The season finale deals with some troubling parent-child relationships, takes some weird turns, and leaves us wondering where this ever-more-sprawling story is headed.
Spoilers for the season 4 finale of Game of Thrones below:
This season finale, “The Children,” went in a lot of directions to attend to a lot of business, so we might as well start where the title directs us–to Tywin Lannister, who went out doing his business, sitting a throne that was not made of iron but of irony.
Through all his machinations and cruelty, it was always about family for Tywin Lannister, and yet he was done in by family: Cersei, who revealed her incestuous secret and thus that his family’s claim to the throne was illegitimate; Jaime, who helped Tyrion escape death row; and Tyrion, who took crossbow in hand and pronounced his father’s death sentence upon his chamberpot. (Yes: on Fathers’ Day. That’ll make a great e-card!)
What was striking about the final scene between son and father, sold convincingly by Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage in performances that conveyed decades of history, was that it could have played as fist-pumping payback but instead was simply, deeply sad. This began, of course, with Tyrion discovering one more betrayal: Shae, whom he made hate him to save her, in the bed of his father. Seeing Tyrion, she tries to stab him; he strangles her, but regretfully. And some note of that carries over to his encounter with Tywin; even as his voice drips hatred for Tywin, lying at the last to save himself, there’s pain too. “I am your son,” are his last words to his father. “I have always been your son.” It’s not a statement of anger or defiance so much as an acknowledgment that you can’t erase the hurt of your father’s hating you, not if you plug the hole with a thousand crossbow bolts.
In Meereen, meanwhile, the parent-child theme takes another ironic turn. The means of Dany’s conquest, and the source of her power, has been by taking on the maternal role and expanding her family. First she became Mother of Dragons, then became Mhysa to the slaves she liberated. But as she deals with staying in the city and attempting to govern, she discovers that the interests of her adopted children are in conflict–namely, that an AWOL Drogon has immolated a three-year-old peasant girl.
It’s a horrific revelation that underscores Daenerys’ core problem: that the roles of conqueror and governor are in conflict. Here, literally, one source of her power, her dragons, is also an uncontrollable menace. Now that she’s chosen to stay in one place, she has to make a choice: wrenchingly, she leads the two other dragons into a catacomb, where she collars and chains them in place while they wail for her like babies. The longer Dany occupies two roles–the warrior queen and the nurturing protector–the more likely it is that she will not be able to live up to the collection of grand honorifics she has amassed. After all, as we are reminded when she is introduced in the episode, “Mother” is only one of her titles. Another: Breaker of Chains. Ask her scaly children what they think about that.
“The Children” in this episode, however, refers not only to parent-child relationships but to the mysterious ancient beings Bran finds north of The Wall in an encounter that gets… weird. Like, Ray Harryhausen, Jason and the Argonauts weird. Season 4 claims another casualty–Jojen Reed–to the attack of some energetic undead wights, and we’re introduced to The Children, who repel the skeletons using–are those exploding pinecones? Gandalf, is that you?–and bring Bran to a cave, where the “Three-Eyed Raven” he’s been seeking turns out to be an ancient man who promises Bran he will fly and–
OK, deep breath. I’m willing to give this storyline a lot of slack, because, like the White Walkers and the Wall, it feels deeply tied to Game of Thrones‘ long game involving the stirrings of magic in a world where it’s long been dead. And because it has Hodor. But part of the reason the series has been so special and effective is because it’s been so sparing with the skeletons-and-sorcery. There’s intriguing stuff here, but Benioff and Weiss need to walk carefully next season to make sure they don’t turn this whole storyline into the cover of a Yes album.
Likewise with the other wintry doings here, at The Wall, where Stannis, having apparently taken a turn north at Braavos, flattens the Wildling army with heavy cavalry. Here again, I’m dedicated to the story because I can feel, in theory, its importance. (And now because I’m curious what happens when Jon and Melisandre are sharing screen time. But season four could have done better connecting us to Jon Snow’s character, and I’m hoping this turn of events brings him in from the cold.
There’s one more significant storyline to deal with, but first: where does “The Children,” and season four, leave Game of Thrones overall? It’s been a season of some incredibly powerful moments and confident storytelling. But its pieces also feel very scattered–by design, maybe, but scattered nonetheless.
Depending on your estimate of how long the entire series will run (seven or eight seasons seems the consenus), we’re about halfway through. And the series has largely been structured around taking characters in a few central locations–Winterfell, King’s Landing–and dispersing them to the winds. A bunch of threads have spread widely from their starting point, and we’re at the point where we have to take on faith that they’re meant to come back together, though we can’t see where or how. Game of Thrones is at the peak of its popularity, but it may next season reach the point where it tests fans’ patience if the story gets any more diffuse.
But then there’s Arya. One saving grace of Game of Thrones is that, for all its increasing spectacle, it gets its greatest power from certain characters and combinations of characters, who charge the screen whenever they appear. Maisie Williams’ Arya has always been one, and her pairing this season with The Hound has been as delightful–though in a different way–as pairing her with Tywin earlier.
It makes sense, then, that “The Children” would end with her. (Book readers, I’ll talk a little about where the season didn’t end below.) There hasn’t been a lot of event in Arya’s story this season–she and the Hound have gone one place and another and another. There have been no undead skeletons! Yet it’s never felt like wasted time, because their interchanges have been such a pleasure and–as they’ve traveled the war-ravaged countryside–added depth to the themes of the series.
It may be that The Hound is dead. (Or not–if you haven’t seen his head explode, you can’t be sure!) She may be off to an uncertain future in Braavos. And she may be getting, not closer to her family, but a full continent away. Yet there’s something hopeful about seeing her climb to the prow of the ship, heading to an uncertain thing to come next. Arya has been hardened, but not defeated, by what she’s seen, and her ability to keep going is infectious. We want to see what comes next because she wants to see it.
So as the producers of Game of Thrones get ready for season five next year, they should keep in mind how Arya represents what the show does best. It’s not necessarily about where the ship is going; it’s who you’re traveling with.
Now for a quick hail of crossbow bolts:
* If you haven’t read the source books, you can skip over this bullet point. If you have read them, I’m going to be vague here for the sake of non-readers, but you’ll get what I mean. (And I ask that you be as vague in the comments.) From the Twitter reaction just after the episode, I gather a lot of you were upset that [shocking thing that happens at the end of A Storm of Swords] did not happen at the end of this season. As a reader I was puzzled, since it seemed like such an obvious punch-in-the-gut ending, like the hatching of the dragons. And for all I know maybe the reason was [casting issue I will not detail for spoilers’ sake]. But as a TV fan, I’ve seen so many dramas compete to end on the most shocking cliffhanger that, if nothing else, it was refreshing that the producers chose to end on an emotional moment instead of a cool one.
* OK, non-book-readers can rejoin us. You might be glad to know that several of the storylines are rapidly catching up with what’s been written in the books to date. So very soon we’ll all be equally befuddled.
* Loved the choral arrangement of the series theme playing over the final scene with Arya.
* I’m sure that, for elaborate future-plotting reasons, it was impossible for Arya to end up with Brienne. But now I want them together all the time.
* It’s unfortunate that The Wall business was dealt with so quickly and early, because there was power in the idea that for the Wildlings, the war was never about conquest but mere survival: “We’ve come to hide behind your Wall just like you.”
* “Killed by a woman. I bet you liked that.”