4.10 “The Children”
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alex Graves
Commentary by Rory McCann (Sandor Clegane), Gwendolyn Christie (Brienne), and Alex Graves
At last we have an episode with an overarching theme. Here, it’s loss and abandonment; nearly everyone makes a choice that causes them to lose something or give up hope for something they love or have desperately wanted.
This post is pretty long, so I’m putting it under a jump:
The episode picks up where the last one left off, with Jon approaching Mance’s camp. They meet as cautious friends, and Jon finally tells Mance the whole truth about who he is and why he was with Ygritte. They mourn their lost dead together—Ygritte, Grenn and Mag the Giant King—and Mance explains that he doesn’t want to destroy the Night’s Watch, only to put the Wall between them and the oncoming winter. He offers Jon his terms: open the gates, let the Wildlings through, and nobody else will die. When Jon gets his hands on a knife and considers killing Mance right there, Mance asks if he can really break guest right this way. Of course he can’t; that’s not how Jon’s wired. But he’s saved from making that decision by the arrival of Stannis’ army, which wipes out most of the Wildling army and takes Mance captive. Jon introduces himself as Ned Stark’s bastard, and since Stannis has a grudging respect for Ned, he listens to Jon’s advice about how to handle Mance and that they need to burn the dead before nightfall.
Back at the Wall, the men burn their own dead while Selyse and Shireen watch and Melisandre gives Jon creepy eyes through the fire. Then Jon goes to see Tormund to find out how to send off Ygritte; Tormund tells him they don’t have funeral rites, but that Ygritte belongs in the north. So Jon takes her body back across the Wall and sets up a pyre, where he burns her body and says goodbye alone. An important part of Jon’s life has ended with Ygritte’s death, and it’s only right that he mourns both. Ygritte taught him what he needed to know about the Wildlings in order to make the choices he makes later, and generally speaking they’re good choices even if they blow up in his face because he’s still really bad at politics (in both the books and the show, so Jon’s mistakes can’t be blamed on Benioff and Weiss, though the whole context of the mistakes in the show can be).
In King’s Landing, Cersei has what will turn out to be her last conversation with Tywin. She has decided that she will no way no how marry Loras, and if Tywin tries to force her, she’ll tell everyone the truth about Tommen. Tywin doesn’t know or pretends not to know what that truth is, so Cersei lays it out for him—all three children are Jaime’s, not Robert’s, and she’s been having sex with Jaime for the last twenty years. Not marrying Loras harms Tywin’s need for someone to carry on the Lannister name (and not incidentally get the Tyrell’s riches into the family), but revealing the truth would completely devastate the whole house of cards their power is so carefully built on. Narratively, it’s important that we know that Tywin knows all of this before he dies at the end of the episode. It also sets up a follow-through theme of all of Tywin’s children disappointing him before he’s killed. The Lannisters tear themselves apart with internal fighting and strife, and Tywin has to watch his so-important legacy die before he’s removed from the picture.
Cersei then goes to Jaime and tells him that she’s told Tywin everything and she’s not going anywhere so they can be together forever. And then they have sex on the table because we continue to have zero rape-fallout.
Oddly enough, the show has managed to make the Lannisters less awful than they are in the books, which is a reversal for a lot of their writing. Mostly, everyone’s way worse in the show. Tyrion’s been completely sanitized (I’ll get to that in a bit); Cersei’s habit of sexually manipulating everyone around her has been toned way down, as has her use of Qyburn. Heck, Qyburn has been toned way down; pretty much all he does is Frankenstein Gregor and horn in on Pycelle’s territory. I don’t pretend to understand why, with all the horror and awfulness already in the books, Benioff and Weiss felt like they had to ignore canon awfulness and add different awfulness that has far more problematic implications. I also don’t understand why they felt that Cersei needed to be more sympathetic, or maybe it was just a side effect of dumping so many characters—not a single one of the characters she has sex with or promises sex to or whatever are even in the show (except Lancel). And the whole incident with Bronn and the Stokeworths seems to have been abandoned, as it doesn’t look like Bronn’s going to be marrying Lollys after all (that’s next season, but still). So 75% of Cersei’s awfulness was just abandoned, leaving us with her problem being that she’s too ambitious and a woman. And we’re supposed to hate her on the force of that, which is super problematic.
