“Game of Thrones” has become known for its extravagant, daring battle sequences. But even by the standard of “Hardhome” or “Battle of the Bastards,” “The Spoils of War” was an outstanding piece of television, the first episode of “Game of Thrones” in quite some time that has left me physically shaken and morally stirred. After three weeks of sometimes grindingly expository setup, “The Spoils of War” got things moving, making use of the series’ newfound penchant for quick travel to get the war between Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) truly underway. But the battle that accomplished this was also the culmination of a larger theme developed in earlier scenes: This is an episode about recognizing that someone or something is far more lethal than you think, and trying to adjust your worldview accordingly.
To start at the beginning, when the theme is presented with a bit of a twist, two of the Lannister siblings seem to be underrating the lethality of some of their compatriots.
After sacking Highgarden, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) seems surprised by the idea that Bronn (Jerome Flynn) might want something more than a large pile of gold: The jumped-up mercenary actually wants the castle he was promised, and never mind the upkeep. There are some things gold can’t quite buy, and among them is formal elevation to the nobility. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister pays off the Iron Bank’s representative, Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss), but as usual, she isn’t reading the implications in his silky understatements. A perpetually grubby sellsword and an impeccably groomed banker may seem very different, but they each have their own means to turn on their business partners should they be pushed too far.
In Winterfell, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) are more observant, picking up on disturbing developments in the youngest living Starks, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Arya (Maisie Williams).
It’s Littlefinger who experiences the first disturbing jolt, making a transparent effort to wheedle his way into Bran’s affections by offering the young man the Valyrian steel dagger given to an assassin dispatched to kill Bran. “Game of Thrones” can be brutal about realpolitik, so it’s unsettling both to Littlefinger and to us to see a character who cares little for human connection, material security, status or vengeance. Those qualities in Bran have become more evident in every scene he has had this season, whether he’s unnerving Sansa by trying to talk to her about her wedding night, failing to thank Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) for her sacrifices on his behalf or refusing the title of Lord Stark. But Bran’s scene with Littlefinger underscores just how far removed he is from the human world — and just how dangerous his visions are. If the powers of the Three-Eyed Raven give Bran access to Littlefinger’s speech from the third season of the show about the opportunities chaos presents to ambitious men, then Bran can expose everything about Littlefinger, and about almost everyone else he meets.
This ability to make manifest an uncomfortable truth comes into play again after Arya and Sansa’s reunion. Though both sisters acknowledge, in a massive understatement, that their stories since they’ve seen each other last have not been very pleasant, Sansa still makes some tentative gestures toward resuming their old roles. She suggests that Arya will have to call her “Lady Stark” and laughs off Arya’s explanation of her list of names. But when Bran cooly confirms the list, Sansa is startled. And when Arya challenges Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) in the central yard at Winterfell and fights the grown lady knight to a draw with the skills Arya learned from “no one,” Sansa is forced to acknowledge that her sister has both the desire to be utterly lethal and the skills to carry out her threats. When Arya said of the people on her list that “most of them are dead already,” she’s referring in part to chance having robbed her of her victims, but also to her success so far in her murderous quest for justice.
In their own ways, Sansa and Arya have turned into extreme versions of the people they once hoped to be. Sansa is ruling over a great house, but the role she occupies is uneasy rather than assured by a romantic fantasy of a marriage. And Arya, who longed for sword-fighting lessons and boys’ clothes, has become a genuinely remarkable fighter in an unassuming package. Both of the sisters have also absorbed some of each other’s qualities. Sansa has abandoned any sense that she ought to exert her influence via sweetly delivered suggestions; Littlefinger’s maneuverings are an obvious attempt to secure a bulwark against Sansa’s coolness. And Arya has absorbed some of Sansa’s imperiousness and self-centered nature, even if she’s using it to very different ends. Though they never would have seen each other this way, taking on some of each other’s attributes has made both Sansa and Arya more dangerous. Sansa is unlikely to be duped again, while Arya, despite her detour, seems unlikely to be deterred.
