Hello hello, everyone! It’s hard to believe, but we’re now on the downslope of the season—episode four of seven marks the precise middle, so now we only have three to go. But what we’re lacking in the number of episodes seems to be made up for in narrative resolutions and culminations. Six and a half seasons in, and stuff we’ve been waiting seven years for is finally happening! So without further ado …
Christopher: We begin in the immediate aftermath of Jaime’s fraught audience with Lady Olenna, soon enough that he’s still in a pissy mood despite his victory—something noticed by Bronn. Jaime opens up one of their wagons laden with Tyrell gold and hands Bronn a conspicuously heavy bag. “You’ve just won the biggest prize in the world,” Bronn snarks as he attaches the bag to his saddle, “What could you possibly have to be upset about?” Jaime’s silence speaks volumes, more perhaps than he’d like, as Bronn is no idiot: “Queen of Thorns give you one last prick in the balls before saying goodbye?” To which Jaime responds that he’ll save his confessions for the High Septon. “There is no more High Septon!” “No! There isn’t, is there?”
I quite liked this exchange. It offers a subtle glimpse into Jaime’s mindset: still irked by Lady Olenna’s revelation that she murdered Joffrey, but not about to share that detail with Bronn, one suspects that he’s been thinking over all the choices that brought him to this point. And not just his own choices: perhaps just as disturbing as Olenna’s dying words was her piercing insight into Jaime’s devotion to Cersei, and her statement of the now-undeniable fact of her monstrosity. Jaime has never been much of a leader or decision maker, living his life according to the twin goals of staying close to his sister and killing a lot of people with his preternatural sword skills. But now those skills are mostly gone, taken away along with his right hand, and his sister has turned into a grotesque parody of the Mad King. She tells Mycroft Tycho Nestoris that she wants “control of this continent and every person in it.” The first half of that statement is understandable and indeed necessary in order to be a monarch—it is, after all, what Daenerys aims at—but the second half articulates the difference between ruler and despot.
Meanwhile, Jaime, who has hitched his wagon to Cersei basically since birth, does not have the option Tyrion did of renouncing family and deserting (though, granted, that option was basically forced on him by Cersei too). But if there’s a benefit here, it’s that he is no longer subject to the disapprobation of others. Last episode, he panicked when Cersei let a serving girl see him in her bed; but here, in his sarcastic acknowledgement that yes, the High Septon is dead, he seems to be saying—to himself as much as Bronn—that he no longer answers to a higher authority … any higher authority.
Which makes Bronn’s demand to be paid a little tone-deaf for a man who intuited that Jaime’s meeting with Olenna did not end well. Then again, he is a mercenary, and “getting paid” could well be his house motto when he gets around to it. Jaime patiently points out he has a massive sack of gold now affixed to his saddle; but Bronn will have his castle, dammit, and isn’t Highgarden now in need of a new landlord? Though Jaime is remarkably patient with him, this moment reminded me of the scene in Richard III when Buckingham, having colluded with Richard and put him on the throne, is asked to be complicit in one crime too many: the murder of Richard’s nephews. He asks for “some breath, some little pause, my lord / Before I positively herein” (4.2:26-27), which is totally not what Richard wants to hear. And when he returns to demand what had been promised him, the newly crowned king is less than forthcoming:
BUCKINGHAM: My lord, I claim your gift, my due by promise,
For which your honour and your faith is pawn’d;
The earldom of Hereford and the moveables
The which you promised I should possess. (4.2: 91-94)
To which Richard responds, after basically ignoring him for several minutes, “I am not in the giving vein to-day.”
I somehow doubt that Jaime will treat Bronn in the same way, but he makes his impatience plain by giving him the task of harassing farmers with the point of his sword—and as an extra special fuck you sends him off with Randyll Tarly, whom we can expect to treat a jumped-up lowborn mercenary with all of the contempt the lord of a proud and long-standing house can muster (which, as we saw when Sam stopped in at home, is an awful lot of contempt).
Before I move on to the next scene, I should say that I quite loved the way this episode is bookended: watching that long wagon train of plunder from Highgarden, my first thought was “if only Daenerys could catch them with her dragons!”
