GAME OF THRONES 4×10

"The Children"

"The First Men called us The Children, but we were born long before them." The line that gives the Season Four finale of Game of Thrones its title comes from my least favorite storyline in all of George R.R. Martin's sprawling epic (which we will get to in due course). But, nestled as it is in this episode, something about that image also strikes me as terrifically resonant, and terribly sad. These people are called "children," but they are not: they are old, older than we would think by looking at them, older than we can possibly know. 

How can we not think of that image when we are confronted with the stony, thousand-yard stare of little Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who—as her sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) did two episodes ago—seems to age to dark adulthood before our eyes? Or when we see crippled Brandon Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) lying on a carpet of human bones, after an arduous journey in which he watched his friends beaten and killed and threatened with rape? When we first met them, four long seasons ago, these were kids happily at play in the security of their childhood home, watched over by wise and loving parents, surrounded by affectionate and protective siblings. Sansa was a sweet princess dreaming of her prince; Arya was a cute tomboy shouldering her way in to play with her brothers; Bran was a nimble child scampering without care atop the walls of his home.

Arya-Stark-(Maisie-Williams),-Then-and-Now How could we have predicted where—and how—they would all end up? Even—or especially—as the first episode ended with Bran being pushed from a high tower window, Game of Thrones seemed to be largely about protecting the young and innocent. Speaking in broad terms, Season One was the story of a father protecting his children, and eventually sacrificing himself to keep them safe. And it seemed possible, back then: even after Ned's death—the loss of the ultimate father figure—we still held out hope that the children could somehow be protected. Throughout Seasons Two and Three, they kept falling in with surrogate families and substitute parents, and we kept hoping—with steadily decreasing confidence—that somehow they might find their way back to their real family, that they might find safety, that they might make their way home. 

Since "The Rains of Castamere," those hopes are a distant memory: with the death of Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and Robb (Richard Madden), there is no real home to go to. (Even Winterfell itself is now in the hands of Robb's killer.) And if, somehow, we still haven't given up on all these orphans finding a safe haven, we should pay closer attention to the conversation this episode between the Hound (Rory McCann) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). Brienne tries to "rescue" Arya, because noble, naive Brienne is still living in the story we all thought we were watching way back when: she's trying to fulfill that old quest to rescue the children and take them to safety. But the Hound knows better. "Safety? Where the fuck is that?" he scoffs. "There's no safety, you dumb bitch. If you don't know that by now, you're the wrong one to watch over her."

If you think this has a happy ending, you really haven't been paying attention. 

There is no safety. More importantly, there are no children: not anymore. They may look like children, but their innocence has been irretrievably lost. They are old now, older than they look, older than we can possibly understand. Looking back now to where we began, all the way back to the pilot episode, the image that seems most prescient, and most haunting, is not the memory of little Arya and Bran at play. It is the image of the wildling girl from the very first, pre-credits sequence, killed by White Walkers and transformed into something soulless, something dark, something dangerous. This, we should have realized, was the show's warning to us about what happens to children—all children—in this world.

An omen of things to come If we haven't already done so, this long, dark season of Game of Thrones should make us finally grapple with the possibility that it is not a show about the protection of the innocent, but the loss of innocence. That it is not a show about restoring order and righting wrongs, but about the tending towards chaos and the steadily corrupting influence of wrongness.  That—while it may have seemed, once, like a show about children—it was never about anything but the inevitability of childhood's end.

"The young pray on the old."—Fennesz

Danaerys (Emilia Clarke) in The Children If we need another metaphor for the dangerous and tragic arc of growing up, we have Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion.  The "children" of Daenerys Stormborn (Emilia Clarke), Mother of Dragons, have always represented Dany's own path to adulthood, her claiming of her voice, her agency, her power.

