Yes, a dragon (Drogon, specifically) did the dragon things we’ve been waiting for all this time in “Spoils of War.” We’ve had teases along the way with the slave traders, the House of the Undying and the Battle of Meereen. But this? This was satisfying, momentous television history. Exactly how many stunt men got lit up like torches for this episode? How enormous was the CG budget? How many man-hours went into planning, staging, filming and finalizing those fifteen minutes of footage?
Let’s see if I learned the right words to do it justice back at my own fancy lad school.
Chronology be damned. After six and a half years of waiting, we’re skipping right to the main event. Daenerys has suffered nothing but humiliating defeats since her return to Westeros. Euron Greyjoy has decimated her forces and deprived her of both allies and ships (begging the question how the final scene was even possible but, we’ll ignore that logistical conundrum). So, naturally, she should go burn his fleet, right?
That would make sense. But after both Tyrion (1-2 in battle planning, though his father sopped up all the glory of his one win) and Jon (1-1, but with a necessary assist from a villain after he scrapped battle plans with a foolish solo charge, and the loss being forgivable, since it was to forces of the supernatural) suggest she should not annihilate the Red Keep with dragonfire, Daenerys instead takes her Dothraki horde and her largest dragon to rout the bounty train that is trucking the spoils of the Lannisters’ Highgarden victory to King’s Landing. If she can diminish King’s Landing’s supplies before they get there, she can shorten the war and not have to burn cities to prevail.
Remarkably, Jaime’s forces are taken almost completely unaware. Maybe that is because he is so preoccupied. Despite having wagonloads of gold and provisions, Jaime has been feeling morose after his encounter with Olenna. Bronn japes at him and at Dickon, while Randyll Tarly sourly suggests flogging stragglers to hurry the wagon train along. The gold, conveniently, makes it inside the gates before they hear the hoofbeats and war cry of the Dothraki. (Pathetic lack of outriders and scouting there, Golden-handed Commander.) The Lannister men form a phalanx of shields and spears to blunt the assault, an effort rendered futile when Drogon flies over, spewing fire. His gouts reduce many foot soldiers to ash, then incinerate the supply train.
Withstanding the assault of unconventional foreign fighters who stand in their saddles to fire arrows and leap to the ground for hand-to-hand combat with razor sharp arakhs would be challenging enough. Jaime’s hopelessness in the face of that, plus the aerial menace, is palpable. Although the world of ice and fire has known dragons before, he’s like a caveman encountering an F-16. His overmatched forces have Cersei’s ballista (scorpion, Jaime calls it), though, and after cheating certain death to reach it, Bronn eventually serves a bolt into Drogon’s shoulder. The dragon spirals, but lands safely. It wrecks the weapon and would have ended Jaime’s foolishly valiant charge of the light brigade in cremation, had Bronn not swept him into the river at the last possible moment. The show ends with Jaime sinking into the abyss (My, that river is deep at the shoreline that he rode through only moments before!), weighed down both literally and figuratively by his Lannister armor.
Jaime is not dead, by the way. He alone knows Olenna’s secret. Then there’s the whole “valonqar” thing. No candidates for Cersei’s ultimate demise can fall yet. There is too much depth left to be plumbed for him to die. The better question is whether he will escape to King’s Landing and have to face his sister, or be taken prisoner for a third time.
Many little vignettes stand out. Bronn wants a castle to go with the bag of gold Jaime gave him. The castle will have to wait for the war to end, and he loses even the gold after a Dothraki screamer cuts his horse from under him, forcing him to choose between survival and greed. He survives, so Jaime does, too. But not because of loyalty. Remember, Bronn wouldn’t fight for Tyrion when he could no longer pay, and he didn’t save Jaime for altruistic reasons, either. Sellswords must be paid. Bronn has always been true to his sellsword nature. And Jaime is his only hope of payment.
Jaime only survived to be rescued a second time because Dickon saved him from certain death in the initial skirmish. He did this despite being the subject of ruthless hazing. Sam’s brother, who appeared the very image of his arrogant sourpuss of a father when we first met him, has a streak of humanity. Weakness, Randyll would call it.
Tyrion watches the end of the battle from a nearby hilltop. This is narratively convenient, but otherwise improbable. Earlier in the episode, Dany accused him of making weak battle plans since he’s conflicted about defeating his own family. That personal conflict is placed on full display. He winces when the first ballista bolt narrowly misses Drogon, and he is fully distraught when the second one connects. He is equally concerned for Jaime in the end, saying to himself, “Flee, you idiot.”