The next sequence between Cersei and Tycho made for an interesting contrast with Bronn’s demand for land and titles. Bronn’s desire is for a key element of the feudal system; the Iron Bank represents a distinctly modern understanding of capital and credit, one more or less global in scope. I’ve frequently argued that the comparisons some make between Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are well-meaning but wrong-headed; Game of Thrones, for all of its classic fantasy tropes, has far more in common with the typical HBO themes seen in The Wire and Deadwood, which have to do with power not as an extrinsic principle, but as fluid and constantly shifting—for which the most potent metaphor is money. “Money don’t got owners,” Omar tells Marlo Stanfield in season three of The Wire, “just spenders.” Tycho’s little joke about how upset some members of the Iron Bank will be to have the Iron Throne’s debt paid in full, because they’ll miss the interest payments, will probably fall flat to anyone with credit card debt of any significance. Like a credit card that raises your limit when you pay it off, Tycho is eager to loan Cersei as much as she needs to win her war—and is more than happy to put her in touch with people who can help (presumably for a small finder’s fee). Of course, such help, financial and otherwise, is contingent on repayment: “You can count on the Iron Bank’s support … as soon as the gold appears.”
Speaking of Jaime’s poor choices—or at least, actions performed on behalf of Cersei—we get a sharp reminder of the things he does for love as we cut to Winterfell. In the aftermath of his fall, Bran did not remember how it happened; now that he’s the Three-Eyed Raven, has that fog of memory burned away? Does he remember that Jaime pushed him out that window in season one, episode one? Perhaps more importantly, does he care?
What do you think, Nikki?
Nikki: I assume Bran does know, but as you say, doesn’t care. Pushing a little boy out of a window and making him a paraplegic is the sort of thing that alters lives of the individual and his family, but not necessarily the world around him. Bran’s fall means nothing in the grand scheme of things, and now all Bran can see is the grand scheme of things.
And knowing that Bran is back and this is yet another Stark to be manipulated, good old Bae is back to give him the Valyrian steel dagger and say hey, no hard feelings, eh bub? Because what better gift can you give a long-lost person than the very knife that was once used to try to kill them? Man, Baelish… someone seriously needs to teach you some social conventions.
But let me repeat: Bran knows ALL. And that means all the little conversations and machinations that Baelish has been involved in all along the way. He tells Bran that he would have stopped the dagger that cut his mother’s throat with his own heart (and part of me believes that in his heart he truly believes that, but in the moment Petyr never would have had the guts to do that). Bran simply looks at him and asks where the dagger came from. Littlefinger plays dumb, of course.
This is the dagger that the cutthroat used when he climbed into Bran’s window and attempted to kill him when the little boy couldn’t move. Catelyn carried it around showing it to everyone, but couldn’t get to the bottom of who would have ordered the hit. Littlefinger eventually pointed the finger at Tyrion, who denied it vehemently, but Catelyn never believed in Tyrion’s innocence. Ned took possession of the dagger when Catelyn headed up to the Riverlands to arrest Tyrion for attempting to murder her son, and later, after Ned was beheaded, Petyr took it.
We saw the dagger briefly in the first episode of this season, as many eagle-eyed fans have pointed out: as Sam Tarly was leafing through the stolen manuscripts, he paused on a particular page that has a clear drawing of the very dagger Petyr gives to Bran in this scene, which suggests it might play a role in stopping the White Walkers. But more interestingly, Bran lets Baelish know very subtly that he knows what he’s been up to when he says calmly, “Chaos is a ladder.”
Now, I’ll admit I looked at my husband and said, “Did he say chaos is Alanna?” We had no idea and backed it up. “No, I think he said chaos is Aladdin.” Turned on the closed-captioning. “Oh, a LADDER!” and then suddenly something pinged in my brain and I knew I’d heard it before, so I looked it up. And sure enough, it’s from an exchange between Varys and Littlefinger from way back in season three:
VARYS: What do we have left when we abandon the lie? Chaos: the gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
LITTLEFINGER: Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, they’re given a chance to climb, but they refuse. The cling to the realm, for the gods, for love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
This is one of the key moments of season three (the speech turns into a voiceover as we see Joffrey post-massacre of Ros) and shows how Littlefinger exists outside of many of the others, hoping for something else. It could be a foreshadowing of all of the players on the show who are currently climbing the ladder: Daenerys, Cersei, even Littlefinger himself. (Jon Snow isn’t climbing anything; he’s trying to stop impending doom.)
But most importantly, it’s Bran saying, “I know what you do and say when no one else is in the room. And I know what you’ve done, and what you still plan to do.” Apparently Littlefinger memorizes all of his super-deep speeches because the moment Bran utters those words, he looks startled, and leaves the room very quickly.
