The fourth episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season finally delivered on one long-awaited promise. Nearly a third of “The Spoils of War” was devoted to a massive face-off between Jaime Lannister and his army, and Daenerys Targaryen, her Dothraki hordes, and one very large dragon. But as memorable as the closing battle was, it was also an episode about people grappling for purpose. Littlefinger is trying to make himself relevant again; Dany is trying to prove she can live up to the name Mother of Dragons; and Sansa and Arya are trying to understand what being a Stark means in their current predicament. The episode’s titular spoils weren’t riches and glory. They were damage and loss, with nearly every character trying to reclaim a bit of the humanity that they’ve lost.
In a season that’s made a point of livening up the pace, it was an episode full of scenes and turns that were hard to forget. Following the episode, we sat down to discuss the most memorable and meaningful moments from “The Spoils of War.”
Glares of Thrones
Bryan: We don’t get to watch a 20-minute dragon battle in every episode, so let’s get through the first four moments of this episode a little faster than usual. One that stood out for me: Littlefinger’s conversation with Bran, where he gives him the dagger used in an attempt on Bran’s life way back in the first season. At the time, Littlefinger claimed the dagger was Tyrion Lannister’s, which helped build the case for the Starks vs. Lannisters showdown that kicked the entire show off.
In the books, there’s more backstory to that dagger, but in the show, it’s mostly remained off the board until this season. Littlefinger was clearly hoping to spark some connection between himself and Bran, but he got nothing but the Three-Eyed Raven equivalent of a smackdown when Bran referenced Littlefinger’s signature line, “Chaos is a ladder.” Littlefinger is so easy to despise that it was just damned satisfying to see his attempts at string-pulling go nowhere. Granted, he’s the kind of character who gets more dangerous the more he feels cornered. We’re definitely building toward something.
Tasha: And given who he is, what’s the chance that he winds up trying to undermine Sansa just enough that she has to come to him for help? She loathes him, Jon’s threatened him, and it seems like there’s nothing for him in Winterfell but still more hanging around like a third wheel on a date. Unless he either pulls a Euron and brings Sansa something she desperately wants, or finds a reason for her to need him, what’s his play? Handing an assassin’s knife to her brother is a weird, weird way to ingratiate himself. Why does he think that knife will be meaningful to Bran, who was unconscious during the entire event? If Bran knows anything about the assassin at all, he presumably knows that same knife cut the everliving hell out of his mom. So it’s strange that Littlefinger somehow acquired it. It’s even stranger that he’s trying to bond via knife, no matter how valuable a Valyrian steel dagger is. Is it possible that he’s just trying to say, in a coded way, “You’ll always have enemies, that’s why you need me.” Is it as much of a threat as Arya’s meaningful look to Littlefinger after her fight with Brienne?
Bryan: Speaking of Arya, seeing her and Sansa finally reunited at Winterfell felt like exhaling a breath I’d been holding for the last six years. The show could have gone over the top with the moment, using it pull on the heartstrings — and I bet a lot of fans would have been happy to see it played that way. Instead, the entire scene was a reminder of how far they’ve grown apart, and what they’ve lost. The world they were happy children in has faded so completely that there’s not even a stonesmith around to carve a statue of their father that captures his likeness.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the politics of Game of Thrones that it can be easy to forget the human stakes of the show that actually make the whole thing work. Arya and Sansa’s reunion is actually tragic. It’s a reminder of a world they can’t get back, no matter how much they’d like to. There are no happy endings for Starks, and even in the best possible outcome, they’re just going to be fighting for a slightly less miserable version of what they’re facing now.
Tasha: For me, the payoff scene about that reunion was Arya just sitting quietly in the courtyard, looking around at her family banners and the familiar layout. A cheesier show would have shown us flashbacks to her running around those same spaces, but the writers apparently trust us to understand her powerful feelings of nostalgia. She can’t look at Sansa without seeing the changes that years and pain have brought, but at least she can look around the keep for a moment and imagine her family alive and whole again.
But as emotionally affecting as that sequence was — and the reunion in the catacombs where Sansa and Arya essentially promise to remember their father properly, even if no one else does — I was just as taken by the face-off between Arya and Brienne. There’s a lot going on there! Brienne’s initial consternation when Arya bests her is painful to watch, mainly since she’s my favorite character. But I’m entirely down with the way she quickly decides Arya is a worthy adversary, and stops pulling punches. Even after disarming Arya, she still takes a full-force swing at her, clearly knowing the fight isn’t over yet, and that alone is a terrific moment. Arya’s so used to being underestimated — she keeps telling people she’s going to kill Cersei, and they keep laughing at her, Sansa included — so just watching someone take her seriously is exciting.
