We’re over halfway through the new series of Game of Thrones and it isn’t pulling any punches. Join us as we recap, review, and reevaluate the meaning of life following the most explosive episode to date.
Littlefinger continues his flawless streak of being everybody’s least favourite person by gifting Bran the Valyrian steel dagger that was once used to try and kill him wayyy back in the second ever episode of GoT (said dagger also maimed his mother and just a little bit started the entire War of the Five Kings while most recently featuring in Sam’s library book in the season 7 premiere – if we’ve learned anything here it’s that you don’t want Littlefinger as your Secret Santa). However, Bran shuts Littlefinger down by quoting his famous “Chaos is a ladder” line at him – social discomfort is what Bran is all about these days.
Joking aside, this was a very well directed sequence (as was this entire episode, more on that later) and further deepens the mystery of, well… what’s Littlefinger’s point any more? He’s become the Uncle Paulie of Westeros, loosely tolerated by everyone because he was useful once. Though we suspect this is all part of a grander bait-and-switch tactic the series is playing – nobody puts Littlefinger in a corner (without being stabbed/ pushed/ poisoned/ murdered).
Next up on Bran’s list of people to demoralise is Meera Reed who pops in to say goodbye before going home. “Thanks,” says Bran, reducing the deaths of Hodor (it’s still too soon), Summer, Jojen, and the last however many horrendous years Meera has endured into a single puff of air. Kudos to Ellie Kendrick who really sells Meera’s frustration and pain (here’s hoping it isn’t the last we see of her) and for grounding the fundamental changes in Bran in terms of a human cost. His stilted reunion with Sansa last episode, which felt so odd at the time, suddenly starts to make more sense, and not a moment too soon because it’s time for…
Teary-eyed Stark Reunion 3: Return of the Jedi! Arya has finally come home, but only after talking her away around two particularly amusing Winterfell guards in a neat callback to series one. Sansa finds her in the crypts and the show deserves enormous credit for getting this reunion right as it could have gone so very very wrong. There are no emotional declarations, this is the reunion of two battle-hardened survivors and their initial trepidation around each other before they cautiously find their common ground is very well handled and further testament to director Matt Shakman’s sterling work in this episode. Arya then reunites with Bran who does his whole “I know what you did last summer” thing to creep her out before re-gifting her Littlefinger’s dagger. Poor form, Bran.
The final piece of Winterfell action is a superb one-on-one sparring match between Brienne and Arya who interrupts a training session with Pod (who just seems to have got worse if anything, maybe his magical mega-penis slows him down or something). Dragon carnage or not, this may be the highlight of the entire episode. It’s a wonderful sequence, with Brienne initially taking it easy and then not holding back when she sees Arya’s talent. Just watching these two characters actually enjoying themselves doing what they do best is a pleasure to watch, tempered by Sansa’s mounting discomfort as she watches; this isn’t her tomboy kid sister anymore, she realises, and maybe she wasn’t joking about that whole “kill list” thing either.
Seeing the surviving Stark children together delivers on a promise that’s been hinted at since they first split up all those series ago. More so than that however, it pulls the episode (and the series as a whole)’s thematic concerns sharply into focus. The Stark kids have, each in their own way, uncovered their own spoil of war. Arya is now a skilled warrior, Sansa a consummate politician, and Bran has become an unfeeling vessel for all of human interaction past, present, and future. Like Twitter.
This series, more so than any other, is drilling into what the game of thrones actually means; what does it take, what is its cost, what does it do, and where does it go?
Each of the Stark children is a canvas upon which innocence has been warped and beaten by the unflinching brutality of the game until something leaner and stronger was left behind.
The old adage, oft quoted with any excuse these days, is that when you play the game of thrones you win or you die. Well, series seven is truly playing that for false. None of our remaining protagonists are “winners” in any traditional sense but they are survivors and here they stand, reunited at last to face the end-game together.
Having said all of that, why has nobody talked or asked about Rickon? You guys are all awful siblings.
It’s a brief pit-stop this week as Cersei talks to everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood debt collector Tycho Nestoris about her recently acquired shit-tonne (technical term) of gold. They plan for the next steps and discuss Cersei’s need for more soldiers. She mentions the Golden Company, a mercenary troupe from Essos, in a neat little shout-out to book readers (who may remember that the Golden Company was founded by a rebel Targaryen centuries ago – will that play into the plot?) and that’s about it.
Jon’s been busy finding his dragonglass mountains and is keen to show off his findings to Dany as he ushers her into a seaside cave… oh, Jon, you cad. On top of the dragonglass however he’s uncovered a series of exceptionally convenient cave paintings from the Children of the Forest depicting how they worked together with men to defeat the White Walkers thousands of years ago.
“The enemy’s real, it’s always been real,” he says while desperately motioning to Davos to wash the cave paint off his fingers.
