Game of Thrones likes to have its cake and eat it, too, especially when it comes to war and its wide-ranging consequences. It’s a show founded on a sense of anticipation. When will the Starks reunite? When will Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) lay siege to Westeros? When will The White Walkers breach The Wall? But it’s equally founded on depicting the horror and unexpected costs of those convergence points.
That means its heart-pumping battles and heart-warming reunions are always in a state of superposition. Those moments are exhilarating but also harrowing. Home is a sanctuary, but home has changed. And war is glorious, but war is also hell.
Dickon Tarly (Tom Hopper), of all people, encapsulates this seeming contradiction. When Jaime asks (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) him what he thought of his first battle, Dickon dutifully calls it glorious in front of his commanding officer. But when granted leave to speak freely, he admits that it was hard to kill men whom he’d known, that he never anticipated the stench of battle, and that the reality of their “great victory” was much harder to stomach than the fantasy of it.
His experience represents the ethos of this series. From the very beginning, Game of Thrones was the sort of show that gave its viewers an honorable man to root for and then had his head cut clean off his noble shoulders. It wants to play on the usual tropes of swords and sorcery but then show the muck and ugliness beneath our romanticized views of such stories. It wants to bait its audience into anticipating the next personal conflict, the next thrilling battle, but then offers more than enough reason to recoil from them.
So when Jaime and his men are rounding up the last of the grain en route to King’s Landing, and the rumble on the horizon begins, it’s exciting. The battle-hardened commanders act quickly, lining up their men and scrambling for a fight. Director Matt Shakman rouses that sort of pulse-quickening suspense when he cuts back and forth between the Lannister infantrymen preparing to face the source of that rumble and a bare hillside in the distance from which the tumult grows louder and louder. Shakman zeroes in on that slice of the horizon, letting the anticipation build as the sound does.
Only then do the Dothraki burst onto the scene, a swirl of battle cries from hardscrabble men set on a collision course with the wards of nobles brandishing swords and shields. Civilizations collide as the attack of one meets the defense of the other. And then it happens. Behind that mass of humanity erupts Drogon, wings spread with intimidating fury, Dany on his back, descending on the enemy phalanx. “Oh crap, the dragon is here!”
But just as the anticipation crests, Dany yells out “dracarys,” and a burst of flame spits forth from the mouth of this mighty beast. Scores of those gold-clad young men dissolve to ash in an instant. Their screams fill the air. Their charred bodies litter the ground. The reaction turns to “Oh crap, the dragon is here.” The conflict between the Lannister Army and Daenerys’ loyalists is, at once, both epic in its scope and its build but horrifying in the brutality and loss of life it puts on display.
It’s a sense of bittersweetness, of joy mixed with sorrow, anticipation mixed with regret, that the events outside The Reach share with those set at Winterfell. As Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) returns home, she reunites with her siblings, but the sanctity of the place where she grew up is mixed up with the remembrance of how much has been lost and how much has changed there.
“The Spoils of War” highlights that fact by staging the reunion between Arya and Sansa (Sophie Turner) in front of their father’s memorial. Arya remarks that it should have been sculpted by someone who knew his face, but Sansa reminds her that everyone who knew his face is dead. And yet they are alive, and their stories aren’t finished.
Still, the shadow of that grave marker tempers the sweetness of their heartening embrace. The Starks are back at Winterfell, but so much about the place that made it home, so much of the world that Arya and Sansa knew when they slept within its walls, has irrevocably changed.
Sansa is now the Lady of Winterfell, leading her people and making walk-and-talk decisions about the state of the granaries. Arya is now a battle-tested assassin, using moves akin to those of her old dancing master to go toe-to-toe with (Gwendoline Christie’s) Brienne (someone she admires for having bested her old friend The Hound). Sansa looks on in disbelief in one of the episode’s best sequences, one full of grace and force, as she realizes her little sister is now a dangerous woman with all that she’s learned from “no one.”
And Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) has changed just as much if not more. His stilted line-reads don’t make for particularly dynamic scenes, but they fit his new, dizzying perspective as the Three-Eyed Raven. The people who care for him quickly realize that he too is not the young man they once knew. Instead, he is Dr. Manhattan, anesthetized to the pains and pleasures of the present in the face of visions and memories that stretch across ages. He is both Brandon Stark and something quite apart, in a way that alienates him from both his sisters and a departing Meera (Ellie Kendrick) . He too is in superposition, both the last true-born son of Ned (Sean Bean) and Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and yet no longer suitable to be called Lord Stark.
That title feels better suited for Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who is still in Dragonstone trying to persuade Dany to join him in fighting The Night King (Richard Brake). She seems to come around to his way of thinking rather quickly (granted, with “bending the knee” still a point of contention between them), but hey, Winter Is Coming, and so a bit of narrative economy is in order.
