In its fourth season finale, Game of Thrones writer-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss set several characters on brand new journeys. We’ll have to wait almost a year to see Arya and Tyrion reach their destinations, to see what Stannis does on the Wall, or to see Bran fly.
This episode was appropriately titled “The Children” for several reasons, though it relates most directly to the “young” girl that Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor encounter north of the Wall. In this episode, Jon Snow uses his relation to his father, Ned Stark, to win the trust of Stannis Baratheon, who has saved the Night’s Watch from wildling attack. Cersei, a fierce protector of her children, fights for the right to stay by her only remaining son’s side. Daenerys is shamed into locking up two of her own children, the dragons Rhaegal and Viserion, after the child of one of her subjects is murdered by Drogon. Brienne fights the Hound for the right to protect the young Arya Stark, though Arya herself is trying to gain independence from her status as the unfortunate child of Ned and Catelyn Stark and set out on her own. Lastly, Tyrion finally acts as ruthless as his father, Tywin: “I have always been your son,” he says as he shoots his father with two bolts from Joffrey’s murderous crossbow.
“This whole season’s about learning hard lessons from your ruthless elders,” says writer-producer David Benioff. “The Children” focuses primarily on how two pupils, Arya and Tyrion, apply their lessons in mercilessness and set off on their own in the world.
The episode starts where we left off. Jon Snow is walking out of the tunnel through the Wall in order to meet with Mance Rayder, the leader of the wildlings (the “King Beyond the Wall”). He believes that if he kills Mance, the fractious wildling bands will break up over disagreements about who should replace him. The only way to get close enough is to claim that he was sent by someone to negotiate with Mance. Of course, this is not true; Jon is acting only under his own rule at this point.
Luckily, no one kills him on the way in, and he is allowed to sit with Mance. As always, they have a grudging respect for one another, and the King Beyond the Wall offers Jon a drink over the loss of his wildling lover, Ygritte. “Of all the ways I’d kill you, poison would be the last,” Mance assures him, and they drink– not only to Ygritte, but also to Grenn and Mag the Mighty, the giant he killed.
Mag was the king of the giants and the “last of a bloodline that stretches back before the First Men.” This is the first of two times that the “First Men” are mentioned in the episode. Later, the girl who saves Bran and his crew from an attack mentions that the First Men called her kind the Children, but more on that later. The First Men were the original human settlers on the continent of Westeros. They were later attacked by an invasion of the Andals from the east. Though the Andals conquered much of the southern part of the continent, they never made it up north. For that reason, northern families and wildlings in particular are more likely to have descended from the First Men. “My father was Ned Stark. I have the blood of the First Men. My ancestors lived here, same as yours!” Jon Snow once told Ygritte back in Season 2. (“So why’re you fightin’ us?” she wondered.)
Mance seems impressed that the Night’s Watch was able to bring down such an ancient warrior, but is not fooled by Jon Snow’s claims that they have 1,000 men. He is determined to get his people beyond the Wall. “We’re not here to conquer. We’re here to hide behind your wall, just like you.” His test of their defenses illuminated their hopeless reality, so he sent 400 men to climb the Wall in an unmanned stretch. The prospect of victory seems bleaker than ever to Jon, so he prepares to kill Mance. Just as Mance is wondering if Jon is truly prepared to die a slow and torturous death for murdering him, horns begin to blow. Both men seem equally surprised.
A highly-organized cavalry rides in suddenly to flank the wildling forces. They sweep in without much resistance, slaughtering wildlings on their way to converging at the center, where Mance resides. Of course, this cannot possibly be the brothers of the Night’s Watch, and an army of that size no longer exists in the North. Everyone stares in amazement as Stannis and his right-hand man Davos Seaworth ride up to negotiate with the wildling leader.
