Game of Thrones LOVES its Episode Fours. In traditionally ten-episode seasons, the fourth installment has always revealed itself to be a game changer, be it the birth of smoke demons and White Walkers or the burning of Astapor or the Great Khals. But a shortened seventh season and the shortest episode runtime had many wondering, would the pattern hold?
The answer is an emphatic YES. “The Spoils of War,” directed by Always Sunny alum Matt Shakman, soars on the wings its brisk pacing, cathartic reunions, and a giant freaking dragon. The episode functions as a Thrones Greatest Hits collection, balancing large-scale battles with strong character moments while moving the story forward on all fronts. And unlike more recent battles in “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards,” the opposing sides both feature important, endearing characters, creating stakes and tension not seen since “Blackwater.”
Appropriately, then, it is Ser Bronn of the Blackwater who steals the show this week. While Bronn has never been one of the core characters, he’s been a steadfast pillar in the Thrones machine since his debut early in the first season. Winning trial by combat, destroying Stannis’s fleet, and helping the brothers Lannister navigate the pitfalls of Westerosi society is just a sample of what the sellsword has accomplished in his brief time on camera.
Played by the charismatic Jerome Flynn, Ser Bronn serves two important functions in this story. As one of the few lowborn characters, Bronn offers a ground-level, smallfolk vantage point into the politics of the Seven Kingdoms, constantly reminding his societal” betters” what little regard most have for their ruling class. Secondly, Bronn is simply a fun character, full of wit and ribald quips that offer levity in an otherwise grim tale.
This all feeds the tension in the episode’s gripping climax. The audience has long awaited Daenerys unleashing both her dragons and the Dothraki on the Seven Kingdoms, but this expected triumph is undercut with fan favorites Bronn and Jaime on the opposite, burning side. And with Jaime’s missing hand, much of the heroics fall to Bronn, who is charged with taking down Drogon with Qyburn’s scorpion. And while Daenerys atop Drogon may be the last best hope against the White Walkers, it’s hard not to root for our up-jumped landed knight, the lowly swashbuckler whose long-ago offer of a room to Tyrion has landed him face-to-face with a dragon.
The battle itself was a technical and narrative marvel, with nigh flawless special effects and coherent cinematography that allowed the story of the battle to unfold. Drogon has never looked grander or more menacing, and burning the Lannister soldiers into ashes is among the more gnarly flourishes to date. The tracking shot of Bronn running for the scorpion while avoiding Dothraki pursuit was another highlight, emphasizing the fog of war through Bronn’s disorientation while also showcasing the knight’s ability to pull himself together and stay on task. And the entire supply-train imagery is an homage to classic westerns, with the Dothraki and Lannisters subbing in for indigenous tribes and cowboys/settlers, respectively.
But the scene’s technical proficiency would mean nothing if not for the character beats along the way. Tyrion’s exasperated look as he sees Lannisters, formerly his own brood, burn to ash in dragonfire is haunting, echoing his own reaction to the wildfire explosion at Blackwater. And though the Ed Sheeran cameo was much maligned, that scene showed that many of those who fight for the Lannisters (or any army, really) are just commoners whose concerns about food and family must fall by the wayside when the high lords play their game of thrones. Even in triumphant moments, the series never shies away from the horrors of battle, always centering the unrelenting permanence of violence.
Even Dickon Tarly acquits himself well after being the butt of Jaime’s jokes. Despite his more traditional masculinity, Dickon seems more like his brother Samwell than his father, showing a streak of compassion and a distaste for battle after the siege of Highgarden. As Drogon and Dothraki bear down on the Lannister forces, fear never leaves Dickon’s eyes, but he does his duty, even saving Jaime from a Dothraki rider wielding dual arakhs.
Which takes us to the final moments, when Bronn finally lands a quarrel into Drogon’s body. Drogon recovers just enough to take out the scorpion (barely missing Bronn) before Dany sets him down, exposing both her and her winged beast. Jaime and Tyrion both take notice, and the wheels start turning in both characters’ heads in a great turn for both Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Peter Dinklage. Jaime, in all his heroic foolishness, see an opportunity to slay Dany and/or her dragon, perhaps ending the war. Tyrion immediately recognizes the folly, knowing his one-armed brother stands no chance of succeeding.
And yet the majesty of the following hero shot cannot be denied. The soiled knight Jaime Lannister, in his crimson and gold armor upon a white steed, charging through a field of fire, likely to his doom. The Kingslayer is at his core a subversion of the knight in shining armor trope, a man victimized by the oaths he’s sworn to uphold, an oft-ugly soul hidden under a golden façade. But for the briefest of moments, Jaime was the fullest realization of that trope, the knight he once dreamed to be, gallant and noble like Barristan Selmy and Arthur Dayne before him.
Bronn luckily saves Jaime from a fiery end, plunging both into the water before Drogon’s flames consume them. The episode ends with the haunting image of Jaime sinking under the weight of his own armor. Though a manufactured cliffhanger, the eerie calm of the last shot and silent credits are the perfect punctuation to the season’s strongest episode. Game of Thrones once again succeeds by making its biggest moments succeed on the back of strong character moments.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- Arya Stark returns home for the first time since the second episode of the series. The episode spends much of its time at Winterfell, giving these scenes room to breathe and allowing the gravity of her homecoming to be felt. Her appearance at the gates is a callback to a similar season one scene in King’s Landing, and her impulse to go straight for the crypts is a strong storytelling choice here.
The sisters Stark have their reunion in front of their father’s statues, hugging not once but twice to hammer home the emotional impact of the moment. Though all Stark reunions are powerful, Arya and Sansa are the two children that shared the most significant screentime, and given the real-life rapport between Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, these scenes were just dripping with warmth, even given the characters’ rocky history.
Later, we get to see Arya spar with Brienne of Tarth, in one of the more enjoyable scenes the show has produced. While my money would still be on Brienne in a real fight, Arya’s display here tracks with all her training under Syrio Forel and the Faceless Men. I’m not as thrilled with Brienne coming off weaker, but given that both characters found joy in the moment, an Arya Stark/Brienne of Tarth tag team is on my wishlist for the rest of the season.
- While Bran has devolved into Westeros’s collective memory, I enjoyed his scenes this week. The show had yet to grapple with the death of Hodor, and Meera’s incredulity at Bran’s lack of concern is heartbreaking. Meera Reed, along with her brother Jojen, Hodor, and Summer, all sacrificed so that Bran could begin his journey to becoming the Three-Eyed Raven. Ellie Kendrick is unheralded in her role of Meera, but she’s been a rock in the Bran storyline for years, and has proven to be a capable actress given how often she’s had to act opposite characters of limited faculties such as Bran and Hodor. Here’s hoping she returns, preferably with her father Howland in tow.
But I got chills when Bran said “chaos is a ladder” to Littlefinger, echoing Lord Baelish’s own words to Varys in season three. It’s a moment that grinds Baelish to a halt, completely unprepared for this boy and his mystical abilities. The camerawork here is also fantastic, as both Isaac Wright and Aiden Gillen stare directly into the camera as this line is delivered. “Spiking the camera” joins montages and transitions as new cinematic tools in the show’s repertoire.
- Dany asking Jon to bend the knee again, to put aside his pride for the good of his people, recalled similar conversations when Stannis and Jon repeatedly asked Mance Rayder to bend the knee.
- Not discussed: Girl Talk
Chaos is a Ladder