Monday, August 7, 2017

Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 4, “The Spoils of War”

Well, what a marvelous twenty minutes of television the end of this episode is! After three episodes of Daenerys and company twiddling their thumbs at Dragonstone, slowly bleeding allies and resources in a failed war of attrition, Daenerys finally takes to heart Olenna’s parting advice about being a dragon, and strikes at Cersei’s forces in a thrilling and fulfilling twenty-minute battle. This scene is extraordinary, featuring everything I want out of a large-scale confrontation involving dragons and important characters on both sides of the conflict. Its combination of epic scope and riveting character moments is Game of Thrones at its absolute best, offering up grandeur, majesty, suspense, and surprise unparalleled elsewhere on television.

First and foremost is the awesome might of just one of Daenerys’s dragons. We’ve seen her dragons in action before, most notably in the Fighting Pits of Meereen and the destruction of the slavers’ navy, but this battle offers a number of new thrills. "The Spoils of War" is the first time we’ve seen a dragon deployed in a land battle, and its effectiveness is emphasized as the camera lingers on the devastation it unleashes. Moreover, Dany’s dragons and Dothraki are destroying Lannister forces, rather than some random slavers or masked Meereen assassins, which is cathartic not only as a reversal of Tyrion’s blundering strategy these past two episodes, but also because it's happening to the family responsible for so much misery on Game of Thrones.

More importantly, there are characters we care about on both sides: Jaime and Bronn on the one hand, Daenerys and Tyrion on the other. Who do you root for? Where do your sympathies lie? We like Bronn, we like Dany and her dragons, and yet here they are, furiously trying to murder each other. The point is emphasized when Tyrion feels a pang of guilt over the massacre he’s unleashed on his former house, and again when he spots Jaime in the battle and quietly urges him to flee rather than to attack Daenerys. Daenerys might be Tyrion’s queen and savior, but Jaime is still his brother, and the only member of his family who ever loved him. Planning Daenerys’s war with the Lannisters was much easier for him when it was theoretical and remote. Observing his reaction to this battle makes me think that his failed strategy might indeed have been a subconscious ploy to spare himself from as much of this emotional turmoil as possible.

Another reason this battle is so thrilling is for the incredible suspense of Jaime’s gambit at its climax. Jaime is a complicated character. He’s moderately sympathetic, insofar as losing his hand has humbled him, and insofar as we’ve learned how his father and his murder of the Mad King have shaped him, but he’s also committed horrible acts, most notably pushing Bran out of the window and raping Cersei at Joffrey’s funeral.* At the very least, he’s a complex character, and certainly the most sympathetic one remaining in King’s Landing, thus I felt strongly conflicted when he attempted ride down Daenerys: all of the possible outcomes here seemed incredibly undesirable (even if they did not all seem equally probable), and we have only mere seconds to weigh them.

* The rape was a pretty awful blunder on the part of the show’s writers and that episode’s director, who intended to portray their sex as consensual. It was a misstep that interfered significantly -- insurmountably for some -- with Jaime’s redemption arc. 

I never really entertained the idea that Jaime would reach Daenerys before Drogon realized he needed to defend her (although I did fear for Drogon). Mostly though, I was afraid for Jaime here, my alarm mounting as I feared that the writers were really going to kill off such a complex character by having him burned to cinder by the Queen of Dragons. Such a death would seem like a waste, but not something I’d put beyond Game of Thrones, given its history of killing off complex characters in spectacular, gruesome, and/or shocking fashion (R.I.P. Ned, Oberyn, Robb, Talisa, Hodor, Margaery etc., etc.). Having Jaime die this way would certainly fit that bill. No matter the outcome, this sequence is incredibly exciting because it seems like it's building up to the final moments for at least one of two major characters (and because Tyrion functions as a viewer surrogate - it's often useful to have our own reactions modeled by in-fiction characters).

Yet -- surprise! -- Jaime is saved by someone with as much courage as him, but with more brains (likely Bronn, although it’s tough to tell here), pushing him off his horse and into the water at the last moment. The episode tries to milk more suspense out of Jaime sinking in his heavy armor, but I suspect he’ll survive as Daenerys’s prisoner, which would allow us to enjoy a Lannister brothers reunion that would reverse the previous dynamic between the two: now Jaime would be the prisoner, and Tyrion the ally of his jailer. Jaime's previous captivity was cause for major changes in his character. Perhaps this time around he can avoid losing his other hand.