Stannis finally fulfills last season’s decision to save the kingdom in the north in order to gain legitimacy as a worthy king of the realm. He is using troops purchased with funds from the Iron Bank, which is hoping to punish the Lannister crown for its debts. They sailed to the eastern shore using the pirate’s ships and rode along the Wall to meet the battle at Castle Black. Whether they knew of this attack from Melisandre’s prophecies or guessed as much from Maester Aemon’s impassioned plea for support last season is unclear. However, they arrive at just the right moment to put an end to the attack.
Mance refuses to kneel to the “one true king”; “we do not kneel” might as well be the house motto of the wildlings, who are a free folk living without the control of a political authority (Mance Rayder being the current exception under something like martial law). Jon Snow tells Stannis he is Ned Stark’s son, which gains him instant trust. After all, it was Ned who alerted Stannis to his rightful claim to the throne, having uncovered that Joffrey was the product of incest– a truth for which he died. With this, Jon is able to convince Stannis to let Mance live unharmed: to take him as prisoner and to listen to what he has to say. Noble as his father, Jon wants to repay Mance for not harming him when he was once his captive, when he first infiltrated the wildling camp by killing his own brother of the Night’s Watch.
Jon also advises Stannis to burn the bodies of the dead so that they cannot be reanimated by the White Walkers. Maester Aemon presides over a funeral for the fallen brothers, who are all laid out on a funeral pyre. “And now their watch is ended,” the men of the Night’s Watch echo as a final prayer before the fires are lit. Fittingly, Jon first sees Melisandre, priestess for the Lord of Light, through the flames.
When he visits with the imprisoned Tormund to see how the wildlings would want their dead remembered, the warrior mocks Jon over Stannis. “He your king now?” Jon replies, “I don’t have a king.”
“You spent too much time with us, Jon Snow. You can never be a kneeler.” Tormund may be right; Jon seems more and more unhappy to have to obey an authority other than himself. Tormund goes on to recall Ygritte, speaking to Jon more like a brother than his captor. “Did you love her? She loved you… All she ever talked about was killing you. That’s how I know… She belongs in the North– the real North. Understand me?”
Jon takes Ygritte’s body north of the Wall and burns her on her own pyre. Though he doesn’t look back, he takes a moment to grieve for her before steeling himself to meet his new reality. The would-be King Stannis and his family now seem in place at the Wall, and the wildlings have been soundly defeated. Jon Snow has lost his lover, but has gained confidence in himself and his ability to lead men. Mance, the King Beyond the Wall, treats him like an equal mind, and his men proved willing to follow his command during the battle. Even Stannis, out of respect for his father Ned, heeds Jon’s advice. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out what Jon’s new role will be on the Wall, but you can pretty much bet on the fact that he will not be a simple steward any longer.
Bran’s storyline continues to introduce us to the more fantastical elements of this universe through his journeys up north. We know that mystical creatures live in greater numbers north of the Wall after seeing the giants and their mammoths in the last episode. This time, Bran and his friends encounter a band of undead wights hidden underneath the snow. These warriors attack them just as they are about to come to the weirwood tree Bran has been seeing in his dreams. At first, Hodor is too scared to help, until Bran wargs into his mind and sends him on a killing spree. Meera herself does well against the undead warriors, but Jojen is too weak to fight them off.
Eventually, a girl appears, throwing balls of fire at the corpses and urging the band forward. “Come with me, Brandon Stark!” she calls to them. “Come with me or die with him.” Jojen, who has been stabbed multiple times, is put out of his misery by his sister. She slices his throat and runs after Hodor and Bran into the safety of the roots of the tree. The skeletons who follow them explode into pieces as they cross the threshold, affected by some magical power greater than themselves. “The power that moves them is powerless here.”
The girl is one of the Children of the Forest, the original inhabitants of Westeros. These creatures are not human, but resemble children at full maturity. Even the people who believe in them think they are extinct. Back in Season 2, Maester Luwin told Bran, “The dragons are gone, the Giants are dead, and the Children of the Forest forgotten.” Wrong on all counts; though, in Luwin’s defense, all of these magical creatures haven’t been seen south of the Wall for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Children are said to be responsible for carving faces into the weirwood trees that act as shrines in their religion, which follows the Old Gods of the Forest (the religion of the Stark family, among other Northerners). “The First Men called us the children, but we were born long before them. Come, he waits for you.”
