WARNING: For the words are dark and full of spoilers…
Season Four, Episode 10: “The Children”
Written by David Benioff & D.B.Weiss; Directed by Alex Graves
Game of Thrones fans are accustomed to relatively tame season finales. Usually, episode nine of each year is where the magic happens: Season one gave us Ned Stark’s execution; season two gave us the Battle of Blackwater; and season three gave us the Red Wedding. This time around, though, things are different. Last week, we got the Battle of Castle Black — and it was great. But spending all that time at the Wall inevitably meant saving every other story arc and a whole lot of excitement for the final episode.
It’s an unusual approach for the show, but it results in the series’ best finale so far. This week, Daenerys disciplines her children; Tyrion gets the hell outta Dodge (with his head still on his neck); Bran finally does something interesting; the two oddest couples in Westeros meet; lots of people die, and more.
This week, we’re all grieving more than usual. Several familiar characters died in Sunday’s episode — some loved and some loathed — but it isn’t just them we’re saying goodbye to; we’re bidding farewell to the series itself for a while, as Game of Thrones takes its end-of-season break. If history is any indication, we likely won’t see it again until next spring. It sucks, yeah — but it’s OK; the show’s season finale left viewers plenty to speculate on until it returns (or, if you haven’t already, there’s time now to read the novels). The episode was longer than what we’re used to — 66 minutes in total — which means there’s a lot to talk about. Let’s get started…
The episode opens north of the Wall, as Jon Snow walks through a field of slain Wildlings in the aftermath of the Battle of Castle Black. He’s on his way, if you’ll remember, to meet up with Mance Rayder under the pretense of peace negotiations and — if all goes as planned — kill him while his guard is down. It’s more or less suicide, but, because Mance is so important to the Wildling army, it’s all but guaranteed to disband the factions north of the Wall and secure safety for Castle Black and it’s men — at least temporarily. That’s the idea, at least.
Jon reaches the camp, and he’s greeted by a wave of Wildlings armed to the teeth with all kinds of sharp things. Mance, though, is surprisingly civil. He and Jon sit and drink over those lost in the Battle of Castle Black — Ygritte, Grenn, and Mag the Mighty (the giant killed in the tunnel) specifically. Eventually, they begin negotiations. Jon instructs Mance to turn his army around and go home, while Mance offers the Night’s Watch peace if they open their gates and allow the Wildlings free passage south of the Wall.
Jon doesn’t like these terms. He glances over to a knife resting just a few feet away from him — well within reach — and Mance notices. “Are you capable of that, Jon Snow?” he asks him. “Killing a man in his own tent when he’s just offered you peace?” The exchange between these two is intense and really works to humanize the Wildlings. They’re not all bloodthirsty killers; they just want to use the Wall as protection — just as the southern folks do — against the inevitable army of White Walkers (though I’m willing to bet that many of the Wildlings aren’t nearly so amicable as their King-Beyond-the-Wall).
As the tension builds, their conversation is cut short when, suddenly, war horns sound outside. An army of soldiers on horseback — led by Stannis Baratheon — attacks from two sides, cutting down Wildlings in flocks until Mance surrenders. Now we know what Stannis did with the money he got from the Iron Bank earlier in season four. Jon quickly introduces himself as Eddard Stark’s bastard son, and there’s a nice exchange of mutual respect between he and Stannis where Jon suggests that they burn all the bodies of the dead. It’s a hell of a first impression. Eventually, Mance and what’s left of his army are captured, and the Wildling assault on Castle Black officially ends.
This scene is important moving forward for so many reasons. After marching north, Stannis and his men are settled (at least temporarily) at Castle Black. In the wake of the battle and Stannis’ arrival, things are sure to get shaken up quite a bit there. Also, it’s really the first time in the show where Stannis isn’t totally portrayed as a bad guy. Think back to the Battle of Blackwater: When his forces assault King’s Landing, he is an enemy to the crown and, by extension, Tyrion, so he’s seen as a villain, although that isn’t really the case. By law, Stannis has always been the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. He isn’t that likeable as a person, and he makes some questionable decisions, but seeing him take down the Wildlings and respect Jon’s advice proves that he isn’t all bad. Finally, after almost two seasons, Stannis is back in the game.
Later, at Castle Black, the Night’s Watch are ceremoniously burning their dead. Maester Aemon gives a eulogy of sorts, saying, “They died protecting men, women, and children who will never know their names. It is for us to remember them.” A torch is passed between the men who take turns lighting sections of the pyre. (There are a lot of bodies.) As it burns, Jon looks through the flames to catch Melisandre, giving him one of the longest and most uncomfortable stares I’ve ever seen. He clearly looks alarmed.
Afterwards, Jon visits Tormund, who’s still in captivity somewhere in Castle Black. The two talk about saying goodbye to the dead — a tradition those north of the Wall don’t practice. Tormund declines the chance to say any words over the corpses of the fallen Wildlings. As Jon’s leaving, Tormund brings up Ygritte. “Did you love her?” he asks. “She loved you.” He tells Jon that her body belongs north of the Wall, not with the rest, and he agrees.
