If you've never watched Game of Thrones, you won't know what the hell I'm talking about half the time and why are you here? But still, spoiler warning about last Sunday's episode.
On one side you had the traditional bad guy Lannisters, who were easy to feel sorry for with their dragonless force and guilt-by-following-orders shtick. On the other, you had the virtuous Queen of Dragons, etc etc—former underdog, now a completely unfuckwithable, fire-starting champion. Make no mistake, the brilliant end battle in "Spoils of War" wasn't a display of the typical war conflict between two sides, it was a prime-time, multidimensional, rotisserie-gold beat down.
Villains are straight villains are in just about every war movie I can imagine. Sympathies normally rest on one side. Saving Private Ryan? Just some Nazis that can die. 300? Some bad Persians that can die as well. Braveheart? Those uppity English, they can go too. And the same theme has plagued conflict after conflict on film every since, despite engineered empathy for the good guys. ( Dunkirk tried to do away with this concept by not picturing the Germans at all, but that's a separate hot take.)
In Games of Thrones, which has increasingly featured good triumphing over evil, I felt totally conflicted over who the hell to root for in this last episode. My feelings are stupidly basic in reason—I actually gave a shit about both sides as I'll explain below through its vast set of main characters shown in open conflict.
But first understand that this feeling doesn't come too often in these situations. War scenes in entertainment rarely play with a three-dimensional colour palette. They normally rely on lazy two dimensions of black and white—the predictable view of good and evil. It's a large reason why war films as propaganda were so successful in the first place. (American Sniper comes to mind.) They made a stark difference between two sides and engineer viewers to pick an allegiance—the savage vs. the civilized, the patriot vs. the terrorist, the light side vs. the dark side.
Game of Thrones's latest episode took a wrench to that tired mechanism and illustrated the greys of war almost perfectly. The thing about on-screen conflicts, whether you're talking about the greats like Saving Private Ryan, Braveheart, Fury or even Star Wars, is that they struggle to display the three dimensional feels that you'd expect from the visuals of war, instead opting to focus on one side. Stalingrad (the 1993 one), is an example of using this as an overall condemnation of war. The film focuses on a group of Nazi soldiers (the villains) fighting against an overpowering Russian force over an obsession by Hitler to take the illustrious city. The soldiers later question their own purposes for being there in the first place, not unlike the disputes around Vietnam in flicks like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
Naturally, few films make the effort of displaying the totality of all viewpoints in one sequence, or simply can't, which is something "Spoils of War" managed to do in a 20-minute battle scene—largely because we already had 50+ hours of caring about Game of Thrones' characters.
Breaking it down, you can start with the "villain": Ser Jaime Lannister, a man whose absolute defeat serves as the primary vantage point of the segment. This is a family man we're talking about here—in the most fucked-up sense. Jaime doesn't seek power, but rather is wholly committed to executing the objectives of the Lannister house and his main squeeze, Cercei, his twin sister. Over the course of seven seasons, viewers were forced to pity-watch this man lose his hand, children, father, brother (to the opposing side), all for some incest/family honour shit. To have him then lose his life guarding a bunch of carriages carrying grain seemed pathetically cruel, making it all too easy to want to root for him even though he's an enemy to the good of Westeros. (There's also the show making it seem the Kingslayer will likely kill his queen/sister/lover, which only adds to the viewer's conflicted feelings about Jaime Lannister.) Throughout the "Spoils of War" battle scene, the viewer's perspective is lowered to his vantage point on the ground—making Daenerys' forces seem overwhelming and terrifying via the incredible image of the Dothraki horde appearing on the horizon and overhead mammoth of a beast that defies human-on-human rules of war.
Next to him you have our beloved anti-hero, Bronn. Middleground, right-hand man to Jaime, and a character who doesn't favour either side unless there's a financial incentive—Bronn is a likeable mercenary with a decent moral fiber and a great quip. Even stupid Dickon (lol, says Bronn) is presented sympathetically as a "fancy lad" wanting to please his father in battle but is struggling with the guilt of killing men.
On the other side you have the mother of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, who of course serves as the "good" in this sequence. Audiences know of her struggle: her subjection to rape, slavery, and ultimate triumph over many shitty men. She was the original underdog now superpowered by her air force of dragons amidst tiny men with pointy things made of steel. Watching her waves of fire make light of human life on the battlefield almost clouded the fact that she was a representative of good. I can't deny the satisfaction of bad guys ultimately getting what you'd expect them to deserve, but what a way to go—in shrieks, pleas, and ash.
(Daenerys' dominance over the so called "bad" force was made more uncomfortable thanks to a previous episode when Ayra Stark met a bunch of Lannister men around a campfire. The Lannister men were kind, and actually likeable—despite the fact that she straight up told them she was planning to kill their queen. We can only imagine it's some of these same dudes—well, Ed Sheeran at least—who were now being burned alive en masse. It made the whole, screaming, burning from big-ass-dragon imagery of "Spoils of War" kinda harsh to watch.)
Watching the battle unfold from the hill, you have Tyrion. Brother to said villain who switched sides as a means to escape the Lannister house that treated him like pure shit. Despite his allegiance to the Dragon Queen, blood is still blood, and during this scene, you can see the helplessness as he watches Jaime do something stupid/brave. His accurate assessment of "you fucking idiot," gave weight to the absurdity of a man going up against a queen protected by a big-ass angry dragon. In his own way, Tyrion is a casualty in the middle of both sides—never quite able to be on a truly winning side because loss is inevitable for him regardless of the outcome. You can even say that his perspective is most like that of the viewer. Our sympathies can also lay on both sides of this war because of the investment we've made with these characters.
War is never two dimensional. The act of killing another human regardless of sides should matter. But depicting this in combat is hard to do. Replacing the hard-to-illustrate fragility of human life with people we've been engineered to give a shit about on both sides, does the best job of emulating the real truth of war.
I just didn't expect an HBO show about the walking dead, dragons and some twincest to do it right. Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.