Meera comes into the room and says she’s leaving, and is upset by the lack of emotion Bran shows, but as I pointed out last week, Bran is really no longer capable of showing anything. She says she’s sacrificed so much to save him, and then says with a pleading voice, “Bran.” And he says, “Not really, not anymore.” Just as Arya said “That’s not you” to Nymeria, Bran is admitting that he’s not Bran anymore. And Meera agrees. “You died in that cave,” she says.
And then we get to Stark Reunion #2. I said with much regret last week that I didn’t think Arya was going to come to Winterfell, but thank goodness I was wrong! First we get her arguing with the bumbling Monty Pythonesque guards (and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one going, “NO YOU IDIOTS!” and worried that Arya would change her mind and we’d have come this close to the reunion only for it to slip through our fingers), but thank goodness that doesn’t happen. She tells the men she wants to see Rodrick and Maester Luwin, and when the guards tell Sansa that, she knows that her sister is in the crypt, visiting these very people along with all the other dead. Just imagine how many people have died since the last time Arya was in that crypt.
But before we get there, I want to pause on that lovely moment of Arya waiting for the guards to deal with things as she glances around the Winterfell courtyard, a small smile playing on her lips. Season seven is definitely the one for retrospection, since, as you pointed out last week, Chris, all of the threads are starting to finally weave themselves together. As she looked around the courtyard I couldn’t help but think of how much of it was the same as when Arya is little, and how much as changed. In a way, she must feel like she’s returned home; in another way, she must feel like a complete stranger in a strange land.
The reunion between Sansa and Arya is a little less emotional and a little more jokey between Sansa and Bran. When Sansa finds her little sister all grown up in the crypt, Arya says flatly, “Do I have to call you Lady Stark now?” And with little hesitation, Sansa says, “Yes.” They hug, and comment on the statue that was built for Ned and how it doesn’t really look like him. “Everyone who knew his face is dead,” Sansa says sadly. In this one brief scene, you can tell there’s strangeness between them. Sansa looks at Arya like she barely knows her, and chuckles when Arya says she’s keeping a list of people she’s going to kill. (The “no really” look on Arya’s face doesn’t seem to convince her sister at all.)
But Sansa thinks you know what? At least she’s not speaking in a monotone and having visions about me being raped on my wedding night, so… yay? And with that she takes Arya to meet their brother to have a big ol’ happy family re– oh wait, maybe not. George Harrison Bran is sitting out in the weirwood grove (goddammit, Sansa just don’t go near him in the weirwood grove) and Arya smiles as she sees him, but the smile quickly fades as Bran begins to tell her things as well, that he saw her at the crossroads, and knows about her list. He told Sansa he’d seen the worst thing that ever happened to her, perhaps because he didn’t think his sister would understand anything subtle, but it just takes these mentions to let Arya know that he sees all. And also to show her sister that no, she wasn’t joking about that list of people. “Who’s on the list?” Sansa says with incredulity. “Most of them are dead now,” Arya says with a look and Sansa knows without a doubt that her little sister is all grown up and has become someone new. The women see Bran holding the dagger, and Sansa immediately shows that she hasn’t been pulled in unknowingly by Baelish, when she warns her brother that he won’t give anything as a gift unless he thinks he’ll get something back from it, but Bran doesn’t want it, and hands it over to Arya instead. FORESHADOWING.
As the three Starks return to Winterfell, they make a motley crew. Lady Sansa sweeps behind them in a majestic wool coat; Bran stares dead-eyed as his wheelchair is being pushed by his warrior-like sister, who’s lost that childhood giggle and knows more about the world than any one person ever should. And watching from a distance is Brienne and Podrick, who marvel that somehow all of the living Starks ended up back together. Podrick tells Brienne that she kept her word and the two sisters are alive, and despite trying to argue with him, Brienne gives in and just takes the compliment.
And then we’re back at Dragonstone, where Missandei is just about to add TMI to the conversation with Daenerys when Jon Snow appears and has something to show her. What did you think of the scene in the caves, Chris?
