So, wow. That happened.
“The Children” is another episode of Game of Thrones at its worst AND best. Unfortunately, while there was some great stuff in the episode that I really loved, it’s not enough to make up for what I think are some serious, serious problems.
Spoilers under the cut for the episode and for book-related complaints and speculation.
“The Children” picks up right where last week’s episode ended, with Jon Snow leaving the Wall to walk, unarmed, into Mance Rayder’s camp. Mance is, quite understandably, not terribly happy to see Jon, but he is willing to talk. Mance doesn’t want to keep fighting. He insists that his people just want to hide behind the Wall, and he knows that the Night’s Watch doesn’t have the men they need to hold the Wall against his forces. They drink to Ygritte and to Grenn and the giant Mag the Mighty who died in the tunnel under the Wall. Then Jon twitches as if to go for a knife to kill Mance, but before either of them can kill the other they hear war horns.
Mance thinks at first that the Night’s Watch is attacking, but Jon admits that Mance was right when he said they didn’t have the men for it and they walk outside to find that Stannis has arrived with the army he managed to buy with the help of the Iron Bank. The overhead shots of Stannis’s cavalry are truly impressive and lend an epic feel to the scene, although I wish these first ten minutes had been included in last week’s episode to leave more time for some of the other stories that were tackled in this one. The conversation between Mance and Jon and Stannis and Davos is excellently done and could have been left for this episode, but I definitely think the arrival of Stannis’s forces would have been a much more impressive and dramatically satisfying ending to episode nine than Jon walking out the tunnel, which was basically the most anticlimactic cliffhanger they could have done last week.
That said, I mostly loved this sequence. It’s fairly close to how it happened in the book, which is nice to see considering how far the show departed from the source material earlier in the season. Hopefully, this means that they’ll be adhering closer to the books going forward. The only problem I have with this right now is that they still haven’t introduced Dalla and Val, which I suspect means that we won’t be seeing them. I understand, I suppose, that sometimes characters have to be cut, but Val in particular figures pretty prominently in future events at the Wall, and without Dalla there’s no son of Mance’s to switch with Gilly’s baby later on, which will significantly change the future character development of Jon, Sam and Gilly.
In King’s Landing, Cersei is watching while Pycelle and Qyburn examine Gregor Clegane, who is mortally wounded as well as poisoned after his duel with Oberyn Martell. Pycelle claims that there is nothing to be done for the wounded man, but Qyburn seems somewhat more optimistic. After banishing Pycelle from his own laboratory, Cersei encourages Qyburn to save Ser Gregor, even after Qyburn rather creepily warns her that the “process” will “change him”–although Qyburn also assures her (even more creepily) that it won’t weaken him. This is a short, but necessary scene, and it more firmly establishes Cersei’s favor for Qyburn over Pycelle as well as setting up the return of zombie Clegane later on. I’m glad to see it in this episode, although I wish we had gotten a similar scene in episode ten of last season to set up Lady Stoneheart–but I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’ll complain about that (probably at length) later.
Next, we get to see Cersei arguing with her father over her impending marriage to Loras Tyrell. She’s now flatly refusing to do it, and Tywin isn’t in the mood for it. This isn’t a scene from the books, and I’m not really certain what this and the following scene will mean for Cersei and Jaime’s relationship going forward, but I love it. Of course Tywin didn’t believe the rumors about Cersei and Jaime. But Cersei is here to set him straight and to make it very clear that she will destroy every hope Tywin has ever had for his family before she’ll marry again.
