The Game of Thrones season finales are always relatively quiet, after the huge, shocking action of the week before. With episode 9 famous for beheading protagonists, epic battles and mass slaughters at weddings, episode 10 traditionally deals with the emotional fall-out, tying up loose ends and setting up for the season to come.
In that context, The Children was a pretty dramatic episode. Plot twists, epic sword fights, death, drama, the fate of at least one character still hanging in the balance... plenty of material for the most dramatic season finale of the show so far.
Yet it didn't have emotional coherency. And, of course, some of the narrative choices were enough to make my blood boil.
Where do whores go?
Let's start where the real drama was, shall we? After months of horrified viewer anticipation, Tyrion murdered Shae.
I suppose I could say that the scene was better than expected. At least Tyrion didn't kill Shae out of self-righteous revenge while the viewer cheered him on. But somehow, despite that change, the scene somehow came out worse. Tyrion killed her in self-defence, while Shae stayed silent, not a character or a suffering person but an event in Tyrion's narrative.
Even in her final moments, Shae had no opportunity to explain herself. She disappeared crying in episode two, took her moment on the stand during the trial in episode seven, and was now found in Tywin's bed and killed without the chance to say a single word in episode ten. A once compelling character was reduced to a series of disconnected dramatic moments, without any attempt to show how they actually fit together. Why didn't Shae leave King's Landing at the start of the season? Why did she implicate Sansa as well as Tyrion in the trial? Why would she believe Tyrion's lies in the first place, or testify against him at all when leaving would be the safest thing? Why was she in Tywin's bed -- because of fear for her life? Because she wanted Tywin to spare Tyrion's life? Because she's just going where the power is? We just don't know, beyond the dismissive idea that she's "just a whore." Her voice, her story, no longer mattered.
But hey. In the end, she turned out to be "just a whore," and we don't need any more explanation than that.
This lack of concern over Shae's characterization then shaped her death itself. Shaw saw Tyrion and instantly grabbed a knife, but we don't have the slightest idea why. Did she think Tyrion would hurt her and so wanted to protect herself? Did she just really want to kill Tyrion after what he did to her? Hey, maybe she got a badass new knife and just wanted to show it off. We don't know. Her character's internality doesn't matter, because her character doesn't matter -- she's just an accessory to Tyrion's character, and Tyrion needed to remain a tragic hero in the scene. So she raised a knife, allowing Tyrion to kill her "in self defense." He got to not only overpower her and subdue her but strangle her to death with his bare hands, all while feeling terribly bad about it, because he had to do it to save himself from his traitorous whore ex-girlfriend, and because we weren't given any emotional context for Shae's actions, we can easily sympathize with him. She spluttered and died, and all we saw was a close-up of Tyrion's tearstreaked face, because his pain was the one we were supposed to empathize with. And once she was dead, he whispered, "I'm sorry," firmly placing him in the "tragic hero forced to do something tragic" camp and erasing any possible objections to his actions. After all, he didn't want to do it. He was sorry.
In fact, he's such a good guy that he shot his father for calling Shae a whore! Forget that Tyrion called Shae a whore to her face in episode two to drive her away. Forget that he just murdered her, which is a tiny bit worse than insulting her. He's a good guy, desperately in love with someone who betrayed her, and even then, he will defend her until the last.
Of course, in the books, Tywin wasn't talking about Shae in his final moments. Tyrion shot him because he called Tyrion's once-wife Tysha a whore. This backstory has even been mentioned in the show before -- Tyrion met a girl named Tysha, fell in love with her and married her. His furious father told him that she was just a prostitute that Jaime had paid to pretend to love him, and "proved" it by paying her to sleep with all of his men, and Tyrion, one after the other.
The backstory was there, so why replace Tysha with Shae in these scene? After all, Tyrion cannot murder Shae one moment and then murder his father to protect her in the next. It presents an incredibly messed up interpretation of heroism and True Love, where one can murder someone and still be their champion and protector.
But invoking Tysha would screw up other male characters' plotlines, at least as far as the show is concerned. In the books, when Jaime releases Tyrion from prison, he tells his brother that Tysha wasn't a prostitute, but a girl who genuinely did love him. Tyrion despises his brother for this betrayal, denounces his entire family, and gets his revenge by telling Jaime about all the people Cersei had been sleeping with in his absence. But if Jaime revealed that he went along with his father's plan, we'd have to see him as someone who did something terrible to his brother. And although sister-rape is all fine and dandy in a heroic redemption arc, hurting your brother when you were both teenagers is absolutely beyond the pale. Better for them to part as loving brothers, without any of that confusing moral ambiguity getting in the way.
The things I do for love
Surprisingly, by avoiding besmirching Jaime's good name, the show also missed an opportunity to villainize Cersei and her cruel lack of faithfulness to him. Since Hero Jaime had just won his sister back in this episode, it'd be a punch to his gut to find out how much she'd betrayed him after all. And who doesn't love a good "he's a great guy, she's a whore" narrative? Right?