The “he” in that statement turns out to be the illusive Three-Eyed Raven, appearing now in his true form: an old man wrapped in the roots of the great weirwood tree. He and the tree seem to be one, and like the great old tree, he seems to have lived forever. “I’ve been watching you. All of you. All of your lives. With 1,000 eyes and one. Now you’ve come to me at last, Brandon Stark, though the hour is late.” Meera is still in shock over the death of her brother, upset that he had to die so that Bran may walk again, never really seeing the point of the mission in the same way as Jojen.
However, the old man reminds her that her brother had the Greensight, like Bran, and could see this future for himself all along. He knew what it would take to help Bran fulfill his mission. Bran mistakenly assumes that his mission has simply been to regain the use of his legs, lost long ago when Jaime pushed him from the window in Winterfell (which seems a little petty and heartless, if his friend just lost his life so that he might walk again). The old man corrects him, saying, “You’ll never walk again… but you will fly.” Could this mean Bran will become something like the three-eyed raven?
In a clever transition, Brienne is awoken by the sound of birds. She and Pod are stranded miles away from the Eyrie after their horses escape (due to Pod’s incompetence). However, Brienne finds a young girl practicing her “water dancing” sword techniques. She doesn’t immediately recognize Arya Stark. They talk about their fathers, who both were hesitant to teach their daughters how to fight. “Said fighting’s for boys,” Arya tells Brienne. Brienne talks about losing to boys consistently, but refusing to stop fighting until her father decided that “if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right.”
Arya is impressed by this, and by Brienne, until the older woman figures out who she is. At that point, Arya is immediately suspicious. Brienne seems surprised, not counting on Arya’s misgivings. When she tells her about the promise she made to protect her mother, Catelyn Stark, Arya quips, “Why didn’t you?” The Hound, who has emerged from using the bathroom, immediately assumes that Brienne is paid by the Lannisters, and why not? She is decked out head to toe in swag given to her by Jaime. “Tell me that’s not Lanniter gold,” he says as he notices her sword hilt. She admits that Jaime gave her the sword, but still persists in insisting that she is there only to take Arya to safety. “Safety? Where the fuck’s that?”
Tragically, Brienne and the Hound get into a heated battle over the same desire to protect the young Arya Stark. It’s clear just how big Brienne is when she is able to meet the Hound evenly in battle, and they do a good job of beating the hell out of one another using anything from their swords, their fists, their teeth, to nearby rocks. The Hound is suddenly every boy and every man she has ever lost to in her past, and she does a number on the great warrior.
Both people on multiple separate occasions have sworn they’re not knights, but in many ways they’re the best knights in Westeros. Their size and aptitude for fighting is second only to their basic decency and sense of chivalry (Brienne’s being more consistent than the Hound’s, though he has certainly risen to the occasion in protecting Arya and her sister, Sansa). It makes the scene a tragic one, not wanting either to win or lose, though knowing that it is inevitable. Arya, for her part, watches on with a dark thrill and very little sympathy. That sympathy can only come from us who have not suffered as she has.
In the end, the Hound ends up losing, badly, and Brienne ends up losing Arya. The girl slips away to find Sandor Celgane as he sits where he fell off a cliff. He is in bad shape with several wounds, including a compound fracture in his leg. “Big bitch saved you… Killed by a woman. I bet you like that.” Arya is unmoved by his words, and unmoved by his pleas for her to put him out of his misery.
In another story, it might be that Arya could not bear to put her friend down after they have grown to care for one another. In Game of Thrones, however, it’s that a part of Arya still wants to get vengeance on the Hound after all. He killed her friend Mycah all those years ago and earned a top spot on her hit list. Killing him would just give him what he wants, when she wants more than for him to die: she wants revenge.