Straight from giving a big “fuck you” to her dad, Cersei goes to Jaime to tell him the news. Jaime is still pissed at Cersei for wanting Tyrion to be killed, but he seems to soften towards her as she makes out with him. This all feels a little out of nowhere, considering that Jaime and Cersei’s relationship has been sort of constantly deteriorating ever since he got back to King’s Landing and in light of him raping her in the Sept after Joffrey’s death. I’m also really just not sure what it means. The show has cut out all of Cersei’s infidelities except with Lancel, who we haven’t seen since “Blackwater,” which is really kind of a big deal for events in A Feast for Crows, and it seems like we’re really nowhere near that stuff anymore. It’s not that I can’t see them still doing some version of the Cersei/Margaery AFFC rivalry and the complete estrangement of Cersei and Jaime, but at this point I just don’t see how it’s going to work. In many ways, I like show!Cersei better than book!Cersei, and I’ve never been entirely comfortable with GRRM’s treatment of Cersei in her POV chapters in the books, but it’s getting really hard to predict anything about these storylines where so much is changed and left out.
In Meereen, Daenerys is holding court. which continues to not be as rewarding as she hoped. First, we see her approached by an old man who claims that he was a respected teacher but is now living on the streets since Daenerys “freed” the slaves of Meereen. He asks for her permission to sell himself back to his old master, which Daenerys reluctantly grants. After he leaves happy, the next petitioner approaches weeping and with a small bundle in his arms, which turns out to be his 3-year-old daughter who has been burned alive by Drogon. I expected this to make it into the finale, but I actually didn’t expect to see Daenerys’s imprisonment of Rhaegal and Viserion in this episode unless they made it the final scene of the season. But they put it at the halfway point, which I thought sort of diminished the moment. This is really too bad because this was the first time in ages where I felt any kind of emotional connection to Daenerys, and the door being closed on the dragons, leading to a black screen, would have been an amazing final shot since they didn’t do Lady Stoneheart (which I’m still not ranting about just yet).
Back at the Wall, Maester Aemon is giving a eulogy for the fallen men of the Night’s Watch who are to be burned before they turn into zombies and kill everyone. We get to see both Pyp and Grenn’s faces before they’re set afire, and I’m really pleased that we got this closure. We get a shot of Melisandre creepily eying Jon Snow through the flames before we move along to a great conversation between Jon and Tormund, who’s been patched up by Maester Aemon. I loved everything about the Jon/Tormund talk, and I loved that Jon took Ygritte north of the Wall to burn her by himself, although I thought it strange that she was posed with her shoulder bared kind of sexily. I mean, I know she’s dead, and he’s going to burn her, but I’m kind of confused about how she got into this state of undress after being so sensibly bundled up all the rest of the time. As in the book, I still feel like Ygritte has been fridged so Jon Snow can evolve, but I’ve kind of started to like Jon in the last couple of episodes, and if they stick pretty close to the books his story gets much more interesting from here on out.
Even farther north, Bran and company have reached their destination, which is apparently the set of the 1985 film Legend. As they move toward a suspiciously beautiful tree, skeletons pop out of the ground and attack them. In another pretty major departure from the books, Jojen is killed in the fight with the skeletons before a fairy comes out and rescues the rest of the party with special effects from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then we finally get to meet the three-eyed raven, who looks–no fucking joke–like Tim the Enchanter.
Elsewhere, Podrick has apparently hobbled the horses wrong, and Brienne is grumpy about it. I love Brienne and Podrick, but the more I see of them together, the less I like the way their dynamic is being portrayed on the show. Brienne was gruff with Podrick in the books, but she was also awkward and unsure really of what to even do with a squire; in the show, she’s just mean. In the books, Brienne comes to like Podrick and ends up teaching him to fight and helps fill in the gaps in his knowledge that were neglected when he was Tyrion’s squire, and we haven’t gotten to see any of that in the show, which is disappointing.
After Brienne is mean to Podrick, they start to continue their journey towards the Eyrie when Brienne comes across Arya, who is practicing her water dancing. This is another enormous change from the books, but there’s some interesting stuff going on in both Brienne’s short exchange with Arya and then her argument with Sandor Clegane when Podrick recognizes him. As soon as Brienne realizes that she’s been talking to Arya Stark, she tells Arya that she was sent by Arya’s mother to look for her and offers to take Arya to safety. Sandor points out that there is no safe place for Arya and says that if Brienne doesn’t know that she’s the wrong person to be looking after Arya. Between Sandor’s calling Arya his traveling companion (rather than prisoner) two episodes ago and his admission here that he’s been looking after her, it seems pretty clear that he’s come to, in his way, care for the girl, which makes what happens next really terribly sad.
