It may only be the title of this particular episode, but “The Children” is an apt title for Game of Thrones‘s fourth season as a whole, centered on the maturity of characters like Jon, Dany, and Bran (among many others) – and featuring a little bit of magic, just like the titular, pre-First Men creatures Bran and company get a sighting of in the heart of the episode. And though it doesn’t necessarily make for the tidiest, most logical storytelling, “The Children” is all about the kids finally breaking out, continuing the trend set by Sansa a few weeks ago of bucking their typical trends and aspiring to build a life and legacy of their own.
There have been examples of this with minor characters all season, a growing cycle of younger characters making their own name for themselves, finding identities beyond the last name they’ve been given all their lives. Sure, some characters are validated by being accepted by their own family (or rejected; in this sense, Ramsay and Reek are two sides of the same coin), but most of “The Children” is concerned with showing us the next generation of Westeros leaders are beginning to mature, making decisions for themselves rather than letting family name or custom dictate how to live their lives.
In theory, this is a great way to end the season: it allows for a bit of looking back, even as stories are pushing forward into new directions. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of climatic action to go along with this: outside of Tyrion’s escape and Arya boarding a ship to Braavos, “The Children” is an hour that alludes to a lot – “you’ll never walk again… but you will fly” – but doesn’t deliver on much, teasing images of Dany making compromises (letting slaves return to slavery, putting her own dragons in chains after Drogor turns a little girl into a pile of charred bones) and Melisandre spotting Jon Snow at Castle Black (hey, we know he likes redheads, amirite?).
However, this is the nature of Game of Thrones, a series adapting a series with long dormant periods, pages and pages where characters consider where they’ve been and who they’ve become, piling on the mysteries as plot development slows to a crawl. Yes, there are certainly some divergences from the novel this season – in this hour, especially – but none of them really add up to much, save for an awesome fight scene between Brienne and The Hound, which ends with another reminder of just how dark Arya’s become (something we’ve seen over and over since her and Needle were reacquainted). Instead, there’s a lot of allusion to cool things: The Children themselves (who shoot fire bombs and look like creepy little kids), the future of The Mountain (expelled maesters, anyone?),
And what stories do deliver, do so without considering what implications it has for the story it’s told all season. For example, what brings Cersei back to her brother so quickly, after all the rape and rejection that preceded it? Is throwing her relationship with Jaime in her father’s face just a petty move to make him angry, or is Cersei (like Jaime and Tyrion after her) finally expressing some agency under the crushing weight of her family name? There’s a lot of dialogue to try and get us to buy into her actions; but when it does happen, it feels like the show pushing incest in our face for dramatic purposes, not anything that feels tethered to decisions these characters would make (especially after Jaime’s treatment of her in the sept earlier this year, an ambiguous scene that has had the unintended effect of putting the show’s violence against women under the microscope).
The same goes for Tyrion’s decision to kill his father: we’re never really given a reason for why Shae is sleeping with Tywin Lannister (though calling him “her lion” suggests she might’ve been on board with him for a long time), and the only reason it seems Tyrion murders her is because she pulls a knife on him. It makes the moment feel like fan service, like the writers decided this was the story they needed to catalyze in the finale to shock viewers and please readers – however, they bungled it in the process, turning Tyrion’s kinslaying (and whoreslaying) into an act much more noble than it was. Dinklage’s performance may be fantastic (as is Headey’s as Cersei), but there just isn’t enough here for it to act as a satisfying catalyst to implode the Lannister family.
“The Children” is certainly an entertaining episode – Argonauts-esque skeletons, the death of Jojen forcing Bran into a position of leadership, Dany locking up her children in chains… to say “The Children” is without intriguing or emotional moments (Arya’s chilling dismissal of The Hound’s pleas for mercy) would be a lie; but when it tries to delivers its Big Moments, they’re not as established or climatic as I’d imagined they were designed on paper. There are just moments that feel forced or rushed into, the show wanting to deliver something to the audience, rather than carry on with the meandering, deliberate pace of its source material. Which again, is fine – after all, the TV show and the book series have completely different titles – I just wish the writers of Game of Thrones were able to find ways to make stories more resonant and inclusive. In the end, “The Children” is the epitome of season four as a whole: wildly entertaining and dramatic, never lacking in pathos, but sometimes slacking on establishing motivation and making those stories emotionally resonant, relying on the mystery of what is to come, rather than the beauty of what is happening right now.
– Stannis suddenly appears on the other side of the wall, taking down Mance’s army in completely unbelievable, undescribed fashion. All of a sudden, two factions close in on Mance’s (almost empty-looking) camp, taking over in a matter of seconds. So much for tribal unity, amirite?
– that fallen giant in the tunnel of Castle Black? That was the King of the Giants, Mag the Mighty.
– Jon Snow: “I don’t have a king.”
– book readers were blowing up Twitter last name complaining about the absence of “LSH” – all I have to say is that I’m sure she’ll be around next season. It’s always easier to contract an actor for one season than two, even if that second season is a single epilogue scene.
– I love Varys’ reaction to hearing the bells in King’s Landing. He just leaves without a word. So badass.
– Jon Snow: solid at sleeping with wildlings, not so good at drinking with them.
– and that’s season four of Game of Thrones. Thanks for reading – may we meet again for season five in 2015!
[Photo via HBO]