Warning: Spoilers ahead.
It's a kind of cosmic joke that Game of Thrones' latest episode was titled "The Spoils of War," because it was indeed spoiled, leaking out two days ahead of schedule. I genuinely hope you had the restraint to save it for Sunday, instead of squinting through the pixelated pirated version, which rendered the darker scenes impenetrable and had the dragons looking like they were made out of Lego bricks. But it doesn't really matter either way, because you can slice it, dice it, dub it, run it in reverse, or view it from space, and probably come away with the same impression: This was one of the greatest episodes in television history.
"Things Most People Wouldn't Believe"
The fourth episode of season seven was a throwback to the show's earlier character-driven style. And it broke new ground in visual storytelling, particularly in the last quarter, which we spent in a battle scene—more of a massacre really—that was more John Ford than Lord of the Rings, and certainly the equal of past showdowns at Hardhome or Blackwater Bay. In between charming character bits, breezy plot development, and total carnage, it also featured what devoted Thrones fans have been clamoring for amid this season's nautical face-offs and florid soliloquies—I'm referring, of course, to people talking about grain rations.
Grain rations, we learn, are part of what the Lannister wagons are hauling back from the plundered Reach. Comedy assassin and all-purpose second banana Bronn notices that Jaime Lannister is looking down in the mouth despite the successful sack of Highgarden and the execution of its errant queen. "Queen of Thorns give you one last prick in the balls before saying goodbye?" he asks. But we know that dearly departed Olenna's parting shot wasn't just a doozy; it was a gleeful confession to the murder of Jaime's son Joffrey. He knows now that his brother, Tyrion, was innocent all along and that his present dilemma, staving off the appetites of his power-hungry sister Cersei is due to an entirely avoidable regicide (or whatever it's called when your son, who is also your nephew, is poisoned by your daughter-in-law's mother), leaving Olenna with the last laugh. So he's understandably mum with Bronn, who is himself a bit huffy that the rewards for his service have proved so meager (this is supposed to be a monarchy, not a meritocracy) and is summarily dispatched to divest the local farmers of their wheat. It's a nice, roomy character bit that recalls the banter of past episodes, when we didn't have nearly so much on our minds. It's followed by an inoffensively droll scene of Queen Cersei talking her way out of her interest loans—leave it to this show to dramatize an audit—opposite the Iron Bank's spokesgoon, Tycho Nestoris, whom she plans to pay off using Highgarden's pilfered coffers.
Things are not nearly so sunny back in Winterfell, where Petyr Baelish proffers Bran Stark the ornate dagger that was used in his assassination attempt, which in turn sparked the War of the Five Kings and most of the show's drama so far. It's nice continuity and everything, but I really have to wonder what exactly the game plan is here? Littlefinger doesn't even bother accounting for how he came into possession of it, why he thinks this is a fun memento for Bran (I was nearly killed by a kidney stone, but I didn't put in on the mantle after), or why he suddenly starts quoting Blade Runner from memory ("I imagine you've seen things most people wouldn't believe"). In any case, Bran is not fooled because—that dead look in his eyes says it all—he has effectively streamed all of Game of Thrones in his mind, and it has turned him into a creep. Bran continues to Bran-out on poor Meera, not unlike a prickly college kid back home over intercession who is condescending to his old friends who have never heard of Friedrich Nietzsche or Pavement. Meera tells him, "You died in that cave," after he can barely manage a thank you for seeing him safely back home. But she has a lot to be thankful for, too. Having survived five seasons on the show, quite a feat in and of itself, she is retiring to the country.
More Talk About Grain and Wheat
With its frigid temperatures, battle-worn towers, and rustic interiors, you wouldn't think of Winterfell as a swank travel destination, but it's been Grand Central Station all season. Another new arrival has turned up on their doorstep, and it's none other than Arya Stark. She pulls a Batman on two blundering guards—one of whom, I swear to god, audibly says, "The only thing in the kitchen that you'll put your cock in is the liver," just before Ayra rides up. They catch her up on current events. (One thing that bothers me though, is when Arya asks, "Which Lady Stark?" Well, Arya, your mother's dead, and your brother's a bachelor. So how many could there possibly be at this point?) Her reunion with Sansa in the crypts of Winterfell is painfully tender. They playfully reignite their old sibling rivalry when Arya asks, "Do I have to call you Lady Stark now?" and Sansa glibly replies, "Yes." But they are two grown women now, both secretly impressed with how far the other has come, and it makes for surprisingly believable drama even if they're just rehashing events we watched unfold in real time. It's also very affecting to see the three youngest surviving Stark siblings puzzling out their place in the story in the Godswood. Sansa may be stuck up, Bran may have come back an imperious snob ("I see quite a lot now"), and Arya a stone-cold killer, but they are family, and nothing—certainly not Littlefinger, who must see that his welcome is wearing out—will part them again.
