'The Spoils of War' was one of the best Game of Thrones episodes ever
"The Spoils of War" was Game of Thrones at its finest. It offered paleolithic drawings, a proto-rom-com in a cave, a mega-Stark reunion, a Western with dragonfire set against a backdrop reminiscent of John Ford's Monument Valley, and an impressive amount of crisp and entertaining misdirection.
Besides the thrill of watching Drogon spew, the most striking thing about "Spoils" was just how indeterminate it was — particularly given how decisive that battle turned out to be. You might have thought, for example, that Jon and Dany had a romantic moment inside that cave (some folks even thought they were holding hands when they walked out of it). Nope! (Although things certainly seem to be tilting that way.) You might have thought, likewise, that Tycho's heavy-handed line about the Iron Bank's fruitful relationship with Cersei once the gold arrives was pretty loudly announcing that it wouldn't. Wrong again!
But what's interesting is how right that reading felt in the moment. Hemmed in by principle, Daenerys has been struggling with how to respond to a series of defeats. She's taken Tyrion to task for how spectacularly his "clever plan" backfired. She's asking Jon for advice. Ultimately, though, she's listening to Olenna — who chalked up her survival to ignoring the clever men — and going her own way. Narratively, that's exciting. Game of Thrones has spent the last couple of episodes letting surprising military strategies wash over us, and when Theon asks after Daenerys and we're told she's out, it really does seem — as we watch her neatly eliminating Jaime's supply line — like she's had a stroke of genius. Her strategy (I thought then) was to destroy Cersei's credit by melting all the gold she needed to repay the Iron Bank! Amazing!
Also: wrong. It turns out the gold was already safely inside King's Landing by the time Daenerys attacked. It's a deflating realization; as successful an ambush as this was, the consequences aren't as clear as the setup implied. That shot of Drogon opening his amazing maw strongly hints that the ballista will hit him there. But it didn't! As for the battle scenes, they were filled with moves like these that don't quite play fair — interesting little bait-and-switches. Bronn has always prided himself on fighting dirty, so it's a particular surprise when that Dothraki fighter outmaneuvers him by hacking off his horse's leg. And so on. Then there are the dramatic suspensions: If, like me, you were holding your breath for the moment Jaime and Tyrion's eyes met on the battlefield — a moment that seemed dramatically inevitable — it never came.
None of that is bad: quite the contrary. Those deferred resolutions feel smart and earned. I wrote last week about Tyrion's buried tragedy, which was beautifully set up. It is buried no longer. Peter Dinklage brought some exquisite forlornness to the scene in which Dany berates him. And that was nothing compared to the desolation with which he watches his people butchered (while "The Rains of Castamere" plays, driving this latter-day echo of the Red Wedding home). It's an effect magnified by his and Jaime's total lack of connection despite finally being in the same place at the same time. It almost feels like Jaime is in the movie and Tyrion is the guy in the audience, yelling at him to run the other way. Convenient, that: It lets Tyrion overlook his own role in bringing these events about, however briefly. That's obviously not sustainable, and what I'm most looking forward to are Tyrion's difficult conversations with Jaime.
This interesting lack of resolution worked a little less smoothly in the North, where some long-awaited reunions were undercut by uncomfortable moments whose origins weren't always clear. I suggested last week that the Starks' character development has been so messy that their psychologies have at this point failed to believably build — they fit their arcs about as much as that statue resembles Sean Bean. That's not really reparable; Arya's journey was botched and that's the end of it. Still, it's nice to finally see the training — however little sense it made — pay off with some spectacular swordplay. Same for Bran: As much as I appreciated that belated explanatory scene with Meera in which she takes him to task for his monstrous ingratitude, that this scene exists at all implies either that they traveled together for months without having a single conversation that made his emerging detachment clear to her, or that he magically changed into a distant jerk when he got to Winterfell. Neither makes much sense.
Sansa, too, remains blurry in ways that feel less than intentional. Her scene with Arya was just beautifully done — I loved how much warmer the second hug was than the first — but Sansa's expression as she watched Arya and Brienne fight was inscrutable, and not in a Fascinatingly Ambiguous way. The group I watched with couldn't work out whether she was a) jealous that her servant Brienne was getting excited about her sister, b) impressed by what a killing machine Arya has become, c) worried Arya wants power, d) concerned about what experiences made her little sister this way, e) fearful that Arya and Brienne were going to team up against her or something, etc. I feel like this happens with Sophie Turner's wordless scenes more than it should.
These quibbles aside, it was lovely to see the three Stark kids together again. Terribly and believably sad, too.
Conversely, few things in this series have given me as much joy as watching Arya and Brienne sparring in the training yard at Winterfell. Those characters have needed to do that for as long as this series has existed. It felt like some Arthurian legend, like destiny, in a way all the kingdom stuff, which is certainly more important, never will.
And then there's the battle, which did so much so exquisitely. Those long tracking shots, the thrilling dragon CGI, the blistering fire. I wondered a couple of weeks ago whether the hilariously underlit "Stormborn" might have made us squint on purpose in order to elicit a craving for light at an extremely literal level. If that was the idea, "The Spoils of War" delivered: This episode was (to put it mildly) well-lit.
But fire brings smoke, which obfuscates differently. "The Spoils of War" was a superficially decisive episode built out of interesting fake-outs that reject the clear definitions on which concepts like victory and defeat depend. Remember when the camera went to the trouble of showing us Jaime fetching gold out of a gold-filled wagon in order to pay Bronn? And how that wagon at least superficially resembled the wagons we saw Daenerys torching quite a bit later? The camera did everything but scream YOUR GOLD IS TOAST, CERSEI. But it isn't, and that's the point. For all that this amazing battle seemed like a decisive victory, for all that the Starks are home at last, there's an uneasiness to the endings here, a pronounced failure to resolve. Some of the show's most beloved characters finally met on a battlefield and not a single one died, that's how amusingly indeterminate this episode was. (Unless it wasn't, and Jaime really turns out to be dead.)
This is true of the series more broadly, too: Tyrion's disastrous, putative victory at Casterly Rock turned into Jaime's disastrous, putative victory at Highgarden. The spoils of war are never quite what they seem because the war isn't over. And this episode — one of the series' best — reflected that. As Arya says, "our stories aren't over yet."