And power, as we know, can be a tricky thing: throughout this season, both Dany and her dragons have threatened to spiral out of control. Dany has assumed the throne of Meereen, and is struggling to maintain dominion over all of Slaver's Bay. She has finally become a queen, and—to her credit—she is trying to rule well, with wisdom and compassion. But she has made mistakes, and she has discovered there are unintended consequences of absolute power. Ignoring the advice of her counselors, she had all the Masters of Meereen publicly crucified in "Oathkeeper," and she was called out for this atrocity a few weeks ago in "The Laws of Gods and Men." In that episode, significantly, the unchecked power of Dany and her dragons were linked, as she saw two petitioners that week: the son of a good man whom Dany executed, and a shepherd whose flock had been wiped out by Dany's "children."

This week we have the same linkage, with more dire consequences. Dany's first petitioner this week is an old man named Fennesz (Trevor Allan Davies), one of the slaves Dany "liberated" who does not, it turns out, want to be free. "The young may rejoice in the new world you have built for them," Fennesz tells her, "but for those of us too old to change, there is only fear and squalor." He also describes a societal shift in which "the young prey on the old," echoing the theme of the episode and underlining the unintended consequences of the exercise of power. If Game of Thrones is largely the story of a generation's rise to power, here we have a challenge that is picked up throughout the episode, and throughout the season: what is to be done with the previous generation, too set in their ways to adapt? As children ascend, what is to be done with their parents?

Dany is forced to compromise her ideals, surrendering her simplistic notions of right and wrong. "Freedom means making your own choices," she says, and she allows the man to essentially sell himself back into slavery. It is at once a step towards maturity and a step towards corruption: growing up means recognizing that the freedom to make choices is sometimes, at best, a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Dany is growing up, and she is becoming more powerful, but with that power and loss of innocence comes the potential to wreak evil and destruction. This is the theme picked up by Dany's next petitioner, a father who carries the charred body of his three-year old daughter, killed by one of Dany's dragons. (A wonderful performance here from Darren Kent, the actor playing the father: the moment when he tenderly adjusts his dead daughter's skull is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the series.)

The Child Surely one of the themes of Game of Thrones as a whole is the way each generation screws up the next, and here we have a cautionary tale about the way the new generation of power—Dany's generation—may, if it's not careful, become just as dangerous and damaging as the one that came before: they, too, must start thinking about the children. Dany's response, to her credit, is swift and decisive: she literally and figuratively reins in the source of her power, chaining her beloved dragons—two of them, anyway—in the catacombs beneath Meereen. They are her children, but they—like Dany herself—are no longer innocent, and their power must be carefully controlled. They are no longer babies to be protected and rescued: now they have become things to be feared.

"I'll last longer than you."—Arya Stark, to The Hound

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in The Children

Many of my favorite moments from Season One of Game of Thrones involved the relationship between Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) and his youngest daughter, and one of the very best came at the end of the third episode, "Lord Snow." Ned is watching Arya practice her swordplay with Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou), a look of bemusement and paternal pride on his face. As he watches them, however, his face begins to cloud with dread, and the clacking of their wooden practice swords begins to be drowned out, in Ned's mind, by the sounds of real swords clanging together: the sounds of actual, life-or-death battle.

The brief expression of Ned's anxiety, in the form of a sound effect, now strikes us as a terrible moment of premonition and foreshadowing: with all the best intentions in the world, Ned Stark could not protect his children from a violent fate, from a future in which they would have to take up real swords and kill, or be killed.  He knew, even then, that he could not postpone, for long, the end of their childhoods. Winter, after all, is always coming.

Ned was our moral compass in Game of Thrones. What, one wonders, would he make of his children now? He would have been proud of Robb (Richard Madden) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), I am sure, and he would worry for Sansa and his two youngest sons. But what would he make of Arya? She has proven herself clever, and she has proven herself resilient, but what has she become in the process? "My father understands mercy, where there is room for it," Robb once said, and it's a sentiment that Jon Snow echoes this episode, convincing Stannis (Stephen Dillane) not to execute Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds): "I think my father would have taken him prisoner, listened to what he had to say," he says. Throughout the entire series, Ned's memory has been used to invoke the qualities of honor and mercy, and most of his children learned from his example.