Of course, then we have Jaime, whose character development is abandoned to make him and Cersei a power couple and I’ll have more to say about that next season.
Over in Meereen, Daenerys learns that Drogon has been terrorizing not only goats, but now a small child, whose father comes to her for justice. Since she can’t give it to him, all she can do is lock up Rhaegal and Viserion (Drogon is less cooperative) so that at least two of them are prevented from killing. Of course, there’s lots of layers of symbolism here. Dany is constantly fighting her more violent tendencies, probably inherited from her father (violent insanity as an incest-caused birth defect is common in A Song of Ice and Fire). She has two choices: learn to control her impulses, or attempt to abandon her Targaryen heritage altogether and become a peaceful leader. By locking the dragons away rather than learning how to train them, she chooses the latter, but that also means that she’s not being true to herself. Her entire time in Meereen, when she’s caught up in the day-to-day petty politics of a city that doesn’t even want her, distracts her from learning about her dragons and herself, and from preparing to conquer Westeros.
Also, in locking them away, all she’s doing is repressing their instincts. Sooner or later she’s going to have to let them out, and they’re not going to be docile, happy creatures who have learned that eating children is bad. They’re going to be wild, feral, and pissed off. Symbolically, she’s also refusing to learn to handle her Targaryen nature, and when that comes to the fore, it probably won’t be pretty, either.
Dany isn’t just locking her “children” away in a dungeon. She’s locking herself away in a dungeon. She’s locking away her ability and will to enforce her decrees with “fire and blood,” and as such, becomes a much less able ruler (in the show, she becomes a completely insane ruler and we’ll get to that next season).
This doesn’t mean that it was an easy or even a wrong choice, and the scene itself is heartrending. Everyone involved did an amazing job in bringing it to the screen.
Brienne finally gets close to her goal, encountering Arya and Sandor in the Vale. Brienne sees Arya first, practicing her water dancing on a ridge. Arya fangirls all over Brienne, obviously super impressed that she’s a woman yet acting like a knight (Brienne admits that she’s not actually a knight). Arya asks about Brienne’s sword and introduces hers as Needle, and I think it says something that Arya learns Oathkeeper’s name and shares Needle’s name before she learns Brienne’s and shares her own. They also bond over fathers who allowed them to learn to fight, despite their qualms. It’s really adorable and could be the start of a beautiful friendship if Sandor didn’t pop up; Pod, of course, immediately recognizes him, which helps Brienne figure out who Arya is, and she immediately tries to talk Arya into coming with her. Brienne has a couple of things working against her: Arya doesn’t trust anyone and Brienne’s carrying a lion-hilted sword. I wonder why either Brienne or Jaime thought that sending Brienne out to find the Stark girls carrying Lannister colors and sigil would be a good idea; probably they weren’t really thinking about the girls so much as their own honor. Jaime thought that it being part of Ice would be enough, and Brienne probably didn’t think far enough into Sansa and Arya’s viewpoints to understand how mistrustful of her they would be with that sword.
So Sandor and Brienne fight over who gets to protect Arya, and it’s a knock-down, drag-out brawl of a fight during which Brienne bites off his ear. So now she’s thematically aligned with Biter, who in the books ate her face while she was partially conscious after getting knocked down, so that’s just great. Even leaving aside the books, Biter’s already half-killed Sandor with his nasty mouth, and Brienne’s about to send him to three-quarters killed, so maybe the thematic alignment isn’t entirely out of order, though it does imply that Brienne’s in the wrong (Biter is an outright, no-grey-here villain after all). Brienne throws Sandor off a cliff, and he bounces a few times; she turns to look for Arya, who’s hiding from her.
Once they’re gone, Arya goes down to check on Sandor, and this is one of Maisie Williams’ crowning moments as an actor in this series. Sandor isn’t dead, but he wants her to kill him. She won’t. He yells, threatens, tells her how Mycah died, says he should have “taken” Sansa when he had the chance, offers to beg; she just watches him, dead-eyed and stone-faced. Eventually, she takes his gold pouch and leaves, while he yells “kill me” after her.