Having characters we care about amongst the Lannister forces also adds to the aesthetic experience of the battle by giving us a new perspective: the futility of fighting against a dragon. We can see the wonder and despair on Jaime’s and Bronn’s faces when Daenerys flies Drogon into battle, and again when the archers’ arrows bounce harmlessly off of Drogon’s scales. Even armed with a giant crossbow (or “scorpion”), Drogon is difficult to hit, and when Bronn does hit him, Drogon is merely wounded, not killed. Daenerys’s dragon’s aren’t just giant flamethrowers with claws and teeth; they’re also an air force in a time when there’s no such thing as an air force. They're an overwhelming tactical advantage.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t address Bronn’s heroics here. Bronn is essentially a more cutthroat and crasser male version of Olenna Tyrell: he's pragmatic, speaks his mind, and can banter with the best of them, easily making him another fan favorite. Whereas Olenna backed up her brass with cunning politics, Bronn backs up his sass with his fighting skills, particularly his willingness to fight dirty, so it was nice to see him face a random Dothraki opponent who would (literally) stoop to similar levels, severing the leg of Bronn’s horse.

Much like with Jaime, I was in suspense over this being the end of the road for Bronn, particularly when he falls to the ground and glances at his gold as it spills beside him. Had he died here, such an image would suggest a moralistic end for his character (“This is what you get for always selling yourself to the highest bidder”), but such moralizing would feel very wrong for Game of Thrones, where heroes and villains never win or lose because they’re good or bad. Like many characters on this show, Bronn lives in a moral gray area that would make a moralistic death seem particularly inappropriate, or even outright hypocritical. Thus I was happy to see Bronn get the better of his Dothraki opponent with the help of the scorpion. And if anyone is going to land a shot on a dragon, I guess I’d prefer it to be him.

Overall, Bronn and Jaime's actions in this battle are interesting to compare in terms of the suspense they generate. Of the two characters, Bronn certainly is the more expendable one: he's always a delight, but he's also a marginal character, one who could easily be dispatched without sabotaging the potential for future dramatic payoffs. Thus he seems like a probable candidate for dragon-roasting, which contributes significantly to the suspense of his actions in this battle. Jaime, on the other hand, seems more likely to survive, considering his importance to the story. So how can the writers make his actions suspenseful? One answer: make them way riskier than Bronn's. I'd argue the suspense of Jaime charging Dany and Drogon is greater than any single thing Bronn does in this battle, even though Bronn seems a more likely candidate to die, because as I mentioned earlier, it seems to limit possible outcomes to only one of two option: either Jaime or Daenerys is going to die, both of which are more undesirable than Bronn's death would be.

Outside of the battle, this episode also had plenty of other nice things going for it. I was glad to see a brief scene between Littlefinger and Bran, considering their opposing views of the world (Bran sees the past, Littlefinger anticipates the future; Bran looks out for everyone except for himself, Littlefinger looks out only for himself). Littlefinger attempts to flatter Bran with false sympathy for his hardship beyond the wall, and seems to bemoan the chaotic times in which they live, but Bran stops him short by quoting Littlefinger’s own words back at him: “Chaos is a ladder.” The line is a reference to a season three confrontation between Varys and Littlefinger, where Littlefinger reveals that he sees chaos not as a tragedy to bemoan, but a path toward opportunity and advancing one’s position in the world.

By quoting this line, Bran is once again revealing that he knows more than he should. He might want to stop doing this within five minutes of meeting people, especially a snake like Littlefinger. Evidently knowledge of the past does not automatically grant wisdom in how to wield it. Sansa and Arya find Bran’s clairvoyance unnerving, but Littlefinger clearly finds it threatening, and rightly so. If Bran somehow knows about this conversation with Varys, it’s conceivable that he also knows about other conversations, particularly Littlefinger’s seduction of Lyssa Arryn and his conspiring to have her murder her husband, Jon Arryn, which is much more responsible for the War of the Five Kings than the attempt on Bran’s life.* Small wonder Bran’s words wipe Littlefinger’s smile off his face.

* To recap: it was at Littlefinger’s behest that Lyssa Arryn poisoned Jon Arryn, who was Hand to King Robert just before the series began (his funeral is the first non-northern scene in the entire series, and the first time we meet Jaime and Cersei). It was Jon Arryn’s death that set all of the events of the series in motion: Jon Arryn dies; Robert travels to Winterfell to ask Ned to take Jon’s place as Hand; Ned accepts and moves to King’s Landing, where he begins to investigate Jon’s death, which leads him to suspect that the Lannisters (not Lyssa) had Jon murdered because he knew about their incest, and so on. Littlefinger simply wanted to rule one of the great houses of Westeros (perhaps as a step toward the Iron Throne); I doubt he envisioned the series of events that would come to pass as a result, no matter his powers of contingency. Ever the chameleon, he simply adapted to new circumstances as they unfolded.

