6. The Children
Season 4, Episode 10
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alex Graves
When I first watched Game of Thrones’ most recent season finale, I decided it was not only the season’s best episode, but quite possibly the entire series’. It was after all, the only ep HBO submitted for the Primetime Emmys (it didn’t win). Having now watched it four more times, I don’t think it’s quite as superb as I initially believed. A lot happens and it’s very exciting and it’s a great closer to a season, so at the time I think I was just all hyped up on its awesomeness. But in the end, “The Children” is an episode that simultaneously illustrates Thrones’ greatest strengths and weaknesses.
The strengths are its cinematic presentation and top-notch production values. Everything in the episode is on a grand scale, and combined with the previous installment, “The Watchers on the Wall” (season four’s true crowning jewel), show that GoT more or less rivals The Lord of the Rings films for epic audiovisual high fantasy. From Jon wandering across a snowy field littered with fallen wildings to Stannis’ mercenaries pincering Mance’s forces with thousands of cavalry, from Meera and Hodor fighting Ray Harryhausen wights to the Hound and Brienne’s brutal duel, the scope of “The Children” is beyond epic. Ramin Djawadi likewise matches LOTR’s composer Howard Shore with the episode’s score. Ygritte and Jon’s love theme is reused as he lights her pyre, the music for the Brienne/Hound fight sounds like something from Conan the Barbarian, and the final children’s choir rendition of the show’s main theme, as Arya sets sail for Braavos, is filled with all the wonder, magic and heartbreak that makes up GoT’s DNA.
It also isn’t really a story. It’s a bunch of things that happen, most of which are wrapping up plotlines or setting up new ones. I realized after posting the first part of this countdown why I hold the iffy second season above the third. It’s because like season one, the second season felt like one story, with a beginning, middle and end. The first season is essentially a murder mystery with a central protagonist: Ned Stark. Though Ned dies, he is replaced by Tyrion in season two, and every scene in that season feels like it’s leading to the Battle of the Blackwater. It’s going somewhere.
Seasons three and four lack that, with exceptions. For the most part though, they come off as just a collection of scenes, sometimes with cuts so random you wonder why the writers/editors couldn’t think of a more elegant transition. One second Varys and Tyrion will be talking about shit and then it’ll cut to Ygritte and Tormund meeting a bunch of cannibalistic Thenns. There’s no thematic throughline to connect the two scenes but the Ds have no choice but to smash cut because there is just so much shit going on, so many different characters and subplots that they have to just check in with everyone from time to time to see what’s up (this is also how books four and five feel, though together they read like more of a complete story).
That being said, man what a great random assortment of scenes “The Children” is. Dany locking up Rhaegal and Viserion (another great Djawadi piece)? Made me cry. Jon burning Ygritte? Made me cry. Man, even the Hound’s death scene is sad, in a pathetic kind of way. And unlike season three’s creepy “Dany saves all the brown people” closer, which tried to be uplifting but failed due to colonialist overtones, season four’s final shot was inspiring (even if I’m mad they cut LSH. Book readers know what I’m talking about). Though Arya may be a coldblooded killer, seeing her looking out the bow at the distant sea gives you the sense that no matter how bad things get, there is always hope.
AND I LOVE THE SKELTONS. I know this is a contentious scene, among book readers and show watchers alike. I know there are show people out there who don’t like it when the show gets too fantasy-ish (Melisandre’s shadow baby is a good example of something that threw them for a loop). I also know there are book people who didn’t like that the baddies were these stop-motion-y skeletons and not proper wights, but I LOVED IT. I love the macabre, I love horror and I love animated skeletons. I loved that they were CG but evoked Harryhausen. It wasn’t exactly like the scene from the books, but when I read that scene I couldn’t wait to see it on screen and the Ds delivered.
I also like things that are over the top, so I give a pass to a lot of silly shit that other people would otherwise roll their eyes at. Not a big fan of the Children of the Forest’s design (though that could have gone a lot worse), but I did like Leaf shooting laser bolts because that’s completely ridiculous. Even more ridiculous? Her blowing Jojen up with said laser bolts.
R.I.P. Jojen. At least you won’t get turned into paste and fed to Bran by creepy forest elves who may or may not be up to no good.
5. A Golden Crown
Season 1, Episode 6
Written by Jane Espenson and David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Daniel Minahan
I was sold on Game of Thrones within the first five minutes. The opening shot, with three badass knights in black cloaks staring at the camera before riding out under the cover of a 700-foot ice wall into a frozen wasteland? Yeah, if you know me and the stuff I like, that was it, I was hooked. Follow that up with the now-iconic opening sequence? Bam, Alex has a new favorite TV show that is already healing the wound LOST left inside him the year before.
Not everyone was sold though, and it’s an uneven pilot chock full of tedious exposition. The next two episodes are also plodding despite great moments, and back in season one it looked like Thrones would be more a cult hit than the meteoric success it has become. “A Golden Crown” was the episode that changed all that, that ensured all those who had been tentatively watching thus far were now irrevocably hooked.
