This week, we’re back to inoffensively bad with “The Spoils of War.” It’s by far the most entertaining episode of the season so far, if only because we finally get to see some of the dragon fire action that we’ve been waiting seven years for, but the rest of the episode is still a mix of silly dialogue, baffling emotional beats, and just generally poor writing. The visual effects, specifically for Drogon, balance some of this out, but “The Spoils of War” is still by no means a triumph of craft.
Spoilers ahead, natch.
In the Reach, Part 1
“The Spoils of War” is bookended with scenes taking place in the Reach (basically the lands near Highgarden and between there and King’s Landing), and in the first one Bronn is back, and he has lines again (!) as he helps Jaime oversee the looting of Highgarden. Jaime gives Bronn a huge bag of gold—nice job, show, on at least trying to convey just how heavy gold is—but Bronn wants to know where his castle is. You know, the one he was promised back in like season three. He points out that Highgarden is currently free, but Jaime responds with, basically, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems,” to which Bronn replies, essentially, “I’ll take my chances, rich boy.” Then, Bronn gets a little critical of Cersei, which makes Jaime uncomfortable, or maybe pissed off or something. It’s hard to tell, because what even is Jaime’s relationship with his sister, right? It might even just be that he’s offended at Bronn getting above his station since Jaime quickly seizes the first opportunity to reassert his power over Bronn. Randyll Tarly wants to flog some of the stragglers at the end of the wagon train or whatever, because it’s important that we know what a bad guy he is, so Jaime commands Bronn, kind of rudely, to go make sure Lord Tarly at least gives people a warning before flogging them.
In King’s Landing
Our only King’s Landing scene this week involves Cersei day drinking and being flattered by Mark Gatiss, the name of whose character I cannot for the life of me remember. Not that it matters, because Mark Gatiss is just playing Mycroft Holmes. His flattery of Cersei reads as incredibly insincere, and it’s delivered with Gatiss’s omnipresent smirk, but at the same time the tone of the scene still seems to suggest that we, the audience, are intended to see Cersei as competent—a strong ruler with a string of wins, a new powerful ally and strong prospects—as opposed to evil and foolish. Honestly, at this point, either way could work, but it would be nice if the show’s writers would just pick one conception of Cersei and be consistent with it.
Bran at Winterfell
We first see Bran this week being wooed by Petyr Baelish, who still has the Valyrian steel dagger that, in a way, started this whole mess. Littlefinger gifts the dagger to Bran, who asks if Littlefinger knows who the dagger belonged to (nope, at least ostensibly) and then freaks Littlefinger out by repeating part of the “chaos is a ladder” speech from season three. Littlefinger’s perpetual creeping on every Stark child he can get his hands on is getting tiresome, but it seems likely that the primary function of this short scene is to reintroduce this dagger into the narrative. In the books, the dagger is supposed to have been given to the assassin by Joffrey, but it had originally belonged to Littlefinger himself, for all that he claims no knowledge of it here. Considering the amount of attention paid to the dagger in this episode, however, it seems like this is being set up to be a significant mystery of the season. It just seems like too little, too late. Joffrey is long dead, and it seems silly for Bran to toy with Littlefinger if he knows the dagger was his, especially since Bran has come back from the wall devoid of any human feelings or passion. If that’s truly the case, then it’s genuinely out of character for Bran to be manipulating in that fashion.
Speaking of Bran being devoid of human feelings, the very next scene finds Meera Reed popping in to say goodbye to Bran before she leaves to go back to her family, presumably because this character has been tortured enough and the show is trying to pare down its cast. Generously, we could interpret this scene as further confirmation of how Bran was changed by his time beyond the Wall and his new role as the Three-Eyed Raven. The truth is that he’s not Bran Stark now—“not really, not anymore.” Poor Meera is heartbroken, having lost her brother, Hodor and Bran’s dire wolf Summer along the way, but Bran himself has nothing to say to her aside from a simple, not-very-heartfelt “thank you.” In keeping with the show’s long tradition of abusing this poor woman and denying her any kind of joy, hope or satisfaction in her fictionalized life, Meera leaves unhappy, and Bran doesn’t give a shit.