Christopher: Well, I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat the joke that people started making IMMEDIATELY on Twitter, which has to do with what happened the last time Jon Snow took a woman into a cave …
The look Daenerys exchanges with Missandei doesn’t help things—of course it’s because she was sharing hints about Missandei’s sexytimes with Grey Worm, but the sequence can also serendipitously communicate the sense of, “Oh, that cute emo boy wants to talk to you now.” Given that Jon Snow is ice and Daenerys is fire, and given that the fact that they’re related doesn’t matter in the long history of Targaryen incest, it has long been a fan assumption that these two ultimately get together.
And it is a measure of the trust Daenerys has developed for Jon Snow that she orders her bloodriders to stay behind—maybe they’re not quite ready to kiss, but at least she’s comfortable in her assumption that he won’t kill her.
The cave drawings illustrate (sorry) an interesting aspect of George R.R. Martin’s worldbuilding that departs from traditional fantasy. The literary critic Farah Mendelsohn, in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, points out that history as presented in much fantasy is meant to be taken as plain and indeed absolute fact—there’s no hearsay in the “download of legend” as she terms it, whether it’s The Silmarillion’s prehistory of Middle-Earth or the random sage telling the accidental tourist who has fallen through a portal the Story Till Now. But GRRM plays games with the historical record in his novels, giving his world civilizations that evolved from equivalents to our Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages; and more importantly, there’s no definitive history, but rather a series of competing and contradictory stories and legends. The series hasn’t delved into this particular aspect of the novels all that much—and with Bran’s new talents, we’re getting in both what amounts to an authoritative account—but the cave drawings Jon shows Daenerys carry the symbolic power with which we imbue archaeological traces. “They were standing where we’re standing,” Daenerys says in awe, “before there were Targaryens or Lannisters or Starks. Maybe even before there were men.”
But no: there were people, who were allied with the Children of the Forest against the White Walkers. And, Jon Snow points out, they survived—because they fought together. Now, given the fact that the Children of the Forest created White Walkers (as Bran saw in a vision) in desperation because these interlopers were wiping them out, as well as the fact that they are now all but extinct, Jon’s emotional plea doesn’t perhaps have the strongest historical footing. But hey—he doesn’t know that, and neither does Daenerys, who starts to come around to Jon’s point of view. She pledges that she’ll fight for the North … if he bends the knee.
Jon is kind of between a rock and a hard place with Daenerys’ demand for fealty. One suspects that, while not a matter of indifference to him, he would still be inclined to bend the knee if it were only up to him. He did not seek the Northern throne, after all, and is far more concerned with defeating the existential threat of the White Walkers than with Westerosi power struggles. That being said, he is still deeply a Northerner and very much Ned Stark’s son (in spirit if not in fact), and he knows too well how little his people would think of a return to Targaryen rule. He is also aware of the technical illegitimacy of his claim, but in a nice bit of rhetorical jiu jitsu Daenerys turns that around on him, pointing out that it is precisely because of his illegitimacy that we know his people trust him: “They chose you to lead them. They chose you to protect them.”
Again, we’re saturated with dramatic irony here, and a man wonders how the truth of Jon’s parentage will be revealed. Actually, it’s less a question of how than when and where, seeing as how the only person who can speak that truth is Bran. He witnessed Jon’s birth in the Tower of Joy, so one has to assume it will be he who drops the bomb. Hence the timing of his arrival, after Jon’s departure for Dragonstone—no overlap there in which Bran could have said, “Oh, say hi to your aunt for me.” So now the question is: what plot twists will the show employ to keep Jon from hearing that news? (Because however unimportant Bran might consider his own injury at the hands of the Lannisters, one assumes that the unification of ice and fire would be as important to him as it was to Melisandre).
The camera plays a little trick on us as Jon and Daenerys exit the cave: perhaps it’s inadvertent, but it really sort of looks like they’re holding hands until we see them from the front (and even then it looks a little like they are until it’s apparent they’re not). There’s a tension building between these two; it’s not a sexual attraction just yet, but it’s obvious she’s coming to trust him. The revelation in the cave makes it seem for just a few moments that Daenerys is convinced—and maybe she is, but she’s not about to drop her claim to all seven of the seven kingdoms.
