Ten months. That’s a long time to wait until the next episode of “Game of Thrones,” but “The Children,” the fourth season’s finale, was a strong send-off that had a little something for everyone. For those that love the show’s palace intrigue and jockeying for the throne, we saw Stannis Baratheron — who I will continue to kneel down to as the One True King of Westeros — make his presence felt in a major way and were left with a true power vacuum at the episode’s conclusion. For those who like the supernatural stuff, Bran and his crew ran into all kinds of non-human entities, both evil and seemingly helpful. For those that like larger and deeper themes, the titular conceit of “The Children” gave plenty to work with. There was the most literal — those creepy forest dwellers. The pretty literal — the Lannister siblings and their various shocking actions. And the kinda literal — Dany’s misbehaving dragons. And for those sadists who simply like to watch characters we’ve grown to love (and hate, sometimes at the same time) get killed off, this episode ranks right up there with last season’s Red Wedding, as a whopping four major characters (seemingly) drew their last breaths. For a show that toggles between making you wait seemingly forever for a storyline to reach its conclusion and sudden shocking deaths, this final episode of the season found an ideal sweet spot with both catharsis and anticipation. Let’s take one last detailed journey through an episode.
[Note: At this point I will also direct you to the review written by my colleague, Alyssa Rosenberg on her Act Four blog. Alyssa is a book reader, and between the two of us, we more than have you covered. You’ll find more of a play-by-play here, she’ll do more of the analysis there. Here’s her review: “The Children" marks a horrifying Father’s Day]
The episode begins where the last one left off, with Jon marching north of The Wall on his mission to kill Mance Rayder and, hopefully, fracture the wildling alliance and keep them from fully marching on The Wall. Jon trudges through the woods, an arduous and brutal journey through the bitter cold and the — oh, he’s already at the main encampment. That was fast. Mance (making his first onscreen appearance of the season) brings Jon into his tent. “It appears my trusting nature got the better of me,” he tells Jon. Jon responds by saying he was loyal all long — to his Knight’s Watch vows, that is. Well, not quite all of them, Mance reminds him, speaking of course of Jon’s dalliance with the late Ygritte. The pair share “a proper northern drink,” and no, it’s not poisoned. “Of all the ways I’d kill you, poison would be the last,” says Mance. Ever since Joffrey (remember him?) was murdered, that manner of killing has been dismissed as a coward’s way out. As Mance tells Jon about the death of Mag the Giant, Jon can’t quite hide his shifty eyes, taking stock of every knife he sees. Soon Mance gives Jon an ultimatum — open the gates to The Wall and no more Knight’s Watch will die; refuse and everyone dies. It’s then that Mance figures out Jon’s murderous mission but their confrontation is interrupted…
By a large attacking army on horseback that is slaughtering the wildling warriors. As the massacre takes place, Mance and Jon just kind of stand there, wondering what is happening. The attack is the work of Stannis, who has turned his attention to the North. King’s Landing is so second season. Mance doesn’t know who Stannis is, so Davos is sure to let him know: “This is Stannis Baratheon, the One True King of the Seven Kingdoms.” That’s right he is. There’s a bit of haggling about kneeling, but soon the attention turns to Jon Snow, who is identified as Knight’s Watch thanks to his threads. He tells Stannis that he is Ned Stark’s son, which immediately earns Stannis’s trust and maybe saves Mance’s life, at least for the time being. Jon convinces Stannis to take Mance prisoner, saying that Mance treated him with respect when he was his prisoner. He also tells Stannis that it would be best to burn the bodies of the dead before nightfall. Don’t need them to be rising from the dead and killing them twice.
In King’s Landing, Grand Maester Pycelle is poking at a comatose Mountain, who is being treated following his disgusting, brutal, head-popping victory over the late, valiant Prince Oberyn of Dorne. Cersei wants The Mountain to pull through, but Pycelle says he’s well beyond the point of saving; milk of the poppy can only do so much. But Qyburn is hanging around the infirmary, and he disagrees with Pycelle’s diagnosis. He’s got some ideas, and Qyburn is known for his wild ideas. Remember, he was stripped of his maester title for being a little too experimental in his maestering. And he was the one who recently fitted Jaime with his new gold hand. His plans for The Mountain involve a needle that looks about as big as a bike pump and some sort of blood transfusion. This will surely bring terrifying results.
