Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted Thoughts on GAME OF THRONES, s7e4, “The Spoils of War.”
– This episode’s title was rich with thematic and linguistic possibilities that series creators Benioff & Weiss seemed to greatly enjoy mining. On the surface, the spoils of war refer very specifically to the bounty of food and gold that has been collected from The Reach and is currently en route to King’s Landing, to both support Cersei’s reign and pay off the debt to the Iron Bank. This is also writ small in the bag handed to Bronn, a minute cut of the larger prize that nonetheless fails to satisfy him (and which he later loses in the melee anyhow).
But in other ways the payment one receives from war is in the experience of war itself, and the value one chooses to take from it is deeply personal. Dickon Tarly is expected by his father to view the sacking of Highgarden with pride, but when offered the opportunity to speak frankly, he admits his sorrow at having to butcher Tyrell men he knew well. And by battle’s end, the surviving Lannister soldiers have gained a most brutal education fighting foes that none of them had ever before experienced, as well as witnessed the horror that those foes inflicted on their comrades.
“Spoils” may also be read in its verb form, however, and applied to several of the characters given focus this chapter, as examples of the way that war alters and ruins individuals. We once again see a pathetic, downcast Theon; are reminded that Jaime suffered a debilitating injury. Both Bran and Arya were thrust roughly beyond the walls of their home and safety of their family due to the overtures of war, and both have returned greatly changed. Arya has enough of her humanity in her to still feel affection for her sister and brother, but Bran has transformed into a new entity entirely. Meera Reed goes so far as to lament that Bran died in the cave under the tutelage of the previous Three Eyed Raven, and Bran concurs in his own detached manner, referring to himself as but a distant memory. In the Stark family crypt, both sisters observe that the stories that brought them back together were long and unpleasant, but it seems unlikely that either will ever share the full extent of those miseries with the other. Neither necessarily has to–it is enough to know that both have gone through different hells and nonetheless survived them.
In Bran and Arya’s perception, of course, they have each become much improved, transcending who they thought they could be. Sansa, however, is learning to view her younger siblings with dread and concern. Arya’s casual mention of her kill list, initially dismissed as gallows humor, becomes far too real again when Bran mentions it unprompted. For all of Lady Stark’s earnest warmth at seeing her family reunited, she is also left wondering how much they can still be called a family at all.
– Arya is also somewhat skeptical that this can still be her home, having known the least about the specific tragedies that occurred there, and thusly being overwhelmed, at first, by the changes. Not only are Ser Rodrik Cassel and Maester Luwin absent, the guards at the gate have never heard these names at all. The banner that flies is not even the true Stark banner–a white direwolf on a black field–but the color-reversed banner of Jon Snow, still bastard of Winterfell if also King in the North. When she retreats to the crypt it is in part to find something that would not have changed at all, but even there, she is confronted by the statue of Lord Eddard, poorly likened in his image by a sculptor who didn’t have his children’s memory of him to work from.
Despite being pleased to see Sansa and Bran again, Arya only truly comes to life when she seizes the opportunity to test herself against Brienne, to remind herself that despite walking once again on the grounds of her childhood, she is no longer a child, but a force of nimble, deadly nature. The ability to impress with her capabilty, much less to impress the fighter who defeated The Hound, is of greater value to her than any memory still contained within these walls for her.
– By the by, that fight was outstanding. And while Arya only manages to no-namecheck her assassin mentor Jaqen H’ghar, you can see that her movements also retain several of the water dancing lessons she learned from Syrio Forel.
– Littlefinger’s miscalculations this episode are significant, but certainly he is becoming aware of how thin the ice beneath him is becoming. Arya’s newfound weapons skill is one cause for alarm, as is her apparent lack of trust in him but moreso is Bran’s enigmatic, inscrutable demeanor. While handing the Valyrian steel dagger over to Bran, Petyr lies to him about knowing who its owner was–the very information that began the War of the Five Kings in the first place. But Bran’s response, referring to chaos as a ladder–repurposing Littlefinger’s previously relished words expressed in confidence to Varys–is a clear warning: “I see you.”
That Bran has not seen fit to say more to Sansa could be due to either his ethereal and uncaring state or due to an understanding that saying more now could place him and his family in more jeopardy, rather than less. And the dagger he has now placed in Arya’s hands has become the Chekhovian gun on the mantle–it will find the heart or throat of somebody vital before the series ends. More likely than not, this will be Littlefinger, finally reaching for a broken rung on his climb.
