TV REVIEW: Game Of Thrones 7.4 “The Spoils Of War”

Game Of Thrones Spoils Of War

Spoilers beneath, people. Like carvings under a castle, or statues lining a crypt.

 

 

 

 

 

Two-parters can be more trouble than they’re worth.  The problem is, they tend to be terribly front-ended. All the cool ideas show up in the first half, and they generally build to cliffhangers that promise far more than can be delivered.

So it’s kind of impressive that Game of Thrones, a show that doesn’t even do two-parters, decided to sneak one in under the radar. Even better, it does so with a second installment that easily outstrips its predecessor.

Mirror Of The Wicked Queen

Before we go any further, some defining of terms is in order. What does it even mean to talk about a two-part story in the context of a serialised drama? Clearly it has to involve something other than a continuing story. My argument, then, is that “The Queen’s Justice” and “The Spoils Of War” should be considered as a pair because of the sheer number of parallels and inversions we can find between them. It would be hard to miss how the episodes’ conclusions mirror each other, what with each involving a surprise attack in the Reach. Nor is the inversion anything but obvious, with the Lannisters gaining the upper hand one week and losing it almost entirely the next. There are plenty of other examples as well, from Ayra’s arrival at Winterfell echoing Bran’s, to Dany repeating her requirement that Jon Snow bend the knee. Hell, both episodes have a badly-damaged Greyjoy ship show up at Dragonstone.

I shall return to each of these reflections later (well, not the one about knackered boats). I want to start things off this week with Cersei, though. There are two clear ways to link these episodes together in terms of the ruler of King’s Landing. By far the less interesting is the two audiences she grants to Tycho Nestoris, one before and one after the triumphant assault on Highgarden. Of much more consequence however is the fact that both last week’s title and this one refer to Cersei and the Lannister dynasty in at least two ways apiece.  “The Queen’s Justice” applies both to Cersei’s sadistic treatment of Ellaria and Tyene and to the destruction of the Tyrell line. “The Spoils Of War” most obviously refers to the gold swiped during the aforementioned Tyrell extinguishing, but it’s also a nod to Cersei’s comments as she shows Nestoris her swanky new floor plan. For her, the spoils of war aren’t just gold, or territory. They’re the people she gets to exert control over.

There’s plenty to say about this. For starters, this scene combined with the battle at episode’s end further highlights how far apart Cersei and Jaime have grown. Remember all the way back in the third episode of the first season, Jaime promised he’d happily murder literally everyone in the world except for the two of them? Those days are long gone. Cersei still sees everyone but herself and Jaime as smelly, ambulatory trees that somehow have learned to squawk and now won’t stop. Jaime, meanwhile, has come so far that he can’t even bring himself to allow his men to be whipped. Or, for that matter, to abandon them during a dragon attack, though this simply guarantees he has a front-row seat to them being burned alive and reduced to ash. Which seems of some relevance, actually, since last time he had to watch someone being consumed by flames it started him on the path to killing a monarch who wanted to set fire to King’s Landing. Given Cersei’s recent foray into detonating architecture with wildfire, the chances that this attack might eventually set him down the same road are decidedly non-trivial. Right now – and I’m terrible with predictions, as these essays more than prove – I’d put Cersei’s chances of seeing season eight at somewhere south of fifty-fifty.

It’s rather interesting, I think, that the gap between the Lannister twins is growing at the exact same rate as Jaime’s sense of empathy. The Battle of the Roseroad puts a lot of effort into demonstrating how horrifying and brutal the encounter is – a bloody riot of hacking and dying, along with the occasional explosion that sets all your friends on fire. Watching it has so profound an effect on Jaime that he’s willing to try an almost certainly suicidal charge against the owner of an angry adult dragon just to make it stop. This puts Jaime in line with what the audience is supposed to be feeling, and by implication, pushes Cersei further from our sympathy. Jaime wants to save his men. Hooray! Cersei sees people as possessions to acquire and control. Boo! She’s rubbish! Boo!

Except.

A Game Of Thrones

Any attempt to set up this dichotomy runs into the problem that the show clearly doesn’t give a damn about the population of Westeros either. If you’re not a main character (meaning, far more often than not, an aristocrat), there’s no evidence Game of Thrones even knows you exist, unless and until you need to be hacked to death on a battlefield or form a spontaneous Mob of Disgruntlement/Excited Yelling. Take the collapse of Dany’s alliance, for instance. She’s right about losing her support in the Iron Islands, admittedly – as far as we can tell only two of Yara’s ships survived the Ceilidh of the Krakens. I can even see an argument that suggests with Highgarden gone and the Reach’s best general backing the Lannisters, we probably won’t be seeing many of the former Tyrell bannermen heading eastward to threaten the capital (though for sure they’ll be lining up twelve deep to help Dany under the table; you don’t get to take down a Lady Paramount without some push-back from their sworn houses).