They exit the cave to the good news / bad news about Casterly Rock. “Your strategy has lost us Dorne, the Iron Islands, and the Reach,” she snarls are Tyrion, who right now is not looking like quite the master strategist he was just a few episodes ago. “If I have underestimated our enemies—” he starts to say, but she cuts him off. “Our enemies? Your family, you mean! Perhaps you don’t want to hurt them after all.” Ouch. Granted, Tyrion was outmaneuvered by Cersei, which is hurtful enough, but in this moment Daenerys questions not just his competence, but his loyalty. Is this something we can expect to see more of? She challenged Varys’ flexible loyalties in episode two; that appeared to be a fairly cool and calculated interrogation, whereas this one was spoken in the heat of anger, but perhaps we’re starting to see some cracks in Daenerys’ confidence.
It’s a measure of Daenerys’ growing regard for Jon Snow that she asks his advice—turning from her Hand and other trusted advisors to question a Northern bastard. The looks on Varys’ and Missandei’s faces made me laugh out loud: what is she doing? They probably assume he’s going to confirm her worst idea and egg her on to turn King’s Landing to cinders. But no. Check out the wisdom on Jon Snow! I always wondered if he had it in him:
I never thought that dragons would exist again. No one did. The people that 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 just more of the same.
Perhaps hearing it from Jon Snow, who, as Tyrion pointed out, has more reason to hate Cersei than anyone, makes the difference here; perhaps it’s just hearing it from a new voice; or perhaps Daenerys is starting to see Jon as something more than just a potential ally.
We shift from Jon laying down a wisdom bomb to Pod once again getting the shit kicked out of him by Brienne. He doesn’t seem to be improving much, does he? But then, as Arya says, perhaps the lesson he should learn is “Don’t fight someone like her in the first place.” Which, of course, Arya will proceed to do, with Sansa and Littlefinger looking on with increasing incredulity.
There’s always been a running debate over who was the best fighter on Game of Thrones—Jaime Lannister before he lost his hand, Loras Tyrell, Khal Drogo, the Hound, Oberyn Martell, Brienne of Tarth. Given Jaime’s amputation and Oberyn and Drogo’s deaths, Brienne’s defeat of both Loras and the Hound would seem to leave her in the top spot … until she meets Arya, who is simply too quick. The best line of the episode is when Brienne asks her who trained her. “No one,” she replies.
The looks on the faces of Littlefinger and Sansa are interesting: Sansa, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks deeply discomfited—even though her reunion with Arya was warmer than the one with Bran, there is still, as you point out Nikki, the sense that she’s an entirely different person now. Watching her handily fight Brienne to a draw confirms this, and Sansa’s expression is heartbreaking—a reflection of how much her family has lost. Her eyes downcast, she leaves Littlefinger standing at the rail looking down into the courtyard.
Littlefinger, by contrast, seems oddly pleased with everything he sees below. What is he thinking? We can’t know, but can surmise that he sees in Arya a new piece on the board, one that might work to his advantage if he can gain her trust. He smiles down at them, and Arya, seeing the distasteful expression on Brienne’s face as she looks up, follows her gaze. Littlefinger smiles and makes a little bow before following Sansa; Arya however throws what can only be characterized as some epic shade. Something tells me that it might not be too long before Littlefinger ends up on a certain list.
And then we’re back in Dragonstone. What did you make of Jon’s banter about bastardy with Missandei, Nikki?
Nikki: Arya brought some serious Buffy moves to that fight. That was definitely one of many highlights of this season so far for me. And, like I said earlier, I couldn’t help but remember us watching Arya in season one, looking down on Bran in the courtyard fighting with his little wooden sword and lamenting that she didn’t get to fight like the boys. And now those boys wish they could fight like her.
Also, I couldn’t help but giggle to myself in the cave scene, wondering if earlier that day Jon Snow was standing in the caves madly etching pictures of the White Walkers and hoping Daenerys didn’t notice how new they looked.
But yes, back to Missandei and Davos’s discussion, summed up in a variation on the Dr. Pepper jingle: “I’m a bastard, you’re a bastard, he’s a bastard, she’s a bastard, wouldn’t you like to be a bastard, too!” Missandei has never considered herself a bastard, simply because in Naath there are no marriages. If you are all born out of wedlock, then no one is a bastard. She explains that she was bought by slavers at a young age (sort of snapping us out of thinking of world as being utopian in any way) but Daenerys freed her. Davos counters by saying that’s all well and good, but haven’t you basically traded one slaver for another? After all, you serve Daenerys. Missandei smiles the smile you give to someone who is intellectually inferior, and says no, that she could leave at any time. Davos smiles the smirk you give to someone who is a naive little lamb, and says, oh really? And you think Daenerys would let you go? Missandei says she would, in a heartbeat. “She’s not our queen because she’s the daughter of some king we never knew,” Missandei says. “She’s our queen because we chose her.” Davos looks over at Jon and mentions casually that he’s about to switch sides. Ha!
