Game of Thrones: Queen of the Ashes

Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Spoils of War,” the fourth episode of the seventh season.

A scene from 'Game of Thrones'

Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

Lenika Cruz: Is your heart still pounding? Even if you had managed to keep yourself spoiler-free by avoiding the pesky headlines and articles about last week’s HBO leak, you may have sensed from the dramatic, martial tone of the “previously on” that this episode, “The Spoils of War,” was going to a be a doozy. After losing her first two battles—and her three principal Westerosi allies—Daenerys Targaryen finally got to do things the Mother of Dragons way: by saddling up on Drogon, rallying the Dothraki, and ambushing the Lannister and Tarly armies after their victory at Highgarden. Following the Crown’s successful campaign last week, the Tyrell gold is now secure inside King’s Landing, allowing the Lannisters to (finally) live up to their unofficial house words and repay their debt to the Iron Bank. But Dany, too, made good on her own house’s promise in the closing minutes of the episode, delivering a brutal helping of “Fire and Blood” in the first truly large-scale battle of the season so far.

Her scorched-earth campaign was a visceral reminder of the kind of internal conflict viewers might continue to face as storylines converge and characters’ loyalties place them on opposite sides. “Yeahhh!!!” I couldn’t help but cheer when I heard the hoofbeats and the frantic whooping of the Dothraki, as Cersei’s soldiers prepared, at last, to see the foreign horde they’d heard so much about. “Woooo!!!” I yelled, as Drogon fire-breathed all over the Lannister/Tarly troops—but only after I was certain Bronn and Jaime were on the other side of the battlefield. “Garggnnbugghhh!!” I gurgled when Drogon and Dany charged at Bronn and his scorpion, and then when Jaime charged at them with his spear.

The episode’s director, Matt Shakman, did a fantastic job with this sequence, concocting a vision of senseless slaughter roughly as hellish as the one from last year’s “Battle of the Bastards,” while adding in some gruesome new details. The men burning alive inside their armor, the columns of ash that were once soldiers crumbling in the wind, the thick choke of dark gray smoke whipping up from the flames, horses getting their (ugh) legs chopped off—all of it was far more vivid than the Lannister/Euron Greyjoy wins of previous weeks. And it ended with the fates of two fan favorites—Jaime and Drogon—in question (though I can’t imagine we’ve said goodbye to either already).

Dany, it seems, got the push she needed to commit to this plan from her new friend-prisoner-burgeoning love interest-ally-enemy-nephew-adviser Jon Snow. “The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen,” he told her. “Maybe that helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen.” (Cut to Davos, who made the “Hmmm, Jon, you sure you’re talking about Daenerys?” face the rest of us were probably making.) I’m relieved we don’t have to sit through hours of Dany questioning Jon’s character and motives, but she’s still begun to trust him surprisingly quickly, already asking him for strategy advice and disappearing into caves with him (though, she may not have been totally convinced Jon didn’t just do those drawings himself). But Jon, of course, had a point—one the show keeps trying to underscore by tossing in scenes like the one with Missandei, reminding us that for all of Dany’s obsession with knee-bending, she’s still a leader whose followers stand by her side more out of love and choice than duty or because of her birthright.

Dany’s leadership model is the kind you could imagine someone like Sansa—who’s cunning, who’s endured so much, who’s keen to do the actual work of ruling—emulating if given the chance. It was while Sansa was doing this work that Arya came home, after being away from Winterfell longer than all her siblings. I’m still not tired of these Stark reunions, but credit to the show for playing around with the emotional beats and making Arya’s return feel distinct from the previous ones. I can’t overstate how rewarding it was to see Arya and Sansa in the same room together again, even if their reconnection was less overtly sentimental than the Jon-Sansa one in last year’s “Home.” (Their wonderful exchange: “It’s a long story. I imagine yours is, too.” “Yes, not a very pleasant one.” “Mine neither. But our stories aren’t over yet.” “No, they’re not.”) I’m a little nervous about three living Starks being back together again, but for now I’ll revel in the fact that we got a brilliant fight scene between Arya and Brienne that was about as effective a pitch for a new spinoff (The Lady of Tarth and No One?) as you could hope for.