Again, there’s lots of layers to Arya’s decision here. She’s grown to rely on Sandor, and even be kind of fond of him. But he’s still on her list. She knows exactly who he is; traveling together and learning from him hasn’t changed that. If there’s a way to earn one’s way off her list (besides dying), he hasn’t managed it. So she wants him dead, but it doesn’t seem like she’s as keen on being the one to kill him anymore. And here he is, dying, begging for mercy, and she can either kill him and take him definitively off her list, or leave him to die slowly in agony and refuse him that mercy.
She chooses no mercy, which is interesting considering that later she goes by “Mercy” in Braavos (in the books, at least; I can’t remember if she picks up that name in the show). Then she rides down to a dock near the Vale and tries to get a ship for the Wall. The captain isn’t going to the Wall, but when she hands him the iron coin and says “valar morghulis,” everything changes. He agrees to take her to Braavos, and he treats her as royalty. The last shot of the episode and season is Arya staring across the Narrow Sea with the wind in her hair.
Bran, Jojen, Hodor, and Meera finally reach the massive heart tree Bran and Jojen have been dreaming about. But it’s not going to be as easy as just walking into the cave underneath it; first they have to fight D&D-style skeletons that pop out of the snow like daisies. Not proper wights, but skeletons. For some reason. It’s . . . utterly ridiculous, to be honest. Bran wargs into Hodor again, this time to save his life because he’s covered in skeletons and freaking out. Jojen takes several stabs to the chest and stomach, and then . . . explosions? The Children of the Forest show up and they have grenades?
Meera’s forced to put Jojen out of his misery, and Leaf flings another grenade at him to burn the body so he doesn’t get back up. Meera, Hodor, Bran, and Summer make it to the cave, where the Childrens’ magic keeps the dead from entering (they explode into pieces if they try). Then, finally, we get our first look at the three-eyed crow. And it’s . . . underwhelming.
Here’s the description of Brynden the Greenseer, the Three-Eyed Raven, from A Dance with Dragons:
Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child.His body was so skeletal and his clothes so rotted that at first Bran took him for another corpse, a dead man propped up so long that the roots had grown over him, under him, and through him. What skin the corpse lord showed was white, save for a bloody blotch that crept up his neck onto his cheek. His white hair was fine and thin as root hair and long enough to brush against the earthen floor. Roots coiled around his legs like wooden serpents. One burrowed through his breeches into the desiccated flesh of his thigh, to emerge again from the shoulder. A spray of dark red leaves sprouted from his skull, and grey mushrooms spotted his brow. A little skin remained, stretched across his face, tight and hard as white leather, but even that was fraying, here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through. (Ch. 13, Bran II)
Instead of that nightmare, we get this:
Unpopular opinion time: I think Max von Sydow was horrifically miscast for this role. The Three-Eyed Crow, previously Brynden Rivers, is a Targaryen bastard who joined the Night’s Watch, became Lord Commander, went ranging beyond the Wall, and disappeared. He’s described as albino, with hair even whiter than the usual Targaryen hue, red eyes, and the winestain birthmark mentioned above. How exactly he became the Greenseer for the remaining Children of the Forest hasn’t been made clear yet.
The show skips every single distinguishing feature of Brynden Rivers (just like they do with Euron later and believe me I will talk about that when we get there) as if the history of the whole Greenseer thing doesn’t matter. And maybe it doesn’t to them, but Benioff and Weiss keep talking about how great and helpful Martin’s worldbuilding is, only to ignore it when it doesn’t work for them. I feel like they got Max von Sydow to agree to be in the show and just shoved him into a role without thinking about the actual characteristics and backstory of the character. Also, the whole makeup job for him could have been so cool, looking like that description from the book in the cave and then normal, even young, during his dreamwalking with Bran. Instead, they stuck Sydow in a kind of chair thing with absolutely nothing to indicate that he’s anything more than just some guy sitting in a tree.
Bran asks him if he’s going to help Bran walk again, and Brynden says that he will never walk again, but he will fly. This line loses so much impact because they changed Bran’s dreams of the Three-Eyed Raven; in the books, the Crow is constantly telling Bran that he needs to open his third eye and learn to fly to keep from falling. In the show, they make Bran’s dreams more like Jojen’s greendreams and put in a whole lot of foreshadowing instead. So the promise that he’ll fly is cool, but lacks the weight it could have had.