I loved this scene because, as earlier with Missandei and Grey Worm in his chambers, we once again get the perspective from the “common folk.” These aren’t magical people or kings or queens from great houses, these are people who were sold into slavery and have discovered a way to find choice in their lives. But even more importantly, these are two common people who have risen far above their station. Missandei was sold into slavery, and now she’s the most trusted advisor of one of the key players in the game of thrones, a woman who sees herself as the rightful ruler of all of Westeros. Davos still carries that Fleabottom accent with a little bit of shame, and yet he’s the trusted advisor to Jon Snow, the King of the North. And he’s gone from being illiterate to correcting Jon Snow’s grammar, a moment I found hysterically funny (yay, hat tips to the editors like me out there!) Not only is the “less than/fewer than” dichotomy a pet peeve of mine, but this was a nod to an ongoing little joke that the show has looked at before. I’ve pointed out twice before that Stannis Baratheon can’t be all bad because he’s a total grammar Nazi, as he’s corrected Davos on the less/fewer mistake before:
Which is what made Davos now correcting Jon Snow such a clever little full-circle moment. (And notice Davos similarly says, “Nothing,” when Jon asks him what he just said.)
BUT ENOUGH GRAMMAR, THEON JUST SHOWED UP.
Cripes, I thought. Three awkward Stark reunions in the span of two episodes?! While Jon is a Targar– ahem, I mean… Snow, and Theon is a Greyjoy, both of them were actually raised at Winterfell by Ned Stark, with Jon being the bastard son and Theon being the ward he took on as a prize. They were raised as brothers, but this is the first time they’ve been face to face since Theon went nuts and took Winterfell by storm (and pretended to kill Bran and Rickon). Jon grabs him by the collar and snarls into his face that if Theon hadn’t saved Sansa, he would kill him now. Theon doesn’t even argue, since he doesn’t disagree with anyone anymore. He just quietly says he has come to see if Daenerys will help him get his sister back.
It’s interesting: Jon Snow has made some mistakes and is constantly being picked on for “knowing nothing,” and Theon has made major mistakes and has paid for it in massive ways and is essentially a broken man, but here are two men who stand as the eldest sons of their houses, neither of which is actually looking to gain the throne. Both of them are on quests to save their loved ones: Theon knows he screwed up yet again and was unable to save Yara’s life, and Jon wants to save all of humanity. Daenerys tells Jon to bend the knee so she knows she has his loyalty, but all these two care about is staying alive. I love these little moments where you can see that everyone is on a desperate mission, but all for very different reasons.
But Daenerys isn’t there right now so Theon can’t talk to her. Why? Where did she go?
Cut to the Lannister army in a deep valley and me grabbing my hair and going, “Oooooh SHIT!!!!!” and knowing any second now, THERE BE DRAGONS.
And honest to GOD I wish the writers and directors on this show (in this case the director is Matt Shakman) would direct every single battle scene ever because as I’ve said many times before, NO ONE does battle scenes like Game of Thrones. SO FREAKIN’ GOOD!!
But I’ll let you get us started on this one, Chris!
Christopher: It’s battle scenes like this one that speak to the huge success of Game of Thrones. No longer is money quite the concern it was: in season one, the great climactic battles between the Lannisters and the Starks happened off-screen; the first real sense of scale we got was toward the end of season two with “Blackwater,” and even then they tweaked the details of that battle (principally, doing it at night so they didn’t have to pay for huge CGI armies and navies) to make it more economical. But as the popularity of the show has grown, so too have the purse strings at HBO loosened, to the point where we reliably get spectacles like Hardhome, the final battle of Meereen, the Battle of the Bastards, Euron’s assault on Yara’s fleet, and now this: really, what we’ve been waiting seven seasons for, which is Daenerys and her dragons laying waste to the Lannisters.
Granted, it’s just the one dragon this time (which, frankly, might have been a tactical error), but it has the sense of a teaser: if this is what one dragon can do, along with just one of Daenerys’ armies, the Seven Kingdoms better sit up and take notice.
