|Man, that looks almost as much fun as this blog series has been.
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Naime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
Dragons of Meereen: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow, Bran Stark
Ships of the Wall: Davos Seaworth
Burning Hearts of the Wall: Stannis Baratheon, Melisandre
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
Paws of the Wall: Tormund Giantsbane
The Shield, Brienne of Tarth
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Winterfell is abandoned and in ruins, Moat Cailin and Braavos are empty.
The episode is in seven parts. The first runs eleven minutes and is set just at the Wall. The opening image is of Jon’s hair as he walks out of the gate.
The second runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Jon Snow to an infected wound.
The third runs seven minutes and is set in Meereen. The transition is by hard cut, from Jaime and Cersei on the white table to Daenerys.
The fourth runs thirteen minutes and is in two sections; it is set at the Wall. The first section is five minutes long; the transition is by family, from Daenerys to Aemon Targaryen and Jon Snow. The second section is eight minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Bran Stark. It features the death of Jojen Reed, stabbed and then set on fire.
The fifth part runs twelve minutes and is set in the Vale. The transition is by family, from Bran to Arya Stark. It doesn’t feature the death of Sandor Clegane, but it sure looks like it does.
The sixth runs nine minutes minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Sandor begging Arya to kill him to Tyrion saying more or less the same thing. It features the deaths of Shae and Tywin, both killed by Tyrion.
The last runs three minutes and is set in the Vale. The transition is by musical cue, with a choral version of the theme song continuing over both scenes, and by image, with both scenes featuring people sailing for Essos. The final image is of Arya landing on a ladder and doing just that.
And so we come to the end of this Brief Treatise; I don’t reckon there’s much to be gained writing second essays about Seasons Five and Six, and anyway, this has been a hilarious flop of an essay series that vividly illustrates the maxim that there’s room for two books on any given subject, the first one and the best. It also serves to highlight the problems with using my general critical approach on an in-progress text. A game is, on a very fundamental level, defined by its end state; the ethical and thematic implications of events are ultimately shaped by how the narrative ends in ways that makes analyzing them difficult at best. To take an example from this episode, while I think the “Daenerys is a villain” theory would end up being miserably shit storytelling, it can’t be ruled out as such. But if it does play out, a scene like her imprisoning her dragons takes on a distinctly different resonance, since it’s the inherently destructive nature of dragons and “fire and blood” that makes her plausibly a villain. And while one can point out that if that’s the direction they want to go, playing the scene the way “The Children” do whereby it’s framed as a personal tragedy for Daenerys is a mistake that doesn’t adequately set up the turn, that doesn’t actually help with reading the scene in any larger context. And so the Brief Treatise has focused primarily on the question of how storytelling works in Game of Thrones, which has proven an idiosyncratic micro-focus, and one I haven’t decisively handled better than, say, the AV Club or the Guardian. Alas, alack, at least we’re done after this. Still, let’s dive in.
More than any previous season finale, “The Children” has a crystal clear idea of what it wants to be doing at all times. The previous three season finales have been, if not sedate affairs (that’s an accusation you can really only level at “Myhsa”), at least deliberately understated ones that took place in the wake of bigger things. “The Children,” on the other hand, opens with Stannis’s arrival at the Wall, which, while less spectacular than last week’s almost-epic battle, is undoubtedly of greater raw import. This immediately removes the possibility that this is going to work like “Fire and Blood” or “Valar Morghulis” did, putting a single massive set piece at the end of a self-consciously quiet episode. And that’s reflected in the structure – a mere seven parts, all of them meaty. More than that, all of them are eventful – the closest thing to a lull the episode has is bit from the Cersei-focused King’s Landing part through the first section of the second Wall part, and that “lull” still features Cersei confessing her incest to Tywin, Qyburn revealing just how unsettlingly creepy he is, Daenerys caging her dragons, and ominous hints about Jon and Melisandre.
And then there are the main events, most obviously the apparent deaths of three titled regulars (tying “The Rains of Castamere”) in the episode’s climactic two scenes. We’ll start with the latter, Tyrion’s killing of Tywin and Shae, simply because it hues closest to the books. There are still major differences – most obviously in the way that Shae’s death is handled, with the focus shifted to a matter of self-defense, as opposed to the fit of rage in which Tyrion kills her in the books. Indeed, the entire scene is one of the most flagrant cases of Tyrion getting massively softened from the books – his parting with Jaime is wildly less acrimonious as well. But these are mostly details around the main event – Tyrion’s killing of Tywin, a move that completely upends the board, and that has no space given to even considering its implications save for Varys’s look back at King’s Landing as the alarms go up and apparent decision to depart alongside Tyrion.
On the other hand, there’s the Hound’s non-death, which is another instance of the show boldly revamping the narrative. Certainly for its purposes – concocting an event-heavy season finale – changing his “death” from an infected wound inflicted by a minor character to a brutal fight with Brienne is satisfying. And there’s loads of good character bits involved, most obviously in Brienne and Arya’s momentary connection and its abrupt shattering, but also in Maisie Williams’s chilling silence as the Hound begs her to euthanize him. There’s much to be defended about A Feast For Crows’s approach to Brienne’s quest, an almost entirely frustrated and plotless travelogue of the devastated Riverlands, but it was never going to fly on television. So having her succeed in finding one of the Starks and be responsible for the Hound’s near-fatal injuries is a solid and thrilling move, not least because it makes the scene a big surprise to everyone. (It’s also worth pointing out the quality of the fight itself, with its degradation into desperate brutality.)
More interesting than the two scenes on their own, however, is their neat structural reprise of “Two Swords.” That episode was structured as a trasition from Tywin’s seeming dominance over the world to the hint of a possible Stark restoration. Here Arya’s liberation is positioned around Tywin’s death, so that even though there’s no causal relationship, the shattering of his control over events is symbolically linked to the moment one of his biggest blind spots escapes to become a weapon that can be turned against everything he built. And it’s notable that all four Stark children end this season in positions defined more by the potential than danger while the broader structures of power that have defined the game since the start have more or less completely collapsed.
But let’s focus on the final image, as it’s interesting – the only time a season has ended somewhere other than the Wall or Essos. It’s not that there’s a lot that can be read into that fact. Other than the framing it creates with the season-opening image of Ice’s destruction, in fact, there’s not really any significance to the choice. But it remains a compelling image within the shape of overall play. This marks, in a real sense, the end of Game of Thrones’s imperial phase. And essentially inevitably so. The next run of play would have a myriad of self-inflicted wounds, but all of them were mere scratches compared to the basic problem that it had to adapt two deeply flawed books in which Martin’s previous writing decisions turned out to have numerous long-term and unintended consequences that badly hobbled efforts at resolution. Whatever the show did – and as I’ve argued before, I don’t think the degree to which it repaired these problems is sufficiently recognized – it was going to be a fall from critical grace after this. But this final image, of Arya riding off into a future of seemingly vast possibility, is powerful, and feels appropriate for the end of a season in which the show, in many ways, perfected the art of being itself. The end of the imperial phase is not the end of a thing being good – just the end of its uncomplicated acclaim. From here, things get complicated. And once everything has shaken out and it’s clear what happened, we may yet decide to tell that story.