And Arya’s clear joy and eagerness over the fight is such a wonder, coming from a grim kid with a kill list. This whole season, she’s been alternating murder with scenes that seem to be slowly bringing her humanity back — from sitting down with the Lannister soldiers to share wine and song, to reuniting with Hot Pie, to deciding to head toward this reunion instead of toward more murder. The grin on her face as she and Brienne prove well-matched was lovely, and the conclusion of the fight, where they share a smile, was as satisfying to me as anything that’s ever happened on this show. Certainly Littlefinger is enjoying the duel, until he sees the outright horror on Sansa’s face. So any theories about why Sansa is so taken aback by the fight? Is it just because her little sister has clearly become a warrior? C’mon, Sansa, that’s not distressing, that’s badass. Given how many enemies you have, you could clearly use another really serious protector in the family.
Bryan: It’s an intriguing look, isn’t it? I think we’re seeing the exact moment that Sansa realizes who Arya has become — and that the giddy tomboy she grew up with is gone forever. When Sansa first learns of Arya’s kill list, a smile plays on her lips. Sansa seems to assume it’s just the folly of her younger sister. When Arya says most of the people on her list are dead already, Sansa seems to take it as silliness. I don’t think she believes for one second that Arya is capable of murder, much less working her way through a deathlist. When she sees the Brienne fight, however, that falls away. She understands exactly who Arya is, and while two family members may have come home, Sansa has never felt more alone.
Chaos is also a slide
Tasha: I’m just going to give a brief shout-out here to the long scene where we open, where Bronn teases Jaime about his sober, frustrated demeanor after last week’s face-off with Oleanna Tyrell. Bronn doesn’t know Jaime has just revisited the grotesque details of his son’s death, and Jaime doesn’t share. He just hands Bronn the big ol’ bag of gold he was promised (we’ll see it again later this episode, under more stressful circumstances), and Bronn complains that he was promised a castle. A couple of things strike me about this scene: the way it sets up the lonely Western landscape we’ll revisit in the sequence’s bravura closing action sequence, and the way it reminds us that so many people in this story keep thinking they’ve gotten a little bit ahead, and it almost always turns out to be a setup for a vicious disappointment.
“When we win this war,” Jaime says, “all the castles in the Seven Kingdoms will be yours to choose from, with no one left to take them away from you.” That is a cheerful spin on a grim future. Looked at another way, what he’s saying is, “To achieve any kind of peace, we’re going to have to murder everyone. You can have whatever loot you can scavenge from the corpse-pile.” And that’s a particularly cynical thing to say as he stands in front of a wagon train full of gold looted from House Tyrell’s lands, after the Lannisters murdered their fighters and their matriarch, and are on their way to steal all the food they’ve worked to amass for the winter. Bronn, as we know, is going to have a hard time hanging on to what he’s earned. But so is everyone else, as the war empties out more and more granaries, castles, and homes.
Game of Glares, revisited
Tasha: This was really an episode about glowers in general: Arya staring down Littlefinger. Dany staring down Jon during that impromptu history lesson. (And telling him his people’s lives are worth more than his pride, so he should give him her fealty already, and no, I’m not going to type “bend the knee,” which I have heard too many damn times this season.) Meera turning her full force of fury on Bran after his tepid, meh-flavored “thanks for hauling my lame near-corpse all over Westeros and beyond, sorry about all the people who died for me who I already seem to have forgotten.” Daenerys attacking Tyrion for his military failures, and suggesting maybe he’s giving her bad advice on purpose, because he just can’t stand to hurt his family. (Ouch.) Bronn glaring at Jaime after getting the order to go fire up the anti-dragon crossbow (“I can’t shoot with one hand.”), and then again at his fallen bag of gold in the middle of that giant fight. I feel for him, having been through all this to get there, and then so obviously just not having time to pick up coins while people on fire are running everywhere.
But the all-time champeen glare goes to Jon, facing Theon for the first time since Theon betrayed House Stark. The tension in that face-off was terrific, and kudos to director Matt Shakman for letting it play out at excruciating length while we waited to see who’d make the first move. Theon’s attempt to play it off by asking after Sansa’s safety was a smart move, but for a moment, I’d forgotten that he saved Sansa by getting her away from Ramsay Bolton, and I only remembered that he and Jon and Robb grew up together, and then Theon sold them out. Given how much the past affects the present in Game of Thrones, I suspect we haven’t seen the last of this pairing and what they have to say to each other, but in an episode full of reunions and near-reunions, this was the angriest and ugliest and most unpredictable.