Because this is Game of Thrones, we can’t have an unequivocal victory: everything is always tainted with loss. Tyrion won the Battle of the Blackwater, but suffered grievous wounds and was then humiliated by his father. Hardhome was at best a pyrrhic victory. Daenerys won the battle of Meereen, but only after much hardship and loss; ditto Jon and Sansa at The Battle of the Bastards, which claimed the life of Rickon and could only happen because of Sansa’s Faustian bargain with Littlefinger. Here, the Lannisters accomplished the principal mission of delivering Tyrell gold to the Iron Bank, and Qyburn’s weapon showed that Daenerys’ dragons are vulnerable.
In addition to which, there’s the queasy fact that we sympathize with the bad guys. Jaime is no longer the black hat he once was, and I think we’d all mourn Bronn. The more I think of the episode’s final shot, the more I appreciate it. I would be very surprised if Jaime dies, but then this is a show that defies such narrative certainties. I think Bronn’s survival is even money: he saves Jaime, but it wouldn’t be beyond the pale for this show to sacrifice him—especially after that shot we get of his blood money spilled on the ground when his horse goes down.
But I’m getting ahead of things. One thing I want to mention before I pass it over to you, Nikki, is how this sequence gets military tactics right … mostly. A friend of mine who is both a fellow GoT nerd and military history nerd sent me a message saying “Thought you’d be interested to know that Drogon (subbing for artillery) and the Dothraki were an absolutely textbook example of how to ‘break’ an infantry square in the Napoleonic Era, which was super cool to see,” along with this link. By way of explanation: ever since we’ve had cavalry vs. infantry, the infantry learned that horses are generally smarter than people, and will not charge a wall of shields bristling with spears, pikes, and/or bayonets. So as long as infantry had the discipline to hold firm against a cavalry charge and not break and run in a panic, the cavalry was helpless to hurt them. Unless, of course, they could outflank them—which gave rise to the “square” formation, in which the infantry would form into a square that presented spears or bayonets on all sides.
Game of Thrones has been pretty good with its realistic depiction of medieval military formations—the Battle of the Bastards a case in point—so I was pleased to see that they (mostly) hewed to realism in this scene. “Realism” here is, of course, dragon-adjusted … though as my friend points out, Drogon plays the role of artillery: once armies graduated from steel to gunpowder, the logic of the square formation remained, but now there was the possibility of blasting a hole in the line with cannons—a hole through which the cavalry could charge. When Jaime tells Bronn, “We can hold them,” he’s hewing to his certainty as a career soldier that a well-disciplined shield wall can hold off cavalry indefinitely. Of course, as soon as he says that, we hear Drogon’s screech … and, really, that’s the ball game. It’s basically how World War One would have proceeded if the Allies had had even a single squadron of Spitfires (pun intended: for my fellow military history nerds, the more appropriate planes to mention would be fighter-bombers like the Typhoon or Tempest, or American planes like the P-38 Lightning or P-47 Thunderbolt).
Drogon’s first blast of fire blows a hole in the Lannister line through which the Dothraki charge, and anyone who knows their military history knows that the battle ended right then. There are, however, a few other moments when the Dothraki charge is not dismayed by the shield wall, but plunges through. The argument could be made that the soldiers were panicked by the sight of their fellows being immolated, and thus had lost their discipline; or perhaps that they were pretty much panicked from the moment the Dothraki crested the rise. Perhaps.
One way or another, it was so deeply satisfying after six and a half seasons to see dragons in Westeros again. It was worth the wait. What do you think, Nikki?
Nikki: You’re right: after six and a half seasons, this is the moment we have ALL been waiting for. (Along with Daenerys and Jon finally meeting [check], the Stark siblings being reunited [check], and Daenerys having her showdown with Cersei [TBD].) This battle sequence was so spectacular that as soon as it was done, we backed up the show by 15 minutes and just watched it again. (And not just for Bronn laughing at the way Jaime’s soldier says “Dick-on,” which was hilarious.)
