One of Game of Thrones’ shortest-ever episodes aired tonight, but what it lacked in running time, it made up for in long-awaited events and high-budget battle sequences. For such an expensive-looking episode, though, “The Spoils of War” is curiously devoid of true consequence - at least, depending on how you look at it.
This week’s quieter scenes took place at Winterfell, starting with a typically squirmy scene between Littlefinger and Bran. Baelish gifting Bran the dagger that was meant to kill him would have been a scene-ending manipulative power move, were it not for Bran quoting Petyr’s own catchphrase back at him - a catchphrase he could not possibly have heard in person. Both these characters are defined by their all-seeing natures, but where Littlefinger’s comes from hard work, Bran’s is supernatural - and that has to be unsettling. But hey, Bran’s in a wheelchair. What threat could he possibly be, especially now that carer Meera is out of the picture?
Arya returns to the Stark household, getting individual reunions with Sansa, Bran, and Brienne. The core takeaway - aside from Winterfell’s sculptors’ poor technique, Bran’s disdain for Valyrian weaponry, and some fun banter with Winterfell’s shitty guards - is the change everyone senses in Arya. Sansa taken aback upon hearing of Arya’s kill list; Bran, of course, already knows all about it, but there’s no disguising the weary disappointment in his voice. But Bran has changed too. Nobody has a pleasant story in Westeros nowadays, and reunions aren’t always the tonic they’re expected to be.
Then, of course, there’s Arya’s much-vaunted duel with Brienne. While it’s of little story consequence, it’s a nice bit of vindication for Arya’s years of training (at least, it feels like years). The choreography in their fight is outdone by Christie and Williams’ performances: more than a fencer versus a brute, this is about Arya demonstrating her skills against an established fighter. Brienne’s impressed; Sansa’s worried; Littlefinger sees someone capable of cutting through his bullshit both figuratively and literally. And now she’s armed with not one but two Valyrian steel blades.
At King’s Landing:
One short but portentous scene at King’s Landing this week: Mark Gatiss, Iron Banker, rubs his hands together with glee over Cersei’s impending payment of her debts, and further plans get discussed. Cersei wants help to find "something" that belongs to her, and the Iron Bank may well be willing to help, if it seems a prudent investment. There’s also talk of bringing in a few players from across the sea in Essos, where there’s likely no shortage of groups keen on vengeance against Danaerys Targaryen. This is all likely the setup for the next three episodes.
Jon’s mining exploration didn't release the Reign of Fire dragons, but it did uncover mountains of precious zombie-slaying obsidian - and more. Luckily for the King in the North, Dragonstone’s cave of forgotten dreams paints a clear picture for Danaerys, giving her a much-needed sense of perspective. She accedes to Jon’s request for assistance, but still demands that Jon bend the knee, echoing Jon’s request to Mance Rayder a few seasons ago. Is the North’s survival more important than Jon’s pride? Probably, but whether or not it’s more important than Dany’s is another question.
And woe betide those who wrong Danaerys Targaryen. News from the front reaches Dragonstone midway through the episode, and the news ain’t good. Stuck between volcanic rocks and a hard place, Dany debates with her advisors as to the strategic advantage of her large adult dragon sons. She’s losing the war, as she points out, and this is the kind of situation that pushes desperate leaders to deploy weapons of mass destruction (a classification under which dragons can definitely be placed). Jon has a point, though: using WMDs doesn’t exactly endear anyone to the people. If only there was some compromise.
Later, Davos and Jon have a little conversation pleasing incest-shippers everywhere, in which Davos insinuates - and Jon tacitly confirms - a romantic attraction between the King and his unwitting aunt. Theon returns, getting a frosty greeting from Jon Snow but otherwise continuing to be useless, other than by asking where Danaerys is, thus offering a clear point at which to cut to the next scene. It’s well-timed, as we’ve just heard a discussion about how much of Danaerys’ reign is built around a cult of personality, and how much is genuinely earned. We’re about to find out.
On the road to King’s Landing:
Gold. All the gold. All the gold goes to King’s Landing. (Except a tiny bit for Bronn.)
Jaime Lannister, marching his army home with a wagon-train of food rations, has a lot on his mind following his run-in with Olenna Tyrell. Specifically, he’s grappling with the question of whether or not his sister is a complete monster. (Spoiler, Jaime: she totally is.) But picturesque CGI Monument Valley matte paintings don’t offer much quarter for soul-searching when the shit hits the fan. And the Lannister army’s shit most certainly hits the fan this week.