But what has Arya learned? She's learned from any number of teachers—from Syrio Forel to Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) to the Hound (Rory McCann)—that honor isn't worth a damn in the real world. She learned from Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) at the Sept of Baelor that mercy is a quality found in "the soft hearts of women," and Arya has been hardening her heart ever since. Arya has become a killer, and there seems to be no room for mercy in her. It is not even because she is a young girl that her killings are so troubling, for it is equally disturbing to imagine Robb, or Jon, executing their enemies with the same satisfied pleasure that Arya takes in the task. She's not a knight, and she's not a soldier: she's turning into an assassin, motivated not by honor or justice but by revenge—an emotion for which Ned Stark had no use. (Remember how he once tried to talk his friend Robert Baratheon [Mark Addy] out of his vengeful obsession with killing Daenerys.)

I'm dwelling on this a little because I think it's no coincidence that Brienne and Arya begin their brief acquaintance by talking about Ned Stark. Ned would have liked Brienne, I think—and his wife did like Brienne, and swore to take her into her home and service. In another world, Brienne would have been a loyal member of House Stark, an adopted daughter to Ned and Cat and a surrogate big sister—and role model—to Arya. Here, Brienne represents honor, and justice, and mercy, and all of the things the Stark name represented. She represents the woman Arya might have been, if things had worked out differently—and Arya's genuine smile at recognizing a kindred spirit is a fleeting reminder of that path not taken.

But Arya has been through too much, and has seen too much, and has done too much: for all that Brienne represents the kind of honor her father believed in, she also represents the sort of honor in which Arya has lost faith. "I swore a sacred vow to protect her," Brienne says of Catelyn. "Why didn't you?" Arya asks her, and it sounds like an accusation. Talking about honor and sacred oaths, Brienne becomes just another totem of disillusion for a little girl who has been let down too many times.

The Hound (Rory McCann) vs. Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) The fight that ensues between Brienne and the Hound is, make no mistake, a battle over the soul of Arya Stark. Arya has always been fought over by these two worlds—the honorable world of ideals and the hardscrabble world of practicality—and she's been disappointed by both. Suitably, this fight is one of the best, and most brutal, and most tragic in all of Game of Thrones: these are two characters who—while neither is perfect—should not be enemies. Though representing completely different paradigms, they both have Arya's best interests at heart. "And that's what you're doing, watching over her?" Brienne asks skeptically. "Ay, that's what I'm doing," the Hound replies sadly—and the thing is, he is. Since they learned Lysa Stark was dead, the Hound has not had even the flimsy excuse of a reward to explain his keeping Arya safe: he has been doing it because he likes her, or out of decency, or out of simple human kindness. The fact that neither he nor anyone else seems to recognize these traits in him just makes what happens all the more tragic.

Brienne wins the fight—just barely—but not the prize. Freedom, as Dany reminded us, means being free to make your own choices, and that's what growing up means, too. Arya doesn't choose between Brienne and the Hound, or between the worlds they represent, but chooses to take this moment to assert her independence from both. (The ways in which women in this world are forced to forge their own paths has been a recurring theme all season. "We'll find our own way," Craster's wives said in "First of His Name," and that's what Arya decides to do here.)

The Hound (Rory McCann) in The Children Even her final scene with the Hound is a fantastic non-choice, a tightrope walk across the two worlds competing for her soul, without touching foot on one or the other: he begs her to kill him, and she simply stares stonily at him, and eventually just takes his money and walks off without a word. Does she deny him mercy out of revenge and cruelty, out of wanting him to suffer? It's possible. But it's also possible that she simply can't bring herself to kill this man, a man she once hated but for whom her feelings have grown so complicated. Arya has killed before, but she has never killed anyone with whom she had broken bread and traded stories. (Even when she had the opportunity to kill Tywin Lannister [Charles Dance] by proxy, she never gave Jaqen H'ghar [Tom Wlaschiha] his name.) I've suggested many times before that the mark of a true villain on Game of Thrones is an inability to see other people as real human beings, and one interpretation of Arya's inaction here is that she's not a hard-hearted monster—yet. Once you see others as real human beings, it is much harder to kill them—even if they're begging you to.

