mother of these freed slaves, she could not anticipate their reactions once having had their cords cut. We’re not likely to see the elderly slave Fennesz again, but his despair at having agreed to leave his home – and the children who love him – forces Dany’s hand, and for her to finally relent in letting him sell himself back to his master for a year.
But his grief his nothing compared to the shepherd who approaches after, only this one isn’t bearing the charred skeleton of a goat, but of a small child, a three-year-old girl burnt by Drogon. It’s now that Dany realizes her children – the dragons – are beyond her control. In our world, we cast downward glances at people who are forced, usually through television interviews, to answer for the actions of adult children who commit horrific crimes. And much as Cersei Lannister bore responsibility for Joffrey Baratheon’s heinousness, she also could not be held entirely accountable for all that he did. With Daenerys, the culpability is much less clear – they are dragons, after all – but she does the only thing she can, which is to chain them. It can’t last.
CRIPPLES, BASTARDS AND UNFINISHED THOUGHTS:
The contrast in appearance and philosophy between Brienne of Tarth and Sandor Clegane could not be clearer. Even after weeks on the road, she’s much cleaner; she has crisp, blond hair, and a clean complexion; the Hound is rougher, with his stringy, dark hair. And their perception of knighthood is just as divergent – Brienne sees honor in an institution that will not accept her, while the Hound rejects knighthood as an abomination, due to the memories he has of his brutal brother, who is celebrated for his brutality. But she’s also naïve in her belief that she can provide some measure of security for Arya; the Hound, for as uncompromising as he is, is more right than he is wrong.
Brienne nearly goes Ned Stark’s route, dying due to her honorable nature in not wanting to kill the Hound, but once he steps up his physical fighting style, she figures things out pretty quick. This one-on-one match is a series highlight, in part because Gwen Christie and Rory McCann are superb at fighting “in character,” but also because this is the rare match where viewers’ loyalties could truly be divided. Having the Hound meet his end due to Brienne – even though, because Westeros is a massive place, it strains credulity that they meet at all – is a far superior outcome than having him weakened by a bunch of redshirts, as in the books.
This episode continues the fine development of Tormund Giantsbane’s character, with Kristofer Hivju particularly poignant in discussing how he knew Ygritte truly loved Jon. “She told you?” “No. She only talked about killing you. That’s how I knew.”
This may be giving short shrift to Stannis Baratheon here, but the filmmakers do some nice work with effects to show how his troops easily overwhelm the Wildlings. And watching the last poor slob who tries to go after Stannis and Davos on foot, only to get smashed by one of the calvary, is satisfying. (And really, he has only about three minutes of screen time in the episode.)
There was some commentary early on after this episode aired about the “cheesiness” of the skeletal wights, but look again. They’re superbly done – and a clear homage to Ray Harryhausen.
I never did understand the physics of Tyrion’s choking of Shae. She’s lying on her back on the bed. Surely she could have thrown her feet over her head and gotten out of that chokehold.
“I’ll never let Ilyn Payne take your head.” Ilyn Payne, not forgotten! Come back, Wilko Johnson, we’re glad for your recovery from cancer.
Introductions: Braavosi sea captain Ternesio Terys, played by Gary Oliver, perfectly cast; Fennesz; Leaf, the Child of the Forest; the Three-Eyed Raven.
Departures include: Tywin Lannister; Shae; Jojen Reed; Ygritte, Grenn, Pyp, and a few dozen more members of the Night’s Watch (ceremoniously), plus a few hundred members of the Free Folk (unceremoniously); Grand Maester Pycelle’s ownership of his laboratory; a half-dozen skeletal wights; the employment contract of the raven who delivers Tywin Lannister’s letters; Brienne and Pod’s horses (for now), and, temporarily, Bran Stark, Hodor, Meera Reed, Leaf, and the Three-Eyed Raven.
And then there’s Sandor Clegane. As a longtime viewer of Justified, it goes like this: no bullet in his head, and nobody being zipped up into a body bag. So until Raylan Givens shows up to tell me he’s dead in that dulcet Southern accent of his, he’s not truly gone.
Tywin’s Beautiful Death:
The season-ending music, titled “The Children”: