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Game Of Thrones has us wondering how long each character’s story will last (experts)

Some are almost over. Others are just getting started. Others are somewhere in between.

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Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO
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Game Of Thrones (experts)

"The Spoils Of War"

Season 7 , Episode 4

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Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Brandon Nowalk’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.

In the final moments of “The Spoils Of War,” Jaime Lannister has a decision to make. With enemy of the crown Daenerys Targaryen distracted tending to an injured Drogon after mounting an attack on the Lannister forces returning from Highgarden, he has two choices: he can flee, or he can take a nearby spear and rush to defeat the fledging queen and secure his sister’s victory in the coming war in one brief heroic moment.

Jaime chooses the spear, a decision that Tyrion—watching from a nearby ridge—believe means his imminent death. And in that moment, it raises an important question: Is this the end of Jaime Lannister’s story? At this point in Game Of Thrones, a character’s death is not just an event that will move the plot forward: it is an endnote to their character arc, forever defining their contributions to this story. As Jaime rode toward Drogon, my brain quickly worked out what it would mean if Jaime would die in such a fashion: would this be a fitting end to a character whose self-sacrifice for his sister approached self-destruction, and whose redemption felt at arm’s reach during his time with Brienne but has drifted away in the past two seasons?

Photo: HBO

I had thought the same about Bronn moments earlier. Swept up in the attack, Bronn encourages Jaime to flee, and then fights for his life as the Dothraki break through the lines. From the time we started focusing on Bronn, I wondered if this was going to be his last stand, especially when he is knocked off his horse and his gold—payment from Jaime for his service during the attack on Highgarden—flies away. It would be fitting if Bronn died prioritizing gold over his own well-being, but he leaves the gold behind to make his way to Qyburn’s anti-dragon weapon. And then, I wondered if his arc was leading to a moment where he chooses service—here to Jaime—over self interest, dying “heroically” defeating Drogon but dying in the process. But Bronn manages to miraculously dodge out of the way of Drogon’s counter-attack, meaning that there is more to his story. If Benioff and Weiss had so desired, they could have easily killed Bronn in that moment, but his survival implies there is more of his narrative that they want to map out in the coming episodes.

I think the same is true of Jaime—while the episode ends with him plunging to the bottom of the river in his armor, he was spared Drogon’s fire, and will likely survive once we get the resolution to the cliffhanger. This death would not make sense for Jaime—his story is long, and complex, and the idea of it coming down to such a split-second decision betrays the level of buildup attached to his arc over the course of the series. Just as Arya, Sansa, and Bran were never going to die before reuniting, it seems wrong that Jaime would die without fully coming to terms with his relationship with his sister, and his identity as a Lannister, a father, and as a knight.

“The Spoils Of War” lives up to its title by reinforcing how much more fruitful war is as a storytelling mechanism at this point in the series’ life. We were denied the two battles in last week’s episode, which took place primarily off-screen, but this was logical given that so few characters involved were people we cared about. Here, the battle is told through multiple perspectives, each vested with meaning and purpose: our point-of-view shifts between Dany and Drogon and Jaime and Bronn, before eventually adding Tyrion watching from afar, and the direction from first-time Thrones director Matt Shakman uses those POV very carefully. We see much of the early carnage from Bronn’s perspective, a smart choice given our affection for the rogue (I say “our” here because I refuse to believe anyone dislikes Bronn), but gradually the perspective shifts toward Jaime, Dany, and Tyrion. From Dany we see steely determination, but Jaime and Tyrion tell a different story. They see the pain and suffering of what is—or was—their compatriots, and something that the Lannisters have never really been victims of, having been the ones who used wildfire against their enemies and not the other way around. While the bodies that are burned into ash and blown away may be anonymous, they are observed by characters who are burned into the show’s history, and whose stories are the foundation on which this and future battles will be fought. While the season has not been without action, it has been largely action built on characters with smaller stories, without much deep resonance: this was profoundly different, and far more effective as a result, even with fewer (notable) casualties.

Until that moment, “The Spoils Of War” is not really focused on war: with Highgarden’s gold captured, Cersei turns her eye to larger conquests, but that war is still in its planning stages. It is a reminder that the show is currently oscillating between winter and war, as far as the guiding force behind large-scale action: beyond Highgarden’s gold, the Lannisters are also requisitioning its grain to allow King’s Landing to survive winter and/or a blockade, which is what Dany disrupts when she burns down the vanguard. At Winterfell, we see men moving grain through the castle, and hear talk of ongoing efforts to secure food from the surrounding lands. It is a fitting balance for the middle episode of this shortened seventh season, as the threat of war creates constant stakes while the preparations for winter create the opportunity to tell quieter stories untouched by the same urgency as the final battle. Pacing-wise, it gives us a chance to explore the world without losing the potential for everything to be burnt to a crisp by the time the episode ends.

