In its shortest episode to date, Game of Thrones engages in a spectacle of ‘show, don’t tell.’
Fifty minutes of run time does not make for a long episode of Game of Thrones. In fact, it’s the show’s shortest episode yet. But in the hands of newcomer director Matt Shakman, “The Spoils of War” is a top 15 episode for the series and easily the crowd pleasing champion of season 7 thus far. Shakman, who comes to Thrones after making his way through shows like It’s Always Sunny, Fargo, and You’re The Worst, does a wonderful job in this episode of keeping efficient pace and shaping perspective in ways that amplify emotional resonance. Two great examples of this are the perspectives in the episode’s two biggest scenes: the first of Sansa watching her sister Arya spar with Brienne, a show of force that reminds us just how much the younger Stark daughter has changed. The second being that of Tyrion at the battle against the Lannister army — his weary eyes gazing upon what could be certain doom for the brother who saved his life.
These perspectives are important in an episode like this, one that delivers some huge story and action beats. A reminder that we’re living this story through the eyes of characters whom we’ve grown to love.
The other big thing “The Spoils of War” accomplished, which earns credit for both the director and the writers (in this case, Weiss and Benioff), is doing a great deal of showing, not telling. It’s easy to love when Thrones puts two fine actors in a room and allows them to spew poetic, expository dialogue. They did this with Tyrion and his narration of the siege of Casterly Rock last week. Just as Tyrion loves to talk, we love to listen. But there is another gear Thrones can get to when they take the time to show us, rather than tell us.
Here’s what they showed us this week:
How Bran has changed
Sure, Bran literally says “Bran Stark is gone,” but the tone of his conversation with Meera tell more of the story. Bran’s been off in Wier-Wier Land throughout the entire season, the portrait of an emotionless, stoic, above-it-all mindset that comes with knowing everything that’s happening all at once. But in this moment, his lack of gratitude or remorse for the loss of Jojen, Summer, and Hodor, is particularly striking. It’s one thing for him to confuse his sisters, but quite another for him to basically break Meera’s spirit with one final, devastating blow. Poor Meera, she dragged that kid all across the North and barely gets a thank you. It foreshadows darker days ahead for Bran and those around him and skewers what should be a happy reunion between now 3 Stark children.
How Arya has changed
Through a confluence of years of setup, some excellent framing and stunt coordination, and another special performance from Maisie Williams, Arya was in fine form this week. Her return to Winterfell may be the season’s most anticipated moment and it delivered in spades. Both in her interaction with the guards, her surprisingly conflict-free conversation with Sansa, and her sequence with Brienne in the courtyard.
There’s been a great deal of speculation as to whether or not Arya was still “human” enough to be a productive, positively engaged member of Team Stark. All of that seems to be put to rest in this episode, at least for the audience. You can see a bit of skepticism in the face of Sansa, who is coming to grips with how her siblings have changed. And you see a curious little freak out in the face of Littlefinger, who has to know by now that he’s very quickly become outnumbered by Starks he can’t win to his side. How much longer will he even have Sansa’s ear and will he try to make a move on either Arya, Bran, or (eventually when he returns) Jon? Time will tell, but he’s certainly not gaining any momentum in his current climb up the chaos ladder.
How old the Great War is
Cave paintings speak to the audience in a way that simply saying “A thousand years ago, this happened…” doesn’t. As the audience, we know the story of how The Night King was created by the Children of the Forest. But we’re now starting to see what happened after that. The Children created the head White Walker and his army because of the encroachment of the First Men, who landed in Westeros and began displacing them, killing them, and cutting down their Weirwood trees. But it wasn’t long before the Children of the Forest realized the error of their decision to create the army of the dead. They would eventually stand together, as Jon Snow points out, with the First Men in the effort to defeat the army of ice and end The Long Night.
