There is a scene in “Winter is Coming,” the debut episode of Game of Thrones that premiered in 2011, when a young(er) Arya Stark spies the mobile court of King Robert Baratheon approaching her hometown of Winterfell. Wearing a helmet of unknown owner, she grins before seeming to remember that she should be somewhere else at the moment, specifically lined up with the rest of the Stark clan in anticipation of the court’s arrival.
She turns and runs back to her mother and father just in time, with Lady Catelyn Stark demanding to know where she had been, and her father, Lord Eddard Stark, simply wanting to know where she got the helmet.
In “The Children,” the season finale of GOT that premiered Sunday night, it is apparent that while Arya might be well on her way to being a full-blown psychopath as a result of her reaction to the death and destruction that have followed her in the last few years of her life, there is plenty of wonder left the kid, or plenty of kid left in the wonder.
Having secured passage to Bravos on a ship leaving a port village of the Vale, Arya’s is the last image we get of Season 4. Here, after looking behind and seeing the continent of Westeros getting smaller behind her, she races to the bow of the ship to look for Bravos as if it will appear at any time over the horizon. Actress Maisie Williams manages the same wondrous look on her face as in the series debut, though it lacks some of its original orneriness, which is replaced by a sense of experience.
Thankfully, Arya’s story does not get lost in the shuffle here, and we have HBO and show runners/writers D.B Weiss and David Benioff to thank for this, because make no mistake, there was plenty to get lost in during the episode. But instead of the season’s finale being GOT’s “Who shot J.R.?” as a result of its need to give resolution to the trial of Tyrion Lannister, “The Children” got to that page and a lot more in an episode that hit a reset button for several of the series’ most crucial story lines.
Last week’s “The Watchers on the Wall” episode provided this ability. Instead of jumping right into Tyrion’s fate immediately after watching The Mountain crush the skull of Prince Oberyn Martell into bloody pulp, viewers got two weeks to digest that scenario before seeing its outcome. In the meantime, the wildlings finally attacked The Wall, Sam Tarly grew up, and we were able to clear our heads a little bit (with all due respect to the Red Viper).
The finale was far more than just about Tyrion. The full-episode break from King’s Landing last week allowed “The Children” room to breathe and grow, without viewers tapping their collective feet shouting, “Get to Tyrion already!” at their televisions.
The episode, the longest in GOT history at 66 minutes, begins at the very point, “Watchers” left off, with Jon Snow setting out in search of wildling leader Mance Rayder. It is here that a plot point left dangling at the end of Season 3 finally gets addressed. At the point that it becomes apparent that Snow is in the wildling camp to kill rather than negotiate with the King Beyond the Wall, Stannis Baratheon’s legion storms into the North like the Romans hitting Gaul, and before you know it there’s dead barbarians everywhere until Rayder tells his men to stand down.
The resulting conversation between Snow and Stannis is one of the heaviest yet in the series. It is the closest Baratheon will ever come to being face-to-face with Ned Stark, the man who – way back in Season 1 when Ned still had a head – let it be known that Stannis’ brother Robert’s son Joffrey was not his own but the product of the incestuous relationship between Queen Cersei Baratheon and her brother Jaime Lannister.
Stannis commands Mance Rayder to kneel to him, as by right (if only by technicality and not by public recognition), Stannis is the King of the Seven Kingdoms. Rayder refuses and Stannis, in a show of rare deference for the character, takes Snow’s suggestion of how to handle Mance to heart.
It is, perhaps, the most kingly moment of Stannis’ story arc to date, and it comes at a time – as we saw by show’s end – that perhaps puts him in his most favorable position yet to convince the Seven Kingdoms of his political leadership ability, not to mention his legitimate claim to the Iron Throne.
The subsequent scenes involving Cersei, which see her confess her relationship with Jaime to their father, actually show more about Tywin than they reveal about the queen’s mental state, which has been unraveling slowly but steadily all season. At first, she cannot believe that Tywin does not already know of the relationship but then realizes that it makes sense he does not. Her line, “How can someone so consumed by the idea of his family have any conception what his actual family was doing,” she asks rhetorically.
