GAME OF THRONES: “The Spoils of War”

Long separated characters reunite before Game of Thrones drops yet another dazzling battle sequence.

Our stories aren’t over yet.

–Arya Stark

It may be winter in Westeros, but it’s summer in the real world, and that means marriage season. This week David is away at a (red?) wedding, so Maester Chase is filling in on the recap.

The Game of Thrones team has had their foot firmly planted on the accelerator this season, so it was nice to see them take time for some slower character moments this week…before finishing up with a dazzling multi-million-dollar battle scene.

“The Spoils of War” alludes not only to literal riches, but the comfort and safety that comes with the victory. We saw plenty of both this week as long-awaited reunions abounded across the episode, but as the adage says, you can’t ever really go home again.

In the Reach, Jaime is celebrating the literal, monetary spoils of war, leading a wagon train filled with golden plunder back to King’s Landing. It’s cash to completely cover the Crown’s (and by extension the Lannisters’) debt to the Iron Bank, a game-changer for the coming war. The Iron Bank is a ruthless lender, and the penalty for failing to repay your debts isn’t just a terrible credit rating. They will get what they’re owed, either from you or your enemy. With the Lannister mines tapped, Cersei has been staring down the barrel of a gun for years knowing that if she can’t find the money to repay, the Bank will simply fund her enemies instead. But as the saying goes, the Lannisters always pay their debts, and now they have the ability to do so once again. Tycho Nestoris even admits that he’s never seen a debt this large repaid in one lump sum, and the Iron Bank will surely miss those interest payments Cersei has been making. Now that the Lannister ledger is about to drop to zero, he’s even willing to offer the Crown additional loans for their coming battles. It’s a whole new game, if only Jaime and Bronn can get those gold trains home.

Back at Winterfell, Bran is adjusting to life at his old home. He was the last Stark child to abandon the fortress back in Season 2, reigning as the ersatz Lord of the castle while Robb was away fighting the War of the Five Kings. With Robb dead, Bran is the rightful Lord of the castle for real, but neither Sansa or Littlefinger can persuade him to take the title as he’s too busy creeping people out as the Three-Eyed Raven. As confusing as that is for viewers just imagine how that sounds to any of his old family or friends. Littlefinger, always playing the chess master, meets with Bran and offers him a gift to earn his trust. It’s the Valyrian steel dagger (aka the Catspaw dagger) used in the attempt on Bran’s life way back at the beginning of Season one, the event that set the entire War of the Five Kings into motion as Littlefinger is quick to note. But for once, Littlefinger doesn’t have more info than everyone else in the room; Bran’s reply of Littlefinger’s catchphrase, “chaos is a ladder,” Lord Baelish scurrying out in a hurry. Regardless, the dagger is “wasted on a cripple,” as Bran says later.

Even when Meera — his last living companion and savior for the last five seasons — comes to say goodbye the best he can muster is a “thanks for your help.” Meera is understandably distraught. She dragged Bran across the lands beyond the Wall for possibly hundreds of miles. Her brother Jojen died for his cause. And all he can offer is a halfhearted thanks. He’s too far gone, too fully absorbed in all he’s seen to make any emotional connections. It’s worth remembering what the original Three-Eyed Raven told Bran when they started their vision-quest training: “It’s beautiful beneath the sea, but if you stay too long, you’ll drown.” And that from a man who had no human bonds and lived in a tree. Bran is so powerful that he’s essentially a god among men now, but there’s not much cultural history of gods and men making small talk. Hey, at least he’s got a cool wheelchair.

Still, the catspaw dagger may not sit idle for very long, as “The Spoils of War” also sees Arya make her long-awaited return to Winterfell. Director Matt Shakman savors the moment with a shot of Arya on horseback, taking her first look at the castle since her departure in the show’s second episode. Winterfell is different now, showing the scars of battle and burnings, and now covered in falling snow after the longest summer in memory. The great castle has changed, but so has she.

After some humorous back and forth with the castle’s guards, she slips away to the Winterfell crypts where Sansa shortly finds her. The tomboy-turned-faceless assassin reunited with Lady Lemoncakes-turned-the Lady of Winterfell. They don’t immediately race into each other’s arms, but there’s a quiet happiness and understanding that they’re together again after both traveling years on difficult roads. They reflect together that their father’s monument in the crypts looks little like him, and almost everyone who knew him is now dead. But, against all odds, they remain. As Arya says, their stories aren’t over yet.