After being absent from the last episode, Arya turns up in Winterfell, much to my surprise (I was certain she was going to King’s Landing).* Even though I find her decision a disappointing turn because it seems to stall her plot rather than drive it forward, it still affords us a nice set of Winterfell scenes here. In particular, it was interesting to compare her reunion with Sansa with the other two reunions Sansa has had with her remaining siblings. Sansa’s reunion with Jon was incredibly emotional for both of them: after the terrible hardship they’d each endured, seeing each other was a relief, an oasis in a desert of miserable experiences. They were both thirsty for the comfort of family and the nostalgia of the past. Her reunion with Bran was like a weaker, one-sided version of her reunion with Jon: Sansa wept at the sight of him, but Bran did not reciprocate. Her reunion with Arya is the least emotional of them all: we don’t even hear the swelling music of the Stark motif when they finally see each other (as we do in the other reunions).

* I laughed when Bran told Arya he saw her at the crossroads and debated what path she would take. Essentially, becoming the Three-Eyed Raven has given Bran a subscription to HBO.
Instead, the Stark musical motif is deployed when Arya first catches sight of Winterfell, and again when she casts her eyes around the courtyard, finally landing on a Stark banner. For Arya, it’s being home again that is wistful and nostalgic, not reuniting with any particular members of her family, least of all Sansa, with whom she had more of a sibling rivalry than anything else.

When Arya and Sansa finally reunite, it takes place in front of Ned’s tomb, an appropriate location given that the last time these two saw each other was at his beheading. This series’ awareness of its own history has been very evident and rewarding so far this season, especially when it’s put to such poetic, symmetrical use. Moreover, having their reunion take place in this location underlines the changes they’ve undergone in the time since. Neither are the little girls they once were.

If the changes Arya has undergone are merely suggested in the crypt scene, then they are shouted from the rooftops in the scene where she spars with Brienne. Much like the Lannister soldiers whom Arya encountered in "Dragonstone," Sansa laughs when Arya mentions that she keeps a list of people she’s going to kill, but she realizes Arya is serious when she sees Arya hold her own against Brienne.

This scene performs at least three functions: it lets Arya thank Brienne for trying to help her previously; it shocks Sansa into realizing that Arya has changed nearly as much as Bran, and it reveals to Littlefinger that Arya should not be underestimated, and that Sansa is better protected than he realized. Whatever Littlefinger’s plans for Sansa are, they certainly don’t involve two of the Stark children returning from the dead as a rogue and a clairvoyant. Perhaps his smile as he nods to Arya is his own bemusement at how thoroughly the nine-lived Starks have ruined his plans to isolate and manipulate Sansa.

Brienne also has a nice moment earlier when she sees all three of the remaining Stark children together again in Winterfell. Podrick tries to compliment her on keeping her vow to Catelyn, and Brienne tries to deflect it, but ultimately accepts it, which puts a smile on Pod’s face. It’s a great little exchange that speaks not only to how these two are growing closer, but also how this show rarely misses an opportunity to explore how the resolutions of various plotlines reverberate through the lives of even tangential characters.

Meanwhile, Jon is still in Dragonstone. Before Daenerys flies off into battle, Jon takes her into Westeros’s very own Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The carvings of the white walkers and the Night King are eerie, given that they were made thousands of years earlier by children of the forest, but I was also tickled by the idea that Jon simply carved them himself before he showed them to Dany, just to convince her of the urgency of the coming war.

When they emerge from the cave to the news of the Tyrell’s defeat, Dany asks for Jon’s advice, and his is the same as Tyrion’s: don’t massacre the people you intend to rule. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as Jon is not a good strategist. He was badly outplayed by Ramsay in the Battle of the Bastards (especially at the start, when he was foolishly goaded into trying to save Rickon), Hardhome was a disaster, and he got himself killed by trying to do the right thing for the free folk.

In fact, Jon’s resistance to swearing fealty to Daenerys in exchange for her help in battling the Night King might even be conditioned by this history with the free folk and the Night’s Watch. Having already been murdered once by the people he presumed to lead, perhaps he’s now cautious of allying with someone the northerners would find unacceptable, lest they decide, like the Night’s Watch, that he’s no long fit to rule them either, especially with Sansa’s capable hands ready to take over. He doesn’t want to get repeatedly knifed in the torso again. Thankfully, Daenerys only partially heeds Jon’s advice: she attacks, but rather than attack King’s Landing directly, instead she attacks the Lannister army en route to it, leading to the stirring climax of the episode.

Other thoughts:

- Bronn, ever the mercenary, complains to Jaime about being owed a castle, much to Jaime’s exasperation. Tyrion always understood the terms of Bronn’s loyalty better than Jaime.

- As the “Previously” montage reminds us, Catelyn’s investigation into the assassin sent to kill Bran led her to Littlefinger, who put the blame on Tyrion. Back then, it was unclear whether or not Littlefinger was lying, but given what we know of Tyrion, conspiring to murder a child to cover up the incest of his siblings does not seem like the sort of thing he would do. It does, however, seem like the sort of thing Littlefinger might do in order to curry favor with Cersei or Jaime. Perhaps Bran knows this as well; when he asks Littlefinger if he knows who used to own the dagger they talk about here, he almost sounds like he already knows the answer and is merely quizzing Littlefinger.