An interesting question: Why is Tyrion there in the first place, seemingly under guard by Dothraki warriors who must be on the disabled list, or something, since they are on foot (Shame! Shame!)? Daenerys doesn't need, and presumably would not listen to, any advice from him on war strategy. He may be there to negotiate after the battle. But it sure looks as if he's there only because Dany wanted him to see.
HBO’s staging brilliantly portrayed the confusion and terror of a battle scene. It gave us fire-breathing dragons, sure. But seeing it from the Lannisters’ perspective leant a distinctly human element to it. Through the eyes of Jaime, Bronn, and even Tyrion, we felt the peril, the futility of being hopelessly overmatched, the certainty that but for the strictures of story-telling convention, this moment in time would draw their existence to a sudden and merciless end. The scene did not so much celebrate Dany’s glory as lament the foolish notion that any cause could be valuable enough to entice anyone to face this certain annihilation.
The decision that led to this historic moment happened offstage. Jon had said Daenerys did the impossible by bringing dragons back into the world, and that her followers must believe she can make other miracles happen and maybe make a better place of the “shit world” that they live in. But if Daenerys used the dragons to melt castles and burn cities, then she would be no different from the others. She would be “more of the same.”
This should resonate with Daenerys. Remember, she does not want to be another spoke on the Iron Throne wheel; she wants to break the wheel. The attack, horrifying as it was, strikes a middle ground between passively waiting for the city to surrender to avoid starvation, and burning it to the ground. The attack was on soldiers—humanized though they were in the campfire scene with Arya and Ed Sheeran—not on a city full of helpless citizens. Dany was hemorrhaging hope after losing all her homeland allies. She needed a win. But can she reconcile the paradox of her aspirations: Is there such a thing as a benevolent conqueror?
Maybe she can win hearts by helping defeat a more omnipotent threat than Cercei. In an earlier scene, Jon showed her cave drawings of men working with Children of the Forest to defeat the White Walkers in the past, proving that (unless he or Davos is a speed artist), the enemy to the north is real. Dany says she will fight for the North, just as soon as Jon bends the knee. When he again resists, she accuses him of putting his pride before the good of his people, an argument reflecting back to Jon’s own words to Mance Rayder when Stannis sought his pledge of loyalty.
Is it pride, though? Or is Jon merely afraid of telling Lyanna Mormont that he surrendered the North to another Southern dragon wrangler? Ultimately it seems the biggest difference between Jon and Daenerys might be that one craves the throne, while the other has had the yoke of leadership slammed down upon his back.
Other stuff happened, too. Stuff that in the past might have been centerpiece material. You know, but for dragons.
Arya set out to become No One. Bran has done it. Meera takes her leave of him, and he can muster no more than a flat “thank you” for the sacrifices she and Jojen made for him. He explains that he is not Brandon Stark of Winterfell any longer, that he’s seen so much more now. His inability to rouse a shred of emotion to accompany his spoken gratitude crushes her soul. She says that Bran died in that cave, and he does not even bother to disagree. You can’t help feeling bad for her. Or for anyone who tries to get the slightest modicum of emotional satisfaction out of Bran, really. Most of his mind is focused on the infinite replay and livestream of Life, in the global sense. His corporeal present is worth very little attention.
So, is Meera’s role fulfilled? If so, not so fulfilling.
For sinister reasons nobody seems able to divine, Littlefinger gives Bran the dagger that was intended to murder him in season one, saying it played a large part in beginning the chaos. Detached and emotionless as always these days, Bran feeds one of Littlefinger’s own lines back to him: “Chaos is a ladder.” If his callbacks to prior lines and scenes is intended to give other characters the creeps, it seems to be working. Bran asks, “Do you know who this belonged to?” Littlefinger misses the tone suggesting that Bran knows all too well. And its origins must be important.
The return of Bran and Sansa’s assassin sister and the dueling display she puts on give Littlefinger a new reasons for concern. Arya hoodwinks a couple of dunderheaded guards into letting her through the gates, then ditches them for a reunion with Sansa in the Crypts. The two were squabbling sisters in the past and will never be close confidants, but they are united through their divergent and difficult journeys, as well as by their shared loss and sense of purpose.