There was a lot of good stuff in this one. The Tyrion/Bronn bromance began here, with Bronn declaring “I’ll stand for the dwarf” and fighting to save Tyrion’s life in the show’s first (but not last) trial by combat. Bronn had already been established as a badass in the prior episode. When Tyrion explains that the Eyrie is impregnable Bronn responds, “give me six good men and some grappling hooks. I’ll impregnate the bitch,” to which Tyrion responds, “I like you.” The shrug he gives Tyrion when he declares himself the Imp’s champion is great, as if Bronn’s saying, “eh, why the fuck not, I haven’t had a good fight in a few days.”
“You do not fight with honor,” Lysa Arryn says after Bronn throws Ser Hugh of the Vale through the Moon Door. “No,” Bronn responds, motioning to the Door. “He did.” Bam, sold. Bronn is the coolest character ever. Let’s move on.
Ned got to sit the Iron Throne for a hot minute in this episode and figured out Cersei’s children are bastards, but the moment that solidifies this as one of the series’ best episodes is the final scene, in which Viserys finally gets what’s coming to him. “A crown for a king,” Jason Momoa says in his most gravelly Drogo voice before pouring molten gold onto Viserys’ head. This was to be the first, but certainly not the last nightmare-inducing death in Thrones history. Once again, as despicable as Viserys was, seeing him die was not a fist-pumping moment. In his final moments he pleads for his sister to save him, calling her by her pet name “Dany.” It’s pathetic and you feel bad for him. As bad as he’s been, he doesn’t deserve a death like that.
And then the final line, the line that I think got a lot of those teetering on the fence to make the leap into fandom: “He was no Dragon. Fire cannot kill the Dragon.”
Season 2, Episode 9
Written by George R.R. Martin
Directed by Neil Marshall
The show’s first insular battle episode, “Blackwater” proved that Game of Thrones could do large-scale war scenes, even if the ep lacked the production values the show has now achieved. There’s no denying that some of the shots are weaker than others. The actual hand-to-hand combat is great as is the wildfire explosion, but you never get the sense of scale that The Lord of the Ring’s big fights have; when Stannis lands on the shores of King’s Landing, you feel as if he only has a handful of guys with him.
But the episode is so tightly written and so masterfully directed that the chinks in the armor rarely show. Neil Marshall is probably most well known as the director of The Descent, a fantastic cult horror film and one of my favorites. But his Romans vs. Picts action flick Centurion is a closer corollary to “Blackwater.” I always mention this movie to friends but no one I know has seen it. You all should, because it’s awesome. A similar movie came out around the same time starring Channing Tatum (The Eagle), also about the “lost legion,” a division of centurions that went north of Hadrian’s Wall and never returned. It stars Dominic West and Michael Fassbender and like “Blackwater” has intense, brutal sword combat that feels grossly realistic.
“Blackwater” certainly gets the edge on its spiritual successor, “The Watchers on the Wall,” for gore. The Hound chops not one, but two guys in half, and a rock smashes a dude’s head in right in front of Stannis’ face. It’s great. The fight choreography on Thrones is always outstanding, and I particularly enjoy Bronn’s slick sellsword style.
Once again, I have to give props to my main man Stannis. Of all his appearances on the show, this feels the most authentic, with an exchange that perfectly sums up the character. When Tyrion’s wildfire trap decimates half of Stannis’ fleet, a frightened man-at-arms warns him that “hundreds will die” if they storm the beach. “Thousands,” Stannis replies matter-of-factly, before lowering a gangplank to a longboat and shouting loudly to his men, “Come with me and take this city!” God, Stannis is such a freaking badass. He doesn’t care if countless men die for his arguably misguided quest. The throne is his by rights. That’s all that matters to him: the rules.
The show actually makes Stannis more badass here than he is in the books, where like Tywin, he is known as an ingenious battle commander who directs his men from the rearguard. On the show, he’s the first up the goddamn ladder, fighting multiple Lannister men single-handedly. His guys have to pull him away kicking and screaming when the Tyrell reinforcements arrive, that’s how committed he is to winning.
The real star of the episode is of course, Tyrion, but many other characters get to shine. I love drunk Cersei and the flippant cadence with which Lena Headey delivers the line “Then I suppose these fine ladies are in for a bit of a rape.” A bit of a rape? Who says that? Cersei, of course. Sansa, everyone’s least favorite Stark other than Bran I guess, finally gets a moment to shine when she proves herself a more regal woman than Cersei, leading frightened noble ladies in a religious hymn. The Hound not only slices and dices but delivers one of his most memorable lines: “Fuck the city. Fuck the Kingsguard. Fuck the King” before peaceing like a boss.
This forces Tyrion to step up and he too, delivers an awesome speech, in which he essentially shames the Lannister men into following him into battle. “They say I am half a man… then what does that make the lot of you?!” Then he chops a dude’s leg off and everyone chants “Halfman, Halfman, Halfman!!” It’s nice to see Tyrion get one moment of glory before everything goes to shit for him in Season 3.
This is also the first episode to use “The Rains of Castamere,” essentially the theme song for the Lannisters, performed here like a haunting lullaby by indie rock band The National. It’s a fitting way to end an hour of awesome violence.
I will post the Top 3 in time for the Season 5 premiere, I promise.