This scene serves as clever hand-holding for the audience and literal hand-holding (did you notice the intimacy gaining steam between Jon and Dany?) for the Mother of Dragons. Jon is realizing very quickly that convincing the rest of the realm to believe in the threat of The Night King is going to be a tall task. Luckily for him, and for narrative momentum, he found that cave. Now he has a place where he can go, be alone with Daenerys, and show off some slightly more verifiable proof of what’s coming for Westeros. Whether or not Daenerys truly believes it at this point is irrelevant. What matters is that she’s coming around to trusting Jon. The image of the King in the North as some weird, unwashed, northern brooder with flights of fancy about snarks and grumpkins is fading away. If he would only bend that knee…
The scope of dragon destruction
There will be calls from fans about how the battle at the end of “The Spoils of War” is “Battle of the Bastards-like” in scale. That’s not entirely true, but I see your excitement and it’s well-placed. The fact of the matter is that this battle is really a route for Team Targaryen. They could very well have taken down the Lannister force with just their Dothraki cavalry.
Based on the trailer and other production info, I knew that a dragon would eventually show up to this party, but it was hard not to think that it was unnecessary, from a strategic standpoint. At least at first. But as you pull back a bit, you remember that Daenerys has been taking Ls all season thus far. Even her team’s big win (Casterly Rock) was immediately followed by Euron’s time-traveling fleet melting down their road back to Dragonstone.
Dany needed a win against Cersei, yes. But she also needed to do what Olenna told her back in the season’s second episode: she needed to be a dragon. That means a show of force that would remind her enemies that her army was not limited to men on the ground or ships at sea. She’s commanding three living, breathing nuclear weapons. It was time to stop talking about dragons breathing fire and show them mowing down lines of Lannister soldiers. And while no major characters fell on this battlefield (sorry, but don’t expect me to believe that either Jaime or Drogon were ever in any real peril), it serves as a big moral and strategic victory for Daenerys. It’s also a show of brute force that doesn’t involve melting any innocents.
Following our spoiler warning, we’ll look at three details from this week’s episode that will be important going forward.
Here are a few things I noticed this week that will become more important as the season continues:
1. What does Dany’s show of force do to Cersei’s alliances?
You can see it in the eyes of Dickon Tarly, Sam’s younger brother. “Fuck this” is the message we’re getting from those in the Lannister army who may have survived this week’s battle. Even Bronn probably wishes he’d just picked his bag of gold back up and fucked off back to Castle Stokeworth. Every time Daenerys sends one of her dragons into battle, it will depress enthusiasm on the other side. And Cersei’s alliances will begin to come apart. How long until Dany lights some Kraken sails on fire or torches another Lannister battalion? This show of force can be seen as a huge turning point in both the military effort and the political winds. As per usual, Olenna was right.
2. Littlefinger’s ladder is crumbling
More Starks in Winterfell is a great thing for the audience, but a very bad thing for Littlefinger. Now there’s talk about how Maester Luwin kept old ravens, how Bran knows everything ever, and how Arya is super good at killing. None of this is good for Lord Baelish. Because even though his wicked machinations are transparent to Sansa, these other Starks may not be quite as understanding. Sansa views him as a necessary burden, someone she’s studied long and hard in an attempt to both stay ahead of him and use him. But for Arya and Bran, Littlefinger may only ever be the guy who betrayed their father on multiple occasions.
Davos of House Tinder
Fans want Dany and Jon to get together (even though they’re the ones who know that they are aunt and uncle). The show appears to want to make this happen, as well. Last week it was a tense start, followed by a little bit of ground gained in building trust. This week, it was on Missendei’s little glance and Davos’ outright matchmaking to continue to sell a future bond between the Mother of Dragons and the King in the North. I suppose it’s obvious (to us) at this point that Jon and Dany will end up together. It’s not quite obvious to Daenerys yet, as she probably thinks there are more eligible bachelors in Westeros. Spoiler alert: there aren’t. With Crazy Uncle Euron aligning with Cersei and Dickon Tarly almost certainly on the path toward being roasted by a dragon, who else is left to marry that would seal any kind of useful alliance? Unless the show is hiding a Quentin Martell somewhere in Dorne, it’s basically Jon Snow and then a bunch of scrubs. (For the record, I do not count Tormund as an eligible bachelor, as his heart’s already been won.)
There’s something equally ominous about next week’s episode title, “The Blood of the Dragon.” That very blood flows through both Jon and Daenerys. Perhaps the continuation of the Targaryen blood — the same blood of Old Valyria — is the key to winning a victory for the living against the army of the dead. Or maybe Daenerys marries the Night King. At this point, Game of Thrones is awash with spectacular possibility.