Neither of these Bran scenes are particularly interesting, and there’s no new information conveyed in either of them, so it’s not clear what their function is supposed to be. Again, generously, I suppose the Littlefinger scene could be interpreted as establishing or escalating some narrative tension; Littlefinger is so predatory towards the Stark children, and he has been trying and failing to cultivate each of them as… something, I guess? At this point, I don’t even know what his big picture plan is, and I’m not sure he knows, either, anymore. The Meera scene was just a sad, perfunctory tying up of a loose end, and I feel like we should probably just be happy she didn’t get the Osha or Ros treatment. Meera never got to be a dynamic character in her own right, and most of her time was spent selflessly sacrificing and suffering to protect and aid Bran, only to go completely unappreciated for it in the end. If anything, I’m glad for the actress to be done with this mess so she can hopefully move on to bigger and better things than this garbage show.
Arya at Winterfell
Confusingly, our first shot of Arya this week comes right after Meera left Bran, so it’s not obvious at first what we’re seeing. Initially, I thought the lone rider looking over Winterfell from a distance was Meera taking her leave of the place, and I only realized my mistake after it cut to the next scene where Arya has inexplicably ditched her horse and come the rest of the way to Winterfell on foot. It’s not a huge deal, and I may even be in a minority of people who had this problem with this scene transition, but Arya’s grey horse looks very different from behind than it does from the side, so I didn’t find it instantly recognizable, and two dark-haired girls from kind of far away, on horseback, from the rear, wearing vaguely similar-looking clothing (darkish, ratty and mismatched) are easy to mistake. As a consequence, Arya’s homecoming didn’t have the emotional impact it might have had if this transition had been clearer.
This lack of initial emotional impact is compounded by having the first people Arya encounters at Winterfell be a pair of rather bumbling asshole guards who don’t want to let her in at all—weird, since it seemed last week that the castle was being prepared to accept refugees from all over the North—and then waste some time arguing over which of them is going to tell Lady Sansa, during which time Arya slips away from them. At first it seems as if Arya may have changed her mind about Winterfell after all, which would have been an interesting and unexpected choice in keeping with the theme introduced in this scene that Winterfell has changed and is no longer a place that Arya recognizes or that recognizes or welcomes her. Considering that just last week she was planning to go to King’s Landing and kill Cersei, this wouldn’t be entirely out of character, and it would have been an interesting subversion of viewer expectations. In a show that used to be much touted (though unfairly, in my opinion) for these sort of twists, it would have been a nice change of pace after seasons of adhering to hackneyed genre tropes and pedestrian storytelling conventions.
However, as soon as Sansa hears that Arya is back, she knows exactly where Arya has gone—the crypts, where Sansa easily finds her, standing in front of their father’s statue. Sansa’s realization and joy when learning that Arya had come home was a surprisingly emotional moment, but their actual physical reunion in the crypt didn’t quite stick the emotional landing. To the degree that this reunion did capture something of the awkwardness of the Stark sisters, who never were very close or had much in common, coming back together, it’s a testament to the skill of the actors, who are close friends in real life. Their conversation is somewhat short, complicated by time and distance and the gulf of experience that now separates them as much as they ever were before, and it would have been nice to see them have either a little more intimacy and vulnerability or to see them fully commit to playing up the strangeness of their new roles and their discomfort with each other after so many years apart.
Things get even weirder and more awkward when Sansa takes Arya to see Bran in the godswood. Bran is still positively robotic, and he passes on the Valyrian steel dagger to Arya, which highlights the significance of the item for the second time in this episode. Arya seems somewhat discomfited by Bran’s oddness, but we quickly move along after this so that we can see the Stark children (or, rather, young adults) being observed as they go back inside. Brienne and Podrick are happy to see the children reunited, but Littlefinger is inscrutably creepy. The audience, as well, is invited to observe the Starks together, but there’s such an emotional flatness and deadness to the scene that one has to wonder what the point is. Are we supposed to feel happy that they’re back together, in their home? Are we supposed to be apprehensive about what the future holds for them? Should we be focusing on the mysteries of their pasts? Should we be reading the seeds of conflict in the tenuousness and tentativeness of their connections with each other? Who knows?