Brienne and Sandor get into an actual sword fight, which turns into a brawl, over which one of them will get to continue looking after Arya. This is not even remotely in the books, but it’s definitely cool (if brutal) to watch. It’s not often that we get to see a woman warrior treated so equally as a man in this sort of fantasy story, but Brienne and the Hound are pretty evenly matched. I really appreciated that there was no threat of rape or any sexualized attacks in the scene–just two pretty much the same size people beating the shit out of each other, and Brienne’s gender never feels like a factor that affects the fight at all. In the end, Brienne manages to win, sort of, although Arya has slipped away during the fight.
We leave Brienne and Podrick searching for Arya and return to Arya herself. She makes her way down to where Sandor has fallen, and it’s pretty obvious that he’s horribly injured. Arya watches impassively as he tries to goad her into killing him by reminding her that he killed her friend and talking about how he wished he’d raped her sister. Unfortunately for the Hound, this has basically the opposite effect on Arya, and she quietly takes his money pouch and walks away as he begs her to put him out of his misery. Rory McCann has done some truly fine acting as Sandor Clegane this season, and I am sad to see him go, but I’m glad to see Arya’s journey finally moving along.
Back in King’s Landing, Tyrion is languishing in his prison cell when Jaime shows up to release him. My complaints about this:
- Jaime choosing to release Tyrion seems a little at odds with his seeming reconciliation earlier in this episode, although I suppose it does fit in with the idea expressed by Cersei that, ultimately, they choose their family. I suppose that if Cersei finds out that Jaime is responsible for Tyrion’s release, she will see it as even more of a betrayal after that conversation, but I kind of think she would see it as a betrayal regardless, which makes the earlier Jaime/Cersei scene unnecessary. It just seems weird that we’d see Jaime so clearly reigniting his relationship with his sister only to turn around and choose his brother over her twenty minutes later. It feels confusing.
- In the books, Jaime uses this opportunity, thinking it may be the last time he sees his brother, to confess to his role in the abuse and banishment of Tyrion’s first wife, Tysha. Jaime lied to Tyrion at the time, saying that Tysha was just a whore he had hired for Tyrion, which is the only reason that Tyrion allowed Tysha to be gang-raped (and participated in said gang rape) and sent away from Casterly Rock. The groundwork for this revelation was even laid all the way back in season one when Tyrion told Bronn and Shae about Tysha, so I don’t understand why they’d skip that here. I don’t like to make excuses for what Tyrion does after this, but this revelation would have made his homicidal rage feel at least a little more justified.
- Along with skipping the Tysha revelation, we also don’t get Tyrion telling Jaime about Cersei’s infidelities. This is also huge. I know that in the show we haven’t gotten to see most of it, but I thought for sure that we’d see Tyrion spill the beans to Jaime about Lancel at the very least. In the books, this accounted for a great deal of the further deterioration of Jaime and Cersei’s relationship in AFFC, but without that being known to Jaime on the show, I expect that the pulling away from the relationship will be more one-sided, which pisses me off because I think we’ll see Cersei being painted even more as the villain than she was in the books, with Jaime being shown as her victim. This especially sucks after the rape scene in the Sept, which is of course probably never actually going to be treated as a rape within the show.
After a brotherly hug, Tyrion and Jaime part ways, with Tyrion taking a quick detour through the secret tunnels to the Tower of the Hand and his father’s chambers. In the book, he was guided by Varys because these are supposed to be secret tunnels in the walls of the Tower, but here he seems to know right where he’s going, which doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Apparently he’s not even a little disoriented after sitting for weeks in a jail cell.
