After some thought, I found last night’s “The Children” to be a kind of remarkable polyglot mess. We’re now done with book three, which ties up many of the arcs we’ve become familiar with, and the episode landed with a all the soul-crushing finality you’d expect from Game of Thrones.
The fight between Brienne and The Hound over Arya’s fate is a textbook example: both clearly care for the girl, but their world views and thus their ideas of how that care should play out are diametrically opposed. The suspicion engendered by Brienne’s sword was also a reminder that her decency and refusal to engage in tribalism make her a dangerous riddle to Westeros’ other inhabitants. And the final silent overhead shot of the Hound pitching over the cliff matched perfectly the tragic, poetic wastefulness of the entire encounter.
Last night also solidified Game of Thrones’ reputation as the “anti-Lord-of-the-Rings” by taking three fan favorites – Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister – and brutally revealing their inner capacity for monstrosity. People gravitate towards both Daenerys and Arya because of their ferocious sense of purpose and inner strength. But the death of a child at her dragon’s hands, right on the heels of a man’s request to be effectively sold back into slavery because now his life lacks purpose, confirmed what readers of the book already know: that Daenerys and her conquest of the Eastern slavers is Game of Thrones’ version of Geroge W. Bush and the conquest of Iraq.
Then Arya’s creepy, inhuman vigil over the Hound’s last moments showed how “empowerment” and “self-actualization” rest on an individualism that can bleed into sociopathy. Did Arya refuse to kill the Hound because the strange affection they’d shared had removed him from her list? Or because he was still on it, and leaving him to die would further insure his punishment? In either instance the answer is disturbing, because both rest on a clinically internal monologue completely detached from the Hound’s existence as a concrete other in pain and need.
As for Tyrion, between his intellectualism, ironic detachment, and outsider status, he’s probably the most distinctly modern character in both the show and the books. I’ve noticed that among the people who see Ned Stark (and often Robb Stark) as a naive man hampered by a sclerotic sense of honor, Tyrion is generally viewed as the laudable counterpoint. And the events of last night made mincemeat of that contention.
First off, the arrival of Stannis to defend the Wall demonstrates that – for all his cold sternness and willingness to indulge religious fanaticism – the man actually has his priorities more or less in order when it comes to ruling. Which means Tyrion’s big accomplishment in season two – the defeat of Stannis at the Battle of Blackwater Bay – merely served to preserve a psychopath’s rule of King’s Landing from being overthrown by a man who would arguably make a decent monarch where the good of the realm is concerned.
Tyrion’s misreading of Shae is also as catastrophic as any mistake Ned Stark made. And strangling her with her own necklace (even if the show gives Tyrion the “out” of Shae attacking him first) is arguably a far more heinous act than Ned would’ve ever been capable. After all that, Tyrion shooting Tywin in the gut with a crossbow bolt seems like a weirdly inevitable and appropriate capstone. There are monsters waiting inside all of us – they just require the right pressure points to be unleashed – and last night was a brutal illustration that intelligence and philosophic sophistication are no defense against them. If anything, naiveté and a sclerotic sense of honor work a good deal better.
All that said, I thought “The Children” also featured some of Game of Thrones’ biggest missteps. If you’ll recall from the first season, Tyrion told the story of a young woman he met, fell in love with, and married, only to have Tywin reveal she was a prostitute hired by Tyrion’s friends. In the book, when Jaime releases Tyrion from the prison, he also confesses some crucial new information regarding the event, and it’s sufficient to drive Tyrion in a fit of rage up to his father’s chamber. I suppose the reason the show runners left that bit out was that they handn’t reminded viewers of that history since the first season. But without it, Tyrion’s decision to take a detour to confront his father comes out of nowhere, nor does the double murder land with nearly the same kind of nihilistic weight.
I’ve also defended the show from charges that it’s treated the subject of rape cavalierly this season. But after the route the show took Cercei on last night, I think the charge has gained a good deal more weight. The narrative importance of the now-infamous rape scene at Joffrey’s funeral was that it marked a decisive break between Cercei and Jaime, and I think that narrative function holds whether you viewed the scene as a straight-forward sexual assault or through director Alex Graves’ murkier consensual-but-in-a-really-fucked-up-and-mutually-destructive-way lens. Point being, after that moment, the siblings were henceforth opponents. That new dynamic of Cercei, Jaime and Tywin all atomized and working at cross-purposes to one another lent some novelty and heft to a subplot that was otherwise light on Lannister-inflected intrigue this season.
Cercei’s decision to blow up her marriage to Lorace by threatening to reveal her affair with Jaime made perfect sense in that context. But her attempt to seduce Jaime again did not. That felt like backtracking to old territory, a diminishment of the character, and an abandonment of the obligation to grapple with what happened next to Joffrey’s corpse. It also suggests the show runners really didn’t have any idea what they were doing with Cercei this season.
All that said, “The Children” also graced us with some of those deeply human moments the show has weaved in so well. There was Lena Headey’s unbridled fury in Cercei’s confrontation with Tywin, and Charles Dance’s own portrayal of the Lannister patriarch finally encountering a truth that might break him. Emilia Clarke totally sold the crushing cost to Daenerys’ of both witnessing what her dragons are capable of and then locking them away. Jon Snow’s tortured look as he burned Ygritte’s body was as powerful as anything Kit Harrington had given us the entire show, the respect between him and Mance Rayder was palpable, and it was a nice grace note to see Jon invoke his father to guide Stannis towards a more merciful path. Even the conclusion of Bran’s arc, as slow as that subplot was this season, ended in a spectacular fashion that reinforces the slow, subterranean way magic is re-entering the Game of Thrones universe.
One last thought. As Spencer Ackerman noted we have come to the end of much of the workable material in the books. I literally have no idea what David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will be doing from here on out, because their choices are to either follow the source material down a bunch of unproductive rabbit holes (the fourth book is really a disaster in that sense) or start inventing material wholesale – presumable based on notes provided by George R.R. Martin. With Benioff and Weiss still signed on for at least two seasons, I don’t see how they avoid taking option two if they want the show to remain successful.
Like Tyrion and Arya, even those of us who read the books are now headed decisively into the unknown.
Photos courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO