“We both know that winter is coming. And if my people aren’t south of the Wall when it comes in earnest, we’ll all end up worse than dead.”
Unpredictable beasts, season finales of Game of Thrones. In the past, they’ve tended to be a chance to take stock after the tumultuous events of episode 9, while also laying the groundwork for next season’s plots. This one, though, was uncharacteristically action-packed, with some game-changing plot developments that should leave even those who’ve read the books impatient to see what happens next.
In part, that’s because of the way the narrative has changed so much from the source material recently, which I’ve generally seen as a good thing. Also, last week’s episode 9 was unusually open-ended; it’s pretty rare for one episode to begin exactly where the last one left off, but that’s what we got here.
That did make for a strangely lopsided seeming episode, with the first twenty minutes or so actually feeling like it belonged at the end of last week. The conclusion to the battle between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings, with the cavalry literally turning up in the rather unexpected form of Stannis Baratheon’s forces, was the end result of some clever misdirection throughout the season. Yes, it was faithful to the books; but the series has carefully avoided mentioning that Stannis was spurred off Dragonstone and off to the Iron Bank not to carry on fighting for the Iron Throne, but rather by Davos’ discovery of the Night’s Watch letter warning of the threats beyond the Wall.
Having cleverly avoided reminding viewers of this, Benioff and Weiss made it a genuine surprise when we saw the allegiance of the hitherto unexpected mighty force that was humbling the previously defiant Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds, making his first appearance this year). Alex Graves’ direction tried to keep up with Neil Marshall’s ‘battle-gasm’ style from last week, but while the sequence gave us action aplenty, it felt less dynamic than Marshall’s frenetic style.
This might have been the result of more reliance on CG effects rather than the practical choreographed fighting that made up so much of last week’s ep. This week’s other big action sequence, Bran’s party suddenly facing off against a horde of skeletal warriors, was well done, but very much the product of CG. Unaccountably though, it was reminiscent of nothing so much as the classic skeleton swordfight produced by Ray Harryhausen for Jason and the Argonauts. Neither is entirely convincing; but both impress with their ambition.
Bran’s plot strand has been dominated by the show’s (usually sparing) use of magic since he fell off that tower. Now we got to see his destiny – way sooner than I was expecting. The mystery man under the godswood is obviously some sort of Gandalf/Obi Wan Kenobi chappie, so plainly Bran is going to be Frodo Baggins/Luke Skywalker. How that plays into the story proper has yet to be seen, even in the books – that’s how far ahead the series is racing in some areas.
The mysterious, fireball-wielding ‘Children’ that rescued Bran (though not, sadly, Jojen Reed – I shall miss Thomas Sangster) are the most obvious source for the episode’s title. But as so often with Game of Thrones, the title had different layers of meaning. And children – of all kinds – were very much at the heart of this ep.
There was the Meereenese father hysterical with grief over the death of his daughter, killed by one of Dany’s out-of-control dragons, mirrored by Dany’s tearful banishment to the catacombs of her own ‘children’, those very dragons (though not the one that actually did the killing) I must say, I’ve found Dany’s plot threads curiously uninvolving this year. We got another city conquered, followed by scene after scene ramming home the point that conquering and liberating is far simpler than actually ruling. If Dany hasn’t got that point now that the slaves are actually asking her to be returned to slavery, then she never will.
On an even more literal level, the ep explored the children (of several generations) of the Lannister family, as Cersei once again bared her maternal fangs to her manipulative father. One of the show’s strengths is that Cersei, despite being a power-crazed, devious murderer, is never entirely devoid of sympathy; here we got a demonstration of where her priorities really lie. She’s prepared to give up the very Throne she’s spent so long scheming to control, if it will protect her children. To the extent that she would go public over her incestuous relationship with her brother. Lena Headey often makes Cersei easy to hate; this week, once again, she showed how the character can inspire your unwilling admiration and sympathy.
Cersei’s love for her children is not mirrored by Tywin’s for his, though. As she venomously pointed out, it’s ironic that a man so consumed by the prestige of his family should be so uncaring about them, and what they’re really like. After four seasons, though, he may finally have learned – in the few minutes between Tyrion shooting him on the privy and his actual expiration.
