Photo: HBO

Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss whats coming? Thats what our experts reviews are for.

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Now that’s three episodes in a row to end in a dramatic battle that changes the balance of power without any main characters dying in them, unless you count two of the Sand Snakes, although I’m really splitting hairs by discounting the late, great Olenna Tyrell. But the dueling Iron Fleets and the conquest of Casterly Rock have nothing on the Battle Of The Bulging Lannister Wheat Carts.

On one side are Jaime Lannister—who has some handy information in his head that would exonerate his brother and conscience enough that he might actually force the issue with his sister-wife—and Ser Bronn Of The Blackwater, up there with The Hound in terms of lending some humanity to this cartoonish schematic. There’s also Randyll Tarly, who sucks, and Dickon, who sucks but felt a twinge of guilt about the little civil battle in The Reach. He’s a big kid now.

On the other side is the motley crew of ostensible good guys, although more on that below. Queen Daenerys Targaryen rides Drogon into his first Westerosi battle, leading the Dothraki cavalry. Overseeing the carnage is Tyrion, although I’m not too clear on how he got there considering he was still on the beaches of Dragonstone after Dany had already left.

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Who do you root for? For the first time, the season is capitalizing on its situational interests in battle, with apologies to those Euron has somehow tricked into thinking he’s cool. When Dany rides Drogon right down the line of fire at Bronn and the scorpion, I couldn’t figure out who I wanted to win. Dany might genuinely represent a better way for the continent, and hurting Drogon is still kind of like hurting a pet dog, which is a no-no in my book.

But there’s a dialogue motif that sticks out like a sore thumb in “The Spoils Of War.” “I’m not Lord Stark,” Bran tells Littlefinger. “I’m not a lady,” Brienne begins to say. “I am neither kind nor a lord, your grace,” says Mark Gatiss’ Iron Bank honcho Tycho Nestoris. “I am merely an instrument of the institution I represent.” It’s a strange thing to keep emphasizing, that certain characters are not titled nobility. At first I wondered if this is some hint at a more populist trajectory for the final outcome of the series, but Daenerys sure seems hellbent on conquering all the Kingdoms—maybe even the Iron Islands now that Euron seems undisputed. It’s hard to envision her granting self-rule to any of them.

Maybe it’s just that, seven seasons in, we don’t have many characters left who aren’t manning the levers of power. Bronn isn’t a plot propeller. Unlike super-Bran, unlike the Iron Bank executive, unlike queensguard Brienne, Bronn really isn’t marked as special. He’s just a soldier, a good one, who has risen to some position thanks to his cunning and courage, but a soldier nonetheless, who aspires to nothing more than a good life for himself and no more power than he needs to make that happen. He’s a charismatic character, but more to the point he’s a man of the people.

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Game Of Thrones has spent a good portion of its running time emphasizing Dany as the ruler of the people, by which I mean the masses, the ex-slaves, all people who yearn to breathe free. In “The Spoils Of War,” Missandei defends her queen. “She’s not our queen because she’s the daughter of some king we never knew. She’s the queen we chose.” Is she? When the choice is follow or die, it’s not really a choice. It seems like Dany really is such a leader, but then she lectures Jon about letting pride get in the way of what’s best for his people. She demands he bend the knee in exchange for help fighting the White Walkers, and they’re at an impasse. Which is to say, given the existential threat they face, she’s letting pride get in the way of what’s best for her people, too.

Meanwhile the series keeps trying to suggest its heart is with the common man, like the peasant family who became a parable in The Hound’s life, or the peasants who beseeched the queen in Meereen to do something about her pyromaniac pets. The series is driven by the question of who sits on the Iron Throne. First it’s a question of legitimacy, privileging the laws of the monarchy. Now it’s basically a question of force. It’s sometimes presented as a question of what’s best for the people, which is Olenna’s argument for her granddaughter and many comrades’ argument for Dany. But to live up to that would take a much broader or deeper look at those people. People like Meera, whose personal tragedy has been and remains undercooked all the way up through her departure from Bran’s service. And people like Bronn.