When Tyrion enters his father’s chambers, he finds Shae in Tywin’s bed, and she stirs slowly mumbling “my lion” as she thinks Tywin is returning to bed. As soon as Shae realizes that it’s not Tywin, she grabs for a dinner knife to try and protect herself. Tyrion, however, manages to disarm her and strangles her before whispering that he’s sorry. I just want to say fuck this. After all the effort put into crafting Shae on the show as a much fuller character than she was in the books, she doesn’t even get a chance to explain herself. In fact, there’s no actual conversation at all between her and Tyrion in this scene. He just murders her in a fit of rage before grabbing a crossbow and going to find his father in the privy.
I’m so incredibly disappointed with the way this scene played out. I’d hoped that there would be a sort of element of Greek tragedy to Tyrion’s murder of Shae, which I didn’t really feel here, but I’d also hoped that Shae would be given some amount of dignity in the end, and she wasn’t. The way her murder is filmed doesn’t even really focus on her–her terror or anger or whatever she might have felt in that moment. Instead, it’s filmed so that the viewer is supposed to empathize with Tyrion and his pain. There are some very valid criticisms of this scene in the book, but at least when GRRM wrote it it was pretty clear that this was an act of true villainy on Tyrion’s part, and this is reinforced throughout A Dance With Dragons. Here, we seem supposed to see Tyrion’s murder of Shae as regrettable, but not evil and maybe even justified. Because, see? He feels bad about it! Fuck this scene so much.
Then, of course, it’s off to the privy for some father-son time. Tyrion pays lip-service to being upset about Shae, but what he really seems to be upset about is still Tywin’s rejection of him and Tywin’s willingness to have Tyrion executed for a crime that he didn’t commit. Without the reveal of the truth about Tysha, I really feel like something was lost in this scene, which is unfortunate, and I really just didn’t buy Tyrion’s anger over Tywin’s use of the word “whore,” a word that Tyrion himself used to describe Shae when he tried to send her away before Joffrey’s wedding.
Mostly, I just felt like the messaging throughout this entire sequence, from Tyrion and Jaime to Tyrion’s murder of Shae to Tywin’s death, was left terribly muddled by the omission of the truth about Tysha. In some aspects, the scenes were powerful, but they didn’t have nearly the effect on me that the same (-ish) scenes did when I read the book.
After Shae and Tywin are both dead, Tyrion makes his way to Varys, who spirits him down to the docks packed in a crate to be shipped to the Free Cities. As Varys turns to walk back to the Red Keep, alarm bells start ringing and Varys turns and returns to the ship, presumably off to the Free Cities with Tyrion.
The episode ends, interestingly and to my crushing disappointment, with Arya. She’s made her way to a small port town where she tries, unsuccessfully, to find passage to the Wall. On finding out that the ship is returning to Braavos, however, she fishes out the coin that Jaqen H’ghar gave her, which the Braavosi captain immediately recognizes. The final shot of the episode is Arya sailing off to Braavos, then, with ominously grey skies ahead.
Like the ending of episode nine, this felt really anticlimactic. I was really glad that we’ve finally gotten to this part of Arya’s journey, but as an end to the season it lacked punch. Mostly, though, it just wasn’t the ending that I (and apparently every other person who has read the books) was expecting, which was, of course, Lady Stoneheart.
I’m still not even sure how to deal with the possibility, which seems somewhat and increasingly likely, that we won’t be seeing Lady Stoneheart in the show. I expected, or at least hoped, to see Catelyn Stark’s resurrection in the first episode of season four after it didn’t happen in the last episode of season three. When that didn’t happen, but we knew that Brienne would be starting her quest for the Stark girls this season, I felt certain that Lady Stoneheart would be the final scene of episode ten. Even while watching this episode and seeing how wildly Brienne’s path had diverged from her path in the novels, I still thought they’d somehow get around to Lady Stoneheart. Even, sadly, during this final Arya scene I kept feeling like maybe it would happen–I mean, what better way to segue into the reveal of Catelyn’s undeath than showing it right after Arya has lost all hope of ever finding her family and has left the country? But, nope. No Lady Stoneheart.
The decisions made by the Game of Thrones show runners continue to just be absolutely fucking baffling.