In the background, of course, doing everything but literally twirling his mustache and cackling maniacally, is the chaos-loving, ladder-climbing Littlefinger. This episode resurfaced one of the big remaining whodunnits from the show’s first season—who hired an assassin to kill a comatose Bran with a Valyrian steel dagger and why?—but I’ll admit not being able to fully see the contours of Petyr Baelish’s plan quite yet. All I can think is that Bran, who has now fully justified to me his strange behavior from last week, must know more about what Littlefinger’s going to do and what he has already done, even if he’s not in the position to change what’s destined to happen. Megan and Spencer, what do you think Littlefinger is up to? How did the big battle play out for you? And, crucially, if Jaime’s still alive, will he ever get Rickard—I mean Rickon—I mean, Dickon’s name right?

Megan Garber: Littlefinger! Ugh, Littlefinger. Mostly I think he is up to weirding me out in a way that I cannot adequately articulate even though I am a professional writer … but I’m with you, Lenika, beyond that I really don’t know—as I have never quite known—what his endgame is. And I actually think one of the canniest decisions the show’s producers have made was to make Littlefinger, in particular, such a mystery: to emphasize his inscrutability, to give him motivations that are so very unclear and mannerisms that are at once so proper and so decidedly improper. (Even his hair refuses to be made sense of: While the sides are middle-aged gray, the top hints that a Westerosi Rite-Aid managed to smuggle in some boxes of Just for Men®.) But I also think that Baelish as such a walking contradiction is, at least as far as the narrative stuff goes, extremely effective: In addition to being an agent of chaos, he’s also an agent of creepiness ... and he spreads the creepy all around, infusing it into every scene he’s in. He is unsettling, in every sense. He’s destabilizing. He’s like a human miasma. An excessively polite miasma.

So, yeah, let’s move on to something much more pleasant than Littlefinger: this episode’s fiery, gory battle. Traditionally, there’s been something about such a clash that has seemed to bring out Game of Thrones’s most cinematic impulses: the interpersonal feuds, and the assorted human pettinesses, and the philosophical differences about the purpose of power, all distilled down to a matter of moments, all resolved with swords and arrows and blood. The battle scenes, I have to admit, have in recent seasons gotten a little special effects-happy for my taste—I half-expected Jason Bourne to emerge at triple speed from behind a turret or something during the taking of Casterly Rock—but I thought this battle was effective particularly in its restraint: It had an intimacy to it, even in its scale. It was horrifying, in new ways. It managed to feel epic and visceral at the same time.

Which is also to say that I was totally with you, Lenika, on the “Garggnnbugghhh!!” And one of the things that drew me in, in particular, was the way the scenes—and the cameras that give them life—played with point of view: At one moment, we’re soaring with Dany on Drogon’s back, elevated over the chaos and carnage of the battle below. And the next we’re with Bronn, on the ground, in the midst of the tumult. And, actually, we’re more than just with him. Bronn, during the battle, was often shot from just below—the camera seemed to hover at the height of his waist—which emphasized this difference of perspective, and also destabilized the scene as it played out, and also brought an exceptionally literal spin to the idea of “ground truth.”

The cinematography here reminded me, in a strange (but maybe sort of fitting?) way, of Dunkirk—not just the dead-men-walking ideas at play in the martial elements of the skirmish, but also in the way the action was divided: Air as one battlefield—as one domain—and Land as another. And that division, the one made so clear with land-Bronn and air-Dany, was especially appropriate given the stakes of the battle. This wasn’t, after all, just a clash of militaries; it was a clash of philosophies. It was, very broadly, the Lannisters and their gold versus the Targaryen and her principles. It wasn’t right versus wrong—Game of Thrones is much more complicated than that—but it was definitely, in ways both literal and more figurative, “high” versus “low.”