Finally, Jaime and Tyrion make major, life-altering choices. Jaime chooses to release Tyrion rather than let him die. He releases him into the catacombs on his own recognizance with barely a word spoken, which is where Benioff and Weiss have made what looks like a minor change but has massive implications for the plot.
In the books, Jaime decides now is the time to confess to Tyrion that Tysha was never a whore, that Tywin forced Jaime to tell Tyrion that story and promised that Tyrion would get over it. Tyrion’s so furious that he tells Jaime Cersei “has been fucking Lancel and Osmund Kettleblack and probably Moon Boy for all I know.” Both of them have their worlds completely shattered when they part. Tyrion has the fact that Tysha truly loved him and was gang raped by Lannister guards and then he was forced to rape her and then she was sent away, and all of this was orchestrated by Tywin, right in the front of his mind when he decides to go confront Tywin and finds Shae in his bed. Jaime’s growing dissatisfaction with Cersei’s behavior is kicked into high gear with Tyrion’s revelation, and it’s what ultimately breaks them up, with Jaime finally choosing not to go save Cersei from the High Sparrow but to leave her to her just punishment.
Instead, Tyrion heads up to Tywin’s chamber (somehow finding his way without Varys’ help) for no other reason than to confront him about trying to have him killed, and Jaime gets into the nonsense of season five.
Tyrion reaches Tywin’s chamber and finds Shae there; half-awake, she turns and says “my lion?” before seeing Tyrion. So not only has Tywin repeatedly berated Tyrion for keeping a “whore,” not only did he destroy Tyrion’s marriage and call his lawful wife a whore, now he’s having sex with Shae, who he considers a whore. I always struggled with this moment in the books; while admittedly we don’t get into Tywin’s head and don’t always know what’s happening with him, everyone remembers him as devoted to Joanna Lannister, and it appears that he still loves her, all these years after her death. That he has a prostitute in his bed at all is odd; that he has Shae in his bed almost destroys my suspension of disbelief.
This also adds another layer of trouble to the way they’ve changed Shae’s character to be truly devoted to Tyrion; in the books, she’s a prostitute and she’s in it for the money. That she’d accept Tywin’s gold just as readily as she accepted Tyrion’s isn’t a stretch. In the show, this no longer makes much sense.
There’s another minor change here that’s part of a larger pattern of making Tyrion more sympathetic. In the books, Shae tries to sweet-talk Tyrion, and her mistake is calling him “my giant,” which is one of the things she said at the trial that made everyone laugh at Tyrion; he murders her with the chain of linked gold hands she’s wearing. In the show, she goes for a dagger, he pins her down, they wrestle, and he almost accidentally kills her, falling off the bed with his hands full of the chain he gave her. Changing it from cold-blooded murder to semi-self-defense keeps Tyrion from being a complete monster, which he is by this point in the books, and again I don’t understand why they had to abandon all the canon horrors for new ones. My best guess is that Tyrion is such a fan favorite that they couldn’t bear to tar him with the same brush as Jaime. The problem is (and it gets worse in season five and so much worse in season six) that this means Tyrion barely has any character development, as he’s already nearly a paragon of virtue, wit, and hilarity. The audience isn’t invited to have complicated feelings about him because he doesn’t really do anything wrong. Every difficulty he has is from others being mean to him, not because his own choices have pushed him inexorably in this direction. In the next couple of seasons, this means Tyrion actually starts pushing into other characters’ storylines and taking over in ways that are really insulting to every other character involved.
Tyrion picks up a crossbow and goes to find Tywin, who’s in the garderobe. Tywin doesn’t honestly believe Tyrion would shoot him. He really honestly thinks that he’ll talk his way out of this one. But he can’t keep his prejudices locked up for more than two seconds, and he calls Shae a whore one too many times (again, in the books, they’re talking about Tysha and Tyrion shoots him for calling Tysha a whore one too many times). Tyrion shoots Tywin twice, leaving him to die where he is, then goes to Varys, who packs him into a crate and ships him (and himself) off to Pentos.
There’s lots of consequences to be dealt with from this season, more than just about any other season, and starting next week we’ll see just how well the writers handle them (spoiler: not well).