Game of Thrones Recap: Dragons, Cave Paintings & More Questions Than Answers
If the pace of conflict felt accelerated before, Season 7 of Game of Thrones feels like a wild train barreling towards the end of its final stop. The fourth episode, "The Spoils of War," directed by Just the Ten of Us star Matt Shakman, is the show’s shortest episode ever (clocking in at 50 minutes), but finally lets both Daenerys and Jaime Lannister do what they do best… just on opposite ends of the climactic battle.
Here's what went down, and what it all means.
House Targaryen (or: DRAGONS!!!!)
This week, the "game" gets real as House Targaryen flexes its true muscle. But before we get to Kahleesi, a note on Missandei of Narth and her conversation with Jon Snow and Davos. For some reason, Davos is taken with the most trusted advisor of Dany's, building more on last week's awkward conversation about where Missandei had grown up. It's always weird to start a conversation with an attractive younger woman of a different race by asking where she's from, but Davos has managed to side-step that this week in favor of normal flirting, suggesting he wants to stay on Dragonstone and be part of the big Dragon Queen family.
The scene does serve as an important reminder that Dany's forces that came with her from Essos are pledged to her for entirely different reasons. The Tyrells and the Martells, the Great Houses of Westeros who sided with Daenerys because she was against Cersei were quick to fall after the Lannister-Greyjoy surprise attack, proving the Westerosi men (and women) still have to play by Westerosi rules. The Unsullied, an elite fighting force from Essos, managed to take Casterly Rock, even if it left them stranded. All the Dothraki had to do before this week was carry a boat. Missandei reminds the audience right before the battle portion of the episode that those who travelled from Essos to fight for Daenerys are fighting for faith, not because someone bent the knee.
This is put into greater contrast when the Dothraki horde comes for the Lannister-Tully supply line. As the battle winds down, a Dothraki Bloodrider tells Tyrion, who watches the fight from a nearby hill, that his people aren't good at combat. As proof, we get several shots of the Dothraki massacring a soldier stricken by terror. The people of Westeros are used to western styles of war. While it hasn't been that long since the War of the Five Kings, no one is actually ready for what a dragon-riding eastern force can do to the pithy armies of the Great Houses.
The final battle scene shows us many tactics we've seen before in Game of Thrones action sequences. Jaime Lannister commands his forces to do familiar defense techniques -- Spears and shield! Archers, nock! -- which wind up being utterly useless against the combat forces against him. Hearing the "dracarys" sound cue rumble as Drogon burned a hole in the first Lannister line signaled that everything Cersei had planned only made sense fighting a war without dragons. Drogon descending out of the clouds, leading Dothraki on horseback, is a game changer without parallel in modern warfare; dragons exist in the history of Westeros, but none of the westerners we see on the battlefield have seen a dragon in the flesh before, let alone have any training in how to fight the things.
While Bronn semi-successfully uses Qyburn's ballista to down Drogon, this episode suggests that only a direct headshot will take down Dany's children. Drogon may have had to go down to ground level because of a ballista bolt, but that battlefield was mostly on fire. Most people would agree the conflict had been won (except for Jaime Lannister). The fact that Drogon is no less effective in protecting his mother while on the ground doesn't look good for future anti-dragon tactics. 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 frankly, the amount of bodies you'd have to throw at a dragon the size of a 747 jet would be of an amount no House would be willing to spare.
House Lannister (or: a debt is paid big time)
Bronn -- not technically a Lannister, but one in spirit -- finally returns to the series in a big way after a dialogue-free appearance in last week's episode. "Spoils of War" starts with the mercenary asking Jaime for a castle and lands like he was promised, which Jamie's willing to give… after the war is over. A few times in this episode, including the final beat, Bronn disagrees with Jaime, then ends up saving him. If these scenes are meant to echo each other, the connection between Bronn and Jaime could be fraying or Bronn is going to be the character that will be able to get Jaime to start seeing Cersei for what she's become since he left for Riverrun last season. It makes sense to let Lady Olenna have her moment last episode, then to pick up the story of the Tyrell gold here.
Cersei puts things right with the Iron Bank in a scene that treats her like the James Bond villain she's become. In her big moment, we learn that Qyburn has reached out to the Golden Company in Essos, a band of 10,000 fighting mercenaries from the Free Cities. (We previously heard of when Davos and Stannis argued over where to pick up more troops.) Notably they are the only mercenary group in Planetos who has the reputation of never breaking a contract.
