A review of tonight’s Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as I learn that men shit themselves when they die…
“Enough with the clever plans. I have three large dragons.” –Dany
“The Spoils of War” is the shortest Game of Thrones episode ever, clocking in well under 50 minutes between the opening and closing credits. If you’re going to be that brief with such a dense show — especially with so few minutes remaining overall, you’d best provide something really memorable with the time you do use.
Fortunately, the episode provided that with both barrels, presenting one of the series’ most impressive and thrilling action sequences, as Jaime, Bronn, and a bunch of overmatched Lannister soldiers experience the sheer terror of a Dothraki horde in full motion — and their one-woman/dragon air force swooping in right behind.
Game of Thrones doesn’t go for sheer extended carnage that often, both because it’s too expensive and difficult, and because it would render each huge battle less special if they happened all the time. But even more than Euron’s flaming assault on Yara’s fleet (which was shot at night in a deliberately more chaotic fashion, and involved a bunch of third and fourth-stringers living and dying), this was a marvelous combination of spectacle and character: thrilling and frightening because of how amazing it both looks and sounds, and because we’re invested deeply in Jaime, Dany, Tyrion, and even Bronn. (Well, maybe we don’t have as extreme an emotional investment in Bronn, but I’d wager he’s on most fans’ favorite character shortlist.)
As with the Night King’s assault on Hardhome, Dany’s attack on the Lannister troops was given a masterful build-up by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and director Matt Shakman(*), along with the rest of the crew and special effects team, with Bronn and then Jaime realizing the danger just from the sound of it, long before they could see exactly who and what was about to be upon them. The sense of impending doom just builds and builds before we can even see the horde(**) in motion, and once that happens… well, the show has spent years building the Dothraki up as this nightmarish threat, and while earlier seasons offered glimpses of them causing trouble in Essos, there was always a sense that this was the minor leagues. Here, they’re playing against the big club, and with a bit of help from Dany and Drogon, they tear the Lannister column to shreds.
(*) Shakman’s arrival continues a longtime love affair between Game of Thrones and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where he’s directed 44 episodes. That he’s been able to toggle back and forth between comedy like that and dramas like Fargo and The Good Wife suggested he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the challenge, and the Birdman-style Always Sunny episode was a reminder of the kind of technical wizardry he can help orchestrate even on a vastly smaller scale than what we saw here.
(**) One thing the show has never done a good job of is illustrating the size of various fleets. It wasn’t clear back in the day how much of Stannis’ navy got taken out in “Blackwater,” for instance, and here it’s surprising when Tyrion says that they still have enough ships to transport the Dothraki to Westeros proper, even after Euron torched so many boats over the previous two episodes.
It’s more than a little bit the show’s riff on a Native American attack on unsuspecting cavalrymen, and the sequence as a whole mixes Western tropes in with fantasy ones. Bronn manning Qyburn’s anti-aircraft “scorpion” looked for all the world like a desperate gunslinger — say, William Holden or another member of The Wild Bunch taking a turn on the Gatling gun — trying to get off an impossible shot against an unbeatable foe. This was the actors, the VFX team, and the rest of the crew all working in perfect harmony to turn an epic fantasy moment into something that also felt real and personal — Bronn muttering, “Come on, ya fucker” while waiting to take his second and final shot at Drogon — at the same time.
And where “Hardhome” featured a relentless force ripping through the good guys, this was the opposite. We may like Jaime and Bronn to varying degrees (or at least enjoy watching them), but the series has positioned Dany on one side of the moral scale, and Cersei’s forces on the other, so where “Hardhome” was a mixture of thrills and fear, this was more of a rousing triumph, at least until Bronn managed to temporarily ground Drogon, and Jaime stubbornly charged at the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Commenter of Blog Posts. Tyrion’s presence isn’t all that necessary strategically — he’s a bad fighter, and the Dothraki and Drogon both know what to do once they’re pointed in the right direction — but forcing him to watch his brother suicidally charge his queen put a pit in my stomach much like the one he likely had.
And yet… there’s a part of me asking how much that spectacle actually mattered, beyond being exciting in the moment.