Both actors do series-best work here, and this strange friendship/enmity which has been so complicated, and so nuanced, ends in perfect ambiguity, with Arya's soul perched precariously between good and evil without any clarity even about which choice means which. She doesn't choose Brienne, and she doesn't choose the Hound; she doesn't choose revenge, and she doesn't choose mercy; she doesn't choose the life of knight or the life of a brigand. Instead, she walks away, and—in the final shot of the season—she chooses a third alternative. She leaves both these worlds, and all these people, and all these disappointing ideologies, behind. She's not a child anymore, and she'll find her own way.

"You don't get to choose." — Jaime
"I do. So do you." — Cersei

Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) This question of choice—the question of free will, and the ability to decide for one's self who one will be—has been another recurring theme throughout this season, and indeed throughout the series. Looking back, I see I wrote at length about this question in my post on Episode Four of this season, "Oathkeeper," which—not coincidentally—ended with an image of an innocent child being corrupted. It was also an important episode for Dany—the one in which she became queen, and decided to execute the masters—and a big episode for Cersei Lannister, who—as I observed at the time—had previously seemed incapable of change, incapable of making the sorts of brave choices about her identity that people like Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) were making around her.

I stand by that observation, but subsequent episodes have shown that Cersei can change—at least a little. In the very next episode, "First of His Name," we began to see very subtle signs that the death of her firstborn son, and the way Tywin was setting out to corrupt her second son, had altered Cersei's worldview a bit. "I'm a Lannister, queen for 19 years, daughter of the most powerful man alive," she said. "But I could not save my son. What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?"

And now Cersei's season arc reaches its zenith, as she finally takes a stand and decides to change her life. She has been her father's most loyal child, has prided herself on being the only Lannister child worthy of the name—but it has been a thankless job, and it has not protected her children, and she is done with it. This episode she lashes out at her father in a way she never has before, drawing an irrevocable battle line with the people she loves on one side and Tywin clearly on the other. She was willing to kill herself and her son during the battle of Blackwater—"That's how far I was willing to go when I thought someone awful had come to take my child away"—and she's willing to do whatever it takes to save her last child now from the "someone awful" who is her own father.

Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) in The Children Now, she strikes at Tywin where it really hurts, disillusioning him about the only thing he truly cares about: the family name. "Everything they say is true about Jaime and me," she tells him, forcing him to see the truth that's been in front of him all along. "Your legacy is a lie." How could he have not seen the truth before, she wonders aloud—and then realizes that of course he didn't. Tywin never saw the truth, because Tywin—one of those "true villains" we were discussing earlier—never really bothered to see the people his children really were.

I've long argued that Game of Thrones is obsessed with two competing notions of families—the family you're born into, and the family you choose—and here Cersei abandons the old order and joins the ranks of the new. She will decide her family for herself, and no longer be beholden to abstractions of honor and the tyranny of bloodlines. You don't get to choose your family, Jaime tells her, but Cersei adamantly disagrees. "I do," she says. "So do you. I choose you. . .I don't want to talk about Tywin Lannister. I don't choose Tywin Lannister. I don't love Tywin Lannister. I love my brother. I love my lover. People will whisper, they'll make their jokes: let them. They're so small I can't even see them. I only see what matters."

I do get to choose, and so do you. This is a mission statement for Game of Thrones as a whole, and the fact that it's given to an often monstrous character just underlines what a mixed blessing free will is, and how tricky the road to identity is to navigate. Cersei may never be a good person, but she has taken a monumental first step towards insisting on being a real person, a woman with agency and autonomy, instead of just an extension of her father, a cog in the machinery of the old world order. It's a glorious moment for a somewhat dislikable character, as she finally does what every child must eventually do: she breaks free from her parents and claims her own identity. Freedom means making your own choices. So does growing up, and here—finally—Cersei does.

