Review, Game of Thrones 7.4: The Spoils of War
“I didn’t expect it to smell like that.”
I haven’t come that close to a panic attack during a TV show since Breaking Bad staged a train heist in its nerve-wracking (the lukewarm ending aside) final season. As a genre, horror aims to elicit a physical response from its viewers, and few sights can compete for raw, appalling disgust with the charnel house Drogon and the Dothraki make of the banks of the Blackwater Rush. Add to that the tension of watching virtually half the cast placed in mortal danger and the mouth-drying suspense of seeing Drogon, a creature as achingly beautiful as he is hellish, a living icon of the majesty and cruelty of fantasy that is the show’s beating heart, in the sights of one of Qyburn’s scorpions and the episode’s climactic battle sequence is a physical and emotional ordeal.
Just before hell breaks loose, Bronn and Jaime speak to Dickon Tarly, Sam’s dashing hunk of a brother, about his take on the storming of Highgarden, his first ever battle. Dickon at first pretends to have found it stirring and glorious, but after some prompting his face falls, confusion creeping into his voice as he admits the smell of spilt bowels unsettled him. There’s no glory to be found on the battlefield. There’s no virtue in conquering your enemies. The ruin Drogon unleashes on the Lannister army is a visceral nightmare, a wasteland of boiling smoke, flying cinders, and men transformed into screaming, flailing torches. For all Missandei’s talk of a queen the people chose, Daenerys is as much a butcher as any of her enemies.
The battle sequence is a work of dreadful art. From the ululating charge of the Dothraki, to the panicked screams of two horses stuck in the traces of a burning wagon, to Tyrion’s helpless terror and frustration as he watches his brother charge Daenerys as she tends to the wounded Drogon, the camera places us squarely in the quaking boots of the battle’s participants and observers. Bronn’s flight from a particularly persistent Dothraki screamer, a scene that reads like a flame-wreathed remix of Jon’s immersion in the mud-spattered chaos of the Battle of the Bastards, stands out as a brilliant example of the show’s ability to spin stories in which no possible conflict could leave us feeling good. There’s a thrill, of course, to seeing Drogon loosed on the world, but does anyone really want to see Jaime and Bronn run down or incinerated? In letting us live for so long with each of these characters, in taking such care to let our empathy for them grow, Game of Thrones helps us understand the truth of war as the death of love. No joy can come of it.
No less moving is Daenerys’s first scene. Her journey with Jon into the obsidian mines under Dragonstone is like something out of Fellowship of the Ring’s Moria sequence as Jon reveals by firelight not just the dizzying galleries of stone hidden away under the earth but an ancient chamber decorated with the carvings of the Children of the Forest. His tale of the alliance between the First Men and the Children against the White Walkers is poignant, but behind it hovers the ugly truth that to the Children, the First Men were the same apocalypse the Walkers and their army now represent to Westeros. Even the blood-soaked weight of history, though, can’t stop the chemistry blooming between Harington and Clarke as the slow thaw of last episode’s first impressions gives way to a frisson of lip-biting sexual tension. The lighting, the paradoxical intimacy of the cathedral-vaulted cavern, the wonder Daenerys feels at knowing they stand where the Children once did; it all imbues the scene with a deep, gorgeous heat.
In another season Arya’s return to Winterfell, her thrilling practice duel with Brienne, and her reunion with her siblings would have been an episode’s centerpiece. Here it’s part of a mosaic of wonder, sorrow, and human connection leading into the literally searing climax. It’s a treat to watch the two women square off, Brienne a juggernaut of destruction, Arya a reed in the wind. To Sansa, though, there’s more than a little melancholy in the sight of a sister transformed into a weapon by her experiences during their time apart. The three Starks in Winterfell have been reforged by life’s cruelty, broken down and reassembled as people who in essential ways no longer recognize each other. Sansa a canny and paranoid manipulator, Arya a dyed-in-the-wool killer, Bran no longer even truly Bran. His empty, emotionless farewell to Meera Reed, his tireless companion and a woman for whom he once harbored an embarrassed, boyish affection, is one of the episode’s saddest notes.
Arya should never have had to learn to kill. Bran should never have been forced to break his own mind on the altar of destiny. Sansa may have been groomed for command by her captors, but at what cost to her soul? In their power, as in the furnace hearts of Dany’s dragons, is a reminder of the essential ugliness of the world in which they live and a warning not to let the horrors of the battlefield become our heart’s desire. The spoils of war aren’t glory or freedom; they’re fire and blood.