The bastard son of a slain traitor. The twin son and daughter of a great lord. The king born of their incestuous union. The charred corpse of a shepherd's daughter. The huge and deadly hatchlings of an exile queen. The two young psychics who sacrificed limb and life to heed some mystical call. The last survivors of a mythical race. The feral young apprentice to a succession of killers. The butcher's boy whose death spurred her anger. The unwanted offspring who brings his House down around him at last. Game of Thrones titled its fourth season finale "The Children," and its brood was huge and varied.
The longest episode in the series' history, "The Children" thrummed with storytelling energy — not just the usual 'round-the-world scene-shifting, but actual, honest-to-god Major Plot Developments in each storyline, with only the Tyrells, the Boltons & Theon, and Sansa & Littlefinger unaccounted for. Simply describing the sprawl could eat up all your time and attention, with its turning point after turning point – the wildlings defeated! Stannis at the Wall! The dragons in chains! The Children of the Forest returned! Bran as a sorcerer's apprentice! Brienne defeats the Hound! Tywin dead! Tyrion and Varys on the run! Arya sailing off to adventure!
But sometimes what got dropped stood out the most. No, not the dialogue or scenes snipped from the corresponding chapters in the books. The music – the near-total absence of composer Ramin Djawadi's swirling, stirring score during the duel between Brienne and the Hound, the Hound's pleas for euthanasia from Arya, Tyrion's murder of Shae. And the visuals – the way the bright gray light of the sky reduced much of Brienne and the Hound's battle to silhouettes, the way the featureless snow north of the wall made the black shapes of Stannis's charging cavalry or the White Walkers' skeleton berserkers stand out in such stark relief. In the former cases, the silence made the brutality more uncomfortable to watch. In the latter, the lack of visual information in the landscape turned it into a blank canvas on which the spectacle could be painted in the boldest strokes possible.
In the opposing effects of those strategic, structuring absences, just as in the variety of all the characters to which the episode's title refers, the true shape of "The Children" reveals itself. Intimacy and grandiosity, empathy and brutality – Game of Thrones doesn't just straddle these lines, it water-dances on both sides at once. So you get a skeleton-army attack out of a Ray Harryhausen Saturday-matinee movie and a domestic-violence murder out of a Michael Haneke art-house joint. You get an elf lobbing magic fireballs at zombies like something out of Dungeons & Dragons, and a man getting shot to death in a bathroom like something out of a mob movie. Jon Snow strides into the wilding camp, allowing himself to be surrounded and subdued — then Stannis and Davos charge into it on horseback, killing at will. Beautiful, peaceful, dead Ygritte on her bier or comatose, rotting, living Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane on Qyburn's mad-science operating table — take your pick. You get the Hound repeatedly begging for death, and Tyrion repeatedly apologizing for causing it.
And it's never stronger than when the care feeds the cruelty. Look at the episode's two strongest sequences: Tyrion's escape and the Hound's last stand. Tyrion is the more or less undisputed fan-favorite character of the series; his framing and trial for murder was the season's central storyline. The Imp's emergence from his family's hideous shadow has been crucial to the whole series since Peter Dinklage got top billing at the start of Season Two. But his great escape first sees him choke his ex-girlfriend to death, then murder his own father while the elder man takes a shit. Now he's locked in a box literally and figuratively – set to stew in rage, resentment, and regret most likely for the rest of his life. This, it argues, is the inevitable consequence of greatness.
By contrast, Brienne and the Hound should theoretically be spared this kind of final reckoning. They're both ronin, masterless misfits who don't fit in with any side in the War of Five Kings. They even have the same motive: protecting the Stark sisters. Yet the show concocts a confrontation for them that's nowhere to be found in the source material, taking two beloved characters and crushing them against one another until only one's left standing. It basically weaponizes the affection we feel for them.
A lot of viewers bang their heads against this kind of dichotomy. Sometimes Game of Thrones is a widescreen epic fantasy, other times it's a small-scale study of violent lives, and it's a struggle both to anticipate and appreciate whatever you wind up getting. The answer is to stop struggling. At its best – and "The Children" is certainly this show at its wide and wild best — Game of Thrones is all of these things, simultaneously.
Previously: A Song of Ice and Fire