To start at the start… No, I did not watch the leaked (not by hackers, but the careless Indian distributor) version of Game of Thrones this week. Why not? I don’t know – but I’ve never watched leaked episodes of this series, even when several appeared weeks before the season began a couple of years ago. It just doesn’t feel right to me, knowing how hard the people behind this monstrosity of a TV show have worked to keep a lid on it until it officially appears. And maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’m not a binge watcher by inclination. I like the feeling of looking forward to a show all week and then watching at at the same time.
To my taste this was a very good episode of GoT indeed – the second in a row, happily enough – but in a real sense it felt like two different episodes. The first half had me marvelling at just how patient the series has been with the narrative this season, given that it’s only seven episodes and the final one is planned for only six. But at about the halfway point (fittingly enough, also the halfway point of the season) it was as if someone had flipped a switch and all hell broke loose. And that’s much closer to being literally true here than most of the times you see that phrase tossed about.
The first half of “The Spoils of War” certainly belonged to the Starks – and by extension the ghoul who perpetually hovers over them these days, Littlefinger. He makes a rather interesting move by giving Bran the Valyrian steel dagger that the assassin (we still don’t know who sent him, officially) used to try and kill him way back at the beginning of all things. Bran will later give the dagger to Arya (more on that shortly) because “it’s wasted on a cripple”, strongly implying she’ll soon need it against a white walker. But the act of giving it to Bran suggests Littlefinger has a scheme afoot specifically with Bran in mind, and it’s an inescapable fact that Bran (who tosses off Baelish’s “Chaos is a ladder” catchphrase as it to prove the point) represents a great threat to a conniving betrayer like Littlefinger.
These Stark reunions – at Winterfell no less – have been a long time coming, but leave it to Game of Thrones to rob them of any real emotional satisfaction. Bran’s evolution has become one of the great tragedies of this story, and his farewell scene with Meera Reed is truly heartbreaking. “I remember being Bran Stark, but I remember so much else now.” I still choose to believe Brandon Stark is in there somewhere – that he didn’t “die in that cave” as Meera says – but for now, that boy seems to be buried very, very deeply inside the husk of his body.
One has to feel for Sansa, because as much as she’s changed herself, the changes in her younger siblings must be even more frightening for her. Arya and Sansa have their reunion (Sansa wryly notes that Jon will be much happier to see Arya than he was her, and she’ surely right) but it soon becomes obvious to Sansa that Arya is little more the same person she knew than Bran is. The one emotional highlight at Winterfell this week is seeing Brienne’s face as she watches the three Stark children walk through the courtyard (even she must acknowledge Podrick’s praise in the end), but it’s seeing Arya spar with Brienne that brings home for Sansa just how hard and cold her sister has become. Petyr Baelish, surely, still sees many fissures he believes he can exploit here.
Meanwhile, Jon and Daenerys take a tour of the tunnels beneath Dragonstone before Jon starts “hacking to bits” the dragonglass there. But there’s more than dragonglass down there – there are also the painting of the Children of the Forest and the First men, telling a tale of a different time and a different war. What she sees down there must surely convince her that what Jon has been telling her is true, but even now she refuses to commit to help until Jon bends the knee. Admittedly, her argument is compelling – isn’t saving his people worth more to Jon than his pride? The problem of course is that Daenerys doesn’t understand Northerners even a little – indeed, even less than she understands most of Westeros.
Thank heaven for Davos Seaworth, I say, because he continues to provide a moral anchor and a wry whimsy that Games of Thrones needs more desperately than ever. He notes that Jon has taken to staring at Dany’s “heart” but to be truthful, there really are no signs of sparks between those two – leading me to hope that’s not where their story is headed. Davos also jokes about switching sides after Missandei gives a particularly passionate defense of her queen (I don’t think it’s my imagination that Davos has a bit of a crush on her). The most important moment on Dragonstone this week, perhaps, comes when Daenerys – frustrated with the perceived failures of her own advisors – asks Jon’s advice on whether she should sack the Red Keep with her dragons. Jon’s advice is exactly what you would expect – and it seems to sway her, at least in part.
The battle that consumes the B-part of the episode will surely go down as one of the finest in the series’ history, right there with Blackwater and Hardhome (I think the Battle of the Bastards to be quite overrated). Let’s stipulate for the record that it’s a technical marvel and beautifully shot – this, too, is a moment the series has been building towards, when the full fury of a dragon’s power is unleashed in battle, and it doesn’t disappoint. That it does as good a job as it does of communicating what it must feel like to go up against a force like a dragon (and a Dothraki horde) is testament to that. Surely, this was the most “Lord of the Rings” moment in Game of Thrones‘ history.
The subtext of this battle, though, is what makes it really compelling. The sellsword Bronn demands the castle he was promised, even after receiving a fortune in gold – yet in the end, risks his life for the man withholding it from him. And Tyrion Lannister watches this carnage unfold from a hilltop, willing his brother to flee and wondering, surely, if he’s made a terrible mistake helping unleash the Mother of Dragons on Westeros. Mad or not, for a ruler to wield the power of dragons must seem like a really terrible idea to Tyrion in this moment. These are his people he’s seeing roasted alive, and to the dead there’s no difference between one mad Targaryen and one “sane” one.
The question we’re left with in the end is, of course, “Is Jaime dead?” Surely not, it seems to me – why bother having Bronn heroically tackle him out of harm’s way only to have him drown? There’s no plot armor for most in Game of Thrones but I can’t see Jaime going out that way, even as hard as it is to extricate yourself from a breastplate underwater. As for the state of the war, well – Cersei has her gold, and with it the backing (for now) of the Iron Bank. But she’s lost a good chunk of her army, surely, and even without the aid of a dragon I’m not sure the armies of Westeros are well-prepared to deal with the likes of the Dothraki – they’ve never seen warfare like this before. In the North and in the South, the real battles have hardly begun – which makes the fact that only ten episodes remain to chronicle them that much more alarming.