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.
Yes, Dany finally went on the offensive after being badly outmaneuvered in the previous two episodes, and at a minimum she has demonstrated the might of her remaining forces in the course of this overwhelming victory. But Lord Tarly mentioned at the start of the scene that the Tyrell gold had already made its way into King’s Landing, and it’s unclear exactly how much of the seized grain is in the convoy that Drogon burned versus the amount that made it safely with the gold. And despite the battle being so one-sided, it’s entirely possible — even probable — that there will be no casualties of note on the Lannister side of things. Bronn is able to leap juuuuuuuust out of the path of a Drogon flame burst when the scorpion gets destroyed, and later is able to shove Jaime a similarly safe distance when Drogon recovers enough from the crash landing to attack again. The closing shot of the episode is of a stunned Jaime, weighted down by his armor (armor Bronn is lucky — or clever — enough to not be wearing) and drifting further to the bottom of the river where Bronn shoved him, out of the frying pan and into the drowner. But based on past GoT experience, if Benioff and Weiss intended to kill Jaime, they’d have done it in a definitive way, either by letting Drogon burn him to ash, or being more clear about him drowning, as opposed to this cliffhanger. Coming back next week to Jaime drowning some more, or even Bronn (who abandoned his mercenary gold to keep fighting for the Lannister cause) emerging from the water and realizing he failed to save his benefactor, just won’t have the same emotional impact as seeing it explicitly happen here.
It’s a weird feeling to be put in a position to be rooting for the deaths of one or both of the show’s most entertaining characters at this late stage, but that’s where we are. If both Bronn and Jaime escape with minor injuries from a sequence presented as an utter curb-stomping, while a bunch of anonymous cannon fodder — and maybe Sam’s brother and/or father — die screaming, it can feel like a cheat. And that concluding sequence with Jaime, Drogon, and the river feels like a classic example of schmuck bait, which is what TV writers call moments where they tease an outcome that only the most naive viewer believes would ever happen.
We’ll have to see what the ultimate fallout of this massacre is, but on the whole, “The Spoils of War” was a strong week for the good guys after last week’s episode made them look like they had all outsourced their strategy to Patrick Star.
The three surviving (official) Stark siblings finally reunite at Winterfell, as it turns out that Arya’s encounter with Nymeria didn’t shake her resolve to go home, even though she clearly still intends to go to King’s Landing to kill Cersei and the remaining people on her list(*). As with Bran’s return, it’s a bittersweet reunion; Arya has retained more social graces than her brother (who insists to everyone — including a tear-stricken Meera — that he’s only vaguely Bran Stark anymore), but she is very clearly not the girl Sansa remembers, as demonstrated during her marvelous sparring match with Brienne of Tarth. That was a superb bit of business put together by Shakman, the stunt team, and Maisie Williams, all of whom made it plausible that Arya could not only match up with a woman with such a huge advantage in size and experience, but was holding herself back most of the time(**). Sansa has had to learn to be strong in ways of the mind and heart, but she certainly can’t fight like her little sister, and she seemed more than a little dismayed to watch who and what Arya had become during their long separation.
(*) If I’m remembering correctly, Arya’s list still includes Cersei, the Mountain, Melisandre, Beric and Thoros, and executioner Ilyn Payne. She’s killed many from the list like Walder Frey and Merryn Trant, while others Joffrey and Tywin were killed before she could get to them. My guess is that there’s not enough time left in the series for her to deal with them all, but the writers have so heavily leaned on her desire to kill Cersei that it would be a shame if they didn’t meet before the end.
(**) Though she credits her schooling to “no one” — a mixture of being self-taught and spending so much time with the Faceless Men — her one-handed swordsmanship evoked not only Syrio Forel, but the fictional character to whom I often compared Syrio: Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, who often fought one-handed, and/or with his off-hand, just to keep himself interested in fights where he was the overwhelming favorite.
