Even George R.R. Martin might have needed to rewind a couple times to figure out some of the characters' motivations in the Game of Thrones season finale. There were out-of-left-field plot twists and self-destructive choices, some of which weren't in the books. But here's one secret to making sense of the whole shebang.
It's not just that a lot of stuff in "The Children" was pretty different than the books last night (either in what happened, or why it happened), but also a lot of the characters seemed to be behaving in wild, self-destructive fashions. And the best way to make sense of all this behavior seems to be to keep a few things in mind:
1) Even more than in the books, most of these characters aren't only motivated by the pursuit of power — and will actually choose other things over power a lot of the time
2) Most of these characters want something they can never have — and the show has gone of its way to build that up over the past season or two.
3) This past season, in particular, has been about showing a bunch of these characters setting themselves up for self-destruction, in part because they cling to their illusions.
4) As Martin is fond of pointing out lately, the small changes the show has made to the books have had a snowball effect, so certain things aren't in place to motivate people, the way they were in the books.
So with those things in mind, what do we make of some of the wild decisions we saw people making last night?
Cersei comes out to her father
If Cersei was motivated purely by the love of power, she would never admit to her father that all the stories are true and she's been having sex with her brother Jaime under Tywin's nose, all this time. After all, if Cersei comes clean with this publicly, as she threatens to, then she won't be the mother of a king any more — she'll be disgraced, and it's possible Tommen will even be overthrown violently. She'd be better off marrying Loras Tyrell and then arranging an accident for him in a year or two.
But Cersei wants, more than anything, to keep her hold on her son Tommen, and to keep the independence she's had since her last husband, King Robert, died. Tommen will soon be married to Margaery Tyrell, who's already married two kings and is good at wrapping them around her finger — and Tywin also has lots of ideas for guiding Tommen in the right direction.
Cersei tells Tywin that she was willing to poison Tommen and herself rather than let them be captured by Stannis, when she thought they'd lost the battle of Blackwater. And she's willing to "burn this house down" with the secret of her and Jaime's incest, to keep her hold on Tommen intact.
And then Cersei goes back to Jaime — who raped her next to their son's fresh corpse, not long ago — and seduces him, even while he's still pissed about her scheming to have their brother Tyrion executed. Cersei tells Jaime that she "chooses" him once and for all, and that she's told their father about their relationship because she's ready to flaunt it openly. They'll just ignore the jokes from the little people.
It's hard to see how Cersei thinks this is going to end up — is Tywin going to accept her staying in King's Landing and flaunting her relationship with Jaime, because the alternative is Cersei announcing it publicly? Is Jaime going to be so overjoyed at the resumption of their relationship that he'll fight Tywin over the marriage to Loras?
It only really makes sense if you think that Cersei wants something she can never have (complete control over her last remaining son) and she's willing to throw away everything for a slim chance at it.
And meanwhile, Cersei is dabbling in some weird science — Qyburn, the disgraced former maester who saved Jaime's arm from wholesale amputation, has some totally crazy ideas for how to save the life of Gregor Clegane, who was mortally wounded and poisoned with manticore venom in the fight with Oberyn. Grand Maester Pycelle is horrified, but Cersei is all for turning Gregor into a zombie killing machine, because she'll have a lot of people that need killing soon enough.
As for Jaime, when Cersei comes to visit him, he's staring at his entry in the big white book of Kingsguard members, which still basically says that he killed one king and then another king died on his watch. Jaime very much wants to love Cersei openly, in public — but he also wants, more than anything, to distinguish himself as commander of the Kingsguard, something that's less and less likely as time goes on.
And Jaime also wants to be loyal to his whole family, including Tyrion — which is why he goes and releases Tyrion from the black cell, to deliver him to Varys. Tyrion is bound for the Free Cities — except that Tyrion makes a pitstop first.
Tywin can't give up his illusion of control
Tywin Lannister has always seemed like the steely-eyed master of every situation, in complete control and five steps ahead of most other players. He took out Robb Stark without lifting a finger, and he dealt a blow to Daenerys just by revealing a buried secret about Jorah Mormont's spying.