As she takes his money from his pocket, the Hound starts to whimper. “Do it,” he begs. “Kill me. Kill me!” Arya walks away resolutely, stone faced and alone, confident that she can make it on her own. “You won’t last a day out there,” he said to her. “I’ll last longer than you,” she replied.
For the upteenth time in this series, a fan-favorite character appears to have been killed off (though we don’t actually see him die, it would be miraculous for him to survive his wounds in the middle of nowhere). It will be a shame to lose such a fun character and great actor in Rory McCann. Moreover, his relationship with both Stark girls was one of the highlights of the series: a testament to the fact that all humans can surprise you with their goodness.
The Hound’s practical lessons of realism have made Arya even more sure of her own survival skills, no matter the cost. He took her far in her development, readying her for a drastic change. “Her aunt in the Eyrie is dead. Her mother’s dead. Her father’s dead. Her brother’s dead. Winterfell is a pile of rubble,” he told Brienne earlier. It has taken her some time, but she has finally realized that Westeros holds little else for her but the ghosts of the past.
In the end, Arya finds a port and begs the captain to board his ship, cabin or not. She hopes to go to the Wall to see her half-brother, Jon, but the captain refuses. He’s sailing for Braavos, the land of bankers and assassins. Arya lights up at this, offering him a coin to come along. He does not seem interested in gold or silver, but the iron coin she presents him is another story. This coin was given to her by Jaqen H’ghar, a member of the Faceless Men of Braavos, a band of assassins who have the ability to change their face at will. He told her that if she ever wanted to visit Braavos, she should show the coin to a Braavosi and recite the words “Valar Morghulis.” When she does this, the coin clearly has the desired effect. The captain instantly defers to Arya as if she were royalty, offering her a place on board in a cabin, no less.
When on the ship, Arya starts at the stern, looking out at Westeros as she leaves her old life behind. Symbolically, she turns and races for the front of the ship to look out on her new future, ready to meet it. On the bow is a female warrior pointing the way to Braavos, to an unknown future.
On the continent towards which Arya sails, Daenerys continues to learn hard lessons about her rule. At first, she receives a supplicant who was once a slave to a great family in Meereen. He was a respected tutor to the children and beloved by the family, but has experienced only hardship since being freed by Daenerys. Though she argues defensively that she has built mess halls and shelters, the old man informs her that the young are able to adapt to their freedom in these places, but the old are left vulnerable. He requests to be sold back to his former master, and she agrees only reluctantly. After all, he says, freedom is the right to make your own choices, and he wants to choose a life where he feels valued and respected, even that means bondage.
Next, a poor man arrives speaking Low Valyrian and carrying a bundle in his arms. What he presents to her is the charred remains of his three year old daughter, Zala. She was killed by “the winged shadow,” a creature the people have clearly come to fear. Drogon is on the loose and has not been seen for several days. In the meanwhile, Daenerys has to make the hard decision to lock her other two dragons in the catacombs. Symbolically, the Breaker of Chains (as she is called) is forced to put the chains around her own dragons’ necks. She makes the decision to benefit the many over the few, though she is essentially forced to enslave her own children. Having lost the ability to reproduce, Daenerys has always treated her dragons like her babies. The pain is clear on her face as she abandons them in the catacombs, their screeching cries ringing out behind her.
Back in King’s Landing, the Lannisters continue to prove that, while they pay a lot of lip service to their faith in family, they are one of the most fractious families in all of Westeros. We start with a visit to the Mountain, who is knocking on death’s door as his wounds from the trial by combat fester abnormally, despite treatment. You can almost smell the rot as Cersei and Maester Pycelle cover their noses with clothes.
We learn that the Mountain is suffering from the effects of manticore venom. It turns out that Oberyn Martell wasn’t called the Red Viper for nothing. Earlier in the season, we learned off-hand that Oberyn was gifted in the art of poison after training to be a maester at the Citadel in his youth. His blades were likely treated with this venom so that even if he failed to kill the Mountain on the spot, the man would still suffer and die over time. If you look back at the trial by combat one more time, you can even see Oberyn’s page rubbing his blades with some sort of cloth.