Sansa good-naturedly laughs to hear Arya’s talk about a killing list, but she quickly falls silent when their green-seeing brother starts listing names from it. Most of them are people now long dead, much like her father, with the years of warfare having decimated Stark enemies as well as their allies. One name, however, still remains. Perhaps the biggest name of all: Cersei Lannister. Sansa may have laughed, but Bran’s powers allow him to see Arya in all of her true, dogged determination, and he gifts her the catspaw dagger to aid her in her quest.

Any remaining doubts Sansa may have had are quickly erased when she sees Arya sparring with Brienne. The maiden of Tarth, herself now finishing a long journey after years of struggle, is now freed from her vow to Catelyn Stark with both Sansa and Arya returned home safely (though by little of her own efforts, as she readily admits). She’s just content to see the Stark girl who once slipped out of her arms finally home, and is humbled when Arya asks her for sword fighting lessons. Brienne offers to fetch the Master of Arms, but as Arya notes, the Master of Arms never defeated the Hound in single combat. Pleased, Brienne needles (sorry) Arya that her sword is too small for combat, but Arya won’t hear of it, promising with a wink that she won’t cut Brienne in their duel. And what a beautiful duel it is. Arya’s elegant water-dancing lets her easily avoid Brienne’s brute technique, giving her multiple sticks on Brienne before the warrior drops the niceties and takes on Arya at full force. Even then Arya is her match, a graceful master to Brienne’s visceral power. As Sansa watches from the battlements she can see how much Arya has grown, and that she isn’t joking about her skills.

On Dragonstone, Daenerys is gleefully probing Missandei about her encounter with Grey Worm when Jon Snow calls her to the caves on the shoreline. Inside, he shows her the beautiful, glistening tunnels of dragonglass that they’ll soon begin mining. What’s more, he takes her deeper into the cavern, a Westerosi Chauvet cave of sorts, where he’s discovered markings made by the Children of the Forest. It’s amazing how even a show like Game of Thrones with all its battles and dragons can start to feel familiar after a while, but a scene like the obsidian cave quickly waves that away with new wonders.

This cave of forgotten dreams contains markings not only by the Children of the Forest, but by men allied at their side as well. Even Daenerys is agape at the ancient drawings showing skeletal white figures with blue eyes and symbols of warning, and Jon makes a plea for her aid in the Great War. The cave is evidence of men and the Children, sworn enemies for centuries, working together to fight the true enemy that comes with the long, dark winter. “We must do so again,” Jon pleads. All he needs is to do bend the knee to her, and she will pledge her forces to his coming battle, but still, Jon is not ready to kneel (I honestly worried the moment might be heading for an uncomfortable Luke and Leia kiss after Davos had only recently been asking Jon about his take on the Queen’s “traits”). That’s for another week as Varys and Tyrion’s sudden arrival with news about the Battle for Casterly Rock takes precedent.

Daenerys gathers her advisors and allies for an impromptu war council on the beach (hear that? Jon’s been upgraded to ally). She has no other choice as her fleet has been decimated, the Martells and Tyrells have failed, and her army of Unsullied are trapped on Casterly Rock. Her last remaining force is the Dothraki and her dragons, and she intends to use them in a brutal, full-frontal assault on the Red Keep. Tyrion tries to dissuade her, to no avail. “Enough with the clever plans,” she insists. It’s time to bring Cersei to her knees through all-out war on the city of King’s Landing.

It’s a far cry from the woman who once said that ruling houses were just rotating spokes on a wheel, each taking their turn in power to continue to crush the little people who serve them. Just last week Tyrion advised Jon to speak with those she lifted out of slavery and squalor that now serve her, and this week Missandei tells Jon and Davos about just that. Daenerys is a just queen who lifts the downtrodden she says, and those who serve her do so not out of duty but out of loyalty. So it’s disturbing to hear Daenerys preaching total war against the capital where hundreds or thousands of poor will likely die in the assault. It’s Jon, a bastard, a man who gave up his place in a great family to serve with criminals and the poor in the Night’s Watch, who gives her the advice she needs to hear: use the dragons to burn the city and you haven’t broken the spinning wheel of monarchs crushing the poor, you’re just more of the same.

Shortly thereafter even Theon arrives back on Dragonstone’s shore, and after some quick beef between he and Jon, he asks for the queen’s help in rescuing Yara — but Daenerys is no longer on the island. Where has she gone? Cue the majestic music.