Photo: HBO

And so it is that an episode with one of Game Of Thrones’ most visceral action sequences also includes one of its most emotional reunions. Arya Stark’s return to Winterfell was heavily suggested when she turned north at the Crossroads, but some remained convinced she had changed her mind when she confronted Nymeria, potentially denying this reunion. But it has been clear all season that the story of the series—and the story of each respective character—is at a point where delaying these types of events is no longer productive. It was valuable to this story to separate the Stark children early on: each had their own journeys to follow, leading them to unexpected places and changing them on a fundamental level in the process. But now that those stories have reached a certain stage—Sansa as Lady of Winterfell, Bran as the Three-Eyed Raven, Arya as a Faceless assassin, Jon as King In The North—keeping them apart is no longer productive. What’s productive is putting them back together and having them take stock of how far they’ve come.

It’s a well-constructed reunion. We get the swells of the Stark theme as Arya sees home for the first time, but her actual return is delayed, denying us what we expect would be another emotional reunion at the gates. The comic routine with the hapless guards is a nice disruption, delaying the reunion until Sansa pieces together the first place her sister would go. Their reunion plays out without emotional music, and in the dark of the crypts, surrounded by their departed loved ones and highlighting the very fact of their survival. And their survival means, as Arya points out, that their stories are not over: they went through their respective ordeals for a reason, and the question now is what they plan to do in order to finish their story.

Arya knows this answer: she intends to finish her list, which Sansa thinks is a joke right up until Bran knows about it. Bran knows his answer too, although he’s certainly keeping it close to the vest as he struggles with how to communicate like a human being. And yet Sansa, Lady of Winterfell, has no such path: while Littlefinger has encouraged her to think ahead, she lacks her siblings’ surety in her future, and when observing Bran and Arya starts to question her identity as she sees how much they have changed since she last saw them.

Photo: HBO

The identity crisis of the Stark children is the next stage of their story. Bran struggles to find his past self in light of all of the knowledge flowing through his mind, with Meera bristling at his cold goodbye when she leaves to be with her family. Arya returns to Winterfell transformed into a warrior, fiercely sparring with Brienne and raising questions for her sister: Has Sansa also changed? Is Sansa the same person she was before? Does her crisis of identity emerging while watching Arya mean she’s more or less likely to take up Littlefinger on his offer? Separated from war by hundreds of miles, the Starks are preparing to transition into new roles, but what precisely those look like remains an open question and something the show will likely use to catapult itself into its final act.

Of course, the biggest Stark identity crisis of all is still pending. Jon’s time on Dragonstone this week is its least subtle storytelling: Outside of Jon’s tense reunion with Theon (who he spares for saving Sansa, but also wants to kill for everything else he did to his family), the scenes are designed to establish three important facts. The first is the reminder that Jon’s parentage matters in this story: the scene with Davos and Missandei discussing bastards only exists to put that piece of information back in viewers’ minds, which is less crucial if you’re reading this review and more important to your friends or parents or cousins who don’t read the internet and haven’t fully grasped what the show basically but never technically confirmed last season with regards to Rhaegar and Lyanna being his parents.

Photo: HBO

The second is another reminder that the history of this conflict goes far deeper than just what we’ve seen onscreen: the “story” of this war goes back to the First Men and the Children Of The Forest, which Jon conveniently finds etched into the caves beneath Dragonstone. It’s exposition via spelunking—no, I won’t try to make “expelunking” happen—that puts Bran’s time travel powers into sharp relief, and lays out a framework for the coming war. The First Men and the Children Of The Forest came together to fight the White Walkers, much as those battling for the Iron Throne must come together to fight them again. Jon and Dany represent those forces, at least potentially, and we get a very clear takeaway of that in their trip into the cave.

We also get the third thing, which is that the show is definitely “going there” with regards to Jon and Daenerys. Last week, I would not have said—and did not say, in my review—that their connection was played as romantic: they sparred, they came to an agreement, and seemed to leave with mutual respect. But the tone of their connection changed here: Dany received him more warmly, and Jon proved that, if nothing else, his experience with Ygritte taught him that caves can be a particularly effective tool for seduction. The writing gets too on-the-nose when Davos winks and nudges Jon about him staring at Dany—unlike last week, the performances showed a certain affection, with touching and eye contact that implied something approaching a spark.

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, it’s logical: attractive young people, each tasked with immense responsibility, in a culture where marriages of political opportunity are common. On the other hand, however, there’s something distracting about pursuing this story after having all-but-confirmed that they are aunt and nephew. Presuming that the show does not wish us to root for incest, then it feels odd to see a story that to my mind sounds like a comedy, not a drama. Even if incest is normal in the Targaryen bloodline, the show has never treated it that way, largely transposing our social views on incest onto the show. And so I’m wondering, why go down this route if the ending is “they fall in love but realize they’re related, isn’t that awkward?!” and yet also struggle to think of what other ending there would be. I can’t personally ’ship the two characters not because I’m grossed out by the idea of incest, but rather because I’m not sure there’s a productive story to tell regarding that couple if the show is eventually going to make them aware of their family connection.