Cersei plans to bolster her armies and navies (which is also the plural for both "navy" and my preferred word for a pair of cute belly-buttons), but by the time the episode end comes, it's clear she might need them to replace a large portion of her burned Lannister/Tarly forces. It sounds like her caravan managed to get all the gold into King's Landing, but the majority of the men and the crops look to have been either seized or destroyed by Dany and her Dothraki forces. Presumably they seized the food to bring back to Casterly Rock so the Unsullied won't starve to death, but we could also learn that cutting Jaime off in The Reach after he took out the Tyrells might leave the entire Reach vulnerable to bending the knee to the Dragon Queen.
Just how much time we'll have to debate these things depends on a few people's decisions on what to focus on next week, namely the Lannisters. If they're debt free, do they care so much about their losses even though Jaime survived? Is Jaime more serious about the dragon threat now, and if so, what can they even do about it? Drogon barbecued the only dragon ballista we've seen, even though Qyburn seems smart enough to make multiples or at least have a salvage operation ready.
House Tarly (or: Dickon is a thing, apparently)
In case it wasn't obvious from last week, the flipping of House Tarly and the taking down House Tyrell is a really big deal when it comes to the politics of the lesser Houses of Westeros. The Tyrells were the Wardens of the South, and the bannermen of The Reach pledged loyalty to them. Much like how Sansa is currently stockpiling grain up North, Highgarden and the seat of House Tyrell (up until recently), could call in crops and gold from the Houses of the most fertile lands in the continent.
By pledging to Queen Cersei, House Tarly has sided against his historic allies and the oaths he took to protect them. This is unlike Randyll Tarly from the books, who wouldn't break an oath to House Tyrell, but in line with the stern and xenophobic Randyll of the show.
Since we already think the elder Tarly is a jackass, this episode doubles down on giving Randyll's non-Maester son a little pathos. Dickon Tarley had to kill a bunch of his hunting buddies in his first ever battle. Thrones gives us a moment to feel sad about it. This does not bode well for poor Dickon. He does save Jaime from a Dothraki later in the episode, but having this amount of backstory interjected into a show moving at this pace can only mean one of two things: (1) Dickon has an important part to play in the war between Lannister and Targaryen or (2) Dickon's gonna die. As per usual, Game of Thrones would like the audience to have a mixed opinion on every death -- the nuance of mixed cheers and jeers -- and now we have enough backstory to feel bad for Dickon beyond his a-hole father.
House Baelish (or: seriously, what is this guy up to)
The direction of the series has me worried for the life of Peter Baelish, the Littlefinger. When he was in King's Landing, sitting on the Small Council, being Master of Coin, and running his brothels, he had multiple schemes going at all times to make sure he could maneuver around the political climate of King's Landing. Season 2 saw Littlefinger traveling around the map, popping up in various places to put schemes into motion (which eventually paid off with Catelyn Stark setting Jaime Lannister free and the Lannister/Tyrell alliance that ended up saving King's Landing at the Battle of the Blackwater).
So it's puzzling that Baelish has nothing to do in Winterfell besides ham-fisted attempts to undermine Sansa and tell all the Stark children how much he loved their mother. When Brienne says that she would do anything in service of Catelyn's memory, it rings true. When Littlefinger says he would have done anything for Catelyn, all we can think is what Sansa thinks this episode when she hears about the Catspaw dagger: Littlefinger doesn't do anything unless he thinks it benefits him. Right now, the only justification for his actions seem to be lust, which...is small for Littlefinger. Maybe he really is in love. But the way he's coming across in the past few episodes feels more like a visual cue to the audience that Sansa might be having doubts about ruling, which is unnecessary as Sophie Turner's got the "out of my depth" look down.
Why give Bran a dagger? Is it normal to present the weapon of an attempted murder to the victim? Or is it actually part of a longer play to get Bran to question who attacked him? If it was the latter, that whole plan is shattered when Bran spits "chaos is a ladder" back at him. So much for Littlefinger's unparalleled scheming, felled by a touch of magic.
House Stark (or: are sisters friends or foes?)
It's the big reunion episode, finally! Jon and Sansa finding one another at The Wall last season wasn't as great as it could be because the two characters hadn't appeared on screen together before. Sansa and Bran ended up being super awkward thanks to the latter's new deadpan personality as the Three-Eyed Raven Arya and Sansa -- that's a payoff.
Arya's return to Winterfell becomes the mini-story of Sansa realizing that her younger sister, who she'd always had an antagonistic relationship with, is actually a brutal killer. When the two talk in the crypts, Sansa laughs off Arya's murder list only to have Bad News Bran confirm that, no, it's literally a list of people the young girl has successfully murdered/intends to murder. The third and final step in planting Sansa's seeds of doubt is when she happens to see Arya spar with Brienne and kick Brienne's butt with Needle and the Catspaw Dagger (that's what it's called, though it hasn't been named on the show). There's a mention that Brienne has pledged to serve both Stark girls, and the look Littlefinger gives a shaken Sansa, then a distrusting Arya, is enough of a clue that the return of the young Stark sister is going to be a problem.
