Game of Thrones

HBO's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' TV Show

Episodes

EP410: The Children

Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alex Graves
IMDB

Circumstances change after an unexpected arrival north of the Wall; Dany must face harsh realities; Bran learns more about his destiny; Tyrion sees the truth about his situation.

Index

Analysis

After the first season’s finale, the finale episodes of the following seasons of Game of Thrones have tended to be received with some disappointment by those familiar with the books, at least in relation to the penultimate episodes that preceded them. This is often because iconic scenes or beats that work perfectly in the novels as moments of closure and redirection are significantly altered or even substantially omitted. Sometimes the reasons are clear, but the nagging wish is still there. Other times, the absence defies easy reasoning, and most be the result of arcane aspects of the production or simply the fact that the writers don’t see the significance the way others do.

The public at large doesn’t necessarily recognize what it’s missing out on, but those who’ve waited for anticipation for this moment or that scene, knowing how amazing these things are when read and who have visualized just how they’ll appear on screen with all the fine actors and gorgeous production values HBO has mustered… well, they’re certainly aware. All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the point: I think “The Children” will feel the same way to many fans of the novels, an episode that touches and captures some amazing moments, and avoids or undercuts others in ways that are difficult to understand. It feels as if “Fire and Blood” will remain the best finale of the show so far.

There are, indeed, some amazing moments. Daenerys’s chaining of her dragons following the horrifying reveal that Drogon (who finally receives his name!) isn’t limiting himself to goats (or at least is indiscriminate when breathing fire) is emotionally rich, showcasing Emilia Clarke’s abilities better than most of the scenes in the previous nine episodes have done. It’s beautifully staged and directed, but a real aspect of the quality of this scene has to be with the technical wizardry of the VFX, and the foley artists who give the cries of the dragons so much of a sense of heartache and fear as their mother—no need for quotes here—abandon her children into the darkness.

It’s a key moment, and it’s one that owes a lot to the instincts of Benioff and Weiss who deviate in just the right way—in the novels, the decision to chain them and lock them safely away is something we discover only after it’s already been done. The novels can rest on the internal aspects of its narrative to wring emotion out of the situation, but for the show this makes a very clear case where an adaptation choice to deviate was exactly right. In general, Daenerys’s story here is strong, even if there’s minor issues (such as way Fennez, the former slave, couldn’t simply become a paid servant rather than an indentured one). Clarke does very well, attempting to reassure—with increasing desperation evident—that she has matters under control. It becomes all the more poignant when the shepherd comes forward with his tale of tears, which happens to make a marvelous showcase for David Peterson’ Valyrian; it’s a language made for grief.

Similarly, much of the final segments of Arya’s episode neatly wrap up her story in Westeros, and open the way for a new journey. The closure she gets with the Hound—the decision that she won’t bring him mercy, that she’ll leave him die broken and alone rather than have a direct hand in his death—feels richly textured, pulling together the seeds that have been laid in her narrative since the start. And it makes an interesting dichotomy to consider her dual departures: the Hound shouting for his death to a deaf, merciless Arya, and Arya sailing into the sunrise with a sense of hope.

Of all the possible final images they could have provided in this episode, this was the one that most clearly marked a transition, a new phase of the story, and so provides a kind of closure. (And—to digress—the epilogue from A Storm of Swords isn’t something I feel needs discussion for its exclusion; it seems to me unsurprising that it doesn’t appear this season, given all the signs [reading the tea leaves of actors’ Instagram posts is not a sign], though if next season ends without it or something like it… well, that’ll be something we’ll certainly discuss.)