If Arya seemed a distracted automaton in the inn scene with Hot Pie, she is all animation and joy as she shows off polished combat skills that frustrate and impress Brienne. “Who taught you to do that?” Brienne asks. Arya’s cryptic reply: “No One.” Arya shares a talent with Jon. Unlike him, she enjoys it. Sansa’s amusement at hearing of Arya’s kill list in the crypts turns to amazement. All the Stark children have changed so much.
Littlefinger must be wondering by now which of the Stark siblings (plus their misidentified cousin) poses the greatest threat to his ambitions. The dagger could be the key. Bran gives it to Arya, saying it would be wasted on a cripple. The dagger is Valyrian steel, of course, and could be valuable against White Walkers. It is also a garish, wicked-looking thing. Odd that it should resurface (just like Nymeria last week) after last being seen in season one. We will have to wonder about Littlefinger’s suspicious generosity, for now. We’ll also have to guess at the deeper purpose of the long-forgotten dagger, though Bran must know its fate precisely.
- Theon put in his weekly cameo to remind us he is the series’ most hapless fool of fortune. Not only is Dany away when he seeks her help to get Yara back, but mortal enemy Jon Snow meets him on the beach. It’s a good thing Theon mustered just enough backbone to help Sansa escape Ramsay in Season 5. Otherwise, Jon would kill him. It is a good thing he is still alive, right?
- After Davos teases Jon about staring at Dany’s “good heart,” Missandei tells them the reasons for her devotion to the Mother of Dragons, saying if she stated a wish to go home, Dany would not only allow it, but would provide her a ship to sail to Naath. “Maybe I should change sides,” Davos quips. He also jokes about what to call Jon. King Snow? King Jon? To his suggestion that Jon has romance on his mind (he did take Dany in a cave, where we know he does his best work, right?), Jon says there is no time for that. Will he forget Sansa’s counsel and make Robb’s mistake?
- After telling Cersei that the Iron Bank has never before had so large a debt repaid in a single installment, Tycho Nestoris laments losing the interest payments and offers on behalf of the Iron Bank to finance the Lannisters’ war. The money will allow Cersei to buy the services of the Golden Company, a notorious army of sellswords from Essos. The Iron Bank’s greed and influence rivals any other force in the show for the evil it brings to the world.
- Some critics have suggested the show is losing its edge because it is suddenly granting all of our wishes like a malfunctioning candy machine. Arya killed Walder Frey and saw Nymeria. The Stark children have all found their way to Winterfell. Jon is King in the North and is together with both Dany and Tyrion. Dragons finally got dragon-y. And we all know Jaime is not really gone. The criticism is not without merit. But if form holds, something shocking will happen before the season ends.
- Although Brienne seems to delight in “teaching” Podrick to fight, it seems he is able to teach her a thing or two, as well. Seeing Arya, Sansa and Bran together, he congratulates her for keeping her vow to Lady Catelyn. When she tries to deflect the compliment, he tells her she’s too hard on herself, and she relents.
Good job, Pod.
- Epic as it was, this was the shortest-ever episode of the series, at about 50 minutes. If it is always this breathtaking, let’s have more brevity.
It’s a good bet this week fortunes will turn for the worse. The episode is titled “East Watch,” referring to the last castle on the east end of the Wall. Recall that Tormund and his band of free folk volunteered to man it. Remember also that the Hound’s vision in the flames was of the dead marching, and an eagle-eyed and clearly obsessive viewer noticed the model in the opening credits seems to suggest the sea is frozen at the end of the Wall. If the army of the dead just marches around the tower on the frozen sea, I’ll be sorely disappointed. That wall needs to come down. Not only because the falling of a centuries-old, spell-infused landmark would be epic to watch, but also because the Wall represents divisions in the world, ancient divisions that must be resolved before smaller barriers among humanity can be bridged. Evil needs to be vanquished, not merely locked out until the next winter.
The previews show Daenerys trying to convince surviving Lannisters, “I’m not here to murder.” The assertion might be more convincing if she didn’t continue, “Bend the knee and join me. Or refuse, and die.” Oh, and if she didn’t have an angry-looking injured dragon at her back when she said it.
The trailer also hints at exasperation among her advisers. Varys implores Tyrion to get her to listen. How big are the rifts in her alliance?
Only three episodes left this year. The season ends just in time for some other game that we care about even more.
Who will be the next major character to die?
This poll is closed
Jaime (he’s a goner already)
One of the remaining Starks (say which one in the comments)