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It would be an understatement to describe this fourth season of Game Of Thrones as tumultuous. It has been a season of upheaval, of revolution, of murder and madness and betrayal. Kings were crowned and killed, queens were made and unmade, children grew up hard and parents often died harder. It’s fitting then, that the season finale, “The Children”, shows us that for some of those offspring, the journeys do not end. Instead, they begin anew, to take them to new places far from where they began, to uncertain futures and leaving behind bloody pasts. This was a spectacular episode and a terrific finale, full of great performances and with some gorgeous visuals. Yet most impressively is how it somehow managed to open up a vast world even further, turning each ending into a new beginning.
For the children of Tywin Lannister, the end brings a house torn asunder, fraught with bitterness and anger and resentment. Cersei, after witnessing the twisted practices of Qyburn on what remains of the Mountain, finally confronts her father. She bombards him with the awful truths, truths that he never allowed himself to believe, all in the name of the family that she has chosen. For that is the doom of the Lannisters — not the enemies abroad or beyond, but rather the enemies within. They tear themselves apart far better than their foes ever could.
For even as Cersei spurns the wishes of her father and falls back into the arms of her brother, her hatred for Tyrion still burns fierce and bright. And while her love and lust for Jaime are enough to bring him back to her, that fire will never be enough for him to turn his back on his brother, and so Tyrion, in his darkest moments, is freed. Yet that same fire burns in Tyrion, and he risks everything for a final visit to the tower of the Hand, that place he once called home. It is there that he finds the two greatest betrayals of his life. The first born from the one he loves, and in a wordless, horrible, heartbreaking struggle, he kills Shae, the one he had once given all that he could. The second, however, is far more satisfying. This scene, with Tywin Lannister on the toilet, exposed and unprotected, was amazing. Charles Dance proved once more that he is one of the giants of the show, trying his damnedest to remain dignified in the face of the tired, miserable rage of Tyrion. And so, the fire that burns in Tyrion consumes Tywin at last, and the father is undone by the son he has spent a lifetime betraying.
In Meereen, it’s the children of the Mother of Dragons that show themselves to be her greatest challenge. The road taken by Dany and her comrades has been a long one, and not always satisfying. There’s been a sense that they are often in a holding pattern, waiting for the events of the rest of the world to sort themselves out so that her story can continue. And while there was no momentous change in Meereen, it was fascinating — albeit tragic — to see the terrible truths that she must confront. One, that the slaves that she fought so hard to free do not always know how to endure that freedom. And two, that the beasts that she used to win that freedom, cannot be trusted to be free. It is there, in the catacombs beneath Meereen, that we see that although they may love her, dragons may never truly be tamed. A dragon is not a soldier or a son or a daughter, it is a storm, terrible and unpredictable. And so she is forced to lock them away, to walk away from their screams of sadness and rage, lest they destroy everything that she used them to build.
As for the children of Ned and Catelyn Stark, their journeys are often the most complicated ones. After an uneven episode last week, Jon Snow came back strong this week, as did the rest of the events at The Wall. It was interesting that those opening moments, with a wide, faraway shot of Snow wandering amid the scattered dead did a better job of conveying the scale of the Wall and the battle than anything we saw last week. Regardless, he found himself facing Mance Rayder (hey, remember him?), a gripping scene that surprisingly lacked the resentment one would expect. But then again, no one understands the duty of the Brothers any better than Mance himself, and the understanding that Snow was ever-bound to that duty is clear. Yet in the midst of that parlay, on the verge of either peace or destruction, an unlikely ally appears to tip the scales. Stannis’s army descends upon the Wildlings like blades through butter, and in moments the battle is over. For Jon Snow, the great threat of the Wildling army is gone, but all new ones must now be faced. His status with the Brothers, the grim severity of Stannis, and the terrifying power of Melisandre — all present new challenges for him.
Then, we come to Bran, whose scene was the one that, if it wasn’t the best scene, it certainly stood out the most. Bran’s voyage has always been the most ill-fitting in both the novels and the show, a petulant, crippled child with strange friends and stranger powers on a long, not particularly exciting trip. As a result, these weird, baffling, freakish and scary moments almost feel like scenes out of another story entirely. Skeletons crawling from the ground, children who throw lightning, and a man, trapped within the roots of a great tree? It’s all so outlandish and bizarre, and that’s really saying something considering what we’ve seen thus far. Yet it was also striking and affecting, even if the death of Jojen seemed not nearly as devastating as it should have been. Bran is now faced with a future carved out of mystery, of myth and legend and magic, and I can only hope they bring life to what has thus far been a rather lifeless storyline.
Finally, we come to Arya. Her journey with the Hound at last comes to an end, and it’s a fairly horrific one. First, the encounter with Brienne and Podrick is an intense and shocking affair. Brienne, at last faced with a chance to keep her oath, and the Hound, protecting the one thing that he’s ever come close to actually caring about. The battle between them was absolutely stunning, two giants battling over what each has sworn to protect. What began as a duel turned into a raging, roaring exercise in savagery, and in the end, the Hound is undone. Yet it’s his final moments that are the most chilling. Broken, the ground wet with his blood, he and Arya have a confrontation that is nothing short of brutal in its frankness and coldness. It’s not at all what one would expect — the conventional story is a redemptive one, where the child sobs over the death of her protector, and forces herself to end his pain. Yet this has never been that story. In this story, the child watches him suffer with stony detachment, pausing only to take the gold from his belt, and walks away as he begs for death.
Arya’s journey has been the one that has been the most peculiar, the most unromantic of them all. No one would have judged you had you expected a conventional fantasy hero’s arc for Arya. Plucky little girl goes on fantastic journey after her parents die, and becomes a noble hero who saves the day. Yet if there is nothing else to show us how great and cleverly realized this world is, we can always watch Arya’s path. She is not the noble hero, she is not the wayward adventurer. She is the one who has seen those she loves butchered and gutted and used as props. She saw her father killed and her brother defiled, her friends cut down and her loved ones scattered. No one has ever served as a better example of what the heart of Game Of Thrones is, of a world of tragedy and violence and anger, but also of black humor and of a singularly peculiar brand of honor. Arya is all of those things, and more, and her journey begins anew as well. She has set off for places unknown, for strange new adventures, and it will sadly be many months before we can see where the days to come take her — her and the rest of the children of this world.
Valar Morghulis. See you next year.