The Children was a satisfying conclusion to what has proved to be the best season of Game of Thrones yet.
The standard setup for the season finales has been to pick up the pieces left in the wake of devastating penultimate episodes. Yet this season has been sprinkled with so many climactic twists that this formula has been made utterly redundant.
Indeed, the first major twist of this episode took place right where we left off last week.
Stannis might have saved the realm from an imminent wildling invasion, but despite his victory it appears he hasn’t won the respect of either the wildlings or Jon Snow. First Mance refused to bend the knee before Stannis when surrendering, while Jon intimated to Tormund that he too recognised no king.
The new power dynamic at the Wall will create an intriguing state of play for next season. The defeated wildlings, the diminished Night’s Watch and the ambitious Stannis will have to sort out common ground, while in the background Melisandre still lurks.
The meeting between Brienne and The Hound was a brutal encounter that threw Westeros’ two current buddy pairings onto a path with only one winner.
The Hound has undergone a remarkable transformation throughout the course of the show. From the despised henchman of the Lannisters and bodyguard of despotic Joffrey to a surprising protector for first Sansa and then Arya, by the end he is a one of the more sympathetic characters.
The Hound is fully aware of the contradictions and mythologisation of honour and chivalry, deliberately spurning the knighthood that others, like his brutal brother The Mountain, wear as false cloaks of respectability. He is a man who realises the true nature of the world around him, does what he needs to survive in it and makes no qualm about doing so.
Whether Arya refuses to give The Hound mercy to spite him or simply because he is no longer on her list of those she wants dead is somewhat murky, however it is abundantly clear that she has learnt her lessons from him. Arya can see that the concepts of valour and honour that underline Brienne’s offer of protection would not give her a better chance of survival. Trying to help The Hound would also leave her a sitting target, unable to defend herself.
She has developed a bloodthirsty mindset and repertoire for revenge and by paying for a trip to Braavos with the coin given to her a couple of seasons ago Jaqen H’ghar, and she is accepting the offer he gave her.
When she turned down Jaqen’s offer, Arya knew that she still had family tying her to Westeros. Now they are all dead or in places unknown, and by travelling to Braavos she is seeking to develop further the tools that will gain her revenge.
It was a transformative conclusion of the season for the remaining Stark children. Jon emerged as a true leader within the ranks of the Night’s Watch; Sansa went from being a pawn of King’s Landing intrigue to a player in her own right under Petyr’s wing; while Arya threw off perpetual captivity to strike out on her own in a new continent.
Bran’s storyline has often felt like the hardest to engage with. Wandering across snow-draped forest following cryptic visions of a bird doesn’t always make for the most riveting television.
With the sheer number of various plot elements flittering around, it’s understandable that not every one hits the mark completely every week. The most impressive feature of this season has been the focus within the construct of episode to each storyline. While previous seasons have taken a scattergun approach to sequencing scenes, cramming in as many plot lines into one week as possible, this season has shown an admirable restraint and faith in the viewer to follow the action.
Bran quest to find the mysterious three-eyed raven has been a long time coming, and underneath the great weirwood tree he was greeted by one of the supposedly extinct Children of the Forest.
Unfortunately, his encounter with the wights lying in wait outside felt like more of a misguided nod to one of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels than camp ghoul in an Evil Dead sense, let alone remotely scary.
Game of Thrones often uses CGI to elevate scenes with a grand sense of visual scale. But despite some awesome dragons and giants, sometimes the CGI-rendered characters detract from the immersion within the fantasy world. What made the wights so terrifying in the first season was their lifelike zombie-ish qualities, similar to The Walking Dead.
The bone littered floor leading up to the three-eyed raven and the spooky Children is a creepy sign of the future for Bran and his slowly diminishing party.
The saddest moment of the episode did not belong to any unfortunate member of the Stark clan, for once. Daenerys chaining of her dragons, her “children”, in an underground catacomb was not only unfortunate for every audience member fond of flying fire-breathing lizards, but emotionally crippling to Daenerys herself.
Chaining the dragons not only practically undermines her greatest, most loyal military force and source of her power, but symbolically exhibits the restraint she deems necessary to bring peace to the new world she is trying to create.
What makes Daenerys an inspirational character in this world is her genuine empathy for her subjects, married with the occasional steely act of cold-hearted brutal justice.
While I have some questions about how vigilant security is around King’s Landing (no guards at Tyrion’s door, or indeed anywhere at all, apparently) and the very convenient gap in time in the Jaime’s handover to Varys (was Jaime too busy to drop off Tyrion? Was Varys just hanging out in his room the entire time?), Tyrion made efficient use of it.
Shae’s betrayal was given an even more nefarious element when Tyrion finds her sprawled upon Tywin’s bed. The exact circumstances how this came about are obscured, yet it is no less heart-breaking for Tyrion.
But it also reveals the damning hypocrisy behind Tywin: the supposed richest man in Westeros (whose mines have run dry), the man who knows everything (yet can’t see the affair his children are having), the man who does everything for his family (yet hates his own son) and frequently makes clear his disdain for prostitutes (yet Shae).
Tyrion is a character driven whose most fundamental desire is to be loved. In one scene he is confronted with the woman he loved betraying him to a greater extent than he ever would have believed, while his own father admits to wanting him dead his entire life.
Using Joffrey’s crossbow to kill his father is a sad and ironic end to Tyrion’s time in King’s Landing.