And after Littlefinger’s speech last week about how he is always prepared for every eventuality, two different Stark children do a nice job of shutting him up. First, Bran — after being gifted the Valyrian steel dagger that was part of the assassination plot against him early in season one (and that will likely be used by Arya against a White Walker at some point: Chekhov’s dagger) — quotes Littlefinger’s “Chaos is a ladder” line from an old conversation with Varys, making clear just how much and how far the Three-Eyed Raven can see. And he seems no more pleased to see Arya’s new ninja skills — and that’s without knowing she can shapeshift!
Yet the Stark reunion is interesting in how it feels weirdly counter-productive. Usually, Game of Thrones can be frustrating when it pushes characters further and further apart, and is more satisfying when people come back together. I was certainly relieved when we saw Arya approaching Winterfell — and again when Sansa found her in the crypt, as opposed to my brief fear that Arya made it all the way to the castle before immediately turning around because she no longer felt at home there — happy to see the sisters hug, and then to see that great sparring session. But it’s almost a stall in its own way for what her story is really about now. I’m glad she came home, and glad to watch those scenes, but her plot seems to demand a showdown with Cersei; this is just delaying that. It’s also useful, though, in temporarily shutting down the constant speculation about whether this character or that character is really Arya in disguise — a perhaps unintended consequence of making Arya able to alter not only her face, but everything about her appearance — which was a distraction that could distance viewers from any scene because they would never fully believe a particular character — Cersei’s chambermaid? Tycho? Bronn? — wasn’t really Arya going all Faceless Man again.
The surviving Starks are all quite powerful now. Arya is a deadly assassin, Bran can see through time and space, Sansa is a smart and charismatic regent of the North, and Jon is a respected leader who — thanks in part to his discovery of cave paintings showing the Children of the Forest banding together with the First Men to defeat the White Walkers (whom the Children originally created to try to kill the First Men, before realizing their creations had become too dangerous) — seems on the verge of getting Dany’s help in battling the Night King’s army. That he hasn’t yet bent his knee to her — even after admitting that all the current squabbles over who occupies which throne are a waste of time compared to the threat approaching from beyond the Wall — seems itself a silly delaying tactic. But Jon has at least started to convince Dany that the threat is real, and she trusts him enough to listen to his counsel when he warns her against simply burning King’s Landing to the ground.
And even if the climactic battle winds up having little overall impact on the war, it was exciting in a way that a lot of season seven really hasn’t been so far, as the show is still in slow burn mode despite the late hour and shorter season, and leaning a bit too heavily on certain actors or characters who aren’t up to the load. But when Jaime was riding furiously up and down the line, trying to get the troops ready for an attack Bronn suggested they had no hope of surviving, my pulse quickened in a way that it does when Game of Thrones is at its absolute best. This is at times more a collection of great moments than a great show, but when the moments are this great, I question no one who puts up with the flaws to get to them.
Some other thoughts
* Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Gossiper of Secrets Daenerys Stormborn sure seemed eager to hear more about Missandei and Grey Worm’s very special time together. A rare light moment for Dany, who usually seems to vacillate between apocalyptic passion and grey frustration.
* On the one hand, Podrick is still absolutely no match for Brienne (which nicely prepped us for how much better Arya was against the same foe). On the other, she is slowly learning to accept and even like his presence, here stopping herself from her usual correction of his attempts to call her “my lady.”
* A nice touch amid all the Dothraki/dragon carnage: after Jaime and Bronn have spent two episodes making fun of Dickon’s name, Sam’s brother goes and saves Jaime’s life when he’s on the verge of being cut down by a Dothraki, and generally seems to acquit himself well in the battle despite being justifiably afraid.
* Since it looks like Cersei will be able to pay her debt to the Iron Bank, she should be in a position to hire the Golden Company from Essos to help her battle Dany’s forces. I wonder if perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Daario after all, and he’ll figure out some way to prevent this.
* No credits map changes this week, and now that Highgarden and Casterly Rock have both been sacked and abandoned (assuming the Unsullied are preparing to march across the continent to rejoin their queen), there don’t seem to be any significant locations remaining to add, or at least not any that have already been discussed.
What did everybody else think?