If Sansa and Arya get into some heated Stark disagreements, there are plenty of seeds of discontent to be sewn between them. From the brief snippet of all-important grain talk this episode, it sounds like Sansa still doesn't have enough to last the long winter. We don't know how long Arya plans to take a break from her strict murder list, but we know as viewers that there might be a time-bomb waiting to go off with the Brotherhood without Banners heading just generally "North." Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, and The Hound are all (technically) on her list by virtue of still being alive, let's hope they have the sense to steer clear of Winterfell.
Sansa and Arya's reunion quickly sets them up to be wary of each other's choices in the future, while Bran Stark gets a spiritual death scene when Meera Reed leaves Winterfell to go home. Bran has zero enthusiasm for anything, even though he's filled with memories of everything, and therefore can't weigh what Meera has sacrificed for him against all the knowledge he has of equally or more horrible things. Bran becomes less and less recognizably a Stark, but still says things like "It's no use to a cripple" when giving the dagger to Arya by the Weirwood tree. If Bran was full Three-Eyed Raven he would have said something like "you need this dagger" because he would know Arya needed the dagger!
The problem with Three-Eyed Raven Bran is that we're told he can see everything, but he so rarely acts like he knows things. Since the "ink is dry" on the past (as the old Three-Eyed Raven said), does that mean Bran can't just tell it like it is because he'll alter spacetime again? Or was the Three-Eyed Raven, who thought the past couldn't be changed, just hardened by years of living with the knowledge of everything? We're back in that place where in the absence of rules or an explanation, Bran can dole out exposition and potentially dramatically change plots at the whim of the series. It's a great thing to be questioning around the borders of the show, but after years of Bran attempting to find the Three-Eyed Raven, then becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, it seems weird that he's just going to sit around Winterfell staring out windows.
House Greyjoy (or: the latest guy to wash up on Dragonstone)
Theon takes as many episodes to get back to Dragonstone as it took him and Yara to get to Essos from the Iron Islands last season. Let's not worry too much about timeline, though, because we get another reunion from the pilot episode: Jon Snow and Theon.
Jon decides not to kill Theon because he saved Sansa, which looks like a load off Theon's mind. The important thing about the scene is that we know Theon's plan: Save Yara, which is good but also troubling. Good because, yes, saving his sister is the right decision, bad because Theon doesn't have a good record for making plans that go smoothly.
Single-minded Jon Snow
Jon, meanwhile, has been on Dragonstone for an indeterminate amount of time. Last week's episode played it fast and loose with the timeline, so we get news about Casterly Rock this episode after getting news about Euron's attack the previous episode...yet Jon Snow is restless like he's been there a few weeks, and he's just gotten around to finding the huge cache of dragonglass in Dragonstone. Restless Jon Snow isn't new, but hanging-around-somewhere-that-isn't-The-Wall-and-knowing-what-he's-talking-about Jon Snow is like a brand new character.
This week in Jon's quest to get everyone to believe in the Boogeyman includes cave drawing-style illustrations by the Children of the Forest that reveal how they teamed up with the First Men to defeat the White Walkers. This conflict has been hinted at throughout the show, and the patterns on the wall connect these incidents with the patterns made by the White Walkers and the Children, which we came to understand through Bran Stark's flashback to when the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers to combat Men who were chopping down weirwood trees. Of course, Jon doesn't know any of this, and we don't know if it will be helpful. We don't know what location the Night's King and the first White Walkers were created in, but if Dragonstone has always had that much Dragonglass, the cave drawings Jon finds might not be the story of two races uniting to turn back The Long Night so much as a confession about the whole mess between nature, humans, and the magical weapons they wield. Maybe the dragonglass heart of Dragonstone was mined and became the hearts of those first White Walkers.
Another thing Bran knows that Jon doesn't is that he's flirting real hard with his Aunt this episode. It's official, "Bend the knee," is becoming Westerosi double entendre between these two. It's less in the words than it is in the performances, but when Dany asks Jon for advice this episode, it's clear she's begun to respect him, and that he can even vault Tyrion in her esteem if the time is right. That's a lot of trust in a rebelling King of the North for Daenerys to have, but it's probably easy because Jon's only interested in one thing still, which he maintains to Davos in this episode. Jon may be feeling out Dany's morals and tactics, but only to get troops for the war with the Army of the Dead.