But there’s little niggling problems in the lead up to the ultimate cause of Arya’s departure, the confrontation between Brienne and the Hound. As I remarked in the review of “The Mountain and the Viper”, the logic of the scene of the Hound and Arya at the Bloody Gate escaped us.  Lysa was dead, fine—but Robin Arryn was alive, so why wouldn’t the Hound hope Arya’s cousin might pay a ransom fro her? Fine, Littlefinger was in charge—isn’t he a man the Hound can consider striking a deal with? Fine, Littlefinger can’t be trusted—but wouldn’t the Knight of the Bloody Gate and his men decide that the long-missing niece of their recently-deceased lady, accompanied by a former Kingsguard to Joffrey, should be held until the Eyrie was informed? All such questions could have been avoided readily enough—the Hound and Arya are within sight of the Bloody Gate when a wayfarer shares the news that Lysa’s wed and Littlefinger is in charge, Arya laughs, and the Hound turns them around—but instead they seemed to have pushed for the “funnier” scene and abandoned cause and effect. So when we see Arya and the Hound again… what happened? They just left? Nothing more than that? There’s a strange myopia, at times, to the production, the big moments existing for their own sake, questions about plausibility be damned.

The confrontation between Brienne and the Hound itself might seem to fall afoul of this, as well, when Brienne is looked at in the context of the novels. But the scene actually emphasizes how far the Brienne of the show is from the character of the novels; her sharp, almost brutish aggression (she is, after all, the one who draws steel first and makes a fight inevitable) is a stark contrast to the character of the novel, who fights for the good and the true but without a giant chip on her shoulder. It’s a valid turn—the character is older, somewhat more worldly-wise, less romantic (although this particular aspect of the character means she’s moved further away from being a parallel not to Arya—as the show toys with here—but with Sansa)—but one that does lead to a confrontation that feels like it could very well have been avoided. Perhaps that’s the meaning of it all: its sheer meaningless, as Brienne and the Hound fight over who will better protect Arya, rather than whether one of them is good and the other is bad.

A tragic misunderstanding? Maybe. It certainly does lead to a brutal, ugly fight (whose choppy editing I dislike up to a point; once it becomes teeth-and-nails-and-fists-and-rocks, it’s much more suitable) that resolves dramatically, and leads to the finest performance Rory McCann has given to date as he declares that it’s the end of the road for the Hound, and for Maisie Williams, whose watchful eyes, almost dead, take it all in as she comes to a decision.

King’s Landing has its share of scenes where small (or not so small) changes lead to a dramatic reduction in effect compared to the narrative choices of the source material. Oddest of all, the hardest to reconcile with the show’s own depiction of characters, is Cersei Lannister’s drastic threat to her father to reveal to the world the truth of her incestuous relationship with Jaime, all to avoid the marriage to Loras Tyrell that she does not want. This is a notion she rejects—both implicitly and explicitly—on the show up to this point, and there’s no clear explanation for why this is the gambit she would use.

Why not simply say that she’d never say the vows? Perhaps in the show’s universe, a woman can be wed without saying the words—not true to the novels, but perhaps that explains it. But it’s awfully convenient that this dramatic threat is thrown in there only to disappear by the end of the episode. Oh, it’s certainly present in the Jaime-Cersei scene that’s sure to cause controversy in some quarters despite Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s efforts to let people know that this “payoff” existed. The deliberate echoing of Jaime’s words in the sept, now by Cersei, would have seemed calculated to enrage those who had convinced themselves that Jaime and Cersei found themselves irrevocably split over Jaime’s apparent rape… except, of course, the problem is that the actors, director, and producers simply didn’t ever envision a rape as part of the equation. Something rough and dark and ugly? Yes. Non-consensual? No.

Although those first moments after Cersei enters the room—arch and self-satisfied, a person who knows she’s done something very daring indeed and revels in that moment of power—are the most book-Cersei-like since her drunken sneers in “Blackwater”, it still feels like an unearned notion, this idea that she’d go nuclear (so to speak) on her own father. I’d sooner have seen her deciding to plot Tywin’s murder with Qyburn than this particular moment—at least the former would be something that seems to be in Cersei’s wheelhouse. More, there’s the question of Tywin’s response. Shock, certainly… but Cersei could be so readily outplayed, that it makes her moment of victory seem hollow once you take a moment to think about it.