Bryan: I agree with everything you said above in terms of tone and subtext, but I will also admit that this was the one reunion where this season’s relentless focus on tight, efficient plotting tipped a little too far into the convenient for me. Last week: it was the Bran and Sansa show, and Jon finally meeting Dany! This week: it’s the Arya and Bran and Sansa show, and loser Theon just happens to ride up at the exact moment Jon is hanging out on the beach!
It’s a great face-off, it works thematically with the rest of the episode… but it just seemed awfully easy. Granted, this is a shorter season, and as we’re winnowing down the number of characters in play a lot of familiar faces are going to end up bouncing off one another. I’m certainly down with that. And as we’ve discussed before, I’m fairly certain Theon is going to have a true redemption arc before all is said and done. But this one was just a single tick over the line for me.
Of course, I’m also utterly frustrated with Theon as a character at this point, so perhaps I was hoping Jon would just go with his first instincts on this one and get it over with.
Tasha: Early on, when we were talking about this season in an online chat, I told you it would eventually devolve into “OMG DRAGONZ!” And you promptly swore you’d find a way to get that into our official write-ups. Congratulations, Bryan, your moment has arrived. Technically, this header should be “OMG DROGON,” but I’ll let it slide, because you’ve found a way to work “OMG DRAGONZ!” into practically every private online conversation we’ve had, and it’s clear this is going to happen eventually. I’m not going to fight it anymore.
Bryan: Look, sometimes you’re just going along, watching an episode of TV on a Sunday night, without any idea that the one thing that will make your day absolutely amazing is watching a queen riding a dragon, burning hundreds of soldiers alive, while a bunch of gothy buff dudes on horseback take down even more soldiers with frickin’ scythes. When that thing actually happens, it’s worth celebrating.
The idea of a dragon-on-Lannisters battle has been percolating since the first season of this show, but what made this episode so much fun is that I actually didn’t see it coming at all. Maybe it was just me, but when Jon counseled Daenerys that taking violent action with dragons would make her just an ordinary queen, I figured violence was off the table. Dothraki, maybe, but not Dany herself — and surely not with one of her dragons. But then the assault begins, and the Lannister forces don’t stand a chance. Drogon breathes fire, intentionally breaking the line of Lannister soldiers and allowing the Dothraki hordes to ride right in. He’s not just a fire-breathing dragon, he’s a fire-breathing dragon with a sound military strategy!
I realize I probably sound a little war-hungry right now, but I’m rewatching the scene as I write this, and I realize it’s not just the dramatic payoff of a long-anticipated conflict. It’s not just the expertly shot and edited sequence, either. (This battle no doubt explains the pared-down take on the Tyrell castle siege from last week.) It’s about the themes humming just beneath the surface. Dany, desperate to prove herself after being hit with failure upon failure after arriving in Westeros. Jaime, ever-focused on being an honorable soldier even while he’s simultaneously one of the worst people in the world. And Tyrion, ripped apart as he watches the army he now helps direct slaughter the army of his family — and desperately hoping his brother will just run and save himself. The scale of the battle is epic, but they’re all trying to prove themselves in strikingly personal ways.
Tasha: Tyrion whispering “Run, you fool” to Jaime from a safe vantage point above the battle was the most poignant moment in this show for me. Jaime’s always looked out for Tyrion when the rest of the family wouldn’t — to the point of sneaking him out of prison when Tyrion was due to be executed for killing Jaime’s son Joffrey. Tyrion’s already been accused of deliberately betraying Daenerys to keep his family safe, so it’s so easy to feel his emotional conflict as Jaime faces certain down certain death. I won’t lie, I was convinced we were watching Jaime’s last moments on the show as he charged Drogon. We’ve finally come down to the part of this story where we’re watching our favorite characters face off against each other directly, and it’s honestly emotionally racking.
That said… how exactly did someone (I’m assuming Dickon Tarly, Sam’s younger brother, shown in this episode fretting over how battles smell of human shit) manage to knock Jaime from horseback, in water so shallow that the horse could manage it, and into water that’s apparently fathoms upon fathoms deep? That final shot was nuts. It’s like seeing someone step into a sidewalk puddle and immediately disappear into water over their head.
