Season finale review: 'Game of Thrones' - 'The Children': Happy Father's Day!
A review of tonight's "Game of Thrones" coming up just as soon as I do a poor job hobbling the horses...
"I am your son. I have always been your son." -Tyrion
In previous seasons, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have tended to use the finales in the same way that "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" so often did: as a time for reflection after the climactic events of the different episodes 9, and as a preview of what's to come in the following season.
"The Children" didn't work quite like that, in part because "The Watchers on the Wall" wasn't a climax of the season in the way that "Baelor," "Blackwater" and "The Rains of Castamere" were. It was exciting action, but it resolved exactly nothing (other than the Jon Snow/Ygritte romance), and left most matters up to "The Children" to either dispense with or push forward into season 5. As such, it was a finale with many big denouements — too many, arguably, given the need to squeeze them all into a single episode, even a slightly longer one than normal. Some had the desired emotional impact, but others simply got lost in the trans-continental shuffle.
Stannis appearing out of nowhere to rout the wildling army, for instance, arguably would have been better served as the conclusion to "The Watchers on the Wall" than as the first major movement of "The Children." It allowed the Jon/Mance scene to play out at greater length (in the process giving Ciaran Hinds something to do in his first appearance in nearly two years), but the notion of the cavalry riding to the rescue immediately after Jon's fatalistic reaction to the battle would have seemed more dramatic than this. Alex Graves, as he so often does on this show, worked wonders with the battle choreography (the overhead shot of the wildlings fighting chaotically while Stannis' men rode and fought in perfect precision neatly told the story of the entire battle in just a few seconds), but the overall effect was muted. There's also the matter of the show trying to keep Stannis' desire to go to the Wall a secret so it feels surprising here, which meant that most of his scenes this season undid the strong work from the season 3 finale where Stannis seemed like the one powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms who understood what was really important. Having him spend most of this season pouting some more about his birthright, the Lannisters, etc. may have rendered the rescue more surprising, but it also rendered Stannis more annoying in the process, and he's a character the show can't really afford to do that with.
The Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Knitter of Sweater-Vests having to become the one who chains her own dragons is the biggest sign yet that Dany wasn't prepared for the burdens of ruling Meereen. But the moment didn't feel so much like the conclusion of the latest stage of that story as simply the last thing she does before the new season begins. It's a tricky thing, trying to juggle stories that are moving at different paces, and trying to build these climactic moments into the end of each season (or, for George R.R. Martin, each book), even as many of these characters have years' more story worth telling. But the writers have usually done well at that, and "The Children" felt muddled in that area in a way the show hasn't in the past at season's end.
In some cases, of course, the creative team is stuck with the impact of a decision they made earlier in the season, not realizing how it would play with the audience and influence all that followed. It's one thing if different members of the team publicly disagree about the intention of the Jaime/Cersei rape scene in the aftermath of their son's murder, but when the characters appeared together again in "Oath Keeper," neither acted as if that was what happened — we were meant to view Jaime's actions not as a massive reversal of course on his road to redemption, but as just one more kink in an unholy sexual alliance. But if you're an audience member who viewed that event as something more — something that Cersei would perhaps pretend to forgive, all while silently seething and plotting her vengeance — then the Cersei/Jaime scenes in "The Children" made clear that Benioff and Weiss did not share that viewpoint. The Cersei who is willing to finally turn against her father for the sake of her love for Jaime — who looks joyful as she tells her brother that she chooses him over any other option — is not someone who has ever viewed herself as her brother's victim. And that is problematic at a minimum, as well as wildly distracting from the story that the show's writers are actually trying to tell.
And the amount of time devoted to Lannister family dysfunction — some intended in the text, some accidental — has meant that other characters in this sprawling narrative get shorter shrift. This was an issue last week when so much of the drama at Castle Black involved a bunch of non-characters defined solely by their friendship with or dislike of Jon Snow, and it was an issue tonight when Jojen Reed died trying to get Bran to the three-eyed raven (or his Gandalf-looking human incarnation, played by Struan Rodger). Because of the brevity and scarcity of Bran scenes across the last few seasons, the Reed siblings have always come across as more plot device than people we are meant to understand or care about, but the lack of emotion from his death spoke to the underfed nature of this storyline in general. It was exciting to see them fighting zombie skeletons in the snow (with Bran once again turning Hodor from ineffectual simpleton into gigantic fighting machine), but on the whole this entire trip has felt like exactly what Benioff and Weiss have told me they are trying to avoid: a journey from Point A to Point B on the map, rather than something with actual character stakes to keep things interesting until people get to where the story needs them to be.
Still, there were two big moments in "The Children" that landed exactly as designed: the deaths of Tywin Lannister and the Hound.