As for Jaime, there at least the show seems to have decided to regress the character, something it’s consistently done since it effectively brought him to King’s Landing much earlier than he did in the novels. Despite similar experiences in his life up to that point, the Jaime of the show isn’t very much wedded to the Kingsguard, in the end… which may be another reason why Cersei comes to him with a fait accompli—the irrevocable revelation of their status to Tywin—rather than another attempt to persuade him to give up his vows and join her at Casterly Rock (and, in so doing, make Tywin’s pressure to force her to marry moot, since he’ll be able to marry Jaime off and get heirs from him). The Jaime who negotiated his brother’s safety in return for his cloak is no longer the person who’d refuse it to help out Cersei.

As I said, it all seems rather moot. Even if the sanguine Tywin of his last few minutes might be construed as someone who, after getting past his initial shock, already came up with a counter to Cersei’s threat (“Oh, go ahead—reveal it all, just don’t expect me or my Lannister army to be here any longer if you do, and don’t be surprised at what the Tyrells and Martells will make of your incestuous bastards.”), he’s about to die. Tyrion’s escape from imprisonment with the help of Jaime and the connivance of Varys works well… until it drops the complete break between the two brothers, a break fuelled by the shadow of the past. I can’t say I am surprised, as the show has actively avoided the business of Tyrion’s first marriage and the horrifying consequences that Tywin meted out beyond the barest or most oblique references possible since the first season, but I was surprised by how strongly I missed it when it came to it. Having Jaime and Tyrion leave on good terms leaves Tyrion with a connection, still, a person that he loves and who loves him.

If the murder of their father might strain that, a little, well, this was a father that was preparing to execute his son for a crime he didn’t commit. The tragedy of Tyrion at the end of A Storm of Swords is that he has no one anymore; even the brother he idolized, who always seemed to look out for him, tainted the happiest moments of his life with a monstrous lie that he was kept in the dark about for years. The weight of grief that could reach truly operatic levels are muted here.

Even the death of Shae lacks something. After a long effort to try and make something of the romance between Shae and Tyrion—a romance that I don’t think most people really bought other than the notional, “Well, they say they’re in love”—and an effort to make Shae seem a more fully fleshed out, sympathetic character, the fact that her death comes in complete silence is… troubling. It raises the specter of Catelyn’s death on the show, similarly silenced in the end of her actual expression of grief and terror shown in the novels.

Shae sees him, stares, grabs a knife, struggles, and dies—no word of justification, of explanation, of anything. Did she hate him so thoroughly, truly? Is that what we’re to take from it? Doesn’t this flip from passionate love to total hate with none of the steps between feel like short-shrift? I don’t expect answers on silver platters, but for a character who’s been present for four seasons, a character who has been (if anything) outspoken, this sudden silence feels wrong. It drains the tragedy of it, again—it’s sad now, yes, but because Shae ends as a question mark, a mystery, we can never really judge the full weight of what her death actually means. It’s a puzzle, and doubtless as much of a puzzle for Tyrion as the viewers, and that’s a shame.

And without Tysha lying between Tyrion and Tywin, Tywin’s own end is ... I don’t know. How do you capture the tragedy of it all? I don’t think the show manages it. The death of Tywin is too easily seen as a triumphant moment, a moment of perfect justice, while Tyrion’s obvious grief afterward has more to do with Shae than his own complicated feelings toward his patricide. Even the use of the word “whore” as a trigger seems odd without the deeper meaning of it, an effort to adhere to the iconic moment in the text without actually having reached the same point. It’s all well-acted, the lines are right, but the mood is just not what I expected. Will viewers unfamiliar with the books miss anything, feel a lack? Probably not, so perhaps in the end the producers were right to cut away the dark, confusing past and just keep it focused on the present. But that does mean the deeper complexities go away, and I’m not sure that in itself is necessary of television, a medium that can handle the deeply complex moral failings and interrelationships of The Sopranos or Mad Men.

The adaptation choices that led to Jon Snow’s entry into Mance Rayder’s camp feel somewhat more successful in capturing a more complicated mood, given the structural (and simply budgetary) choices the producers made. The meeting between the man of the Night’s Watch and the King-beyond-the-Wall captures the sadness of the losses on both sides and the determined pragmatism of Mance Rayder. Although his surrendering rather than going on to fight is quite a departure from the character in the novel (and thus a sign that this character, too, is quite different from that of the novel), it at least leads to a scene where he speaks with Stannis king to king, and makes the point that the wildlings do not kneel (not even to kings, not even to their own king).

Many had wanted the arrival of Stannis at the end of “The Watchers on the Wall”, but that would have been such an obvious mistake—an attempt to boost Stannis at the expense of everything that had gone before, turning the desperate defense of the Wall into nothing more than a holding action for Stannis to swoop in and claim all the glory (aka Blackwater v2.0, but with Stannis playing Tywin’s part). The way the show managed it works better, with the shock of the double-pincer (an impressive bit of VFX work for what is, in the end, a show with a large-but-still-television-sized budget) closing in on the wildlings feeling suitable momentous without detracting from what came before. The producers made the right choices here.

Of course, last but not least is something quite different in how it approaches the momentous: Bran’s arrival at the weirwood, and the hollow hill, and the three-eyed raven. The show embraces the magic of the series like it never has before… both in good ways (“All your lives… with a thousand eyes and one.”) and, alas, in bad (Fireballs! Fast-running, hopping, screeching skeletons!) that detracts a little bit. One can explain it as just looking for powerful visuals, or simply to go all in on the magic. But ... some of it is so non-ASoIaF in how it feels; the fireballs from the child are just a weird over-the-top visual magic that feels stock and cliché rather than mysterious and magical, while the skeletal wights seem to have come out of a video game (or perhaps a Ray Harryhausen homage).

But still, at least their heart was in the right places, and hopefully if some find the visual hokey, they’ll be taken with the mystery as well. I could say a lot about what we see in the end, and the thrill Linda and I got as readers of the novels from that moment when Bran finally reaches his destination… but I’ll avoid it, for the sake of spoilers. Suffice it to say, the writers managed to capture something of the eeriness and the power of that moment, and for that, hat’s off to them.

Of course, getting up to that point leads to another deviation: the death of Jojen Reed. We saw too little of Thomas Brodie-Sangster, alas, to deeply feel the death of the character, but he performed his part well according to what he was given to do. Had the show more time to dwell on inter-relationships, on scenes of characters just talking, perhaps the second and third seasons might have been able to give us more of these interactions that fleshed him and his sister out, as well as the past events that linked his father and Bran’s.

But the show has ten hours a season, and cuts have to come somewhere. The finale still manages some extraordinary moments, even if something is lost in the translation to the more expansive space of the text into the smaller, more cramped screen. It’a a success, if a qualified one, but then most of the finales so far have been the same and this is no exception.

Book to Screen

The episode covers the following chapters: Jon X (ASoS), part of Jon XI (ASoS), Jaime IX (ASoS), Daenerys I (ADwD), part of Daenerys II (ADwD), Bran II (ADwD), Tyrion XI (ASoS), and part of Arya XIII (ASoS)

Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:

  • Jon X: In the novel, Jon is met by Tormund Giantsbane once he is dispatched to the north side of the Wall by means of the winch cage (the gate is sealed by rubble); Tormund did not lead the attack on Castle Black, instead fighting with Mance’s main force. The lines Mance gets praising Mag, Grenn, and Ygritte are all based on Tormund Giantsbane’s words with Jon. When Jon is brought into Mance’s presence, he still carries Longclaw, and Mance’s woman Dalla is noisly giving birth to their son in the tent while her sister Val attends her. Mance reveals a huge, black horn which he claims is the Horn of Winter, and in three days time he will have Tormund sound it and “wake the giants from the earth” to bring down the Wall. His alternative is to give the Watch the horn in return for being allowed to cross peacefully, though they’ll keep their own rules and kneel to no man. Suddenly, there’s a warning of an attack. Mance’s response is to gather his forces—he guesses it may be the Night’s Watch under Cotter Pyke, dispatched from Eastwatch—and counter-attack, and in fact rides at the head of a troop of men into battle against the enemy. Dalla, Val, and Jon are left under the watch of the skinchanger Varamyr Sixskins. However, his eagle—Orell’s eagle—suddenly bursts into flames in mid-air, driving him half-mad, and the tide of armored knights who plunge into the disorganized wildlings is overwhelming. Mance falls to be captured, many others besides are captured or die, and many more still flee into the haunted forest, including Varamyr. Jon Snow decides to take charge of Mance’s tent, and those in it. As the horsemen sweep by, he hears them shouting, “Stannis! Stannis! STANNIS!” Unlike in the show, Davos is not present at the battle, instead having been left at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.
  • Jon XI: The meeting of Jon and Stannis takes place at Castle Black, not in Mance’s camp, but some of the gist of it is more or less the same—particularly Stannis’s remarks on Ned’s honor, and Jon’s suggestion that there’s some honor in Mance.
  • Jaime IX: In fact, it’s Jaime who argues that Cersei should tell their father of their relationship, an argument that Cersei very strongly rejects (“We are not Targaryens!”) Furthermore, Jaime ultimately refuses to sleep with her in the White Sword Tower—the chambers of the Kingsguard are a place he doesn’t want to sully with his breaking his vows—which leads to an ugly break between them as Cersei insults his courage and his manhood. This chapter also features a discussion between Jaime and Cersei which emphasizes the fact that Joffrey was the culprit behind the attempt on Bran’s life in A Game of Thrones, a detail that the show has so far opted not to touch on.
  • Daenerys I: As in the show, a herdsman does come to Daenerys with a bundle. In the novels, it is assumed this is yet another shepherd who has lost sheep or goats to Drogon, and the shepherd is completely silent in his grief. Daenerys later learns the child’s name was Hazzea and she was 4 years old, two details that randomly change to Zalla and 3 years old on the show.
  • Daenerys II: The chaining of Viserion and Rhaegal are revealed only after the fact in this chapter. Viserion is lured by meat and fed heavily, and the chained when drowsy, while Rhaegal proves less trusting and ultimately has to be caught up in a net made of chains as he basked on her terrace. They are kept in cellars beneath the Great Pyramid. Drogon eludes capture three times, killing four and burning a score more before finally flying away from Meereen.
  • Bran II: The attack on the group is at night, by a group of wights—normal wights, not unique ones as seems to be on the case on the show—who lie in the snow near the entrance to the hollow hill. As in the show, Bran does slip into Hodor’s skin and fights the wights. However, rather than being ultimately saved by a child of the forest throwing fireballs, the child uses a torch and sets various wights alight. Jojen is not killed. The description of the child—small as a child, dark but with dappled skin, eyes of gold-and-green with vertical slits, dressed only in a cloak of leaves, with a voice that sounds like that of a beautiful woman’s with a strange music to it—is somewhat carried over to the show, but not quite. As to the three-eyed crow, the last greenseer, a far more significant makeup job would be needed to convey the corpse-like figure Bran finds: “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 his 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, and here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through.” The last greenseer does indeed promise that Bran will fly, and that he has watched him all his life with “a thousand eyes and one.” One detail omitted, however, is his admission that he was once a man of the Night’s Watch.
  • Tyrion XI: As discussed in the review, the most notable omission is the absence of the material regarding Tysha, Tyrion’s first wife from when he was very young. Jaime explains that he saves Tyrion—forcing Varys to help him—in part because of a debt he owed, an unkindness he had done. This turns out to be that he lied to Tyrion at Tywin’s behest, telling him Tysha was a hired prostitute that Jaime had arranged so his little brother could lose his virginity, when in fact she was an innocent commoner just as she presented herself to be. The horror of realization leads Tyrion to slap his brother, and to swear a bloody revenge if they ever meet again. He also tells Jaime that Cersei has slept with a number of men since he was gone from King’s Landing, and that he killed Joffrey. In the book, Varys meets him in the tunnels shortly afterward, and attempts to lead him to an exit but Tyrion recognizes a mosaic—from when Shae was taken through the tunnels by Varys for an assignation with Tyrion—and insists on climbing it. Forcing Varys to reveal the exact path to get to the Tower of the Hand, Tyrion finds Shae there. However, in the novel, she attempts to explain her presence as being out of fear of Lord Tywin and that she never wanted to betray him. Tyrion, seeing through the lies, already unbalanced by the confrontation with Jaime, strangles her to death with the chain of golden hands that his father took for his own on assuming the office of Hand. As in the show, Tyrion takes a crossbow and finds Tywin on the privy. The discussion as shown is largely the same, except (again) with the omission of the Tysha material, and Tywin never suggests he admires Tyrion’s perseverance nor does he ever call him “my son”. He does, however, claim that he didn’t intend to carry out the execution, and also assumes it’s Varys (not Jaime) who has released Tyrion. Tyrion’s focus is on learning what became of Tysha, and his father’s death follows the words, “Wherever whores go.” Tywin is shot only once, and with his death proves that, “Lord Tywin Lannister did not, in the end, shit gold.”
  • Arya XIII: Following the Hound’s wounding at the inn at the crossroad, the wound becomes infected and he is left sick, weak, and dying. Arya abandons him after she refuses to give him a merciful death—she tells him that he should have saved her mother—and travels some days to Saltpans in the riverlands, as depicted on the show. Just as in the episode, Arya finds a Braavosi ship captain, giving Jaqen’s iron coin and repeating the words, “Valar morghulis” which leads to his bringing her aboard as an honored guest.