What about Dorne, though? That’s a country of hundreds of thousands of people, precisely four of whom have died or been captured in the War of the Two Queens. How does that remove an entire kingdom from consideration? Didn’t Ellaria leave someone in charge at Sunspear when she left to treat with Dany? Hadn’t she been building an army since the start of season six? What happened to the dozens of ships bearing the Martell banner that rendezvoused with Dany in “The Winds of Winter”?

This is one of the aspects of Beniof and Weiss’ writing that repeatedly gets under my skin. They seem to have completely swallowed the idea that a kingdom is synonymous with its ruler. Even within this episode we see more evidence of this, with Daenerys insisting to Jon that his people will accept a southern queen if he does first. It seems as though in this world everyone meekly follows the leader, or at most meekly follows whichever main character decides they’re going to betray that leader. At it’s heart, this is a show about which blue-blood will be most successful in getting everyone in the whole damn country to do exactly what they’re told. I mean, so are the books, but Martin takes the time to undercut this. He takes pains to show just how messed up a system feudal monarchy really is. The show in contrast plays it all far too straight for me to be comfortable.

And yet how am I any different, when it comes down to it? How can I claim to be bothered by how the show treats its unnamed characters when every battle scene utterly enthralls me? I was thrilled by Dany’s attack on the Lannister column, even as I was made uncomfortable by it. For the viewer, the spoils of war are the exciting, masterfully-shot action sequences those wars produce. How many viewers would have happily got to work demolishing the popcorn Drogon was making mid-fracas? We’re all in this together.

Something to think about as we move on to the next merciless slaughter.

Erase/Replace

Let’s leave behind such maudlin thoughts for a little while, however, and travel north to Winterfell for some warmth. Once again, the castle that has stood through so much sadness and treachery and bloodshed and flame is for the moment a place of peace, even joy. For the three surviving Starks, the spoils of war are the opportunity to gather together and collect their frosting breath.

Speaking of gathering, I mean no disrespect to either Bran or Isaac Hempstead Wright (who’s been handed a hell of a poisoned chalice this year in terms of character development) when I say Arya’s return is easily seventeen thousand percent more satisfying than that of her younger brother. Having Bran back is nice. Having Arya back is wonderful.

It doesn’t all work perfectly, admittedly. As nice as it is to see Turner and Williams back on screen together for the first time in six years, their reunion scene feels slightly unsatisfying. I don’t blame either of them, naturally; the way they play off each other is a delight. It’s just that they’re carrying a conversation that ultimately feels a little perfunctory – though I’m desperately hoping at least one of the Stark sisters takes up stone carving to do a proper job on their father’s tomb.

Much more entertaining for my money is Arya’s initial arrival at the castle gates. This is an obvious nod to the scene back in “The Wolf And The Lion” where Arya is also trying to get two disbelieving guards to let her into the castle her family is living in. The fun comes in recognising how differently Arya handles this second go around. In King’s Landing she threatens the goldcloaks with retribution from her father, because she has nothing of her own to call upon. This time, she coolly tells the guards that she will be coming in, one way or another, with her hand wresting on Needle’s hilt to make the clearest statement possible.

And yet she doesn’t rely simply on herself either. That was what got her into the House of Black and White (eventually, anyway), which ultimately led her too far from her family and her past for comfort. Yes, the inciting incident for her quitting her Faceless Man internship was being asked to murder someone for being good at what my school-friends used to call “spouting a crock”. Her immediate decision to reclaim her name and identity though shows her rebellion was about more than simple target selection. At the end of the day, she needed to go into the west, and remain Arya Stark.

What she does here, then, is to combine her self-reliance and capacity for violence with an awareness of the importance of her family. By which I mean family’s importance to her, not to the guards at the gate, though obviously she’s making use of that too. Arya finally has the independence she had always craved, and has finally rejected the isolation she was first forced to endure, but eventually came to rely on. Further confirmation of her having reached this conclusion can be found in her seeking out Brienne. Last time they met Arya explicitly rejected the idea that Brienne could be any use to her. This time, she asks for a training bout, and clearly enjoys the absolute seven hells out of it.

(I did feel bad that Arya told Brienne that she’d learned her skills from “no-one”, though. Way to erase Syrio Forel, you murderous jackass! Still, I’ll bet that line led to fifty thousand die-hard truthers immediately leaping into the internet to yell “SYRIO FOREL IS JAQUEN H’GHAR OMG!!!!!”, so that’s pretty funny.)

Whilst we’re up in Winterfell, let’s take a quick look at what Littlefinger’s up to, since I suggested in last week’s post that his time is pretty much up. Certainly nothing in this episode changed my mind on that front. A lot of people seem utterly baffled as to why Baelish offers the dagger he lied about to get a war started to the very man the blade was meant to kill. I think the answer to that is fairly obvious, actually: it’s a fishing expedition. Littlefinger needs to know what Bran knows, either from the original attack, from anything Cat sent by raven back to Winterfell before Theon took the castle, or from whatever spooky-ass dreams the boy is having now – with dragons back in the world and the north convinced the White Walkers are on the march, now would not be a prudent time to assume those who claim to have visions are liars or madmen.