Qyburn, the disgraced maester who was banished from the Citadel for his experiments on live people, assures Cersei that he can save the Mountain, but “the process may change him somewhat.” Still, it won’t weaken him, and that’s all that Cersei cares about. She needs the Mountain to continue to be her indestructible champion for any future battles that will need fighting. There look to be plenty of battles to come.
Cersei goes to Tywin and once again refuses to marry Loras Tyrell. This time, she pulls out the last ace up her sleeve and threatens to tell the whole kingdom about her incestuous relationship with Jaime. This would make Tywin’s legacy a lie, casting Joffrey and now Tommen as an illegitimate ruler.
Cersei protects her young fiercely, like a lioness, though without much success. Male lions will sometimes commit infanticide if cubs are left undefended by their mothers, and Cersei fears this fate for Tommen. “Margaery will dig her claws in, you will dig your claws in, and you’ll fight over him like beasts until you rip him apart. I will burn our House to the ground before I let that happen!”
Tywin Lannister talks a lot about the importance of family, but Cersei (and later, Tyrion) proves that he cares for little more than himself. “How could someone so consumed by the idea of his family have any conception what his actual family was doing?” she wonders, amazed that Tywin, who always seems to know everything that goes on in Westeros, refuses to see that two of his children are longtime lovers.
After leaving Tywin, Cersei seeks out her brother and former lover. They have not been together much, other than that questionable encounter in the Sept with their dead son, and it is unclear if Cersei truly misses Jaime or is simply manipulating the situation. Whether her feelings are genuine or not is up for debate, but knowing Cersei, it’s likely to be a manipulation regardless of the case. She makes one more argument for wanting Tyrion dead all these years, after his birth killed their mother.
“He didn’t decide to kill her; he was an infant.”
“A disease doesn’t decide to kill you; all the same you decide to cut it out before it does.”
Jaime, though unconvinced in regards to his brother, still clearly has feelings for Cersei. He is moved when she kisses his fake hand and professes her love for him, and they make love on the table. She claims that she chooses him, her brother and lover, over all of the “small people” beneath them.
However, in the end, Jaime chooses Tyrion over his sister. He releases his brother from his cell and leads him to the secret passageways under the Tower of the Hand. There, they bid each other goodbye, likely for good. Tyrion thanks Jaime for his life, but doesn’t immediately go to meet Varys.
Instead, he sneaks into Tywin’s chambers, and finds a woman in his father’s bed. Of course, this woman turns out to be none other than Shae, the “whore” Tywin demanded that Tyrion send away. He did this, fearing for Shae’s life, by insisting that he didn’t love her, that she was no better than a whore, though inside he believed otherwise. In order to save her, he made her into the exact thing that he proclaimed she was not, and as a whore she climbed into Tywin’s bed. As a whore alone in a foreign city, under coercion from a powerful man, what ability did she have to say no? “Tywin? My lion?” she mumbles hazily, and it’s the cruelest betrayal of all, for that is the name she used to call Tyrion with much affection.
It’s a tragedy of Game of Thrones proportions that these two, who could still be so in love with one another, try to kill each other out of a sense of profound mutual betrayal. Shae reaches for a cheese knife, but is unable to get free when Tyrion strangles her with her fancy, new, Lannister gold necklace. He says he’s sorry twice as she dangles beside him on the bed. It’s a simple phrase, but it carries the weight of Peter Dinklage’s stunning performance. Almost immediately, he spies Joffrey’s old crossbow on the wall and his expression sets determinedly.
He finds Tywin sitting on the privy (he’s likely been there the entire time) and aims the crossbow at him. Always thinking a step ahead, Tywin is not surprised or even scared to see Tyrion standing there. He tries to convince his son that he never planned to carry out the sentence against him. “You’re a Lannister. You’re my son.”