But no. Jaime and Cersei are a permanent item again, because... well, because they are. I'm not too clear on the justification for this one. Tywin threatens Cersei with marriage to Loras Tyrell, and she argues against it by saying she's been in love with Jaime all along and is going to be with him, no matter what anybody else says. So, Joffrey aside, that means Cersei's character arc this season is all about how wonderful Jaime is. She rejected Jaime, she was raped by Jaime, and then she realized that he was right all along, that she loved him and wanted to be with him, the rest of the world be damned. Isn't that great?
Even setting the "it totally didn't happen, guys!" rape scene aside, Cersei's decisions in this episode make absolutely no sense. Cersei has always cared desperately about two things: protecting her children and increasing her own power and influence. Confirming her relationship with Jaime directly endangers both of those things. But I guess motherly instinct and personal ambition are nothing compared to finally embracing true love with your rapist brother lover.
So Jaime gets what he wants, Jaime gets to have been right all along, and Cersei just becomes part of his heroic narrative, putting everything else she values in danger in the process. And I can't even be surprised.
But the biggest twist of the episode, at least to book readers, was the meeting between Brienne and Arya. To be clear, this doesn't happen in the books. As far as Book!Brienne is concerned, Sansa is the only living Stark child. But Brienne's search for Sansa does get somewhat repetitive, so throwing in a second Stark sibling has the potential to keep things compelling.
I have mixed feelings on this one. Really, really mixed feelings.
The bonding between Arya and Brienne was incredibly sweet. It felt genuine, and I think Brienne would make a fantastic ally and rolemodel for Arya, perhaps even helping to pull her back from the brink. And although Brienne would of course try to take Arya, the Hound also had a point. Where would she take Arya to safety? There's nowhere safe left. Arya has no family left. The south is hostile to her, the north is hostile to her, and the only potentially safe place is currently crawling with soldiers and wildlings and giants and killer ice zombies. Plus, although Jon is probably Arya's best shot at happiness, show!Brienne hasn't done her research, so she probably doesn't even know about his existence. As far as protectors go, she hasn't shown herself capable of doing a good job so far, so perhaps Arya would be better off with the Hound.
Except, of course, that the two of them end up fighting, the Hound is grievously wounded, and Arya runs away.
And this leaves us with two points of confusion. In the books, Arya leaves The Hound to suffer because she doesn't want to give him the mercy a quick death. But in the show, Arya and the Hound have become unlikely allies. They're not friends, but there's something of a bond between them. Something like trust. Yet she still leaves him to die slowly, without it really being clear why. Because she couldn't bring herself to do it? Unlikely, with all the cold killing she's done so far. Because of the things he said to goad her into stabbing him? She didn't seem affected by it. Because she's mindlessly cruel now? Not so mindless that she's willing to see anyone suffer. So why? It's a moment where the demands of book!canon -- Arya must leave the Hound and he must not be shown to die -- clash with the storyarc seen on the show, but where, strangely, the writers decided to cling to the book's instructions at the moment where it no longer made any sense.
The second problem involves Brienne. What will she do now? She's supposed to be hunting for Sansa, but she has a lead on Arya. She knows where she was recently, who she was with, has a current description of her, and may be able to track the direction she fled in. If she shrugs and goes back to looking for Sansa, that means she's pretty terrible at fulfilling her vow. But if she forgets Sansa and pursues Arya, we lose the "princess and her heroic knight" trope subversion that this arc is all about, and see Sansa left to fend for herself with Littlefinger. And despite her new badass talent for costume design and stair descending, she's still a young teenager who could use someone to protect her.
Ultimately, the problem with this episode was a problem we've seen all season. It didn't develop things or think things through. We watched a long sword fight between Brienne and the Hound, but if the Hound was willing to fight Brienne to protect Arya instead of using her for the ransom he'd been after all along, why was Arya then willing to ignore his wishes and abandon him to die slowly and painful? Cersei declared her love for Jaime, but what's changed to make her do that since last week? Stannis came storming in to save the Wall, but how did he defeat all of the wildlings without even a semblance of a battle? And although Tyrion's trial and potential death have been the main focus of the entire season, it was resolved incredibly quickly and easily. We didn't see Tyrion preparing for his inevitable death, or Jaime worrying over what to do for his brother. They ran out of a seemingly guardless prison, exchanged a few words, and were gone. Tyrion went up to his father's chambers, saw Shae, killed her, and was done. We got a more drawn-out death scene for Tywin, but it all felt a little empty and anti-climactic. Big drama on paper, yes, but not portrayed in the most convincing or compelling way. And since we had time for Tyrion's epic beetle speech a couple of weeks ago, surely we should have had time for more development here.
But hey, narrative flaws are far better than graphic nudity and titillating rape scenes. So, kudos to the show for getting through a finale without either of those. It's pretty tragic when that has to be mentioned as a point in a show's favor, but this is Game of Thrones. It's got much bigger issues than bad pacing and the story simply not making sense.