“Bend the knee,” Dany responds in what’s swiftly becoming the most meme-able catchphrase to come out of this series, and she’ll agree to help, seemingly wooed by the romantic candlelit intimacy of it all. Well, we all know what happened last time Jon bent a knee in a cave… No such shenanigans this time however (not yet at least) as Dany and Jon reemerge on the beach to be greeted by the news that Highgarden has fallen.
Dany’s understandably upset and tears Tyrion a new one for his continued terrible war-planning – where’s Jorah when you need him! It’s a good scene for Emilia Clarke who finally opens up a little and also marks an important development in Dany and Jon’s relationship as she takes his advice to, y’know, maybe not burn King’s Landing into soup just yet.
Later, Jon and Davos (channeling his inner Stannis) have a little seaside banter with Missandei about bastardy and marriage (as you do) when a Greyjoy ship appears. Cue mega-awkward face-off between Jon and Theon who’s come asking for help from Dany to get Yara back from Euron. “The Queen’s not here,” Jon tells him…
Our first visit to the Reach is an innocent affair, or at least as innocent as things can be following the decimation of an entire city – Bronn mocks Jaime for his sullenness following the Queen of Thorns’ savagery in the last episode (“One last prick in the balls”) while Jaime counts up the golden spoils plundered from the now routed Highgarden. It’s a long journey back from the Reach to King’s Landing however, long enough for things to go terribly, terribly wrong…
Later, after Randyll Tarly informs Jaime that the gold has safely made it to King’s Landing in an important but easily missable line, things get a little, well… lit. It starts off gently enough with some enjoyable back-and-forth between Jaime, Bronn, and Dickon Tarly – with the show cleverly humanising a character up until now played exclusively for laughs (as majestically demonstrated by Bronn). But then – what’s that? The rumble of hooves on the horizon, the rising sound of war cries in the air – suddenly Bronn looks scared.
Bronn! The guy who once single-handedly set-off a fire-bomb nuke and took out an entire armada is scared.
Then it begins; while Dany may have agreed to not burn cities to the ground (yet), she didn’t say anything about armies.
If you thought that GoT‘s directing flair peaked with the Battle of the Bastards, think again. Series debutant Matt Shakman blows the competition out of the water – often quite literally – in this peerlessly produced, directed, and performed sequence of pure hair-raising carnage.
It’s incredible – a long, relentless, emotional beating as the battle alternates between the godly, awe-inspiring immensity of a dragon-clad Daenerys raining fiery death from the skies, to the sleekly poetic horseback brutality of the Dothraki hoards cutting through Lannister guardsmen like hundreds of hot scythes through scared, milky butter, to the Lannister men themselves, just regular guys like the dudes Arya had a drink with in the premiere, caught in a literal hellscape, reduced to ash and arrow fodder.
We will assume Sheeran went with them.
It’s a technical and storytelling masterclass, from the music to the camera movements: massive and grand for Daenerys; truncated and panicked for the groundsmen, including a superlative tracking shot à la Battle of the Bastards. We follow Bronn while he staggers through the carnage, men burning, horses fleeing, a swirling flaming hurricane of death and destruction wherever he turns, before finding Qyburn’s RBC (Really Big Crossbow) and bringing Drogon to the ground with a bolt in the side. Nooo!
Bronn survives (because Bronn is Bronn and Bronn takes no shit from no one) which is good news for Jaime as we shift to final money-shot: Jaime, spear in hand, charging down Daenerys as she tends to Drogon in a last-ditch hail mary attempt to end the war then and there. Drogon notices but before he can pixelise Jaime, Super Bronn (as we’ve now christened him) knocks him clear away into the safety of the water… where his armour swiftly causes him to sink (ignoring the fact that it was shallow enough to gallop in 20 seconds ago).
Anddd deep breaths (except for Jaime). For the first time the show has pitted beloved protagonists against each other; the world and the show has finally contracted to the point that there’s nowhere left to hide. This is where it’s going people, this is how it ends – how it always had to end – with years of violence and drama culminating in a way that now feels deeply personal, with characters that we’ve come to know and love on every side of the conflict fighting for their lives.
It’s a physically and emotionally challenging thing to watch and is GoT at its melodramatic, can’t-believe-your-actual-eyes, best. Cleverly, the episode leaves it with the imperious Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, torn between his queen and his brother, to illustrate the pain and difficulty of it all which, for us, went a little something like this: you don’t want Bronn to die (#TeamBronn for life) but, oh shit, he’s trying to kill Drogon and you don’t want that either because Drogon’s the freakin’ dragon king! And then wait, no goddamn it Jaime run away already – NO NOT OVER THERE THAT’S DAENERYS YOU FOOL, SHE’S ONE OF THE GOOD EGGS! Then it ended and you collapsed feeling faint on the sofa before you spent the night unsleeping, wondering what anything means anymore.
Spoils of War may have been the shortest ever episode of Game of Thrones, but try telling that to our freshly greyed hair and soaring blood pressure. On a cliffhanger of that magnitude don’t expect things to let up next week either, but until then we’ll see you in therapy.
All images © HBO