Tywin manipulates Tyrion, but his son is finally beyond believing it. “All my life you’ve wanted me dead.” When Tywin calls Shae a whore, despite a warning, Tyrion shoots him with a bolt. This changes Tywin’s tune, as it’s nothing he has calculated for. A bit more desperately, Tywin declares, “You’re no son of mine.”
“I’ve always been your son,” Tyrion replies and shoots him once more, proving it to be so. This is a new, more ruthless Tyrion of his father’s own making. It is fitting that Tywin dies on the night of Father’s Day in the United States, and on the toilet no less. For a man that likes to control every aspect of life, Tywin was unable to control his own death. He dies ignobly, defecating in the privy. He was a family man in name only, so it makes sense that he should die at the hands of his own son.
Varys helps smuggle Tyrion out of King’s Landing by putting him in a box and loading him on a ship. As he begins to head back to the city, the bells toll vigorously, alerting the guards to trouble within. Varys turns around and boards the ship himself to sit by Tyrion in silence, knowing that he has done something awful in his escape. It’s unclear if this move is a mark of sympathy on his part, wanting to keep Tyrion company after he has committed something that is outside his normal behavior, or if he will be accompanying the Imp overseas, afraid to even risk being named in whatever plot has just transpired.
We are all someone’s child. We can try to escape it, like Tyrion and Arya, but how far can we get? Will a sea set Arya far enough apart from the noble Stark name that once defined her? The only way for Tyrion to survive his own family is to act like the very father he hates. For better and for worse, all children are shaped by their families. Families have always been an important element of Game of Thrones, but next season two major characters will be setting off on their own.
As always, it will feel like an eternity until we figure out what happens to the characters we love. As Arya looks out over the bow of the ship, we see the vast sea stretched out before her. That sea will take almost a year for us to cross. It’s never fast enough.
Other thoughts on “The Children”:
- This marks the end of Game of Thrones‘s most successful season yet. It surpassed The Sopranos as the most watched and highest rated show in HBO history. The numbers do not even reflect the ridiculously high piracy rates for each episode. This show has clearly captured the hearts and imaginations of many viewers, and it continues to grow. It deserves the success.
- Stannis’s arrival would have been much better at the end of the last episode. His scene resolves itself too quickly; his success is too swift. It feels rushed and anticlimactic, whereas in episode 9, it would have made the end feel far less flat. Book readers were waiting for this to happen last week, so if you heard any grumbling, it was because of this omission. I still think it would’ve added more to last week’s episode than this week’s.
- Littlefinger summed up some of this season’s death count only a few episodes ago when he told Robin, “People die at their dinner tables. They die in their beds. They die squatting over their chamber pots.” Joffrey died at his dinner table, Shae in her bed, and Tywin over his chamber pot. Death in Game of Thrones can truly come at any moment. But you know that by now.
- In a season marked by several departures from the source material, this season finale has several examples of omissions and changes big and small. I won’t go into them, to avoid spoiling anyone, but it’s clear that book readers will need to come to terms with a show that diverges more and more from the books. I’m no purist, but I would like to see a little more faithfulness to George R.R. Martin’s work, particularly since we don’t yet know how any of these threads will play out in the end (with two or more books still on the way). For the most part, I trust D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, but wouldn’t want them to make choices that could really affect the narrative’s outcome.
- There’s one major omission from the end of A Storm of Swords, so be very wary of reading comments, Twitter, recaps, etc. because it’s already being spoiled all over the internet and will likely occur sometime in the beginning of next season (I hope). I think it would have been the best possible ending for the season finale, and am sorry that they continue to go for anti-climax in episode 10. Clearly, they don’t prefer a season ending on a cliffhanger, but for those who know what I am talking about, it would have been an extremely fun ending and would have left people talking about it for many months to come. A missed opportunity, in my opinion.
- Thanks for another fun year recapping this amazing show! I’ve had a lot of great conversation with you about the show and feel blessed that so many of you have tuned in each week to check out my recaps. I look forward to next year and know we’ll all be suffering together for these many long months without Game of Thrones. Thanks again for reading!