'Game of Thrones' Unleashed the Dragon for Battle, and Raised Burning Questions
After years of waiting, Game of Thrones Season 7 finally gave us Daenerys Targaryen and her dragon in action on the battlefield -- and it wasn't pretty. Tonight's episode, a harrowing hour ominously titled "The Spoils of War," was filled with tantalizing a mystery about a dagger, a bit of story-time with cave paintings, a hug-filled reunion between sisters, and plenty of questions the end of the series will have to answer. But, in the final minutes, all that mattered was who had the giant fire-breathing weapon -- and who made it out alive.
Of all of the "major" battle sequences on the show -- Blackwater, Hardhome, and Battle of the Bastards -- none packed this much literal firepower. While Hardhome had quite a bit of explosive action and a handful of magical elements, tonight's episode was truly like something ripped from the front cover of a fantasy novel. However, in typical Game of Thrones fashion, the excitement and novelty of seeing a dragon take flight quickly turned to dread.
As is often the case with the big battle scenes, there were a few different narrative threads to follow. The sequence began with Jaime Lannister, still smarting from last week's revelation that Lady Olenna was the one who killed his son, making macho small-talk with his trusty friend Bron and Dickon Tarly. (Yes, not Rickon -- Dickon!) They're enjoying a bit of gallows humor about the horrors of battle. "Men shit themselves when they die," Bron tells Dickon. "Didn't they teach you that at fancy lad school?" Little do either of them know, the scent of feces is going to be the least of their worries in a few seconds.
As the men laugh it up, Bron notices a rumble in the distance. Surprise: it's the Dothraki, riding in on horses and making war cries. As Jaime springs into action and barks some orders, the soldiers attempt to make a line with their shields. Unsurprisingly, the defense does not hold because we soon discover that Daenerys, stung by last week's military embarrassment, is flying into battle herself on her magical lizard friend Drogon. She uses the creature's fiery breath to punch a hole in the wall of the Lannister army, allowing the Dothraki to enter the camp with ease. (I imagine I wasn't the only one thinking of Tom Hardy in Dunkirk every time they cut to Daenerys soaring in the sky.)
"That makes it a totally different situation," said the episode's co-writer D.B. Weiss about the dragon in the after-the-episode making of segment. "It's almost like what if someone had an F-16 that they brought to a medieval battle?"
The dragon may have moved like something the air force had built, but it really serves as a winged Rorschach test for what you fear most about modern combat. Depending on when you were born, it could remind you A-bomb, Agent Orange, or a drone swooping in from the skies.
Part of what made the battle sequence so disturbing (and a little icky) was the way director Matt Shakman, who was helming his first Game of Thrones episode, seized on that historical ambiguity, evoking Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, Black Hawk Down, and, uh, the Matthew McConaughey dragon-movie Reign of Fire with his graphic imagery. There were so many charred bodies. I watched the with closed-captioning on and quickly lost track of how many times the words "[man screaming]" flashed across my screen. That could've been the episode title.
But this wasn't just a parade of carnage. Bron's decision to abandon his bag of gold was a telling character moment, Daenerys showed new military resolve, and Jaime's borderline suicidal charge at the wounded dragon, who Bron pierced with a huge arrow shot from a huge crossbow that's apparently called Scorpion, revealed so much about his current mental state. We also got some great cut-aways to Tyrion Lannister, who was watching safely from a distance. Beyond the ridiculous special effects and stunt work, Tyrion's presence -- particularly Peter Dinklage's performance and his anguish in watching his brother charge across the flame-kissed field -- was a big part of what made this battle so effective.
Plus, there were cliffhangers too: Did Jaime Lannister die? Did Daenerys's dragon suffer a fatal wound? I'm going to say "no" to both questions. First off, if Jaime was going to die a brutal death in this episode, he would've been burnt to a crisp by Drogon as he made his triumphant run with a spear. That's not what happened. Bron, who really deserves multiple castles at this point, saved Sir Jaime's life by knocking him from his horse.
And come on, really? Nikolaj Coster-Waldau remains one of the show's best actors and his endgame, whatever it is, will undoubtedly involve his sister Cersei Lannister and their twisted relationship. The site of Jaime falling into the dark of the sea, weighed down by his armor, was a haunting one. But he'll rise from those watery depths soon enough. I'd bet a sack of gold coins on that.
As for poor Drogon? He'll live to torch another day. As our own Maester Gonzales notes in his recap, "Getting a dragon out of the air is tough enough, but to finish the job without an arrow through the eye would require a significant attacking force on the ground." And Cersei, having lost both men and gold in this battle, won't have the kind forces she did last week. So much for Qyburn's cackle-worthy plan to kill off the most fantastical feature of the series.
The biggest question from "Spoils of War" is more meta: how will Game of Thrones brain trust of Benioff and Weiss will "top" this episode for both its brutality and its inventiveness? More battles must be fought. There's clearly only one way to do it: more dragons.