In its fourth season finale, Game of Thrones writer-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss set several characters on brand new journeys. We’ll have to wait almost a year to see Arya and Tyrion reach their destinations, to see what Stannis does on the Wall, or to see Bran fly.
This episode was appropriately titled “The Children” for several reasons, though it relates most directly to the “young” girl that Bran, Meera, Jojen, and Hodor encounter north of the Wall. In this episode, Jon Snow uses his relation to his father, Ned Stark, to win the trust of Stannis Baratheon, who has saved the Night’s Watch from wildling attack. Cersei, a fierce protector of her children, fights for the right to stay by her only remaining son’s side. Daenerys is shamed into locking up two of her own children, the dragons Rhaegal and Viserion, after the child of one of her subjects is murdered by Drogon. Brienne fights the Hound for the right to protect the young Arya Stark, though Arya herself is trying to gain independence from her status as the unfortunate child of Ned and Catelyn Stark and set out on her own. Lastly, Tyrion finally acts as ruthless as his father, Tywin: “I have always been your son,” he says as he shoots his father with two bolts from Joffrey’s murderous crossbow.
“This whole season’s about learning hard lessons from your ruthless elders,” says writer-producer David Benioff. “The Children” focuses primarily on how two pupils, Arya and Tyrion, apply their lessons in mercilessness and set off on their own in the world.
In the penultimate episode of Season 4, a historically bloody chapter in every season thus far, “The Watchers on the Wall” features the long-awaited battle between the wildlings and the Night’s Watch. Like the ninth episode of the second season (“Blackwater”), this one focuses solely on one location, culminating in an epic battle sequence that takes place over the course of a single night.
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins… I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
But this episode is more than just a well-choreographed and well-shot action film. It makes us care about characters whose names we could never quite remember, like Pyp and Grenn, and characters we may have actively disliked, like Ser Alliser Thorne. It ruminates on duty, love, leadership, and masculinity, all while delivering intensely fun visual spectacles (like the giant arrow piercing the man over the Wall or the huge scythe shaving the climbers off the Wall).
It’s amazing that no one else on the continent knows that this battle is taking place, since there is so much at stake for them should a hundred thousand wildlings succeed in breaching the Wall. As the oath says, “I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.” The men of the Night’s Watch fulfill their duty in spectacular fashion– for now.
In one of the most anticipated episodes of the season, aptly titled “The Mountain and the Viper,” Game of Thrones takes another look at the power of families. “Family, honor, all that horseshit. It’s all you lords and ladies ever talk about,” the Hound says to Arya. What he doesn’t acknowledge is the overwhelming affect that families have– not only on the course of events in Westeros, but also over the individuals within.
For starters, Gilly’s very life is spared because Ygritte finds her with baby Sam in her arms and takes pity. Grey Worm and Missandei, who never had an opportunity to really know their own families, are beginning to cultivate a relationship and find comfort in each other. For Ramsay Snow, the bastard of Roose Bolton, it means so much to be officially acknowledged as a Bolton: heir to the North, but more importantly, a legitimate member of the family. Theon uses his family name to invade and influence the otherwise-impregnable Moat Cailin and the immovable Greyjoy forces stationed within. Sansa reveals her family name in order to gain the confidence and compassion of the powerful lords of the Vale, but later sheds the Stark name in order to take on a new identity that is all her own. Tyrion and Jaime bond as brothers right before the trial by combat, and Oberyn Martell fights bravely because he demands justice– not for Tyrion, but for his sister. In the game of thrones, family is an important, ever-present source of power.
When Arya and the Hound come upon a dying stranger in Sunday’s episode, he expresses regret for the way the world has changed: “Fair. A balance. No balance anymore.” It’s hard to imagine that this is possible, that the world shown in Game of Thrones has ever been fair or balanced. He has seen, at the very least, four kings in his lifetime. Several wars have been fought over the throne, the current War of the Five Kings being only the latest of many.
Even on a personal level, few adults in Westeros have made it out of childhood unscathed. It’s almost impossible to imagine that a fair and peaceful society made any of these characters. These people seem to have been “born to woe,” as historian Barbara W. Tuchman writes in her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Like the medieval man, the characters of Game of Thrones have grown up in a world where a “habit of violence” and adversity rule more effectively than any government.
In “Mockingbird,” we see several adults who have survived a childhood of violence, abuse, and misery, but not without scars, both physical and emotional. This episode shows how these adults revert back to childishness to cope when present traumas aggravate old wounds. Meanwhile, the actual children, Arya and Sansa, continue to experience the brutality that has already begun to make them into scarred adults.