On Dragonstone, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham), Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Dany are giving each other a complex set of lessons in the powers of persuasion and anger.
Jon, who has apparently become an amateur anthropologist in between mastering wight-fighting, resurrection and kingship, gives Dany evidence of the White Walkers that she can use to verify his word about what he has seen. Missandei’s explanation for why she and the others follow Daenerys prompts Davos to joke about switching allegiances. Even if the older man stays loyal to his younger king, the exchange gives him and Jon a better sense of what Dany has to offer besides superior firepower — and gives Jon a sense of Dany’s best qualities that help him persuade her not to go full “dracarys” on an entire inhabited city. But Dany’s fury at Tyrion after the bait-and-switch at Casterly Rock and the disaster at Highgarden are a reminder that while she might be more than “the daughter of some king we never knew,” she is still Aerys’s daughter, and at risk for some of his failings. Her temper could ultimately be more lethal than Drogon’s fire, depending on what she tells him to burn.
Which brings us to the sequence that ended this episode: Dany’s attack on Jaime and Bronn’s wagon train, using Drogon to back up a horde of Dothraki screamers. Though “Game of Thrones” has featured bloodier battles, and maybe even more inventive ones, I’m not sure it has ever managed to pull off what this one did, or at least not on as high a level. The attack managed to convey just how Dany’s military strategy might work, while also reminding us at every turn of just what a paradigm shift this is, and just how high the human cost will be.
On a strategic level, the first three waves of the Dothraki attack suggest different ways they might have a comparative advantage against Westerosi knights and foot soldiers. If Drogon advances first, he can burn his way through enemy lines. If the Dothraki are confronted with foot soldiers, their superior numbers and mounts mean they can crash right on through. And even if the dragons are otherwise occupied, the Dothraki’s superior skills at horsemanship mean they can use bows and arrows to clear away some of the spearmen and ease through the Westerosi lines.
But if Dany’s attack was breathtaking in its efficacy, “The Spoils of War” also kept a tight focus on Jaime, Bronn and Dickon Tarly (Tom Hopper), who is getting his first taste of the ways in which real combat differs from “fancy lad school.” I’ve written a number of times about how much Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s acting has improved since the first season, and “The Spoils of War” used his skills to the fullest, playing on the tightening and slackening of his jaw, his expressive eyes and his physical tension to communicate what it’s like to see your lifetime of military glory be incinerated in moments. It was also wise to give us character moments between Jaime and Bronn at the beginning of the episode so that we could see just how far Bronn has been stretched by the Lannister brothers. Maybe it’s a mite whiny to demand a castle rather than a bag of gold as a reward for fighting a conventional war. But I’m not sure you can put a price on being asked to single-handedly go kill a dragon after seeing one burn a field of men to ash.
And on the other side of the lines, “The Spoils of War” forced Tyrion to reckon with the forces he has unleashed on his home country. Earlier in the episode, Dany tightly accused Tyrion of being disloyal to her, of perhaps secretly engineering her disasters to benefit his brother and sister. What he sees in this moment, and what she doesn’t, is that no matter what side you’re on, and no matter how just your cause might be, this kind of war is still a horror. Tyrion can want his sister far from the Iron Throne and still not want his brother to be roasted alive in his armor because of a suicidal dedication to gallantry.
It’s not so much that “your people can’t fight,” as a Dothraki leader told Tyrion, but that no one who isn’t Dany can fight this way. And maybe no one should have to. Maybe little girls shouldn’t have to become hardened killers to obtain revenge because justice isn’t available. Maybe brothers shouldn’t be pushed to familial treachery by a lack of basic kindness and decency. Maybe girls shouldn’t have to grow up to be women in exile where they learn that their choices are death or total destruction. In the game of thrones, you win or you die, but atrocity compounds as the game drags on. No one ever asked whether winning was worth it.