‘Game of Thrones’ Season 4 Finale Recap: “The Children”

Two major character deaths anchor “The Children,” and they read like a sick version of “Would You Rather?” As in: would you rather die staring down an extremely slow fight to the death between blood loss and infection, begging for your preteen surrogate child to kill you as she walks away? Or would you rather die at the hands of your actual child, ending a long career of military and political victories on the toilet? Either way, the children get their revenge.

Children have a rough go of it in Westeros. Like women, they’re vulnerable to those with the power to make decisions for them—a responsibility that’s almost never lived up to, at least by the parents we’ve seen thus far on Game of Thrones. Catelyn and Eddard Stark were good to their kids, sure, but they’re of no use to Arya, Sansa, or Bran dead. Selyse thinks of Shireen as little more than a dirty little sinner to be stashed in the basement. Sam’s dad packed him off to the Wall. And those are just the children lucky enough to be born with wealth and privilege—what about Craster’s daughters, inducted by their mother-sisters into a horrific cycle of abuse?

Even the parents who mean best have a habit of screwing things up. Say what you want about Cersei, but she’s always tried to be a good mom. She’s well aware that she failed to raise anything remotely resembling a human with Joffrey, and Myrcella is thousands of miles away. That leaves Tommen her only shot at redemption. And though we’ll never get the opportunity to see if she’d have made good on it, her promise to Tywin had the beginnings of a Cersei 2.0. She’s done repeating the sins of her father, using Tommen as a pawn the way Tywin used (and is still using) her as alliance glue. Claiming that she’s backing off from her war with Margaery to advocate for Tommen and Tommen alone, Cersei sees herself as committing to family as it actually is, not family as it appears in the history books. Which makes her theory of parenting radically different from Tywin’s.

Both Cersei and Tyrion confront their father with what all that empire-building hath wrought. In his relentless pursuit of legacy over everything, Tywin leaves himself so focused on the long game he’s blind to what’s right in front of him. Cersei and Jaime being in love is a big one, clearly. But Tyrion is the far bigger blind spot: “I’ve always been your son,” he snarls, and though it’s meant to wound Tywin, it’s true. Tyrion has always been best at the strategic thinking that’s Dear Ol’ Dad’s trademark. And if Tywin hadn’t been so blinded by his bias, he might have been able to recognize his son’s humanity, not to mention his value. In Cersei’s words: “How could anyone so consumed by the idea of his family have any actual idea what his family is doing?”

Even when the children aren’t human, parenting’s still a tough job. After losing Jorah last week, Daenerys finds two more of her biggest assets in jeopardy. First comes her absolute faith in the value of freedom, a belief that’s given her the drive to take over three cities and struggle to keep them. If nothing else, Dany has freed the slaves—and until now, no number of unhappy former masters could change that. Yet when a former tutor to his master’s children forthrightly asks for his bondage back, his plea calls Daenerys’ entire mission into question. Abuses of freedom are one thing; an outright rejection of freedom quite another.

And then the death of a child forces Dany to put her own children in the dungeon. The visual of the physically slight Emilia Clarke wrestling with the massive shackles is a potent one; like Ned Stark, Daenerys sees the value in performing a ruler’s most difficult duties with her own two hands. And this duty is an especially difficult one: faced with the destructive potential of freedom, both for slaves and her dragons, a queen who’s proclaimed herself “Breaker of Chains” has to take that freedom away. With big, huge chains.

Before we get to Arya, the heart and soul of season four, let’s check in with Bran and Jon, two characters who started this series as children. Thanks to the harsh realities that face most kids in Westeros (but especially, it seems, the Stark ones), they’re more or less grown up—and not just because Isaac Hempstead Wright went through puberty. Bran’s scene this week is mostly a dose of pure adventure-fantasy action, a mode Game of Thrones doesn’t slip into very often. Evil dead things come to life! A mysterious child shows up! A secondary character tragically dies for the greater good! (Did anyone else think Meera was going to turn that knife on herself?) It all ends, however, with a brutal comedown from the three-eyed raven: Bran’s never going to walk again. He’ll fly, whatever that means, but some part of Bran had clearly held out hope that his legs were waiting for him at the end of the road. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the adult world works.

Finally, there’s Jon, whose attempted assassination of Mance is interrupted by Stannis’ massive army. A quick aerial shot of mounted fighters organized neatly into divisions tells the audience all we need to know about Stannis versus the wildlings. It’s the discipline Mance’s forces lack, concentrated into a single frame. With the Watchmen’s funeral pyre, the first where Melisandre’s presiding over dead bodies rather than live ones, the show ties together two plot lines that would otherwise seem spitballed together by little more than a need to spice up the Night’s Watch story. The Red God is all about facing down some mythic evil; what better opponent for a fire deity than a horde of icemen? Makes for a fairer fight than those poor heretics back on Dragonstone.

And then there’s Arya. Arya, who illustrates better than anyone else how the adults of Westeros have utterly failed their children. Arya, who’s lost her parents, her siblings, and her friends until she’s got nothing in the Seven Kingdoms worth staying for. Arya, whose response to the Hound versus Brienne is “none of the above.”

The final shot of the season sees Arya leaving Westeros behind to follow the path of her other mentor, the one who showed her that killing is a viable way of life long before the Hound came along. Jaqen’s coin gets her passage to Braavos, where she may not be safe—nowhere’s safe, as the Hound points out—but at least she’ll get to do what she’s grown to do best. The fact that Arya’s first move towards following in Jaqen’s footsteps is filmed triumphantly, with some Jon-on-the-Wall level scenery porn thrown on top, just cements the cruel irony that’s grown to define her character: we’re meant to cheer her on as she becomes less of a child and more of a murderer. Considering how badly the children have it, though, rooting for her only makes sense.