Other scenes of note:

Cersei and Gregor: Cersei shows no special interest in Gregor Clegane at this time. In fact, at this point Lord Tywin is the one insisting that Pycelle (not Qyburn, who is not involved) keep Gregor alive… so that he can execute him and send his head to Dorne to try and mollify the Dornish as best he can. Qyburn’s later involvement in Gregor Clegane’s health comes under very different circumstances, and for very different reasons. It should also be noted that Gregor is described as screaming in agony loudly enough to wake the castle—he is not in a coma and drugs like milk of the poppy have little effect on him because he has taken milk of the poppy for years to deal with terrible migraine headaches.

Cersei and Tywin: As discussed in the review and in the Jaime IX , Cersei’s reaction to Tywin’s insistence that she wed is not to attempt to force him to reconsider but instead to try and convince Jaime to give up the Kingsguard as a way to win Tywin over to leaving Cersei free of a husband.

Daenerys and Fennesz: Though inspired by a somewhat similar problem presented to Daenerys—namely, many formerly wealthy Meereenese, rendered destitute by the overthrow of the slave economy, actively seek to be bought as slaves by wealthy foreign merchants who can take them away and use them as tutors, scribes, translators, and so on. The novels do not present former slaves desiring to be re-enslaved as a real issue Daenerys needs to deal with, and in fact it seems clear that skilled former slaves attempt to market their skills in return for money. Daenerys’s solution on the show—to allow men to become slaves in all but name through indentured servitude—is not one she considers in the novels; she only permits people to become slaves if they are taken out of Meereen, where slavery remains forbidden, and many former slaves are indicated to now be salaried workers rather than chattel.

Night’s Watch Funerals: No particular emphasis is placed on the burning of bodies at the Wall at this time, and the burial of the dead is not shown. Selyse and Shireen are at Eastwatch at this point in the novels.

Jon and Tormund: Tormund is not a prisoner in the novels, so this conversation does not happen. No one suggests Ygritte should be burned.

Jon and Ygritte: Before the battle for the Wall, Jon Snow thinks to himself that he had personally burned Ygritte’s body, as he knew she would have wanted it that way. This would have happened at or outside Castle Black, however, rather than beyond the Wall as depicted.

Brienne and the Hound: The two never meet and fight as shown here. Brienne’s journeys in A Feast for Crows never take her into the Vale, while the Hound’s mortal injuries come from his killing Gregor’s men at the inn at the crossroads.

Varys and Tyrion: Varys does assist in Tyrion’s escape, and prepares for him to be taken away in a ship (he is, however, placed in a barrel, not a crate). However, unlike on the show, there are no indications Varys chooses to depart with Tyrion but he does go into hiding as he realizes he will be blamed for having helped Tyrion’s escape.

 

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