But still. I can’t overstate how well this sequence was put together, from showing us both sides’ clear military strategy to immersing us in the chaos of being surrounded by burning men, horses, carts, and plunder. The Dothraki are a terrifying force, both because they’re so bloodthirsty and wild, and because they fight with a strategy that must seem entirely unconventional and barbarous to Westerosi. This felt like a clash of cultures as much as a clash of bodies.
Bryan: That idea is brought home so wonderfully when Tyrion is watching the remaining members of the Lannister army fumble around in the field of battle, while a horse takes off, pulling a flaming cart behind it. “Your people can’t fight,” one of the Dothraki tells him, and there’s something close to horror on Tyrion’s face. It’s as if he can’t quite believe what he’s done. I’m wondering where that moment — and the potential loss of Jaime — could take Tyrion. He’s always played out of self-preservation, jumping to whatever horse he’s felt could keep him alive the longest. Serving Dany has been the closest thing to a moral choice he’s ever made. Could that waver now that it comes time to truly destroying the rest of his family? Taking out your tyrant father is one thing. Taking out every relative you have is another, and it seems that’s the choice Tyrion could soon face.
But let’s jump ahead for a moment: the bulk of the Lannister army just got burned to the ground. Cersei’s got her debts to the Iron Bank paid off, thanks to that gold transfer, but she’s got a certain numbers problem on her hands, doesn’t she? After the dragon battle, are things distilling down to Team Dany and Team Jon vs. the Night King, with Cersei now just the obnoxious chaos agent in the way?
Tasha: So about that gold transfer… I’m a little baffled at how that played out. When Cersei said the gold hadn’t actually been paid yet, but that Jaime was delivering it personally, I thought that was a big setup for something happening to it before it arrived. And then we do get Daenerys destroying the Highgarden loot delivery, but Randyll Tarly has already told us the gold’s been delivered through the gates of King’s Landing. (Apparently Jaime wasn’t hand-delivering it after all. Maybe because he was short of hands.) Why have that whole Iron Bank setup sequence and not have something come of it? It’s like watching a heist movie where everything goes exactly according to plan, and the heist is seamlessly pulled off.
But no, Cersei still has King’s Landing, the crown, and apparently the hearts and minds of the people, at least as long as she keeps waving the threat of a barbarian horde and the Mad King’s mad daughter around. I do think this sequence is Daenerys respecting Jon’s advice — up to a point. She isn’t making her dragon attacks where non-combatants and innocent citizens could die, or a city could burn to the ground, or even where her terrifying war-beast could traumatize the citizenry and make them think of her, as Jon says, as just another contemptuous war-mongering leader. She’s keeping to the hinterlands (wow, such beautifully shot hinterlands, like something out of an old Technicolor Western, but with dragons and lances and catapults) and focusing on armies and cutting off supply trains. She’s doing what she wanted — taking direct, personal, not-afraid-to-fight action — but in a way that minimizes the danger to the smallfolk. And next to Drogon, everyone seems pretty small right now.
Bryan: Very true. You know what else Daenerys was doing? OMG DRAGONZ!
Bonus scene: The glorious legacy of Stannis Baratheon, Grammar Nazi
Tasha: This is such a small thing in such a large and fulfilling episode, but oh man, did I ever get a chortle out of Davos Seaworth correcting Jon’s grammar. Grousing about the Night King, Jon worries the North is underprepared: “How many men do we have to fight him? Ten thousand less?” “Fewer,” Davos corrects. “What?” Jon says. This is a callback worthy of Community’s Beetlejuice gag. Davos’ previous king candidate, Stannis, made this same correction at two different points on the show: in season 2, when Davos makes a dark quip about his amputated fingers: “Four less fingernails to clean.” And in season 5, the pattern repeats, as Night’s Watch member Bowen Marsh rails against Jon Snow’s proposed alliance with the threatened Wildlings: “Let them die. Less enemies for us!” In both cases, Stannis mutters, “Fewer,” and when Davos responds, “What?” he changes the subject. He’s not about actually helping people fix their grammatical misstatements, he’s just grumbling.
And Davos does the exact same thing: he mutters his correction, then changes the subject. It’s just the billionth reminder this season that people in this story have memories, the past affects the present even in the smallest ways, and the world has continuity. Stannis’ legacy is mostly pretty dark: he murdered his beloved daughter Shireen for power, he murdered his less-beloved brother Renly for power, and he ultimately failed to achieve that power. But at least someone still remembers what was really important about him: he was super anal-retentive and kinda prim about it to boot.