After a season that has seen the death of a king, the gruesome head-smashing of our newest hero, heartbreak, betrayal, and giants, it's somewhat surprising that "The Children" ends on such a hopeful note, with Arya Stark staring out over the sea, on her way to a new life in Braavos.
It's a fitting and satisfying ending for a season that has seen power shift so drastically, one that has taken the status quo, or whatever comes closest in Westeros, torn it apart, and scattered the pieces to the wind. It's an ending full of possibility, change and even some excitement, one that firmly places both the children and the Children in the spotlight for next year, by focusing firmly on the future. And it's the capper to what is perhaps Game of Thrones' best season finale yet, an episode that managed to have thematic coherence and shocking twists and turns, and to have put the pieces for upcoming seasons in place while still being an entertaining hour of television. Even if Lady Stoneheart never showed up.
Normally, Game of Thrones packs the biggest shocks of the season into its penultimate episode, leaving the finale open as the time when characters can react and recover from whatever tragic and gruesome death (because it is always a tragic and gruesome death) just shook everything up. It would be easy for "The Children" to be nothing but a reaction episode showing the way the Battle for Castle Black and Tyrion's trial by combat has caused shock waves through the Seven Kingdoms, and saved all of the big shocks for next season. But the fourth season of Game of Thrones subverted its expected formula early, killing off Joffrey in the second episode and packing at least one major twist or death in every episode since, some more successfully than others. Joffrey's death has had the biggest, most expansive impact on the series since Ned Stark was beheaded. Like that original shock it has the biggest impact not on the old guard who used to hold the power in the Seven Kingdoms, but on the next generation, and "The Children" saw that generation inherit their legacy, their future, and in the case of Tyrion, their fathers' worst characteristics.
If the final shot of Arya on the boat is a perfect summation of the episode's themes and of the possibility that awaits these characters in seasons to come, the shot of Tyrion threatening his father with a crossbow while the latter is on the toilet is also fitting, a physical representation of the circle of abuse, desire for power, and hatred coming to a close. Though Tyrion has never been the most noble center, he had a goodness to him that Jaime and certainly Cersei were lacking, and that separated him from the father who never wanted to claim him as his son. However, killing Shae, the only woman he has ever loved, by strangling her in his father's bed is such a characteristically Tywin act that it connects the two in a way that Tyrion has never anticipated or wanted. Peter Dinklage gives a great performance here, exhibiting all of the horror and heartbreak he feels at her second betrayal and his reaction to it, as well as the shock at what he's capable of. Even Tyrion seems to know that he wasn't justified in his actions, that they were cruel and unforgivable and exactly what Tywin would do in that situation.
So when he holds that crossbow up to his father, and declares with a cold sincerity "I am your son. I have always been your son," he's not just making sure that Tywin faces up to his legacy before he dies, he's also admitting the harshness and cruelty that was always there, under the surface. Despicable though he was, Tywin was a wonderful character to watch, always capable of shaking things up without warning, and he will be missed. Charles Dance gives his last lines a dry wit, bantering easily with Dinklage before taking a stake to the chest, and it's hard not to regret the death of someone who can make sitting on the toilet an act of dignity and grace. But Tyrion shows no mercy, leaving his father there to die in humiliation before being spirited away on a ship with Varys in tow.
His last moments of the season aren't the only parallel to Arya's storyline. She too is forced to choose between mercy and cruelty when faced with a dying Hound, who has been brutally beaten and fatally wounded by Brienne. In a way, she chooses both, ignoring his taunts and pleas for her to kill him and simply walking away, leaving him to the long, agonizing process of dying. Though Arya doesn't put him out of his misery, she can't bring herself to murder the man who, admittedly in a dangerous and unconventional fashion, protected her on her journey. Arya has another parallel in Brienne: they are two strong, self-sufficient women who were more interested in learning to sword fight than in adhering to the way society expects them to behave. Both have seen cruelty and abuse, both have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and continued on through everything, and both need to go their own ways and set out on their own journeys. Brienne is offering protection and shelter, but Arya knows that she can only rely on herself now. She never fully trusted the Hound, and she certainly doesn't trust Brienne; as these two surrogate parents battle over custody of her, Arya makes the decision to protect herself, and in that moment she grows up more than she ever did by stabbing a man with Needle.
Just as one of Arya's journeys has thankfully come to an end, so has her brother's. Both Arya and Bran had some exciting moments this season, but the vast majority of their screentime was spent wandering around in the wilderness, and frankly, it was one of the less interesting plots of the year. But watching Arya set sail for a new life and Bran-as-Hodor beat up skeleton zombies makes everything worth it, if only because it sets up some truly exciting arcs for next year. Bran comes into his own on a trek to see The Children, the ancient people who have inhabited Westeros since the beginning of time, and who will exist until the end. Still, in order to gain anything in Game of Thrones, you must first lose something of value, and in order to grow into his Warging abilities and his future, Bran must watch Jojen get killed by a skeleton, although the sadness was somewhat undercut by the hilariously awkward CGI the moment involved.
It's a price that Jon Snow knows all too well, having watched the love of his life die last week. Now in command of Castle Black (in action, if not in name) he sets out on a suicide mission to establish a peace treaty with Mance Rayder, only to have the moment interrupted when Stannis Baratheon rides in with an army to rescue Castle Black. Despite Stannis having the army, it's Jon who has the power here, finally getting to embrace his legacy as Ned Stark's son, rather than being shunted aside as his bastard. Like Ned, Jon is one of the few truly noble men in Westeros, but he's seen more than his father did, and he understands that the world and the people who inhabit it aren't black and white, so he has a chance at making it further in the game than Ned did. For Jon, it's not only about right and wrong, but about what's smart, what's merciful, and what's best for each individual situation.
"The Children" also sees Cersei and Daenerys making difficult choices in order to protect their children. Cersei, desperate not to be separated from her last child, reveals to Tywin the truth about her relationship with Jaime. Lena Headey's performance has gone mostly underappreciated as Cersei slides further and further into despair, and her wild-eyed delivery as Cersei plays the final card she has up her sleeve in a bid to hold onto what little power is left to her is pitch perfect. Dany, meanwhile, is forced to choose between her dragons and her people, and must lock her "children" away for everyone's protection. It's a sad, ironic moment for the woman who prides herself on being the "Breaker of Chains," but it's a crucial part of Dany learning to be a great leader, an ancestral legacy left for her by her own family.
In the process of establishing the significant changes that these characters have gone through and the new futures that await them on the other side of the hiatus, "The Children" also drives home how loose the show's structure has become. It still struggles to find a way to balance the numerous storylines so that the important moments have the right amount of impact and weight, but with every character at a different point in the journey that was laid out for them in the books, it's difficult to predict what the show is going to cover in the upcoming seasons, and just how well it will be able to keep a hold on everything. Just like Arya's future is laid out ahead of her in endless possibilities, the show's future is just as uncertain, and there are endless ways that events can play out, and endless changes that can be made.
Episode grade: A-, or Two flame-throwing child fairies that live in the woods. Here's hoping things get even more otherworldly and fantastic in the episodes left to come.Follow @hollywood_com Follow @julesemm