The question was remembered later, as Tywin was having bolts from a crossbow pegged into him by Tyrion. Lord Tywin’s insistence on disregarding the thoughts and feelings of his children directly led to his doom as he sat on a toilet and was unable to refrain from using the term “whore” when referencing the love of Tyrion’s life.
Unlike previous season-enders, “The Children” does not contain a moment for the devout fans of Daenerys Targaryen to cling to for the next 10 months as a point of pride. The Mother of Dragons instead is faced with the realization that those dragons are too beastly to be allowed to have free access to the skies after a shepherd produces the charred bones of his 3-year-old daughter to Daenerys in Meereen, the product of Drogon’s fire and aggression.
We are left with a shot of Dany crying as she shuts two of her dragons – Drogon’s whereabouts are unknown – in the catacombs of Meereen. It is left to the viewer to decide if she was crying over locking her dragons away or for the plight of the man whose daughter was just turned to charcoal because of them.
Bran Stark’s meeting with the three-eyed raven he has sought for three seasons comes to a quizzical end, as well, that will certainly be explained in greater detail in Season 5. After being attacked by zombified skeletons of a long-ago army, Bran, Meera and Hodor are saved by the Children of the Forest (the literal source of the episode’s title). Although Jojen doesn’t survive the attack, it is revealed by the raven – who apparently is an old man who lives in a tree with the Children of the Forest – that Jojen knew what his fate would be for a long time before its occurrence.
The episode’s first character death jumps right to its second, as Brienne of Tarth and Podrick stumble upon none other than Arya Stark and the Hound. Here is perhaps the high point of the episode, though many will argue (and perhaps win that argument) that Tyrion’s murder of his father and subsequent escape from King’s Landing trumps it.
Both Brienne and Sandor Clegane have it in their minds that their duty is to protect Arya Stark. Neither one believes the other, and it is easy for most viewers to believe that the Hound is only in it for the money.
So was Han Solo. In any event, the ensuing duel between Brienne and the Hound is one of the series’ best and most brutal not in such a graphic sense – although Brienne biting off the Hound’s right ear was impressive – but in the effort put forth by each contestant. For Brienne, it was the outpouring of rage that had been pent up for the better part of three seasons that won the day, sending the Hound down a mountain where Arya eventually leaves him to die.
Ponder a moment on the story arc of Brienne. A woman in a medieval society who has learned to fight as well as the finest knights in the Seven Kingdoms, who has unspoken amorous feelings for Renly Baratheon, a homosexual man for whom she is charged with protecting. He dies with her in the room, and she is later charged by Catelyn Stark with the duty of returning Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing in the hopes of a prisoner exchange that will free Sansa and Arya Stark from the city after their father was beheaded. En route, the two are captured by the Boltons, and Brienne subsequently begins to develop feelings for Jaime Lannister through the trust he placed in her and as a result of his saving her from danger twice. Brienne then learns of Catelyn’s death, yet still maintains her quest to find her daughters.
That’s a lot of stress for one person to handle, and the Hound – already slowed by a festering wound to his neck – never had a chance.
But as interesting as Brienne’s long-awaited outpouring of rage was, so too watching the Hound face his end. One of the more transformative characters of the series, the Hound began life as we know it as Joffrey Baratheon’s muscle. He ended life pleading for Arya Stark to kill him, and the voyage from one point to the last was truly humanizing. If anyone tells you that they knew when he killed the butcher’s boy in Season 1 that his own end would be moving and empathy-inducing they’re lying or they’ve read ahead.
Speaking of endings, although it was the one that we were all waiting to see, Tyrion’s murder of Shae (did everyone just forget about her after the trial, I ask) and of Tywin sealed the dwarf’s fate in a sense that regardless of his prior innocence, made it certain he will never return to his prior status. Tyrion began the episode in a box of a room awaiting his death. He ended the episode in a box headed for Essos. In between, the familiar tune of “The Rains of Castamere,” which played as Tywin drew his final breaths, ushered Tyrion into his new life as an escaped convict.
Season 4 was in many ways a transitional season. After the Red Wedding of Season 3 essentially put an end to the War of the Five Kings as far as many viewers were concerned, new directions, characters and plot lines were needed, and in a hurry in order to maintain the public’s grasp on the story as a whole. “The Children” cemented many of those directions and it left us looking forward to Season 5 as those new players and places come into their own.