Put in simpler terms: I don’t necessarily know how this improves the next stage of their stories. Dany was never going to die on Drogon’s back: Tyrion’s reaction to Jaime’s decision to race to attack Dany proves that it was also futile outside of the context of a television narrative, but there was no universe where Jaime was going to kill Dany in that moment. Her story still has another chapter to tell, just like Jon’s, and Jaime’s. Is the same true for Brienne, who with Arya’s return to Winterfell can safely say that she helped fulfill Catelyn Stark’s orders (even if she refuses to take any credit for it)? Will Bronn’s and Podrick’s respective stories take on greater meaning, perhaps reuniting with Tyrion at some stage or another, or will they meet their ends before that? Is there a greater purpose to a character like Tormund, off protecting the Wall from the White Walkers, or is his story going to end like Meera Reed’s, who just announced she was leaving with zero fanfare?

Photo: HBO

“The Spoils Of War” anchors itself on characters whose stories are far from over, and crafts a reunion and a battle sequence that end no stories and yet draw meaning from the fact that technically, at this point, any story could end at any moment. Yes, I may have felt certain that Daenerys and Jaime would both survive to see another episode amidst the chaos of the final scenes, but this “certainty” is inherently flimsy: I can make my arguments, and I can operate under my assumptions, but the writers are ultimately the ones in charge of this story. And not every death will be poetic, and not every character will exit the story with the level of meaning we might expect. For every Olenna Tyrell who goes out with glory, there will be an Obara and Nymeria Sand whose deaths barely register, and our sense of which characters are important enough to merit a proper ending to their story may not overlap with the writers. When Barristan Selmy died in an almost random fashion, I remember—in part because of his importance in the books—feeling like he couldn’t be dead: I was convinced he was more important than the writers seemed to suggest in his death, and I imagine that will happen more and more as more stories “end” in the coming episodes.

While Bronn and Jaime’s (likely) survival suggests that I am on the same page as the writers with these characters, the same may not be true in the future, something I’m now keenly aware of.

Stray observations

  • Point of clarification: So in case you missed it, Randyll Tarly tells Jaime that the gold from Highgarden has already made it into King’s Landing, so it is the food—and not the gold—that Drogon burns in the attack. It’s a “blink and you miss it” bit of exposition, but it means that one of the two forms of cargo did arrive to its destination. Just not the one that would allow King’s Landing to survive a blockade (or winter).
  • Actually, less than an hour: much was made of the fact this was one of the shortest episodes in the show’s history, although it didn’t really feel short given how much happens. I wonder if the short runtime was just a byproduct of the cost of the CGI and effects work in the final sequence, or rather a pacing issue that moved some scenes into the next or perhaps even a previous episode.
  • Some of you got mad I spent so much time on “time” last week, but when the entirety of Dany’s Dothraki army caught up to Jaime’s forces before they made it back to King’s Landing, my brain broke all over again. To reiterate: I get why the shortcuts are happening, and agree with the decision in the abstract, but the whiplash is still real. [Edit: To be clear, and to cut off any more comments, I agree that this is not technically IMPOSSIBLE given the proximity of Dragonstone to King’s Landing. But the absence of any clear markers of time mean that it’s still disorienting if your brain, like mine, instinctively tries to put things into chronological order.]
  • Littlefinger giving Bran the dagger that almost killed him is peak Littlefinger, but it mainly puts a Valyrian Steel weapon in Arya’s hands. Could she and Brienne be teaming up to ride North, each armed with a weapon capable of felling the White Walkers?
  • Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: Qyburn’s weapon appears even if he does not, and seems to injure Drogon, but to what degree is unclear. Does he go back to the drawing board? Does he make stronger arrows? What’s plan B, Qyburn? There’s three dragons, after all.
  • Cersei enlisting the Golden Company—sellswords from Essos—would certainly be interesting. Would this bring the Second Sons back into play, potentially pulling Daario back into the picture? Or is it just a precursor to a lesson on the perils of wealth, as any army Cersei buys with the Iron Bank’s money holds no personal loyalty or honor, and could turn on her in an instant?
  • I know Littlefinger was shook by how Bran is so all-knowing he could repeat his own catchphrase—“chaos is a ladder”—to him, but I also hope he was shook because he was like “Wait, is that how I sound when I talk? Oh gods.”
  • “Which Lady Stark?”—so did Arya think for a brief second that her mother was alive here? Or was she just expressing her inability to perceive of Sansa as Lady of Winterfell?
  • “Who taught you how to do that?” “No one.”—between this and Arya’s little banter with the guards, some outright humor here, which has been a nice break from what could have been a dirge-like season if they had so chosen. Curious to see if that continues as the remaining nine episodes play out, or whether this is our last light before the dark.
  • Question of the week: So, who were you “rooting for” in that battle? When Bronn was lining up the arrow to hit Drogon—in what felt like a direct homage to Bard from The Hobbit—are we hoping he succeeds? Or are we rooting for the end result, which is “no one we know or recognizes dies?” Was anyone watching that final scene rooting strongly for one side to wipe out the other? I’m curious where people draw the lines when, personally, there’s no battle other than the one with the White Walkers where I feel like I have a strong, definitive rooting interest.