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.
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.
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:
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.