But Tywin's control has always been an illusion, and this past season has been slowly revealing that — he has no heir, unless he can convince or coerce Jaime Lannister to abandon his Kingsguard vows. (Or unless he can accept Tyrion as his real son, something he seems incapable of doing.) And as Cersei puts it in "The Children," Tywin is so obsessed with the idea of family, he's blinded to the reality of his family — he's spent all this time and effort protecting the future of children who were the product of incest. A fact that's as plain as the hair on the children's heads.
So Tywin is caught flat-footed by Cersei's blatant confession. Way more than you might have expected at this point. And the look on his face is actually quite fascinating — he can't even take it in. To accept what Cersei is saying would mean to admit that he's completely fumbled the ball. When Tywin was setting up the marriage to Loras, he out-maneuvered Lady Olenna brilliantly — but now that same marriage is in doubt because Tywin missed the huge obstacle that was right in front of his face all this time.
And for his part, Tyrion has a chance to get away clean from King's Landing, without anybody raising the alarm until he's long gone — but he throws this away for one last confrontation with Tywin. In the books, Tyrion's reasons for going to see Tywin are somewhat more complicated, but in the show, Tyrion simply wants to know why Tywin condemned him to death for a crime Tywin knows he didn't commit. (Poisoning Joffrey.)
And when Tyrion gets to Tywin's chambers in the Tower of the Hand, he finds a surprise: Shae, in Tywin's bed, calling Tywin "my lion" — the same thing she used to call Tyrion. After Tywin spent so long telling Tyrion he would hang the next sex worker he found in Tyrion's bed, why is Tywin sleeping with Shae himself? Is it symbolic revenge against Tyrion? Is he trying to prove his mastery over his son, by showing that he can even take away his son's kept woman?
It's a mystery — but given how much time this show spent on Shae's jealousy and her anger at Tyrion reasserting her status as a sex worker when he sent her away, it seems as though Shae is partly sleeping with Tywin as a kind of revenge against Tyrion, whom she already destroyed in his murder trial.
When Shae sees Tyrion, she goes for a knife, and Tyrion winds up strangling her to death, overcome with rage and grief at her ultimate betrayal.
So when Tyrion finds Tywin on the privy and has a crossbow aimed at him, Tywin's instinct is to pretend he's still in control over the situation. Tywin first agrees with Tyrion's statement that Tywin has always wanted his son dead, but then claims to respect Tyrion's will to live. Tywin tries to claim he was never going to let Tyrion be executed, and — forcing the words out — says Tyrion is his son, and a Lannister.
The amazing thing is, Tywin might actually have succeeded in talking Tyrion down — Tyrion seems distraught and nearly mad with rage, grief and remorse at his murder of Shae — but Tywin's pride once again screws everything up. Tywin can't bear to treat Shae (the woman he was just screwing) with respect, even if it costs him his life. Tyrion basically tells his father that if he says the word "whore" one more time, he'll shoot him — and Tywin can't keep from saying that word. And then, when he's already badly wounded, he tells Tyrion "You're no son of mine." And then he's shot again, fatally.
Tywin's actual control over events, which has always stemmed from his gritty realism, collides with his delusion of being in complete control (where his family is concerned), and as a result he loses everything.
Arya turns down a rescuer in shining armor
At long last, someone shows up to rescue Arya Stark — someone with a pure heart and noble intentions — and Arya isn't interested. I don't know what was a bigger surprise: that Brienne recognizes Arya, or that Arya basically tells her to go fuck herself.
The meeting between Arya and Brienne of Tarth is fascinating, including the whole fan-ficcy sequence where they admire each other's swords and compare notes about having been two high-born girls whose fathers, reluctantly, accepted their desire to learn to fight. They have so much in common, you immediately want the two of them to become best friends and have adventures together.
There are just a few problems: Brienne has nothing concrete to offer Arya at this point, because there's no safe place left to take Arya to. Arya has had her hopes dashed so many times, she sees the whole thing as a cruel joke, and she no longer wants to be "saved". And Brienne is decked out in fancy armor, with a Valyrian steel sword, which Sandor Clegane correctly identifies as coming from "Lannister gold" — albeit because of Jaime's guilt and sense of obligation, rather than a Lannister plot.
Brienne's mission to fulfill her oath to Catelyn Stark is futile, and getting more pointless all the time — and meanwhile, Arya only wants revenge, not some illusion of safety.