- The primary purpose of Bran’s goodbye scene with Meera Reed is to make excessively obvious what was already clear -- and subtler -- last week: that Bran is no longer just Bran, but the Three-Eyed Raven with a sprinkling of Bran on top. This (irritating) redundancy would be easier to overlook -- and the scene more affecting in general -- if Meera had ever been anything more than a plot device to shuttle Bran from one location to another. If, for instance, she and Bran had a brief romance while he was training in the Three-Eyed Raven’s lair, then her sobbing over the realization that Bran also “died” during the Night King’s assault would have more emotional heft. But she is such an under-written and minor character that her distress comes off as a weak attempt to dress up a scene that exists only to make explicit what was previously implicit. I suppose her thinness is a casualty of there being too many characters and not enough time on this series (especially when Bran misses an entire season), but this scene irked me for how on the nose it is.

- Jon, thick as ever, interrupts a moment of relationship gossip between Dany and Missandei. I would have liked more of this exchange. Daenerys could use some lightening up at this point.

- Interestingly, we don’t see Jon's response to Dany’s offer (Jon's fealty for her army) -- they’re next shown emerging from the cave together. I’m guessing he declined, both because Davos suggests Daenerys and company would want to be alone in discussing their next move, and because the point of a later scene between Davos, Jon, and Missandei seems to be to make Jon realize that Daenerys is someone worth swearing fealty to. Missandei convinces Davos, putting Daenerys in the same terms through which Jon views his own leadership: Missandei has chosen her ruler, just as the northerners chose Jon.

- As much as I like Brienne, she’s a shitty teacher. Her “training” of Podrick consists mainly of her smugly telling him what he did wrong after she’s beaten him to the ground.

Nice touch: the smiles on their faces as they finish sparring.
- I like that Brienne and Arya are evenly matched. It's a smart move, because making Arya too good a fighter for even Brienne to touch would have made Arya seem too much like a superhero, and also would have diminished Brienne’s stature as one of the best swords in Westeros. Arya reminds us here that Brienne beat the Hound, but she also beat Jaime when he still had his right hand (granted, he was malnourished and exhausted, but still deadly).

- Arya notes Littlefinger’s amazement at her skills before he slips his mask of guile back into place. I don’t think she ever encountered him at King’s Landing, thus the mild suspicion that washes over her is likely the product of her simply being a good judge of character. Perhaps he'll try and fail to curry favor with her next episode, much like he tried and failed with Bran this episode, and like he tried and failed with Jon two episodes ago. The Stark family keeps it real.

- Look at Davos the yenta, flirting with Missandei and spurring on a romance between Jon and Dany! This would play better if we’d seen any indication whatsoever that Jon was interested in Daenerys, rather than our having to take Davos’s word for it. Instead, Jon and Dany’s scenes together have been too concerned with their negotiations over rule. Any undercurrent of romantic interest would have been a welcome leavening agent last week or this week.

- I liked Jon briefly shitting on Theon. On the one hand, Theon has paid for his crimes, but on the other, he hasn’t ever been punished by the Starks for them, and they’re the ones to whom he owes penance.

- Dickon’s name continues to be a good source of jokes: Jaime still can’t remember it, and Bronn can’t help but laugh at it. After saving Jaime’s life in the battle, Jaime will be sure to remember it now. Dick on!

- Dickon or Randyll seemed even more likely candidates than Bronn to die in the battle, but shockingly, no major or minor characters are killed (as has been the case in every other episode this season).

- My initial note from when Daenerys crested the hill atop Drogon, flying over a sea of advancing Dothraki: “Fucking finally!!!!!”

- Dany might be a charismatic leader, but she’s no tactician. She'd certainly fail a multiple choice quiz about what to do if your dragon is shot with a crossbow but is still capable of flying.

- “Chaos is a ladder” also applies to the battle scene, as the chaos of the battle leads Jaime to sense a (false) moment of opportunity to strike at Daenerys. For Jaime, chaos turns not into a ladder, but into the pit that Varys describes in that scene with Littlefinger, almost literally.

Cue Arrested Development’s G.O.B.: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

- Speaking of which, what’s up with the topography of this lake? Jaime is able to ride through shallow waters on his way to Daenerys, but when he’s unseated, suddenly he’s plummeting to its murky depths? For that matter, I’m also skeptical that the carvings in the Dragonstone cave would last for thousands of years of rising and lowering tides and exposure to air. Sure, there’s magic and dragons and zombies in this world, but this just seems like a brief moment of lazy writing in an otherwise excellent episode.

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