After leaving Qyburn’s room of medical marvels, Cersei confronts her father. She gets to the point pretty quickly — she’s not going to marry Loras. Tywin tries to use one of his long and winding stories to get her to come around to his way of thinking, but Cersei won’t have it. She will not go off to Highgarden and leave her only son (that would be the seemingly forgotten off-screen King Tommen) in King’s Landing while her daughter is off in Dorne. “I’ll burn our house to the ground before I let that happen,” she tells her father. And how exactly will she go about that? “I’ll tell everyone the truth,” she says. That truth, of course, refers to her incestuous affair with her brother Jaime, and the fact that all of her children are the result of that relationship. Somehow, this all comes as news to Tywin, who has lived in blissful ignorance. Cersei wonders how someone so supposedly consumed with his family could have never seen what is right in front of him. Tywin tells Cersei he doesn’t believe her, but when she replies, “Yes you do,” you can see in Tywin’s eyes that she’s right. This confrontation, a decade-plus in the making, clearly leaves Cersei a little hot and bothered because she immediately goes to find Jaime. She tells her brother what just happened and that she doesn’t care what jokes people might make if the rumors are confirmed. She starts making out with him and then wants more. Jaime has been waiting for this ever since returning to King’s Landing but is still caught a little off guard. Cersei doesn’t care if someone might walk in, so it’s time to get it on on the table.
Off in Meereen, Dany is doing what she always seems to be doing — listening to complaints from the people whose lives she supposedly made so much better. First up is Fennesz. He’s an older gentleman, a freed man, who can speak in the common tongue. And what does he want? To be sold back into slavery! He kind of misses that old Master McDowell, and especially those little McDowell kids. They really looked up to him! Khaleesi is not very happy to hear this, but part of freeing people is letting them make their own choices. So she allows him to sign a contract — one year maximum, with a player option. If that exchange made Daenerys upset, that’s nothing compared to the peasant who shows up next. He brings with him the charred remains of his 3-year-old daughter. The mother of dragons can recognize the work of one of her children. It turns out Drogon is on the loose and has been wreaking havoc on the land. That’s bad news for Drogon’s dragon siblings, Viserion and Rhaegal, who get lured into the catacombs of Meereen where they can’t do any damage. Dany — so recently the breaker of chains — is now, tearfully, putting the clamps around her children’s necks. The dragons respond to this with the expected roaring and screaming. It’s hard to think they will forgive and forget — unless dragon brains are incapable of processing forgiveness.
Back at The Wall, Aemon is leading a memorial service for the fallen members of the Knight’s Watch, setting their bodies on fire. Stannis and Davos look on, as does Melissandre. She spots Jon Snow through the flames and it sure seems foreboding, but it’s hard to tell if she’s giving him an “I want to kill you” look or an “I want to make a murderous smoke baby with you” look. Either way, it doesn’t seem like a promising development for Jon, who, post-memorial, goes to check in on Tormund, who is still being held prisoner. Tormund tells Jon that Ygritte loved him. The proof? “All she ever talked about was killing you,” he tells Jon. Jon then makes a funeral pyre for his true love and finally lets out some tears that have been building up for a long while.
Okay. Up to this point it’s been a pretty fulfilling episode. But now things really start to pick up. The Bran storyline has held plenty of promise but has rarely delivered on its potential. That’s partly been by design; he’s searching for something — we’re not sure exactly what — so until he finds it we’re left in that bitter northern cold. Hodor is pulling Bran around while Jojen Reed staggers behind them as his sister Meera tries to urge him on. He falls down but it’s okay — they’ve arrived at their destination. It’s a weirwood tree (one of those magic trees-with-a-face-carved-into-it trees) bathed in golden sunlight, covered in red leaves — an oasis in the snowy north. The group approaches the tree, but Jojen is suddenly pulled down by a hand that shoots out of the snowy ground. Quickly, the group is under attack by a band of skeleton warriors. (Honestly, I’m not sure if these are White Walkers or simply part of the White Walker phylum.)
These skeleton fighters are vicious and everywhere, piling on Hodor, who only survives after Bran wargs into him and fights them off. Meera is also doing her best to re-kill these undead, pile-of-bones attackers when — what?! — some fireballs explode nearby. They are the work of some creepy almost-but-not-quite human looking girl. She says that Jojen, who has been unable to fight off the creepers, is lost. “Come with me or die with him,” she tells Meera. Meera kisses her brother goodbye — RIP, Jojen Reed (that’s one) — and then follows Hodor, Bran and their new friend into a cave. The skeletons try to follow but disintegrate upon entry. Their undead powers are no good in this cave.
So who is this mysterious newcomer? “The first men called us The Children but we were born long before them,” she says, taking the group through a maze of wild-branched trees and … wait a second. This all looks familiar. Carcosa! There goes HBO, always trying to save money on set design. They soon come face to face with a man who is … the three-eyed raven that has been appearing in Bran’s dreams? An all-seeing, all-knowing deity? Something along those lines. He knows who Bran Stark is; in fact, he’s been watching him all of his life. Bran is upset that Jojen had to die for him to reach his destination, but the human manifestation of the raven tells Bran that Jojen died so Bran could find what he lost. An excited Bran thinks this means he’ll walk again. He won’t, the man-raven says … but he will fly.
Back in the part of the world where things make a little more sense, Brienne and Podrick wake up to find their horses are gone. Probably not the work of undead skeleton warriors, but you never know. Brienne sees Arya practicing her swordfighting in the near-distance and approaches. Arya alerts The Hound, who is, well, taking care of some business, which turns out to be the worst thing one can do this episode. After some nice enough greetings, Podrick identifies The Hound as The Hound. Brienne then realizes that the little scamp she’s been talking to is Arya Stark, and tells her that she swore a vow to her mother. Brienne now wants to fulfill that vow and protect Arya.