And meanwhile, what does the Hound want? He's been saying all along that he's only keeping Arya around for the reward money from her family — but there's no reward coming now that Lysa Arryn is dead, and yet the Hound still tells Brienne that he's "watching over" Arya. Thanks to Arya's desire for revenge, the Hound has a price on his head from the Lannisters, and now he has no hope of getting fuck-you money from anyone.
Basically, all three of the people in this situation are hopeless, and their desires have already been thwarted. So Brienne and the Hound have a highly entertaining but utterly futile battle, in which the Hound is apparently mortally wounded. And then the Hound tries to goad Arya into finishing him off, but Arya instead robs him and leaves him to die slowly.
And then Arya randomly finds a boat whose captain is heading back to Braavos. At first, Arya wants to pay for passage North, to the Wall (presumably to find Jon Snow, the last living relative she knows about). But understandably, nobody wants to sail up to the frozen deadly North for any amount of money — so instead, Arya at last uses the iron coin that the assassin Jaqen H'ghar gave her, and the codephrase Valar Morghulis ("All men must die") which gets her the response, Valar Dohaeris ("All men must serve") and free passage to Braavos. The land of bankers and assassins!
Jon Snow makes a dishonorable choice, but Stannis makes a selfless one
Jon Snow has been torn between divided loyalties a lot in the past few years, while he was undercover with the Wildlings, and in love with Ygritte. But he's always remained true to his own code of honor. Except in "The Children," he comes close to an act of total dishonesty, that would have rivaled the Red Wedding.
Jon walks into Mance Rayder's camp... and surrenders. He claims he's there to negotiate with the King Beyond the Wall, and drinks with Mance to the memory of Ygritte, and to the giant Mag the Mighty and Grenn the farmer who killed him. Mance is brutally honest with Jon about how screwed the Night's Watch is, but also offers a pledge: nobody else has to die, if the Night's Watch just lets the Wildlings hide on the other side of the Wall, from the awful terrors that winter will bring.
But Jon isn't there to negotiate in good faith — as he told Samwell last week, he just wants to murder Mance in the hopes that his army will fall apart without him. As Mance puts it, "Are you capable of that, Jon Snow? Killing a man in his own tent when he's just offered you peace? Is that what the Night's Watch is? Is that what you are?" We never get to see Jon's answer or his decision, because a moment later, Mance's army is under attack. (And then Mance has a knife at Jon's throat in seconds, proving that Jon probably wouldn't have succeeded in any case.)
But even contemplating this move shows that Jon's honor isn't what it was cracked up to be — and Jon won't admit to Stannis what he was up to. When Stannis and Davos ask why Jon was with Mance, he claims it was just to negotiate terms. This isn't the first time we've seen Jon being a bit duplicitous this season — he also led that costly sortie to Craster's Keep, claiming it was just to keep the mutineers from divulging any intel to the Wildlings. But actually, it was at least in part because Jon suspected (correctly) that Bran had ended up there, and might need rescuing.
When Jon realizes who Stannis is, he plays up the fact that his father, Ned Stark, died defending Stannis' claim to the throne, and calls Stannis "your grace." But then he turns around and tells the captive Tormund that "I have no king." Which is it? He convinces Stannis to treat the captive Mance Rayder decently and listen to what he has to say, but won't make any promises to Tormund about the treatment of the prisoners, because it's up to Stannis. And he won't admit to Tormund that he loved Ygritte. But he does follow Tormund's suggestion, and takes Ygritte back North of the Wall, where she belongs, to burn her body.
All in all, Jon is becoming a pretty adept politician, and he's willing to compromise all of his principles when there seems to be no other choice left.
As for Stannis, he's gotten a ton of gold from the Iron Bank of Braavos — enough to buy himself an army and tons of ships. He might even be able to attack King's Landing successfully this time, since nobody would see him coming. But instead, he takes that awesome fighting force North, to the place where Braaavosi captains fear to sail. Not because it will help him gain the Iron Throne, but because a whole season ago, Davos and Melisandre agreed (for once) that the real fight is against the ancient evil attempting to cross the Wall.