And so is the episode itself. “The Spoils of War,” like Game of Thrones overall, pays a lot of attention to vision, and to ideas of perspective more broadly. (“You came home,” Bran reminds Arya, just after the two have been reunited—“I saw you at the crossroads.” She is taken aback. “You saw me?” she asks. “I see quite a lot now,” he replies.) There are Jon and Davos, descending the massive, stone staircase at Dragonstone—their brief scene shot from behind, at a sweeping distance, conveying both their elevation and their descent. There are Sansa and Littlefinger, gazing down at Arya and Brienne as the two fight. The girl finally bests the woman, and the scene concludes with a shot from Brienne’s point of view: Brienne and, with her, the viewer, is looking down at Arya. Arya is looking back at her, triumphant. She is looking triumphantly, by extension, at us.

And that’s more than a matter, I think, of clever camerawork. The emphasis on perspective in “The Spoils of War” also brings to the fore one of the longest-running interests of Game of Thrones: identity. What makes someone who they are. What changes a person into someone else. Arya “A Girl Has No Name” Stark, Theon “Reek” Greyjoy, Jon “But Who Is His Mother Really” Snow, Melisandre “The Red Woman” Magiclady, Tyrion “of House Lannister but Also Totally Not of House Lannister” Lannister. Grey Worm, who chooses the name that had been assigned to him. Oh, and also Daenerys “The First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons” Targaryen.

Do names matter? Do titles? To what extent do the world’s expectations of someone shape the person that someone becomes? To what extent can experience—can other people—do that shaping? Is Theon Greyjoy, after everything, still Theon Greyjoy? Is he Reek? Is he anything, anymore? Those types of questions emerged with a renewed sense of urgency in “The Spoils of War.” Bran informs Meera that “I’m not Bran—not anymore.” Davos, attempting to correct Missandei’s reference to “Lord Snow,” insists that he isn’t a lord. But: “King Snow?” Davos asks. “Isn’t it?” He pauses. “No, that doesn’t sound right. King Jon?” Arya, the prodigal daughter, raises her eyebrow when a distinctly unimpressed Winterfellian guard informs her that “Arya Stark is dead.” (He adds: “Best fuck off.”) But then! Like you suggested, Lenika, when Arya is reunited, after so long, with Sansa, the show hints that she might be becoming herself again. “Finally, a girl is no one,” Jaqen H’ghar had told her, last season. “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell,” she had corrected him. As she laughs with Sansa, that finally begins to feel true.

But the biggest moment, I thought, in a show that loves nothing better than revealing a character to be something other than what they seem, belonged to Bronn. Bronn starts “The Spoils of War” seeming to be interested in those spoils in the most literal way possible (“We pay our debts,” Jaime insists to him; “Right—just not to me,” Bronn complains). In battle, however, he proves himself to be much more principled—or at least much more self-sacrificing—than he had allowed himself to suggest before. Bronn, the … hero? Bronn, the savior? The scene in which the sellsword sees a fallen bag of gold, glinting amid all the blood and mud and chaos, and then must choose between the money and the valor was a taaaaad on the nose, I thought—a little too Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—but, still, it made its point: Bronn, given a choice between selfishness and selflessness, ended up choosing … wisely. At least at this moment. At least for now.

Spencer Kornhaber: The Dunkirk reference you used, Megan, is weirdly fitting—this battle was defined by asymmetrical firepower and total terror, rather than clichés of bravery. But real-world comparisons only get you so far here. In HBO’s after-the-episode segment, D.B. Weiss pointed out that the dragons factor meant the writers couldn’t quite draw from military history in the way that they normally do when crafting battles. Instead they imagined someone bringing an F16 to the Middle Ages. They didn’t just brainstorm the practical implications of napalming soldiers—they nailed the psychological disorientation that would have met a new and supernatural weapon of war.