I love that link you just posted: it doesn’t surprise me that they followed actual military tactics to the letter. That’s another reason why Game of Thrones is so successful: the writers and directors are so smart they do their research. The opening of the battle sequence actually made me think of the American Revolution. From what I remember of this war’s tactics when I took it in high school history class, it was military style versus guerilla warfare that won that one: the Redcoats all lined up in style and marched the way they were supposed to, while the rebels hid in the woods, jumped them from behind, and simply followed very few rules whatsoever, which helped them beat their enemy who was too busy towing the line to realize that every man for himself warfare might actually fare better. And then of course George Washington called in his dragon and the war was won. (I believe it’s a deleted track on the Hamilton soundtrack…)
I talked a few weeks ago about the lousy Ed Sheeran cameo and how it was too distracting, but this time there was actually a cameo in this sequence that worked EXACTLY how a cameo should work. I knew in advance that NY Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard (a favourite of my son’s, who has a framed jersey card of his) was going to be in the episode, but in the midst of the battle, I completely forgot and didn’t even see him when he showed up. His cameo is very quick, he’s barely recognizable, and he’s immediately immolated by Drogon (which will no doubt keep him on the DL even longer than he’s been this season). Now that is how you do a cameo.
But Easter eggs aside, this scene is just astounding. From the rumble in the distance and the fear as the Lannister soldiers quickly try to get themselves in line while we wait for what seems like an eternity for the Dothraki to show up on the crest of the hill; to the burning anticipation of the dragon — which is SO AMAZING when it does happen that I couldn’t help but shriek with delight — to the incredible moment where you discover Daenerys is riding on his back; to the look on Jaime’s face as he tries to keep his cool while panicking inside; to the stoic and ambivalent look on Tyrion’s face as he watches his Queen destroy her enemies while recognizing that these were once his own men, and that despite everything he loves his brother and doesn’t want to see him fail outright; to the revelation that the Lannister army brought along the Dragon Killer with them (I don’t remember the last time I was this scared in a scene)… this entire sequence is simply not for the faint of heart and is thrilling on every level.
And what did the Dragon Killer achieve? Well, it brought a dragon out of the sky and down to Earth. The dragon can still breathe fire (and it turned Bronn’s weapon to ashes and smashed it with its tail in one fell swoop) but just imagine what a thousand of those machines will do. And we know Cersei is already starting the production line right this second. Drogon has been hit in the shoulder, and he’ll survive and be fine, but if Bronn’s aim had been just a little bit better, and he’d gotten it right in Drogon’s mouth and through the back of his skull, that would have been the end of both the dragon and its mother.
Daenerys’s surprise attack is amazing for so many reasons, not least of all because of the karma she doles out: you put a sneak attack on Highgarden, kill the old woman and strip an old, barren castle of its gold; I’ll find your entire army and reduce it to ashes on a hillside and leave Cersei with nothing. But it also speaks to Jon Snow’s wisdom earlier in the episode: he said if you come at the Red Keep with your dragons and kill the queen, burn the castle, and kill innocent civilians in a bid for the throne you’re no better than your own father. And so she instead attacked the army when it’s nothing but the army: no queen, no castle, no civilians.
And what of Jaime? As he sank to the bottom of the water (where you could see a strange structure sticking up from the bottom that might be an old ship, but it wasn’t clear), my husband said, “And that’s the end of Jaime,” but I don’t think so. Because I just don’t think we’re done with his story. He’s the only one who knows the truth about who killed Joffrey, and I believe it’ll be an important plot point for him to tell Cersei that. I’d love to see him be reunited with Brienne one last time.
But also, I’d love to see him and Tyrion have one final scene together. I really wanted him to look up and see the imp standing on the hill, but it was Tyrion watching Jaime throughout, not the other way around. And Tyrion knows his brother well enough to know what’s running through his mind as he sees Daenerys trying to pull the spear out of Drogon, her back to him. Tyrion mutters under his breath, “Flee, you idiot,” as he sees Jaime pause on the midst of the burned-out battlefield. As Jaime instead grabs a nearby spear and begins charging towards Daenerys like he’s at a jousting tournament, Tyrion’s face turns to dread as he mutters, “You fucking idiot,” and we all hold our collective breaths as Drogon pulls his head down over his mother’s, and opens his mouth and you get to see exactly what it looks like to anyone just before they’re immolated… and then Bronn grabs Jaime and pulls him into the water. The weight of the armour is going to pull Jaime to the very bottom, but I don’t believe that’s the end of him.
What a show. We thought they had too much ground to cover for a mere 13 final episodes but now they have nine of them left and I’m thrilled, thinking they can do so much more but they’ve already given us some of the very things we’ve waited years to see. This week is going to feel like an eternity… I cannot wait for next week’s episode!!
Thank you to everyone who has read this far, and for continuing to read and leave comments. I love reading your feedback and your thoughts on every episode. Until next week!