Stannis chooses his desire to be the legendary hero of Melisandre's visions over his conviction that he should sit on the Iron Throne — and uses his second chance to fight Wildlings instead of Lannisters. (In the books, at this point, Stannis has no Braavosi gold, making his choice much less self-sacrificing.)
Even Stannis seems not entirely sure why he's here. He's not dressed for winter, he's annoyed with the King Beyond the Wall who won't kneel and surrender, and he's not all that interested in the logistics of dealing with a defeated army of Wildlings who have to be chained up and fed. But we catch one glimpse of Melisandre, through the smoke of burning dead Crows, and she seems pretty fascinated with Jon Snow.
Why can't Daenerys see she's already failed?
At this point, the writing is already on the wall for Daenerys Targaryen's glorious new regime in the former slave city of Meereen. She gets two wake-up calls in a row, which ought to convince her that she's lost control over the situation. Like Stannis, she has an awesome army, which might be enough to take King's Landing, and like Stannis, she's chosen a noble cause far away instead.
Daenerys' first wake-up call comes from an elderly former slave, who was tutor to a wealthy man's children. And now, he's free — but homeless and jobless. He flatters Daenerys, and instead of just insisting that he ought to try and turn his former slave-job into a paid vocation, she agrees to let him sign a one-year contract with his former master, so he can return to the fold.
And Barristan Selmy, her one remaining Westerosi advisor, immediately tells her that she's just given away the farm to the former slave-masters, by giving them a massive loophole. Unfortunately, transitioning a slave economy to a free one means having some place to put all these former slaves, and some way to provide for them. (Just as Stannis is faced with the dilemma of what to do with tens of thousands of captured Wildlings.)
And then a man comes to see Daenerys, with the charred remains of his three-year-old daughter — reportedly killed by Drogon, the dragon that nobody has seen for a few days.
So Daenerys is forced to take her other two dragons down to the catacombs and chain them up, so they, at least, won't kill any peasants' children. If she were in Westeros, there might be people around with some knowledge of dragon-wrangling, handed down from the era when dragons were around in the past. But in Meereen, she's got no choice but to chain them up.The symbolism is stark — back in Astapor, she told the masters that a dragon is not a slave. But now, she's chaining two of her dragons up with collars, just as she's backsliding on her insistence that all the former slaves must be free. The expression on her face as she chains the dragons up and then closes the big stone behind her is pretty miserable. And their screeching as they realize what she's done...
Daario Naharis tried to warn her, with his complicated flower metaphor, that Daenerys couldn't rule a country she didn't understand — and now her cherished illusions about being both the Mother of Dragons and breaker of chains are starting to conflict, painfully.
Bran is in the middle of a full-on Ray Harryhausen fantasy epic
And finally, another surprise for readers of the books — Jojen Reed gets slaughtered by wights (walking skeletons with a Ray Harryhausen vibe to them.) Because of his "greenseeing" visions of the future, Jojen has known for a while that he was going to be killed soon — but he was willing to die, in order to deliver Bran to the Three-Eyed Raven, who turns out to be an old man enmeshed in a tangle of tree roots.
Bran, Meera and Hodor get rescued by a young girl, who seems to be another one of the Others, but is actually one of "the Children," who were ancient before the First Men came along. The wights can't come inside the Three-Eyed Raven's tree-root sanctuary, because "the power that moves them is powerless here," according to their rescuer — who shoots lots of fireballs at the wights while saving Bran and the others.
Bran finally meets the figure from his dreams, who says that he's been watching Bran his whole life, "with 1000 eyes and one." Now Bran has come at last, "though the hour is late." And that Jojen died so that Bran could find what he's "lost" — not his ability to walk, but something more metaphysical. Bran will never walk again, says the Three-Eyed Raven — but he will fly.
And it's at this point that you have to pause and reflect on how over-the-top the fantasy elements in Game of Thrones have gotten. There are not just dragons, but skeleton soldiers, and an ancient mystical tree guy who hints at an epic destiny for Bran. Stannis has come north, in part, because his magical priestess sees an epic battle against evil brewing in the North.
To the extent that people's decisions on this show aren't purely a function of desperation and cherished illusions, they're acting in the service of a big crazy fantasy good-vs-evil adventure whose contours we're only just beginning to see the edges of.