Jon carries her body north, just beyond the Wall, by himself. He builds a pyre there and says his goodbyes silently as he lights it. As she’s engulfed in flames, Jon turns away, weeping. He slowly heads back to Castle Black. That’s the last we see of Jon Snow of Castle Black in season four.
Across the Narrow Sea, we visit briefly with Daenerys in Meereen. She’s in the throne room again, hearing the requests of her people. After a bit, a man approaches with a lump in his hands. It looks swaddled, like a baby, but it isn’t moving. He unwraps it to reveal a pile of charred bones — the remains of his young daughter. He is sobbing. She’s been burned alive by Drogon, Dany’s most unruly dragon.
After mulling it over for some time, Dany decides to restrain her dragons. She takes two of them down to the catacombs and places them in chains, but the third — and the one responsible for killing the man’s daughter — cannot be found. As she turns her back and walks away, her dragons start to cry out to her. (It’s hard to tell, though, whether it’s in fear or in anger; I don’t speak dragon.) She seals the door and leaves them in complete darkness.
It’s easy to forget that Daenerys is still a child. She’s likely older in the show than she is in the books, but she is still very young, and she’s still learning how to rule. She makes mistakes — we’ve seen them a lot now. It’s just unfortunate that those mistakes result in consequences such as the death of a young girl. In addition to keeping with the “children” theme that threads together the episode, there’s an interesting parallel made in Dany’s scene with her dragons: The Breaker of Chains is the one shackling her children into the catacombs. It’s hard to be so many things at once.
Far north, Bran, Hodor, and the Reeds finally see some action. After journeying through the snow until they’re near death, the group finally discovers the heart tree Bran saw in a vision earlier this season — it’s the location of the three-eyed raven. As they approach the tree, though, they’re ambushed by skeletons/wights. One grabs Jojen by his ankles, while two more attack Hodor from behind. Since the large man is useless in a battle on his own, Bran wargs into Hodor’s body and begins fighting back. He and Meera take on a whole army of skeletons. Even Summer, Bran’s direwolf, gets a kill.
It’s not enough, though, and eventually they’re overrun. Jojen is stabbed repeatedly in his gut by a skeleton, while two more approach Bran at his back. Just as all seems lost, a mysterious girl comes to the rescue and uses some pretty sweet fireballs to keep the skeletons at bay long enough for the group — minus Jojen, who is injured beyond recovery — to escape. Her face is expressionless, and her voice has just the right amount of creepy in it.
They follow her into a cave, where she leads them to some kind of chamber. She reveals herself to be one of the last surviving Children of the Forest — a race that originally inhabited Westeros years before the First Men ever set foot on the continent. In the middle of the room, Bran sees the three-eyed raven for the first time outside of his visions. He hears a voice speak to him, but it doesn’t come from the bird; above him, seated on a chair made of tree roots, is an old man.
The old man addresses the group, telling them that he has been watching them their whole lives. Meera expresses her sorrow regarding her brother’s death, but the man reassures her, telling her that Jojen knew all along he would die, but he chose to come anyway. He did it so that Bran could find what he had lost. Bran asks if that means that he will be able to walk again. “You’ll never walk again,” the old man tells him. “But you will fly.”
Elsewhere, we get a peek into Pycelle’s lab, where the Mountain, after his fight with Oberyn Martell, is dying. He was poisoned during the battle after Oberyn’s squire covered his spear with a deadly toxin. Pycelle tells Cersei that the Mountain is a lost cause and offers to ease his pain as he dies, but Qyburn, the former Maester responsible for tending to Jaime’s missing hand in season three, isn’t so sure. He’s known for using pretty unorthodox practices as a means to an end (it’s what got him stripped of his Maester title to begin with), but Cersei isn’t concerned about the methods — only the results. He warns her that the process may change him. “Will it weaken him?” She asks Qyburn. “Oh no,” he tells her.
Just outside the Bloody Gate, Brienne and Podrick continue making their way toward the Eyrie. They hear grunts up a hill, which, upon further exploration, turn out to be Arya practicing her water dancing. Brienne approaches her, friendly as can be, but Arya has grown wary of people throughout her travels. She hesitates. They discuss their swords for a while and how they learned to use them, until the Hound rounds the corner after an extended bathroom break.
Podrick recognizes him immediately, which leads Brienne to recognize Arya. She tells her of the oath she swore to her mother, Catelyn Stark, and pleads for Arya to come with them, but she refuses. In steps the Hound, who sees the Lannister gold lining the hilt of Brienne’s sword and assumes she has come to take Arya and collect the bounty on his head. “Come with me Arya, and I’ll take you to safety,” Brienne begs. “Safety?” the Hound replies. “Where the fuck is that?” The two unsheathe their swords and begin fighting.