"I am your son. I have always been your son."—Tyrion

Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) in The Children As does Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), for better or worse.

Tyrion, too, has been enslaved to the family name all his life, albeit in a very different way from Cersei. Though she has been the dutiful daughter, and he the black-sheep second son, both of their identities have been inextricably tied to the Lannister name and cause. Tyrion has chafed against the chains, but he has never openly rebelled, never taken a single step to break away or work against the family interest. (His family, in fact, would have lost the throne at the Battle of Blackwater if it were not for Tyrion: though never appreciated, he's done more for the Lannister name than any of his siblings.)

He has had opportunities to break away and forge his own identity—Shae (Sibel Kekilli) once offered to run away and build a life with him—but he has never taken them. Part of that, I think, was due for his love for his brother Jaime and his affection for Cersei's children; and part of it, no doubt, was due to his reliance on the family fortune and the status of the Lannister name. ("What would I do there, juggle?" he asked Shae, when she tried to convince him to cross the Narrow Sea with her last season.) But I'd argue that the most important thing that has kept Tyrion in the service of his family is his longing for the one thing that has been denied him all his life: respect. Unfairly despised from the moment he was born, on trial his entire life "for being a dwarf," as he said in "The Laws of Gods and Men," he has fought just as hard as Cersei—albeit for different reasons—to win their father's approval.

But that's all over now, of course: much like the hope that the Stark children would ever be reunited, this season has shown Tyrion's quest for respect in the eyes of his family to be just another doomed cause. Tyrion's father and sister conspired to have him executed for a crime that Tywin (at least) knew Tyrion didn't commit, and at the end of the trial Tyrion renounced unequivocally his futile pursuit of approval. ("I wish I was the monster you all think I am," he snarled at the assembled court of King's Landing. "I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you.")

Now Jaime sets him free. "What do you choose?" Cersei asked him, and Jaime—breaking from both Tywin and Cersei—chooses Tyrion. (It is fitting that this act leads directly to Tywin's death: Tywin has lived his entire life for his family's legacy, and now all three children have rejected him. His actual death is almost a technicality, for, by the time it happens, Tywin has already lost, his authority already usurped by the next generation of Lannisters.)

But Tyrion has another choice to make himself, and though he could make a clean escape, he chooses instead to confront his father before he goes. (We will never know for certain if he has murder in his heart when he first ascends the staircase to the Tower of the Hand, but a few subtle, ominous notes of "The Rains of Castamere" suggest that he probably does.) Either way, murder becomes all but inevitable when he discovers Shae in Tywin's bed. "My Lion?" she asks, sleepily, twisting the emotional dagger even deeper by calling out for Tywin with the same term of endearment she used for Tyrion. Recognizing him now, she grabs a knife, and they fight, and Tyrion strangles her with the strands of Lannister gold around her neck. It is, of course, the same necklace he gave her back in "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," the one she saw as "golden chains," confirming to her that she would never be anything more to him than a whore.

Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Shae (Sibel Kekili) in The Children

"I'm sorry," he says to her quietly, after she is dead. "I'm sorry." He is not, I think, apologizing for killing her: he committed his greatest sins long before this one. He sinned by prioritizing his quest for respect and approval over the genuine love and happiness they had found together. He sinned by refusing to leave with her when he had the chance, by swearing his love to another out of family responsibility, by sending her away when they had promised each other that they belonged to each other. He apologizes, I think, because in this moment he knows that the author of their tragedy is not Tywin, but Tyrion himself: he committed the cardinal sin of Game of Thrones, by choosing abstractions like honor and duty and family name over the people—over the person—that he truly loved.

In the end, Tyrion realizes he sinned by being a Lannister. Confronting Tywin on the privy, they have their last conversation, and Tyrion's last words to his father are key: "I am your son," he says bitterly. "I have always been your son." He never made the choice that both Cersei and Jaime make voluntarily this week: to reject their father, to reject family responsibility, and to choose instead the people that they love. Love is the death of duty, we've been told repeatedly, and if there's a message in Game of Thrones it's probably that love is supposed to be the death of duty. Tyrion's tragedy—and it is a tragedy—is that, for complicated reasons, he chose duty over love, abstractions over people. He was his father's son after all.