Back at the wagon train, Jaime and Bronn are still escorting the straggling end of their golden prize back to King’s Landing. They chat with Randyll Tarly who suggests flogging the stragglers, but despite his Kingslaying reputation, Jaime demurs. As Randyll rides off to verbally abuse the stragglers instead, Jaime and Bronn ask young Dickon Tarly about his first taste of battle. Dickon has always seemed like a swell guy despite a terrible first name and a cactus-like father, and he readily admits that it pained him to attack Tyrell bannermen whom he knew so well. He might have Randyll’s fighting prowess, but he’s got at least a piece of Sam’s heart. It’s then that Bronn notices a rumbling in the distance, and Dickon’s valor, Jaime’s gold, and Bronn’s requests for a better castle are soon forgotten.

A battle like this one can never fully rival the full-episode battle sequences of “Blackwater” or “The Watchers on the Wall,” but the last ten minutes of “The Spoils of War” joins “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards” as one of the greatest partial-episode battles in Game of Thrones history. When people ask why the direwolves are never around I always posit that it’s a cost-saving measure. They need to save that money because a sequence like this one probably cost upwards of $5 million dollars. Sorry, Ghost, but you can’t measure up.

There have always been those in Westeros who dismissed the threat of wild Dothraki horsemen as a threat to well-trained soldiers, but Jorah Mormont always believed that an army of them could take the continent. “The Spoils of War” largely proves his point. They’re a terrifying force on horseback, deftly removing heads from shoulders with their Arakhs. And if that wasn’t terrifying enough, there’s Drogon.

“The Spoils of War” gives us something we’ve never seen before: a dragon on the field of battle. Sure, Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal all burned some Mereneese ships once, but this is the real deal. More, the soldiers of Slaver’s Bay had seen a dragon before. The fighting forces of Westeros never have.

Drogon flies into battle with Daenerys on his back, burning whole columns of soldiers to a crisp while the others literally quake in their boots. This battle makes so much more spatial sense than Mark Mylod’s Iron Fleet attack back in “Stormborn,” and it’s fair to wonder if we’re seeing the birth of another great Thrones director before our very eyes. The Lannister Army absorbs horse charges, and the Dothraki are menacing in their mounted attacks, but Drogon is the unquestioned star of the sequence, soaring and circling over the Lannister army before darting down to engulf whole units in flame. Their arrows simply bounce off the full-grown dragon’s scales. The soldiers who attempt to flee are forced to charge over the charred remains of their brothers in the effort.

Jaime dispatches Bronn to the wagon carrying one of Qyburn’s scorpions, pointing out that he can’t use it with only one hand. Bronn dips and cuts across the flaming battlefield, avoiding Dothraki and dragon attacks in the process. He finally arrives at the scorpion and looses a bolt, narrowly missing Daenerys and Drogon who then attempt to destroy the device before Bronn can reload and try again.

Elsewhere on the field of battle, Tyrion has traveled with the Dothraki army, and he watches the battle from relative safety. “The Spoils of War” gifts us its last reunion as Tyrion can plainly see Jaime on the field of battle, the positions greatly reversed from their last encounter. Back then Tyrion was a convicted murderer fleeing an execution while Jaime quietly assisted his escape from a position of power. Now, it’s Tyrion who’s the Hand of a Queen as Jaime faces near-certain death by dragon fire.

Bronn manages to load his second bolt, firing it straight into Drogon’s shoulder moments before fire consumes the wagon. Bronn dives for safety as Drogon cartwheels to the ground, barely saved from crashing by Daenerys’ piloting. As she attempts to remove the bolt from Drogon’s shoulder, Jaime, ever the heroic soldier, makes a final attempt to end the war by killing Darnerys as she’s exposed on the ground. Jaime charges across the field of fire despite Tyrion’s sideline pleas for his brother to flee to safety. Running headlong into Drogon’s jaws, he barely misses spearing the dragon queen and becoming charcoal by someone (presumably Bronn) knocking him off of his horse and into a nearby lake. Jaime is saved from Drogon’s fire, but now he faces a new problem: sinking to the bottom of a lake in full metal armor, and only one hand to use for getting it off. Cue credits. Fire and blood, indeed.

Next week: Bran has more visions, Jon’s eyes return to the Great War, and hopefully we see what Tormund’s been up to these last 3 weeks at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.

Thanks for letting me cover Game of Thrones if only for one week. It’s been fun. David’s back for Episode 5, and he and I will actually be watching our first ever episode of GoT together! All these awkward reunions make me wonder how he’s changed. What if he’s a faceless assassin now?

2 thoughts on “GAME OF THRONES: “The Spoils of War””

    1. I’m actually super into Bran this season. He’s the living embodiment of the “Super Brain” meme, beyond petty human things like “feelings” and “emotions.” He’s basically Dr. Branhattan.

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