One very nice feature of this episode is the brief moments of fond familiarity that are allowed to pass between characters. I'm thinking of when Brienne decides to accept a compliment from Podrick, the nod that Jaime gives Bronn as they agree that Randyll Tarly is a bit of a prick, the winking girltime that Missandei and Daenerys share just before Jon Snow barges in, and Jon letting his own guard down as he strolls with his lieutenant Davos Seaworth, who corrects his grammar (proving that Stannis's legacy lives on).
This episode truly has everything, as Daenerys and Jon share a rare moment of unattended intimacy examining the vaguely aboriginal-looking cave paintings of White Walkers and the First Men beneath Dragonstone. There's also a neat callback when Daenerys renews her demand that he bend the knee to save his people, asking, "Isn't their survival more important than your pride?" which happens to be the same question Jon once asked Mance Rayder. It's also one that underscores the show's preoccupation with the conflict between duty, pragmatism, and one's own best interests. This comes up again when Daenerys learns from Tyrion that her armies have been led intro a trap at Casterly Rock, compounding the loss of her fleet and the Tyrell and Martell forces. Frustrated with the timidity of Tyrion's counsel and contemplating a direct assault by dragon, she turns and asks, "What do you think I should do?" I half-expected a 900 number to flash on the screen (press 1 if you would like Daenerys to fly to King's Landing, press 2 if you think she should caulk her wagons across the Blackwater). Of course, she's talking to Jon Snow, who tells her, "The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe you can make other impossible things happen. Build a world that's different from the shit one they've always known. But if you use them to melt castles and burn cities, you're not different, you're more of the same."
"Flee, You Fucking Idiot"
It's unclear if Daenerys has taken Jon's advice or not when she shows up for the episode's main event—but before we get there, we have a handful of extremely satisfying set pieces. First, Arya and Brienne admire each other while sparring in the courtyards of Winterfell. It's rare to see two characters fight just for the sport of it, and their enjoyment makes it just as thrilling as it would be if they were facing real peril. Sansa, interrupted while talking about, you guessed it, grain rations—now we'll never know!—watches the training session with interest. Littlefinger also watches with…interest. But it's the bad kind of interest, the kind of interest specific to a skulky dude trying to fuck his way into the Stark dynasty. Baelish realizes that if he's going to follow through on his designs on Sansa, he'll now have to go through Arya, who in a great reaction shot, seems to surmise all of his treachery with a glance. Then we get to see Davos and Jon bro-ing it up on the battlements of Dragonstone, in a scene we've seen in a thousand screwball comedies, but which somehow comes across as delightful: "What do you think of her?" "Who?" "I believe you know of whom I speak." "I think she has a good heart." "A good heart? I've noticed you staring at her good heart." We know what's coming of course, but the show is handling the budding romance between the King on the North and the Queen of Dragons with a surprisingly light touch. They bump into Missandei, impressive as always, though she seems strangely naïve about Westerosi marriage conventions. After some respectful flirtation from Davos, Theon washes up on shore. Jon makes it clear that he's only letting Theon walk away—which, after all, is the main thing Theon does—because he saved Sansa from the Boltons. He asks after Daenerys, but she's not around. Where did she go?
Where indeed? In the episode's explosive finale, we catch back up with Bronn and Jaime fortifying some beautiful landscape (I think maybe this is Andalucia?) and giving Samwell's brother Dickon exactly the greeting you should get if your name is Dickon. On top of that, the poor kid has just been through his first battle, against his own people no less, and is trying to put a brave face on things only makes what follows more harrowing. The Dothraki—a people so fearsome that they are grouped in "hordes"—sweep upon them from the plains. We actually scan the horizon, hearing their approach for a long interval before they descend, with Daenerys clinking to Drogon's neck like Bastian on the luck dragon at the end of The Neverending Story.
Enough can't be said about the awesomeness of this battle. Before it is over we see an army incinerated by a dragon, a Dothraki skewered by a scorpion (that's really what it's called), people running around on fire, and a three-legged horse. What's most effective here isn't just the cinematography, though it is gorgeous and comprehensive regarding the size and position of the combatants, but that, for once, we're rooting for both sides. We fear for them both. When Drogon is shot out from under Dany, we watch in terror as they plummet through the air. Seconds later, when they recover and Drogon incinerates the scorpion (because fuck that thing), our relief is short-lived, because Jaime is charging toward certain death.
We even feel for the hopelessly outmaneuvered Lannister army, one of whom we spot quaking in his armor, when a Dothraki scornfully remarks to Tyrion, who is watching from a hillside, "Your people can't fight." At that moment, just as a super sad remix of "The Rain of Castamere" plays and Jaime looks out over the slaughter, we forget that these are the villains. Suddenly, the scattered, doomed rabble of the battlefield are painfully human. Jaime rides into Drogon's jaws, saved only by a Bronn ex machina, and we see the whole thing through Tyrion's eyes, as he mutters, "Flee, you fucking idiot." But he's followed the story this far, and he's not going anywhere. And neither are we. We are all Lannisters now, and our debt to the show is outstanding.
Recent work by J.W. McCormack appears in Conjunctions , the Culture Trip , the New York Times, and the New Republic.