The last we see of Tyrion, he—like Arya—is sailing for a new world, leaving this old one behind, forever stepping out of the shadow of his family. He will no longer be a "Lannister of Casterly Rock": he has grown up, finally, the hard way, and must make his own way in life. It is a subtle but fitting note, however, that he makes his escape in the same crate in which Varys (Conleth Hill) received the architect of his misfortune, way back in "And Now His Watch is Ended." The monster who made Tyrion what he is is dead, and now Tyrion takes his place in the box of the monster who made Varys what he is. Is this, in the end, what the circle of life looks like? Is this what growing up means?

I've seen rumblings in the critical and fan community that suggest many people found this season of Game of Thrones somehow less satisfying than previous seasons. I suspect that has less to do with the quality of the episodes—which, from a craft perspective, are probably better than ever—and more to do with the increasingly troubling nature of the story being told, the relentless drive towards darkness with few victories to celebrate and few catharses to enjoy along the way. No matter how many times we were assured that there was no guarantee of a happy ending, we can't help but hope for, and expect, at least a few triumphs, the occasional ray of hope, and just one or two moments that we can find edifying instead of depressing. Previous seasons have provided those bright peaks to offset the darker valleys, but they were admittedly few and far between in Season Four.

This, I should note, is entirely appropriate, and in line with storytelling conventions: we are at roughly the halfway point in a long-form story, and things should be dire. So there is still hope that situations and fortunes and characters will all improve by the time the tale is over.

But this very dark season should also force us to accept the possibility that it's really not that kind of story: as we've noted many times before, Game of Thrones is no fairy tale. Fairy tales are often about children being threatened, and defeating the monsters, and finding their way home, and growing up to live happily ever after. We all still long, understandably, for that comforting formula, in nearly every story we encounter.

More mature works, however—and Game of Thrones is one of them—recognize that our fears change as we grow older: they recognize that "growing up" is not a solution, but an expansion of problems. They realize that home is a responsibility, not a safe haven. They acknowledge that there's no such thing as "happily ever after."

