[This is a review of Game of Thrones season 4, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
Contrary to what is seen in the opening credits season after season, the world of Game of Thrones is not actually expanding. What once felt like a multitude of storylines unfolding tantalizingly close to each other - yet seemingly a day or two (as the raven flies) apart - have now begun to converge and intersect - and unlike Bran's deliberate near miss of his brother Jon, they impact one another in dynamic fashion. That means the events happening in and around Westeros are no longer destined to become secondhand tales carried on a whisper by Varys' web of spies, or communicated via airmail on stationery marked: From the Desk of Tywin Lannister; it means that the influencers of Game of Thrones are defiantly, refreshingly on the move, and they're taking this obsession-worthy narrative with them.
The signs have been there from the beginning, marked by the determined, but unhurried pace of what has been an absolutely fantastic season. As much as season 3 will likely be remembered for its unrelentingly grim dance with mortality and hopelessness, season 4 seemed destined to step in, open a window and air things out– get that stench of death and despondency blown off and freshen things up a bit. And yet, unsurprisingly, writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff ushered in that tonic by capitalizing on Joffrey's now infamous Purple Wedding early in the season. From then on, everything else seemed to fall quite effortlessly into place.
In a way, then, the season 4 finale, 'The Children' was about the use of agency and what it means for characters who live in a world that isn't just a dangerous, threatening place, but seems to actively be seeking to kill them at every turn to defy it, like Mance Rayder says to Stannis: "We do not kneel." Now, that doesn't necessarily mean those who stand up for themselves and impose their will on a situation will stand a better chance of living through the day. But perhaps it does mean that in showing defiance against the odds, they stand to make some meaning of a life that could very easily be the next one arbitrarily snuffed out. And in this world, that may be as good as it gets.
That notion of defiance is what made 'The Children' out to be not just an important episode in terms of (surprise!) who dies, but in terms of what it means to be counted among the living. And being counted among the living is especially important when, like Bran, you find yourself in a literal life and death struggle against the undead. Bran's quest to find the Weirwood tree in the North has been a thread that may as well have been stuck in a dog kennel next to Theon for all the propulsion that particular plot seemed to have. Here, however, Bran doesn't merely reach his objective and meet the titular children – or the fire throwing Children of the Forest – but he finds out his destination is actually just the beginning of his journey; one that won't see him walk again, but it might just see him fly. Sure, the old man in the tree's roots is a rather cryptic fellow, but through his exposition, and Bran's subsequent discovery of the path that lay ahead, 'The Children' manages to set the tone for the rest of the episode, and deliver a series of ambitious (but not entirely encouraging) next steps to be taken by the core (surviving) members of the narrative.
That means Daenerys bitterly finds her quest to bring freedom to the enslaved people is complicated with aspects she cannot control, like an entire generation of men uninterested in being free if it means having to start over, and, on a more personal note, that her dragons, like the kingdoms she conquered and left behind, she may no longer have power over. And so, ironically, and perhaps because of her current status, Dany winds up shackling two of her dragons, the very things that helped her achieve her goals, simply because of their instinctual defiance.
But the idea of defiance carries most strongly through the final two arcs, which Weiss and Benioff wisely save for last, so that they can be savored and help restore some sense of balance by demonstrating that acts of boldness and destruction can benefit the weak just as easily as it can the powerful. Brienne's defiance of the Hound – his reputation as an unstoppable killing machine, and of course, his skill – ends with her besting him in a manner that opens the door for Arya to triumphantly defy Sandor's wish that she end his suffering, and later, his declaration that she'll die without him. Watching her sail away after cashing in her iron coin from Jaqen H'ghar is about the brightest, most uplifting thing that's been seen on the series to date, which makes it odd to think of how well it is paired with Tyrion's escape from King's Landing in a wooden crate under the cover of darkness.
Tyrion's flight from death row best encapsulates the two ideas of well-timed progression and, certainly, defiance. Most troubling, though, is not that Tyrion's boldness leaves two people dead, but he kills the woman he loved, and the father he should have been granted the opportunity to love. For their parts, both Shae and Tywin turned on and sought to punish Tyrion when they could not get what they wanted from him, and so his act against them, though brutal and vicious, winds up affording him the same thing nearly everyone else was so thrillingly granted in the course of the episode: A chance to continue playing the game with a fresh deck of cards.
In that sense, then, season 4 was all about moving things around, getting characters not merely from one place to another, but to put them in completely different situations that makes this season's end the start of something fresh and, undoubtedly exciting.
Game of Thrones will return for season 5 in 2015 on HBO.