That disorientation was certainly apparent in Jaime Lannister. One of the most famed fighters and military commanders in all of the land sat dumbstruck for much of the conflict, craning his neck and knotting his eyebrows and barking some obvious orders and not doing much else. Why didn’t he think to get someone behind the anti-dragon weaponry until well after Drogon arrived? My first, and possibly correct, impulse was to chalk the delay up as a schlocky move on the show’s part to ratchet up drama. But then again, it’s believable Jaime might be mentally paralyzed in the circumstances—how would you react to a dragon?

Surely adding to Jaime’s inner turmoil was a sense of déjà vu as a Targaryen torched human flesh before his eyes. Jaime’s life, after all, was cleaved by his decision to kill Daenerys’s father rather than let him incinerate House Lannister and the people of King’s Landing. The way he eventually moved from horrified spectator to decisive actor by charging at Dany made me think of his bathhouse testimony to Brienne in Season 3. To be sure, riding at Daenerys isn’t oathbreaking—it’s classic, if foolhardy, battlefield heroism. But the face-off was still a callback, a reminder of Jaime’s biography and Daenerys’s tainted parentage.

Never one to pass up a twist, Thrones decided to end the episode with Jaime’s life endangered not by fire but by water, and what had seemed like a deus-ex-machina save may actually have consigned him to the awful fate of drowning within his armor. But I’d bet on someone pulling from the depths, alive, in next week’s episode. There’s just so much juicy narrative potential still to be activated with Jaime—he’s still got to deliver Olenna’s confession about Joffrey to Cersei, for example. Then again, viewers know well that seemingly essential characters can be snuffed out at any time. If this is the end of Jaime’s arc, his history with the Targaryens would give it a mild sense of poetry.

So would the idea of him being dragged down by his golden hand. Much of the rest of the episode centered around characters negotiating—and rejecting—the system of lordly hierarchy that has defined Westeros for ages. Megan, you listed many of the examples of this in your discussion of Thrones’s interest in character change. We also has such dualities as Sansa insisting on being called Lady Stark as Brienne waved away such a title, Bronn playing up his working-class background when razzing the nervous noble Dickon Tarly, and Jon explaining his last name to Missandei, who emphasized that she followed Daenerys not because of heritage but because of merit.

Jon’s suspiciously convenient Powerpoint presentation in the Dragonstone caves crystalized what the show’s been getting at for a while now with the lords-and-ladies theme: A happy ending for Westeros might be one that sees society reverting to a time before Lannisters, Starks, and Targaryens existed, ruled by something other than bloodline. Haltingly, things do seem to be moving in that direction. With Cersei now childless, the Lannister line has been broken. Tyrion has turned against his own clan. And in Winterfell, Bran and Arya have basically mutated into something post-Stark—and very socially awkward.

The scene of Arya trying to convince the northern guards of her identity was a fun way to telegraph how much she and her home have transformed. Plus, given how much Thrones now yada-yadas small details on the way to big battles, I’m glad it still makes room for logistical questions such as “what’s the immigration procedure at the Winterfell gates?” Less fun: Arya’s meet-up with Sansa, which was so stilted and cold as to beggar belief. I get that they’ve changed, I get that they may not know how to talk to each other, but still, no amount of world-weariness would explain why Sansa didn’t open with “where the hell have you been?” The ever-more-insufferable Bran at least has a supernatural excuse for treating Meera like a hired porter he’s decided to stop paying. Arya may be a supreme assassin, but she’s still Sansa’s little sister, and hence was in dire need of a noogie in that crypt scene.

Fascinating as it is to see the Starks reuniting, the most pressing questions about family identity regard a Targaryen. Sometimes, Dany presents herself as a ideologically motivated conqueror for justice; other times, she invokes centuries of lineage for her claim. It’s inescapable that heritage really does matter in this world—she, after all, has her dragons because of who she is. But her pitch is in using that advantage for a higher purpose. Dany gives people hope that she can  “build a world that’s different from the shit one they’ve always known,” Jon says. But he warns, if she seeks to “burn castles and melt cities, you’re not different. You’re just more of the same.” Of course, to someone like Jaime Lannister, the difference between melting cities and melting soldiers is immaterial. Fire is fire—it needs to be extinguished.