Here’s a situation where — no matter who actually wins — nobody wins. Brienne and the Hound are both great characters, but blades have been drawn — once that happens, it’s rare that both parties make it out alive. Here, the two trade blows back and forth for a while — the Hound kicks Brienne squarely in her taint, and she responds by biting his ear off (which turns his bad side into his really bad side). It’s an intense fight with no clearly defined good and bad parties. Eventually, Brienne bests the Hound by sounding off on his face with a flurry of punches that send him flying over the edge of a bluff. He rolls to a painful stop, and Brienne begins her search for Arya, who’s used this distraction as an opportunity to disappear.
As the Hound struggles to prop his failing body up on a rock, Arya approaches him. She notices his leg is badly broken. “Are you going to die?” she asks him. “Aye,” he responds. “I’m done.” He asks her to kill him, reminding her of all the reasons she had wanted to before and giving her a few new ones. He talks about how he killed the butcher’s boy in season one, and he reminisces on how he wishes he would have raped her sister when he had the chance. Through all this, Arya never responds. She stands up, walks up to him, takes his bag of silver, and then leaves.
This gives leaves me with mixed feelings. The Hound has been on Arya’s list of names for a while; she’s been waiting for an opportunity to kill him (though it was tabled, at least temporarily, once they grew together during their travels). Killing him in this situation, though, wouldn’t have been a punishment — it would have been mercy. Her face as he begs her to kill him — almost totally emotionless — says so much with so little. The horrors of the world don’t affect her anymore and her sense of morality has been skewed. That’s how she’s able to leave the man who took care of her for so long to die in agony.
As Arya rides away on horseback, alone, she stumbles upon a wharf where a ship is docked. She approaches the captain and asks to sail north, offering all the silver she took from the Hound. The ship isn’t going north, the captain tells her, but home, across the Narrow Sea to the city of Braavos. She remembers the coin given to her by Jaquen H’ghar back in season two. She presents it to the captain, saying, “Valar morghulis” (“All men must die”).
The captain seems surprised by this, but responds dutifully. “Valar dohaeris,” he says (“all men must serve”). She is offered a cabin on the ship and safe passage to Braavos. Who knows what she’ll do when she gets there. Two episodes ago, Arya and Sansa were closer to each other than they had been since season one. Now, they’re on separate continents. The hope than any of the Stark children will ever see each other again gets smaller each episode.
Back in King’s Landing, we visit Tyrion in the dungeon late one night. Surprised, Tyrion hears his cell door open. He looks over to see his brother Jaime, who motions for him to follow him. Jaime, even after four seasons, is still a hard character to get a feel for sometimes. Earlier in the episode, we watched him have sex with his sister. Now, he (with the help of Varys) is risking himself to save his brother and beloved character Tyrion from execution. I’d imagine he’s more conflicted about it all than we are.
Jaime and his brother say their touching goodbyes and exchange a hug. Afterwards, he instructs Tyrion to go upstairs, where Varys is waiting to smuggle him out of the city. He doesn’t, though. Instead, Tyrion makes a detour through some secret passages beneath the Hand’s tower and comes right out into his father’s bedroom. But Tywin isn’t there; only Shae, the whore with whom Tyrion fell in love, laying naked in his father’s bed. Understandably, this makes him pretty angry. Shae grabs a blade to defend herself, but Tyrion wrestles it away from her, grabs her necklace, and strangles her to death with it.
With Shae dead, Tyrion grabs a crossbow and some bolts from his father’s chambers and makes his way to the privy, where Tywin has spent the last few minutes. With an arrow aimed at his father’s chest, Tyrion finally gets confirmation: “All my life, you’ve wanted me dead…” he says to him. Tywin admits it. “Yes… but you refuse to die,” he says. “I respect that — even admire it.” He’s clearly just blowing hot air.
Tywin calls Shae a whore, which causes Tyrion to respond with an arrow in his father’s stomach. “You shot me…” Tywin says. “You’re no son of mine.” “I am your son,” Tyrion tells him. “I have always been your son.” And he shoots him again — this time in the heart.
This is pure poetic justice. For so long, Tyrion had been tortured by his father; scolded for his lifestyle, for the whores and wine. In reality, he’d been doing it all too — his father was just better at hiding it. It’s such a fitting way for him to go; Tywin Lannister, the man who was so concerned about keeping up the image of perfection for both him and his family, dies in such a humiliating way — on the toilet, with a dead whore in his bed. Now his debt has been paid.
Having caused enough mayhem, Tyrion flees. He meets up with Varys, who stuffs him in a shipping crate and puts him on a ship without saying where it’s headed. When the bells toll, signaling the discovery of Tywin’s dead body, Varys decides to join Tyrion on his journey out of King’s Landing. This is the last time we see them — or anyone — in season four.
The episode’s theme — “The Children” — is the most cohesive we’ve seen so far in the show. It’s impressive the way each scene wraps around this motif while also bringing each individual story arc to an appropriate stopping point. So much happens, yet it manages to never lose its pacing or feel forced. The Hound’s farewell is moving, and Tyrion’s escape marks the first time in a while we’ve seen justice served in Game of Thrones. This episode is the best finale of the series and a fitting capstone to the most exciting season of Thrones yet.