At Dragonstone, Part 1
Missandei and Daenerys are having some girl talk about Grey Worm, one snippet of which per season is (I guess) what passes for a depiction of female friendship on this show, when they’re interrupted by Jon Snow, who has something very important to show Daenerys. He’s found the dragonglass under Dragonstone, and he wants her to see it before he destroys it, which is kind of sweet, but it’s so dark in the cave that it’s hard to see how pretty it’s supposed to be. Having watched the scene twice now on different screens, I still have to mostly use my imagination to guess what a mountain full of obsidian looks like under all the gloom that makes of about 75% of the Game of Thrones aesthetic.
The main event, however, and (fortunately) better lit, is a deeper part of the cave where Jon has found a bunch of cave art/paintings left there by the Children of the Forest and depicting how the Children and the First Men fought together against the Night King and the army of the dead. Hilariously, there are several different anachronistic art styles on the walls of the cave, from simple pictographs and mystical-looking abstract designs to the relatively realistic sketches of the Night King, complete with inlaid blue gems for his eyes. It’s profoundly silly and jarring, especially with the “reveal” of the final image of the Night King done so dramatically. The silliness doesn’t stop there. Daenerys, it turns out, is willing to come help Jon deal with the North’s zombie problem, but only if he, personally, will bend the knee to her, and he, absurdly, continues to refuse out of whatever misguided principle is supposed to be guiding him. He’s not even swayed by Daenerys’s dead-eyed attempt to sexily walk towards him and intimidate him with her hotness, though Benioff and Weiss insist in the Inside the Episode featurette that this is Jon and Daenerys starting to be attracted to each other.
Fortunately, we’re all rescued from this nonsense by Tyrion and Varys arriving with some bad news about how things went at Casterly Rock. Daenerys rages a little and threatens to take her dragons right now and burn down the Red Keep in King’s Landing, which is honestly not the worst idea anyone’s had this season, but Tyrion and Jon talk her down from this idea. Also, even though Tyrion’s plans have literally all failed, spectacularly, this season, it still feels like we’re intended to think Daenerys is an unreasonably monster for being angry at him. Sure, the suggestion that he might be working to undermine her because he’s secretly still promoting his family’s interests seems cruel, but it’s the kind of theory Tyrion or Varys might think up themselves, and Tyrion couldn’t be much more successful at fucking things up for Dany if he was trying. Her anger and her desire to use the dragons is framed as irrational in contrast to Tyrion’s contriteness and Jon’s calmness, and no one on the beach in this discussion is on Dany’s side. Her anger and frustration are fully justified and her suspicions aren’t entirely illogical in light of the evidence she has, which is that Tyrion’s plans have gotten her allies killed, her ships burned, and the Unsullied hopelessly separated from her with only a strategically unimportant (though symbolically valuable to Tyrion—hmmmm…) castle to show for it.
Brienne at Winterfell
Back at Winterfell, Brienne is still “training” Podrick by beating up on him and giving him curt, unhelpful and contradictory criticism. He hasn’t improved much since the last time we saw this going on. That’s okay, though, because Arya pops up, in a brand new snazzy costume, because she wants to train with Brienne. This could have been an interesting bonding moment for these two women, and in the ensuing sparring scene we get glimmers of what might have been that intent, but we quickly cut away to Sansa and Littlefinger, who are observing the proceedings. I have no idea what feeling Sansa is supposed to be having here, but she makes a weird unhappy face and walks away as if maybe she’s jealous of Arya bonding with Brienne. But she also might be alarmed at how Arya has changed. Or she could be worried and paranoid about something. Or she could be sad and reflecting on her own lack of martial skill. Or she could have painful gas and need to rush inside to a chamber pot just in case. There’s truly no way to know, just based on what is put on screen here.
The worst thing about this scene, though, incoherent character motivations aside, is that when Brienne asks Arya who taught her to fight, Arya replies “No One.” Has she forgotten Syrio Forel?! I think I’m going to choose to believe that Sansa is angry at Arya’s failure to give credit where its due.
At Dragonstone, Part 2
Back at Dragonstone, Jon and Davos are having a boys’ talk that mirrors Missandei and Dany’s discussion earlier. Jon is definitely not interested in Daenerys (but obviously really is, or would be if he had any discernible emotions), but Davos definitely ships it. The two men run into Missandei, around whom Davos is still very weird, and we all get to learn together what a bastard is and how in Naath, there’s no such thing as a bastard because they have no marriage there. Nice. Right as Missandei has shifted into telling Davos and Jon the gospel of Daenerys—though “the queen we chose” rings a little false when that queen bought many of her subjects, subdued some through war and impressed the rest with the threat of dragonfire—Theon makes it back to Dragonstone.