Danaerys Targaryen's inevitable deployment of dragons to the Westerosi battlefield is given all the weight it deserves in this, the first full-scale land battle of the season. Using sound and geography to intimidate, the Dothraki hordes appear first over the crest of a hill, followed shortly by Danaerys herself, riding flagship dragon Drogon like an avenging angel of Hell. It's a magnificent moment, equalled only by the subsequent horror: Drogon breathing great swathes of flame; the Dothraki riding through it, weapons ready; and poor Jaime Lannister realising he's outgunned. There's terrific stunt work in this battle, as usual, composited against the stunning visual effects of a motherfucking firebreathing dragon incinerating legions of soldiers and wagons. This is something that happens on television now.
Surprisingly, a large portion of the battle belongs to Bronn, who gets plunged into a nightmare of fire and smoke and corpses. War is hell, they say, and for poor Bronn, that becomes all too literal. His horse’s leg gets cut off, his precious gold spills everywhere - it’d all be over quickly, were it not for Maester Qyburn’s shiny new ballista. As bodies turn to ash, blown apart by the wind from dragon wings, Bronn manages to get a great-arrow lodged in Drogon's shoulder, grounding beast and rider just like that. It’s not a positive development for the Dragon Queen, who is left trying to remove the arrow like the kid from The Last Guardian.
In the episode’s final moments, Jaime charges at Danaerys, spear in hand, as Tyrion looks on bittersweetly from a ridge, rightly calling him a “fucking idiot.” He’s about to be burned alive when someone - Bronn, presumably - miraculously leaps from out of frame, plunging both men into the relative safety of a nearby lake. Aaaaand scene.
The message at the end of this episode is clear: HBO spent some damn money on this show. Also: Danaerys Targaryen has arrived in Westeros, and she’s not averse to ruling with dragonfire - a major step towards becoming just like her father. But aside from that character implication, the episode lacks material consequences. Jaime and Bronn both survive their encounter, at least long enough to face Danaerys directly at the start of next week; likewise, Drogon’s wound doesn’t look life-ending. The Lannisters lost quite a few soldiers, and everyone lost a few tons of food, but the true effects of the battle will likely be felt when news reaches Cersei and the Iron Bank. Things are heating up - literally - in the fight for Westeros, and every storyline now directly affects every other. We’re halfway through this season now, with Season 8 surely to focus on the fight against the White Walkers; it’s all on.
PS: if we can handle the time compression in a career’s worth of Christopher Nolan films, surely we can handle the time compression in Game of Thrones. Get over it.
Winners and Losers: Cersei wins financially but suffers accelerated troop and supply attrition at the hands of Dany's dragonfire. Bronn wins big-time simply by surviving. Tyrion loses, his military strategy having failed and his own former brethren having been burned alive under his watch. Jon/Dany shippers get a small but important win, courtesy of Davos. And the cultural history of Westeros is set up for a major loss when Jon Snow strip-mines a sacred place to make weapons.
MVP: DROGON SMASH.
Conspicuously Absent: Tormund and the Wildlings, again, probably being saved for a horrible death in weeks to come. Sam, busy writing lines in Wizard Detention while his dad gets roasted alive. Grey Worm, spoken of salaciously but not seen, probably freaking the fuck out non-salaciously at Casterly Rock. The Hound and the Mountain, both gazing into the same sunset, wondering when they'll finally fight one another. Melisandre, locked in an existential crisis. The White Walkers, walking whitely.
Births, Deaths, and Marriages: RIP a few thousand Lannister soldiers, probably including Randyl and Dickon Tarly; no other named characters bit the dust this week. Unwittingly incestuous romance may be in the air for Jon and Dany, but no marriage has been proposed yet. No births - onscreen, that is. Westeros is a big place.
Wild-Assed Predictions: Jaime discovers an underwater kingdom beneath the surface of that lake. Bronn swims to safety only to contract a fatal case of giardia. Drogon's wing never works again, and he becomes the new, new Three-Eyed Raven, after which Bran takes up a showbiz career as a mentalist and psychic. Cersei refuses to pay back the Iron Bank, just so she can swim around in her very own Scrooge McDuck money vault. Mark Gatiss’ character actually gets referred to by name.
Commitment to Craft: The whole creative team for that climactic battle. Great directing, sound design, stunt work, VFX and scoring all-round. Amazing.
Banter Is Coming: “Who taught you how to do that?” - “No one.” Arya delivers a smartass comeback that's also factually accurate, to those in the know.