The Hound is skeptical, though; he recognizes Brienne’s sword, Oathkeeper, as being made of Lannister gold. Brienne tries to reason with The Hound, saying that she can provide safety for Arya. It’s hard to argue with his response — her entire family is dead, Winterfell is a pile of rubble, there is no safety, you dumb b—-. (That last part was somewhat uncalled for, on second thought.) We all start yelling at our TVs, “You are both good characters, don’t fight to the death!” But it’s too late. There is fighting and it gets very dirty. Face biting, pummeling — they do a number to each other. At one point The Hound is on top of Brienne, whaling away on her, and it brings to mind last week’s episode when The Mountain (The Hound’s brother) was in a similar position and administering a similar beating to Oberyn. But Brienne gets the upper hand and pushes Hound off a cliff. Her victory comes without its spoil, though; Arya is nowhere to be found. Of course it’s Podrick’s fault. He loses horses and kids.
Once her would-be saviors/captors have made their way off, Arya finds The Hound. And he’s dying. His burned face is the least of his worries at this point. “Killed by a woman,” he laments to Arya. “I bet you like that.” He tells Arya to go find Brienne but Arya’s having none of that. The Hound begs her to put him out of his misery and kill him, even telling the story of her old friend, the butcher’s boy — the youngster The Hound killed that got his name on Arya’s kill list to begin with — and offering after-the-fact threats against Sansa. Arya observes this entire speech with cold indifference. And then she just walks away. It’s a tough conclusion to the storyline of one of the show’s best duos. RIP, The Hound. (That’s two.)
If there’s one character I can never see getting killed, it’s Arya. The other is Tyrion, even with that imminent death sentence facing him. His prospects improve when brother Jaime comes to his cell to help him escape. Varys is waiting for him, Jaime tells his brother; they share a hug and Tyrion makes his exit. But not so fast. Tyrion has unfinished business. He climbs through the ceiling and approaches his father’s chamber. But that’s not Tywin in bed. It’s Shae. That’s just disappointing. I guess it’s a hard line of work to leave. Upon seeing each other, Shae reaches for a knife and there’s a quick tussle that ends with Tyrion strangling the former love of his to death. RIP, Shae. (That’s three.)
That was not part of his plan. Now the remainder of his actions seem almost more certain, especially given the mental state he is in after murdering his former lover. He picks up a crossbow and goes searching for his father, who he finds … taking care of some business. Tywin, ever calm, seems only mildly surprised when confronted with the sight of his should-be-imprisoned son, guessing correctly that his brother helped him escape. Tywin tells him to put down the crossbow and they can discuss this matter in his chambers. Tyrion tells his father that he knows he always wanted him dead. “But you refuse to die,” Tywin responds. And he respects and even admires that. Tywin does his best to maintain a position of authority — even with a crossbow trained on him and his pants at his ankles — and says that of course he was never going to let Tyrion be executed. Tyrion shifts the conversation to Shae, telling Tywin that he murdered her with his own hands. Tywin can barely be bothered with this, saying she doesn’t matter. She’s just a whore, after all. Tyrion does not like that word; it earns Tywin an arrow to the chest. (And brings “Pulp Fiction” to mind, particularly with the bathroom theme of the entire episode.) “I am your son. I have always been your son,” Tyrion tells his father, before leaving him to die with two arrows in his torso. RIP, Tywin. (And that’s four.) I can’t believe I will never get to hear you say “Casterly Rock” ever again.
And where to now for Tyrion? It’s hard to say. But Varys, who helped arrange Tyrion’s escape, takes one look at King’s Landing, thinks of what might come and decides to go wherever it is this ship is going. Tyrion is tucked away in a cargo box for safe shipping/hiding.
And it’s a sailor’s life for Arya, too. She finds the captain of a departing ship who at first wants no part in helping her, but once he says its destination — Braavos — things change. Upon hearing that city’s name, Arya provides her coin given by Jaqen H’ghar and says the magic words: Valar morghulis. The captain quickly tells Arya she will have a spot on the ship, and soon she’s sailing away with an extra-uplifting, choir-driven version of the theme song playing us off into 10 months of waiting.
Episode 9: “The Watchers on The Wall” and the horrors they see (Act Four review)
Episode 8: “The Mountain and the Viper” and the meaning of love (Act Four review)
Episode 7: “Mockingbird” and other relics of childhood (Act Four review)
Episode 6: Do “The Laws of Gods and Men” actually matter? (Act Four review)
Episode 5: “First of His Name,” first of hers (Act Four review)
Episode 4: Oathkeeper and broken vows (Act Four review)
Episode 3: Breaker of chains, breaker of will (Act Four review)
Episode 2: The lion, the rose and the cruelty of Westeros (Act Four review)
Episode 1: Two Swords and even more dangerous stories (Act Four review)