This season of Game of Thrones has been the most sprawling yet, and it ended with our central characters spinning even further away from each other. Arya is on a boat sailing to Braavos, Tyrion in a shipping crate headed for parts unknown, and Bran is further beyond the Wall than we've ever seen before. But there was brilliant thematic unity to "The Children," probably the best season finale the show has aired, which saw our titular children, be they Stark or Lannister, reject the lessons and control of their forebears and strike out on their own paths, for better or worse.
Leave aside consternation from book fans (including myself) over omitted scenes, one in particular that I discussed here, "The Children" made a wise choice artistically to conclude on Arya's departure from Westeros for the unknown promise of Braavos, finally cashing the coin that assassin Jaqen H'ghar gave her at the end of the second season. It doesn't function as some happy ending, more an open-ended one, but as Arya leaned over the side of the boat looking towards the future, with the score soaring behind her, it was hard not to feel elated for her for the first time in years.
Since fleeing King's Landing at the end of the first season, Arya has bounced around Westeros in the tow of someone or other—Yoren from the Night's Watch, Tywin at Harrenhal, the Brotherhood Without Banners, the Hound—with the vague promise of being reunited with her family. In this episode, she was given the chance at new, better companions in Brienne and Pod, who would legitimately fight to reunite her with her sister and restore her to Winterfell. Nonetheless, Arya's decision to cut all ties and flee felt like absolutely the right one. She's been told over and over again this season that following the rules will just gets her killed, and no matter whose hands she ends up in, she's a child, a female, and an heir to Winterfell. She'll be some sort of pawn no matter how noble her companion. Arya turned down Jaqen's offer of mentorship in season two because she wanted to reunite with her family, but she's evolved a lot since then.
Hard not to pity the Hound or Brienne after Arya's escape, though, especially considering the knock-down drag-out fight they got into over her. Brienne's brutality is always spectacular to watch, but it was still tough to see her and Sandor go blow for bloody blow before he tumbled down a hillside. Since Arya has slipped through her fingers, Brienne will be all the more frustrated in her quest to fulfill Jaime's promise to Catelyn Stark. The Hound, meanwhile, doesn't even get the mercy of a quick death from his travelling companion, although maybe he can rest easy knowing that he's not on her list anymore. Probably not, though.
Back to the titular children: the biggest breaking of family shackles came with the Lannisters, where Tywin's iron-fisted control of his children through blunt intimidation finally caught up with him. The season began with him forging new swords for Jaime and Joffrey, a son who rejected him and a grandson who was barely mourned after he was poisoned. All of his cunning and ruthless plans for a Lannister dynasty necessitated him ignoring what a mess he'd made of his children. Cersei threw her incestuous relationship with Jaime in his face, and then Jaime freed Tyrion from the dungeons. When confronted by the sight of Shae in his father's bed, Tyrion (who has spent this whole season slowly snapping) shot his unsympathetic father to death in the privy.
Before he did it, he reminded Tywin that he was absolutely his son—essentially saying that, if he'd been valued more, this confrontation would have been easily avoided. Tywin's problem is of course his utter lack of empathy—it got him this far, but it made it impossible to see what was happening right in front of him. His kids were pawns in an old-fashioned game of empire-building that dates back before the Mad King; with those crossbow bolts, Tyrion cut that down. Interestingly, he drags Varys along with him, as the spymaster casts one last mournful look at King's Landing and decides that even he has had enough. Perhaps he just knows his house of cards is about to collapse; Varys is as inscrutable as ever.
With his departure and Tywin's death, King's Landing is now in the hands of a child, the increasingly intense Cersei, the increasingly detached Jaime, and the Dr. Frankenstein-esque Qyburn, who nefariously gets to work on the Mountain's poisoned half-corpse. Perhaps Margaery can exert control over her husband-to-be, but it feels like the capital is about to go from a hub of intrigue to one of utter chaos.
Same goes for Meereen. Daenerys' plan to settle in and rule is off to a crappy start so far. An elderly house slave who enjoyed a more comfortable life asks to return to bondage, and Daenerys compromises by allowing him to work on a contract, which Barristan warns her may end up being slavery in all but name. There's no better way to sum up Daenerys' current flaw—she's a much better invader than ruler—than with the subsequent revelation that her biggest dragon, Drogon, burned a child to death. He remains at large and basically untamable, but the other two dragons are locked away in the catacombs, an even more painful compromise that robs Daenerys of her greatest asset.
Indeed, for the first time in a while, things seem a lot better at the Wall. Jon's plan to feign diplomacy with Mance Rayder and assassinate him is broken up by Stannis' invading army; for the first time in a while, the surviving Baratheon seems to be one step ahead of everyone and can proclaim himself a hero in the north. Jon, too, can maybe forge some kind alliance with the man Ned Stark died trying to put on the throne, although the extent to which the Night's Watch can support anyone in a civil war is limited. More interestingly is the fate of the Wildlings: Mance Rayder did not find his head on a block this episode, and Ciaran Hinds' fantastic, imposing work in his scenes with Jon and Stannis made me wish he'd been around all year. Hopefully he will have more to do next year.
The most esoteric and tonally jarring material came with the show's most frustrating storyline, Bran's trip to the magic tree beyond the Wall. The attack of the skeletons, while very Ray Harryhausen, was still a lot of fun to watch, and the loss of Jojen is sad but probably won't rob the series of much considering that Bran has reached his real Yoda, the three-eyed raven. The revelation of the three-eyed raven as an old wizard man living in a tree? This is the most Lord of the Rings this show has gotten, although there has always been a bit of a cheesy Zeppelin vibe to the beyond-the-Wall stuff, especially the White Walkers. The episode's title, "The Children," refers to the elfin helper-dudes who rescue Bran with magic fireballs. One can't really complain about the magic bent, because Bran's story is the most connected with magic returning to the world of Thrones. But it will likely remain the most puzzling for fans since it's so profoundly disconnected from everything else.
Nonetheless, even Bran's journey away from Winterfell ties into the overarching themes of the episode and the season. The titular game of thrones is no longer just a web of civil war and political intrigue, with strings pulled by various heads of various houses. It has roots in every part of the known world, involves players who barely comprehend their involvement in larger plots, and is as much about the supernatural as anything else. This show cannot help but get more sprawling, but as of now it's an incredibly satisfying experience. Who knows how it will keep hold of things in the future, but after a season like this, audiences have every reason to put their faith in Game of Thrones.