Luckily, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss find a way that neither has to die, although the scorpion is demolished. The same goes for Jaime’s final stupid joust at Dany tending to a wounded Drogon. Someone, maybe Bronn, maybe Dickon, but someone tackles Jaime just in time for both to avoid Drogon’s fire, and weighed down by armor, they sink into the lake, the episode closing on that image of Jaime helplessly falling into the deep.

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Some of the imagery in the episode misses the mark, either falling short—the unfocused pan across the Winterfell courtyard is too superficial to summon even a semblance of Arya’s emotional state on returning home—or going long—the cave drawings in Dragonstone follow a sketch comedy progression from crude Children Of The Forest symbols to comically intricate White Walkers—so I was pleasantly surprised by the battle sequence. It takes confidence to show us a long golden plain where nothing’s happening, and then when something does happen, it’s just a tiny white line of horses appearing on the horizon, but it’s an effective, disturbing mood-setter.

Photo: HBO

The Greyjoy battle has a haunting beauty that can’t be completely swamped by the over-the-top Euron element, what with a ghostly ship appearing in the middle of the night out on the sea as fire rains. The Battle Of Casterly Rock is basically just illustration, going according to plan until the final image, the whole thing flat as paper. This battle outside King’s Landing captures the nightmare without the buffoonishness and the storybook cover without the shallowness. It vibrates with anxiety, like the Lannister soldier on the front line who’s quaking in his boots. Dothraki archers leap atop their saddles to stand up while firing. A Dothraki rider lops off the leg of Bronn’s horse, throwing him to the ground, his pouch of Tyrell gold spilling open in the mud. Tyrion watches from a ridge, praying for his brother to save himself. The primary focus is on what people look like when they’re burning, which I think we get after the first couple of ashen corpses cave in beneath hooves, but if you needed any convincing that torching people might not be the best way to inspire loyalty, enjoy.

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At various points, one-handed Jaime is at the mercy of a Dothraki, Bronn runs weaponless through the mayhem trying to find cover, and Drogon curls into a ball as he falls to earth, pierced by Bronn’s bolt, taking Dany with him. In the early years, that’s exactly how Jaime might go, at random in the chaos of battle. In another season, Dany might actually fall to her death as penalty for impetuously taking her dragon to the front lines just to get a victory under her belt. I figured Bronn for a goner as soon as the stampede crested the hill. There was subversion in those early deaths—Khal Drogo dying from an infected wound he gave himself to show off, Robert having a hunting accident that paves the way for injustice to claim good protagonist Ned. Eventually, and I think six seasons and change into the story probably qualifies, it’s not subversion for all the characters we know to act as mere debits in the grand account of the Iron Throne. Individually, sure, it would absolutely subvert the hero’s journey if Jon Snow died in a mining accident or if Drogon landed on Dany and crushed her to death. And despite the images of immolation doled out to various extras, the relative costlessness of these recent battles to the main cast does threaten to undermine the battles themselves. But the fact that these battles can be so dramatic without even relying on killing main characters is a welcome step away from the juvenile sadism of the Ramsay years. And it’s a small measure of integrity that people like Bronn, narrative representatives of the people at large, aren’t so disposable in the wars of the royals.

Besides, someone has to make it to season eight.

Stray observations:

  • “The Spoils Of War” is written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Matt Shakman, who’s new to the series but also directed Mad Men’s disturbing Richard Speck episode, “Mystery Date.”
  • The title refers primarily to the Tyrell gold, which makes it safely to King’s Landing for delivery to the Iron Bank, and the Tyrell harvest, which is largely torched by Drogon. There, now nobody gets it. To a lesser extent, you might count the dragonglass cache, which comes with a new piece of music. I’m surprised to see a natural resource influx counting as a sort of turning point, but it’s sure treated as such.
  • There’s also the dagger that someone used to attack Bran, which has been in Littlefinger’s possession and which he offers to Bran for some reason. It’s not a bad scene, unlike the other Littlefinger and Bran scenes, but it is arbitrarily cut short by Meera’s arrival, leaving us with too many burning questions, like what the fuck, guys? Does Bran know who attacked him? If not, why not? What else does he know? Why does he not tell anyone anything except for little pieces of proof that he’s seen them? Furthermore, why doesn’t Bran know how handy a Valyrian steel weapon might be for someone like himself locked in combat with the White Walkers? And what is Littlefinger’s game? Aidan Gillen gets a lot of flak for this performance, but two little details carry him this episode, the world’s subtlest double take after Bran quotes his own words back to him and that weird smile at Arya before the bigger more obsequious one for show. Littlefinger’s behavior makes infinitely more sense than Bran’s this season, but both could use some more focus.
  • Qyburn has been in communication with The Golden Company in Essos, who are apparently regular enforcers of the Iron Bank. I don’t know want to know what any of that means.
  • Sansa smiles to herself when she realizes, based on nothing more than reports of her behavior and citing of Ser Rodrik and Maester Luwin, that her sister really has returned. “You shouldn’t have run from the guards.” Arya replies, “I didn’t run. You need better guards.”
  • Sansa asks, “How did you get back to Winterfell.” “It’s a long story.” Well, okay, but what else are you doing? All of these Stark reunions feel like emotional shorthand, capturing the full feeling of the moment but without quite doing all the legwork. On the one hand, they’re all traumatized. On the other, who better to share information with? Just once I want these siblings to call for some tea, curl up in Ned and Cat’s chamber, and just catch up.
  • On the other hand, Dany and Missandei try to catch up on their personal lives, and it’s basically a giant cringe. And it’s no better when Davos needles Jon about staring at Dany’s huge heart. Maybe we’re better off without the details of life after all.
  • Pod tells Brienne, “Catelyn Stark would be proud. You kept your vow.” She responds, “I did next to nothing.” And in the grand scheme, it’s kind of true. All this time I thought Brienne’s commitment to chivalry and a knight’s honor and keeping faith to a dead woman would get her killed. I thought her inflexibility would be her comeuppance. Instead she winds up with this happy-sad ending, her vow fulfilled almost by happenstance.
  • I do wonder what it is Brienne and Pod do all day, because basically they’ve just been training nonstop for three years. Is there nothing else in their lives? That said, the training scene in “The Spoils Of War” is a beauty. Arya decides she wants to train with the woman who beat The Hound, so she does. Shakman emphasizes their size difference, big Brienne and her heavy force versus little Arya armed with tiny weapons, Needle and that Valyrian dagger. Brienne lumbers, Arya dodges fluidly. For one of Brienne’s thrusts, Arya taps her sword thrice with Needle. Finally Brienne kicks Arya to the ground, and after a moment the girl springs to life as the music ramps up and she wins yet another match, both of them grinning in appreciation of a worthy challenger.
  • “Cersei’s taken all the food from The Reach.” All the food? All of it?
  • Theon returns to Dragonstone in time for an embrace from Jon. “What you did for her [Sansa] is the only reason I’m not killing you.” It’s hard to watch, partly because Jon is frustrating and frustratingly presented as the good, right, honorable hero, and partly because Theon is too messed up to defend himself. Anyway, Theon’s a way more interesting character than Jon Snow, and I’m gonna burn this city to the ground when he tries to redeem himself by dying for Jon or whatever tragic fate I’m sure is in store.
  • Randyll Tarly wants to flog the stragglers who are taking too long transporting the wheat to King’s Landing. Jaime: “Let’s give them fair warning first. These men fought well at Highgarden.” Randyll tries not to roll his eyes, and, fuming, he departs.
  • Bronn meets Tarly’s son. “Rickon.” “Dickon.” “HAHAHA.”
  • Tyrion watching Jaime is the most touching scene any Lannister has had in years. “Flee, you idiot… you idiot, you fucking idiot.”

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