Things are weird between Theon and Jon, who tells Theon, “What you did for [Sansa] is the only reason I’m not killing you.” This actually seems like a totally good reason not to murder someone, especially someone like Theon, who’s already faced so much cosmic justice for his crimes, so I don’t get why Jon is so aggressive about it. It just smacks of faux, exaggerated drama when there’s so many other things Jon could be worrying about. In any case, Theon has come back to Dragonstone hoping that Daenerys will help him rescue Yara, but Daenerys is already gone. Dramatic pause.
In the Reach, Part 2
Somewhere between Highgarden and King’s Landing, Jaime and Bronn are still supervising the wagon train carrying gold and food to King’s Landing. Somehow, the fighting at Highgarden was Dickon’s first battle ever, even though he’s, what, like thirty-five? Whatever. My favorite* thing about this scene is when Jaime pulls his “calling Dickon by the wrong name” power move and then Bronn giggles like a schoolboy about Dickon’s name having “dick” in it. Hurray for toxic masculinity, which is also extremely stupid. Jaime and Bronn aren’t completely awful to Dickon when they get into talking about battle, and they do seem to care (in an appropriately masculine way, of course) about Dickon’s psychological health after the trauma of battle, but they don’t spend much actual time on this because they can hear the rumble of distant hoofbeats and the screams of Daenerys’s Dothraki riders. Oh, shit!
I have so many questions about this turn of events—How many boats does Dany still have? How did she move an army with no one noticing? How did they know where they needed to go to engage the Lannisters’ main force? Since they’re just teleporting around, why didn’t they try to get there before the gold was all inside the gates of King’s Landing? Why is Tyrion watching from the top of a hill, and why isn’t he on horseback in case he needs to make a quick getaway? Why does Dany have Drogon destroy so much food if she’s so concerned about the plight of the common people? Why does Dany think she’s going to single-handedly yank a huge barbed ballista bolt out of Drogon’s shoulder?—but I know none of these questions will ever be answered by the show. In fact, I’m certain that I have, just in this paragraph, put far more thought into it than the show’s writers did.
All in all, this lengthy battle sequence is entertaining to watch, however, so long as you don’t think about any of it at all. It’s nice, after all these years, to finally get the payoff of seeing a jet-sized dragon burninating some stuff, and the effects department went all out with the pyrotechnics. The way they’re filming Dany on Drogon’s back now looks a lot better than it did back when she flew him out of the pit in Meereen, so I didn’t feel like I was flashing back to The Neverending Story and Bastian’s ride on Falcor this time around. There were three horses running loose after the fighting starts, who I’m pretty sure are the best actors in the episode. Bronn’s horse gets its leg chopped off, which some viewers have said is gratuitous, but I disagree, though I thought it was slightly gratuitous when there was a longish shot of a guy later on with his face burning off. Bronn survives, which was good because I’ve gotten surprisingly invested in this dude’s future; if he doesn’t get his castle in the end, I’m gonna riot. Jaime heroically tries to ride down and spear a small, distracted woman, which is probably about the max level of fighting skill and chivalry we should expect from him at this point, I guess. Bronn rescues Jaime from his Leeroy Jenkins moment, they fall in the river, and roll credits.
I mean, it’s all fine. It’s the sort of big, expensive, absurdly-silly-if-you-think-about-it-for-half-a-second spectacle that has become characteristic of these later seasons of the show. If I have one major complaint about this battle, it’s that it doesn’t have any truly unifying aesthetic. Parts of the battle feel about on par with stuff out of Excalibur, other parts are a little more Braveheart, while still others seem more influenced by Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a battle that doesn’t know if it wants to be gritty and realistic, dark and dramatic, or heightened and fantastical, and the overall effect ends up being sort of sheepish, as if the sequence itself is apologizing for how silly it is. It’s a pretty obvious case of a director who had many influences (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but didn’t have the skill or vision to distill those influences into a cohesive whole. Also obvious is that HBO is willing to spend a shitload of money on this stuff without asking too many questions, and the lack of financial oversight or restrictions may also contribute to the bloated, confused mess they’re putting on screen. Sure, it’s got plenty of entertainment value, but that only goes so far. It’s fun, but it’s not good.