In its first season, “Game of Thrones” defined itself as a different kind of story with an execution that sent a very clear message. Traditional fairy tales end with children freed from bad witches and wolves in their grandmothers clothing and reunited with their parents. “Game of Thrones” is a story where parents are cut open, with their heads mounted on walls and their bodies thrown in rivers.
And yet the dead are always with us, particularly our parents. “The Children” is an episode about our inability to escape the lessons they are, and the people our parents, whether by birth or by choice, made us. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) may be a bastard and a member of the Night’s Watch, but he will always be Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) son. Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) may survive her entire family and may redefine what it means to bear that name, but she will always be the little girl whose father loved her enough to let her keep a sword in defiance of convention. Tywin Lannister’s (Charles Dance) children, the monstrous offspring of a legal, noble union will always reflect his hatreds.
It is a powerful idea, but one pulled off only partially successfully in “The Children,” which also suffers from the influence of what came before.
“Game of Thrones” created an enormous problem for itself earlier this season with its handling of what clearly read to many of us as Jaime Lannister’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rape of his sister Cersei (Lena Headey) as both were mourning for their secret son, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). The director of the episode in question, Alex Graves, insisted he had directed a consensual sex scene, though if that is the case, it is unclear how he defines consent. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were more ambiguous, a stance that may have helped them avoid short-term publicity headaches, but that lent an incoherence to their efforts to wrap up the Lannister family dynamic in this final episode.
It makes a certain amount of sense to me that Cersei, poisoned by her rage at her father and her brother, would tear down the lies that let them live with honor as the King’s Hand and the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. The venom in her voice when she forces Tywin to confront the truth seems just as dangerous as that which is leeching into Gregor Clegane’s (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) barely-living body. “You don’t know, do you?” Cersei said, with dangerous calm, in a beautiful piece of acting by Headey. “You never believed it. How is that possible? What am I saying, of course it’s possible? How can someone so consumed by the idea of his family have any actual idea of what his family is doing?…One look at your children and you would have known. Everything they say is true about Jaime and me.”
But given the assault and the way Cersei treated Jaime in the immediate aftermath of it, I do not believe that she would choose him in such a dramatic fashion. “Game of Thrones” does not make it particularly clear if Cersei believes that she still needs to seduce Jaime to secure Tyrion’s execution or to prevent her from being “dragged into sept to be married against [her] will.” Absent such a motivation, Cersei’s seduction of her brother and determination to live openly with him simply do not cohere into an emotionally compelling arc.
Similarly, the show’s bad mishandling of the rape scene make it difficult for “Game of Thrones” to pull together another shocking moment in the show, Tyrion’s murder of Shae (Sibel Kekilli). There is some lovely cinematography here in the juxtaposition between Tyrion’s exhausted face and Shae’s, distorted by death and turned weird, almost not human, by the camera angle.
But in between the sympathy generated by Peter Dinklage’s acting and the writing the showrunners have given him in response to his popularity, and “Game of Thrones” missteps in framing violence against women, I am not sure if the moment has the gravity necessary to elevate it.
Tyrion has taken a grave step here, becoming the kind of man who treats women in a way he once found despicable. It should be irrevocable, but I do not know if “Game of Thrones” can truly put off the important idea expressed here: Even a decent man can be poisoned by the environment that rejected him, and even a moral man can kill a woman and think himself, at least for a moment, justified. Tywin may be dead and humiliated, but by murdering Shae, Tyrion has acted like the sort of twisted person his family long believed him to be.
There are other missteps in the episode. The reveal of the Children of the Forest, the ancient people who take Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) to the three-eyed crow, comes via an action sequence that recalls, but does not elevate, the work of Ray Harryhausen and that feels more foolish than majestic.
Danerys’s (Emilia Clarke) decision to lock away her dragon children is, by contrast, beautifully shot as she descends into the darkness with them before locking them away from the light. With less time devoted to her storyline this season, though, it was easy to lose track of her emotional momentum towards the decision. Paralleling that choice to Dany’s decision to give former slaves permission to sell themselves back to their masters felt obvious and a bit rushed, rather than overwhelming and devastating. Unless “Game of Thrones” can start contracting storylines soon, such yarns will continue to fray.
But “The Children” does handle one storyline masterfully, the shattering of the odd little family that Arya has formed with the Hound. In a major diversion from Martin’s novel, Arya and the Hound (Rory McCann) run smack into Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). In a conversation as devastating as the masterfully executed fight that follows it, Sandor and Brienne spar over what is best for the little girl both of them have come to care for.
It is true all at once that Brienne of Tarth is the truest, most decent character in “Game of Thrones,” that she has tried her best to keep every oath she swore and that she has failed at all of them. Both Brienne and Sandor value Arya for who she is, for the fight and desperation for life in her. And neither of them can possibly take Arya anywhere where she could have the life they both want for her.
“There’s no safety,” Sandor snarls at the woman who wants to take Arya, the closest thing he will ever have to a daughter, away from him. “You don’t know that by now, you’re the wrong one to watch over her.” Brienne is skeptical. “That’s what you’re doing? Watching over her?” she wants to know. When Sandor, who has never claimed a virtue in his entire life, insists that he is, we know that in his own rough way, he is right. The viciousness of the fight between them that follows is that of parents who know they are both failing.
“Killed by a woman. I bet you like that,” Sandor tells Arya as he lies dying, making a canny nod across the fictional centuries to feminist revisions of fairy tales that also serves as a gesture of respect to Brienne. “Go on. Go after her. She’ll help you.” But Arya knows the truth: No parents can help her anymore.
Given all the violence, anger and pain of the episode, when Arya spots a little port town and puts her heels to her horse, it is hard not to tense in expectation that something terrible awaits her. But there is a peace that is almost strange, given what we have been taught to expect of Westeros, to her departure. For once, no one wants to hurt Arya. For once, the resources and the secret language she have been taught by one of her many odd father figures serve her as they ought. When the captain tells Arya “Of course, you shall have a cabin,” that quiet little transaction takes on the gravity of a miracle. And as Arya finally stops looking away from her homeland, from the dream of her family and the ashes of her home, she can see the sun coming through the clouds.
“Game of Thrones” spends a great deal of time distinguishing the worlds it is set in from our own through the application of brutality. But on Father’s Day, in an episode characterized by rotten relationships between fathers and their children, the show knits itself to our present with a fragile skein of hope.
Arya Stark has seen the biological father who raised her executed, lost her first surrogate father in battle, and abandoned the man who at the very end of his life loved her for what she was, a scrapper of a girl, an orphan, a cussed fighter who refused to die. But in “The Children,” Arya did what children are supposed to do, and which children are so infrequently permitted in Westeros: She grew up and left all of those families behind to seek out new adventures.