That was a moment where having read the books really did me a disservice. I didn’t really doubt that Tywin would be killed, but Charles Dance continued to play the manipulative old bastard as persuasive to the end. If you hadn’t read the books, that scene probably had you on tenterhooks wondering if he was actually going to convince Tyrion, even after Tyrion had killed his beloved Shae.
That scene too was largely unchanged from the book, though there he strangles Shae with the Hand’s chain of office. That couldn’t have worked in the TV show, where the Hand has a badge of office rather than a chain; the camera playfully lingered on it to misdirect book readers (like me), who probably expected Tyrion to stab Shae with the pointy bit. But no, it was indeed strangulation, the camera lingering on Peter Dinklage’s face rather than Sibyl Kikeli’s – after all, he’s the character we actually care about, and you really felt his pain in that moment.
Also reflecting on relationships with their fathers (though less violently) were Brienne and Arya, who chanced to meet up this week as they both wandered in the general vicinity of the Eyrie. Yes, it was a bit of a coincidence, but it’s a more dramatically rounded conclusion to Arya and the Hound’s plotline than in the books, where it’s some anonymous soldiers who (nearly) finish the old bugger off.
The point was made (perhaps a little heavy-handedly) that Brienne is what Arya will likely become, as a result of both their fathers. However, I had to agree with the Hound when he snarlingly pointed out that there isn’t anywhere “safe” left for Arya – which also makes you wonder what Brienne will do when and if she finds the newly evil Sansa Stark.
Arya and the Hound’s final (?) scene was, though, bittersweet and affecting, as you realised how their relationship had changed from prisoner and vengeful captive to virtual father and daughter. Nonetheless, was Arya’s decision not to kill him, as he begged her to, really an act of mercy or cruelty? I’ve really enjoyed Maisie Williams and Rory McCann in their scenes together this year; whatever the Hound’s eventual fate, though, it looks like that mismatched buddy pairing is over now.
Sex and Violence
Another week with no sex – two in a row may be some kind of record for this show. The violence was fairly minimal too, though that’s relative. It was minimal for Game of Thrones, but pretty vicious by any other show’s standards.
Obviously Stannis’ oncoming army did the usual hacking and slashing, though it was all at such speed it was hard to pick out actual details.
Tyrion’s murder of Shae was violent, but sensitively directed, the camera showing us his reaction to the act rather than the act itself. Plugging Tywin with crossbow bolts was explicitly shown, but that’s mild by this show’s standards.
There was a certain gruesome pathos to the grieving Meereenese father presenting his daughter’s charred skeleton to Dany, then tenderly trying to keep the jawbone attached to the skull:
But the most brutal violence was reserved for Brienne and the Hound’s extremely satisfying fight, which went from swords to punches to groin kicks to ultimately biting off his ear. He looked bad enough before; at least it was the ear from his burned side.
This was an enjoyable but slightly off-balance finale to an enjoyable but slightly off-balance season. As ever, the gratuitous sex and violence throughout have been balanced by some well-judged and thoughtful character moments, skilfully portrayed by a talented cast. As I noted last week, everyone has their favourite aspect of the show, so no ep will please every viewer. I was intrigued to note that some view the Machiavellian political scheming as an annoying distraction from the real, unstoppable supernatural threat from beyond the Wall; for me, I’ve seen all of that before (not least in Lord of the Rings) and find it a sideshow. It’s all a matter of subjective taste I suppose.
Still, we’ve met – and lost – some great characters this year. Oberyn Martell made a heck of an impression, and will be missed; as will longstanding old hands like Jojen, Ygritte and Tywin. At least this season’s skilful mixing up of George RR Martin’s third, fourth and fifth books has avoided the often distracting tedium of the latter two. At the rate the show’s going, I’d very much expect they’ll have caught up with the books completely by the end of next season, which will be great for me – Martin turns out the books so slowly we’ll be into uncharted territory for the readers at that point. I know Benioff and Weiss have been given insight into his proposed conclusion, but I’m betting they’ll flesh out their own details, as they have been doing. With the show so successful, maybe Martin should worry – who’s going to buy books six and seven when they’ve already watched the ending on HBO?