And the plan works, for whatever that’s worth. Littlefinger now knows Bran has access to some kind of intelligence network that makes his old King’s Landing spy-ring look like Ned Stark’s old King’s Landing spy-ring.  The question is what he intends to do about it. If he’s remotely smart, he’ll be preparing an escape route and/or finding ways to make himself actually indispensable to the war effort, rather than remaining someone who it’s just a bit of a bother to squish. Of course, he’ll struggle to do that for all the reasons I mentioned last week, but the bigger problem for him is Arya. After all that nonsense about imagining every single possible scenario to prevent ever being surprised was immediately undercut by Bran’s return, Baelish now has another Stark scion long thought dead to deal with. And crucially, whilst he’s busy sounding out the depth of Bran’s mystical abilities, he has no idea that Arya can kill someone and then replace them flawlessly. The only reason Sansa needs Littlefinger alive just vanished completely, and he has no idea.

Neither does Sansa, admittedly. Give it another couple of episodes, though. She’ll find out, and she’ll know what to do. No-one has guns in Westeros; a Chekov’s dagger is the closest we’re ever going to get.

“Remember Your Failure At The Cave”

Finally, we fly to Dragonstone, and one more mirroring of the previous episode, as Dany refuses to let it lie.

The principal inversion needs little spelling out here. Last week Daenerys was sitting back and letting Tyrion explain his master plan that would see them halfway toward winning the whole damn war. This week she’s yelling at him for managing to lose three major allies in just two episodes. Merciful Dany is on vacation, and Vengeful Dany is temping in her absence. Which makes sense, from a character perspective, but the underlying argument still strikes me as missing the point. Once again, I take exception at the idea that burning down the Red Keep is somehow a horrific war crime, and that sieges and battles are somehow obviously morally superior. As far as I’m concerned, Jon’s suggestion that melting a castle is “just more of the same” is almost preternaturally stupid. Yes, he’s right about the optics; a dragon showing up and melting a country’s seat of power is definitely going to freak out a whole mess of people. But what exactly are the alternatives? I’ve already mentioned that a siege of King’s Landing would result in the starvation of tens of thousands of people not lucky enough to live in the same building as Queen Cersei. Similarly, Dany’s attack on the Lannister army results in thousands of conscripts (Tywin might have trained them, but they weren’t volunteers) being brutally killed. And those that decide they’re not keen on dying for the man forcing them to fight because they’d gotten good at the fights his father had forced them to fight? They’re butchered by the Dothraki as they run.

How is roasting peasant conscripts or starving children supposed to be more merciful than destroying the Red Keep? Dany’s original plan was nothing but more of the same. It’s not that I don’t understand the moral objections to obliterating the Red Keep. Plenty of people in Cersei’s castle are entirely innocent of her crimes, and doubtless no small number of them would rather be doing almost anything else than doting on a mass-murderer. My problem isn’t that I think char-grilling KL1 is a swell idea. It’s that every single plan suggested or implied as a more humane alternative requires a vastly higher body-count amongst those not lucky enough to have speaking roles.

On the other hand, to drag myself down from my high horse (which at least hasn’t had a foreleg chopped off – too soon?), the scene in the cave was pretty good. Not so much Jon’s exposition-by-diagram of the REAL TRUTH that Dragonstone had been hiding all along – I think the revelation was necessary to move things onward, but needed is not the same thing as enjoyable (and seriously, that cave is fifty yards from the beach outside the castle – how had no-one been in there already?). What I did like was the fact that Dany reiterates her desire for Jon to sign up with Targaryen Dynasty 2.0, but this time frames it not as a demand, but as the price of her help in saving the north. This is no longer about what she believes she is entitled to, but a bid in a negotiation aimed at both parties getting what they want.  It’s as much a progression as it is a reflection. It’s still some distance from enough to justify how badly Dany came across last week, but hey; at least we’re in the right place now.

(Anyone want to set the over/under on Jon agreeing to bend the knee and Dany rising him us as Lord Jon Stark, by the way? I reckon the kid makes it by season’s end. From dead to king to Lord of Winterfell in three successive finales. You can’t criticise the lad’s upward mobility).

Dany’s progress from one offer to another rather works as a microcosm for the episode as a whole, actually. No matter its strengths, it can’t do the lifting needed to redeem “The Queen’s Justice”. That episode was simply too ridiculous, and hung too many important developments atop that ridiculousness. But not being able to save an episode doesn’t mean you can’t improve it through context, and the two-part structure here does exactly that. In the process “The Spoils Of War” shores up this year’s only real misstep to date, and goes on to give us one of the most astonishing scenes ever filmed for television. Credit where it’s due; Game of Thrones feels like it’s back firing on all cylinders.

Score: 4/5

GS Blogger: Ric Crossman

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