But more immediately, it means that Jon is there when Dany receives word from Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) that the Lannisters have taken Highgarden. It’s the cherry on top of her recent string of defeats, and Dany finds herself at a crossroads, fed up with the limits between what she wants and how she wants to get it. Caught between her twin desires to take the iron throne and also to cause a minimum of bloodshed, she’s now on the brink of giving in and taking The Red Keep with dragonfire, casualties be damned. But she asks Jon’s counsel.
He tells her that people follow her because she does amazing things, because, as Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) later affirms, she is someone and something different herself. She is not just the son of some king; she’s someone ready to break the wheel and usher in a new age. If she descends on King’s Landing, melting castles and incinerating enemy and civilian alike, she’ll be just like The Mad King, just like Cersei (Lena Headey), just like every other monarch who wasn’t afraid to see the innocent go up in flames so long as those who opposed them turned to ash.
Instead, Dany sets course for Highgarden and delivers a blistering assault on the Lannister forces, a middle path that allows her to show she’s not beaten but still only unleash her ire on those fighting for her enemies.
It’s a thrilling battle, one filled with striking visuals, dramatic moments, jaw-dropping thrills, and terrible costs. But in the grand spectrum of Game of Thrones clashes, it does something we haven’t seen since the Battle of Blackwater Bay — it puts people we care about, people we want to root for, on both sides of the conflict.
So we cheer for Drogon as he bursts into the frame, and we cheer for Bronn (Jerome Flynn) when he puts a bolt in the dragon’s chest. We cheer for Dany as she rides resplendent and leads her forces into battle, and we cheer for Jaime when he chooses to fight and try to end this war rather than fleeing. We stand with Tyrion watching from afar, hoping the champion he’s backed earns her victory but that the brother he loves lives to fight another day. We too want no one to win and no one to lose.
That’s the rub of this battle and the inevitable pain of Game of Thrones as it contracts rather than expands as it nears its final chapter. We grow giddy at the notion of Dany meeting Jon, of the Starks coming home to Winterfell, of Targaryen meeting Lannister on the battlefield. But the reality is that there are only a few battles left to fight, a few lost souls left to band together, and that means few come out unscathed amid all this fire and blood.
So as the music swells, men wander around draped in flame. Limbs are lopped off. Lives are lost. It is at once triumphant and terrible. That is what Game of Thrones is and has been and will be again. It lures us in with the promise of these colorful characters and their inevitable clashes and then confronts us with the consequences of our thrills, the men and women laid to rest and forever changed for our entertainment. It shows us the blood that must be spilled alongside the bags full of gold coins. It gives us the spoils of war, but also its inescapable, unfathomable horrors.
Guess Who’s Back, Back Again: Bronn made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance last week, but this week he gets to nag Jaime about his castle, laugh at Dickon’s name, and even wound a dragon to truly announce his arrival in Season 7. Let’s just hope it isn’t also his departure. The show would have at least 30% fewer (not less) filthy remarks.
So Long and Thanks For All the Blackfish: “The Spoils of War” has quite the body count, but no named characters definitively bite the dust. Jaime, Bronn, the Tarlys, and even Drogon are all big question marks in the “will they make it to next week?” column. But in the absence of a major character clearly dying, Game of Thrones offers scores of redshirts perishing in a myriad of awful ways. It’s a bad week not to have a name in Westeros.
Line of the Night: “Would you forgive me if I switched sides?” Ser Davos is a hype man of the highest caliber, which qualifies him to recognize when Missandei delivers a doozy of a pitch for her own queen.
This Week in Lore: In the caverns beneath Dragonstone, Jon finds cave drawings which depict the Children of the Forest and the First Men fighting the White Walkers, which provides more proof of his claims. Thankfully, Jon was careful to hide his bucket of sidewalk chalk before showing this all to Dany.
Hook Line and Sinker: Dany and Missandei exchange knowing looks about the recent romantic developments with Grey Worm, and it’s a nice touch. What’s great about the moment is that it reminds us that these individuals are human beings, who talk to one another like friends and have lives and cares beyond the politics and strategy.
Wait, You Mean You Regifted This?: With his charms having faltered on both Sansa and Jon, Littlefinger tries to ingratiate himself to Bran, giving him the would-be assassin’s dagger that started Catelyn’s quest back in Season 1. It goes about as well as you’d expect when trying to appeal to a blank-faced spirit vessel. But the highlight comes when Bran spits Baelish’s “chaos is a ladder” line back at him, and Littlefinger’s face falls almost imperceptibly. Bran eventually passes the Valyrian steel dagger on to Arya (all the better to slay White Walkers with). And one imagines Littlefinger will start to consider who else might need his services since the Starks seem to uniformly have no use for him. I hear Baltimore might need a new mayor.
One of Dany’s Ships Hasn’t Sunk Yet: “The Spoils of War” spends a bit of time teasing Jon and Dany as a pairing, with an oddly held gaze in the caverns and a few choice jibes from Ser Davos. It feels odd considering Dany is Jon’s his aunt, but compared to the current ruling couple, I suppose it’d be an improvement on the gene-spreading front. Presumably, somewhere far far away, Ser Jorah just shivered for reasons he can’t adequately explain.