They recognize—as this long, dark season has done—the sad, uncomfortable truth about what the end of childhood really means. It means we stop being quite so afraid of monsters, and we start being afraid of becoming monsters.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • First of all, of course, an apology: I am completing this post exactly four weeks after "The Children" aired. What can I say? Life, sometimes, interferes. (For the record, in the past four weeks, I've gone on two business trips, taken a much-needed vacation, slogged through the work that piles up while I'm traveling, and gotten engaged. The days were a little packed.)
  • My disastrous schedule also means that I reluctantly decided not to review "The Watchers on the Wall." This is the first episode of Game of Thrones I've skipped since I began writing about it, and the completist in me is terribly bothered by that. (I may have to go back and do it one of these days, just to keep my set complete.) However, as it turns out, "The Watchers on the Wall" is a pretty good episode to skip, if I had to skip one: I thought it was an impressive hour of television, but—long on action, and short on character development—I'm not sure I would have found a lot to analyze about it. (I probably would have tried to tackle it from a technical, filmmaking standpoint, which I'm singularly unqualified to do, so perhaps we should be glad I gave it a pass.)
  • This week, I skipped a couple of major developments, including Jon's meeting with Mance, Stannis's arrival at the Wall, and Jon laying Ygritte (Rose Leslie) to rest. Jon's storyline does tie in with the rest of the episode, of course, particularly in the fact that he goes North of the Wall to assassinate Mance Rayder. "Are you capable of that, Jon Snow?" Mance asks him. "Killing a man in his own tent, when he's just offered you peace? Is that what the Night's Watch is? Is that what you are?" No, that's not what Jon Snow is: he is not a monster, not an assassin, but his father's son to the end. (And I think Jon's saying goodbye to Ygritte clearly parallels Tyrion's last scene with Shae: these two men saying goodbye to the women they loved, the only people either of them ever found happiness with, whom they both sacrificed on the altar of duty.)
  • I also skipped over Cersei and Qyburn (Anton Lesser) pulling some major Frankenstein shit on the near-corpse of The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson). Since Qyburn suggests the process may change the Mountain into something even more monstrous, I could stretch this into a metaphor for the changes happening to some of the other characters, but it would be a stretch: mostly, I just think it can't possibly bode well. ("Will it weaken him?" Cersei asks. "Oh, no," Qyburn replies. That can't be good.)
  • And, of course, I skipped over Bran and crew—again. Since I promised above to talk about it a little, however, I'll try to explain briefly here why I hate this whole storyline so much, and why I wish—with all due respect to Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who has turned into a fine actor—that George R.R. Martin had seen fit to let Bran die in his fall from the tower back when the story began. Though we don't yet know how it will all play out, this storyline—with its three-eyed ravens and magic tree wizards and faerie girls throwing Holy Hand Grenades—just seems like it comes from a lesser, more juvenile work of fantasy. What's worse, all the prophetic mumbo jumbo seems to undermine the element I love most about Game of Thrones, which is the focus on free will, and real human beings, and the ramifications of individual choices. With every other character, their storylines are driven by the choices they make and by their developing personalities: their character controls their fates, and their souls are the stakes. With Bran, however, his character has barely changed in four seasons, and he just seems like a passive device in a cosmic conspiracy. It's not as interesting, and it's almost completely divorced from the concerns of character that give every other storyline on the show its life. (I also worry that it's setting up some magical deus ex machina endgame that will leave the same kind of bitter taste that the final season of Battlestar Galactica left.)
  • All that being said, the Ray Harryhausen tribute of the skeleton warriors—though it clashed with everything else in the episode—was kind of sweet.
  • Seriously, how great was the fight between The Hound and Brienne? I honestly can't think of a comparable scene in all of TV or movies, in which a man and a woman beat on each other as such equals. ("Killed by a woman," the Hound says to Arya, after. "I bet you like that.")
  • Some praise for actors is due. We say goodbye this episode to Charles Dance, who made Tywin Lannister a far more fascinating—and even likable—character than he ever was on the page: he will be sorely missed. I don't know yet if we're also saying goodbye to Rory McCann, but I hope not: I can't possibly rave enough about the work he does to make The Hound a fully-fleshed character. (I don't remember exactly what happens to Sandor Clegane in the books, and I don't really care: if Benioff and Weiss are smart, they'll find a way to keep him around.) Maisie Williams continues to astonish me: whoever cast her deserves a bonus, but that person could not possibly have known that, four years later, she'd be able to handle material like her stunning, silent final scenes with the Hound as well as she does. Finally, my delayed post allows me to comment on the Emmy nominations: though I'd vote for nearly every member of the cast—does no one realize just how good Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is?—it's good to see Lena Headey join perennial (and perennially deserving) nominee Peter Dinklage: Cersei's arc has been incredible and challenging this season, and Headey does consistently marvelous work to give authenticity to a sometimes inconsistent character.
  • Speaking of the books, I'm going to stick with my policy of not discussing them, but I know some changes and omissions in this episode upset a large portion of the fanbase. I was as surprised as anyone by some of the changes—including some tweaking of Tyrion's motivation, and a major character who didn't appear in the final scenes—but, the more I've thought about it, the more I've decided Benioff and Weiss made the right calls. I expect the story to divert more and more from the books from this point on, and, in both these cases, I think that's a good thing.
  • That's it for me. I'll be back next season with more of my long-winded blatherings about Game of Thrones. (I may be back sooner—as there's another series of posts about this show I'm longing to do—but I said that last season too: I'm trying to get better about making promises I'm not sure I can keep.) Until then, thanks for reading, and commenting, and putting up with my unreliable schedule.

Next: Episode 5×01 – "The Wars to Come"

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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