– Strategically, attacking the convoy from Highgarden was the smartest move Daenerys could make with the options and resources she now has at her disposal. One of the more subtle dangers of having sat back on her Dothraki horde and her dragons was that Westeros knew of them only as whisper and conjecture, but not as actual power. By unleashing them both in such a dramatic fashion against a military force, and by being seen as part of the vanguard, she manages to announce her presence and rob her enemies of certain necessities, as well as accomplish a third political goal of creating legend, instead of simply rumor. Indeed, it is the very fact that the Lannister forces were out in the open at all, flush with their victory at Highgarden, that this attack became an option in the first place–Daenerys manages to create a victory out of her own defeat.
What’s interesting about the council that takes place on the shore is that the conversation has been written in such a way that it affords the welcome interpretation that Dany made this decision on her own. She receives counsel from both Tyrion and Jon Snow, but neither of these men tell her to commit to this new attack. She holds Tyrion partly responsible for her defeats–with good reason, as his ideas helped lead to those defeats–and from Jon she is simply reminded that attacking the Red Keep from Drogon’s back will remind the people further that her father was Mad Aerys.
The moment of inspiration happens offscreen. But it is her inspiration, and the victory over the Lannisters will be spoken of as hers in not only planning but actual deed. It’s a story that will terrify and inspire. It’s a story she badly needs now, so it’s the story she forged herself.
– Jaime’s alive, but I predict an extended and terrifying sequence next week of Jaime struggling to free himself of his armor with one hand, and I predict Jaime being captured by an enemy army yet again, and I predict Tyrion making a very sage case for Dany to leave him alive as leverage against Cersei, but also to repay Jaime for having saved him from his execution.
– But if Bronn didn’t escape the battle, Drogon’s making a snack of him.
– Tyrion has seen plenty of battle now, both up close and from a safer distance, and he has also seen the waste that Dany can lay quickly upon an army with one simple command. But this display is clearly harrowing for him, not least because both his brother and a man who was once his best friend in the world are directly in harm’s way.
It seems like Tyrion doesn’t understand him when the Dothraki sneers that the Westerosi “don’t know how to fight,” but Tyrion would have likely replied that the chaos in the ranks below him is the result of witnessing an impossibility rain fire down upon you. He and the Dothraki have had time to get over their shock; the men in the field are being tormented and burned by that which most of them had previously only known as folk tales and ghost stories. In the face of such things, few people know how to fight.
– When the Iron Bank’s representative suggests that they may negotiate with the Golden Company to come to Westeros as reinforcement, it feels like an opportunity to have Daario Naheris rejoin the storyline, but possibly in a very tenuous situation. It would be exactly the sort of reckless and romantic gesture one would expect of Daario to abandon Meereen and sail with a mercenary group to try and get close enough to Cersei on behalf of his beloved queen.
However, Cersei suggests instead that there is something she is looking to reclaim, and I’d hazard that she’s talking about Casterly Rock–despite her and her brother’s muted understanding about the worth of the place, it was always her dream to be her family home’s steward, denied to her by birth and old rules. If the Golden Company is sent to retake Casterly Rock, then perhaps we find out how Daario and Grey Worm negotiate their next contribution to the Targaryen conquest from opposite sides of a siege.
– Although the show took great pains to put Jon and Dany in a more romantic proximity this week, and despite Jon’s insistence that he’s too focused on the invasion to think of Dany in any way other than as an ally, there’s no denying that attraction is being seeded in between the two of them. But I still think that nothing carnal happens between the two of them before Jon realizes who he is.
With Drogon wounded, the other two dragons become more essential, and Jon might find himself in the odd position of achieving a kinship with one of the others, much to his own surprise–poetically, it might be Rhaegal, the dragon named after his true father. He may even surmise that something about him is connected directly to the Targaryen line as a result. Perhaps he misunderstands that Ned conceived him with not a commoner, but a Targaryen woman, rather than think that he was the son of the woman he thought of as a long-dead aunt. But he won’t discover the full extent of his origin until he talks to Bran.
– I would really like to know where the battle took place on Westeros, because this was very much an episode that had me struggling to understand the speed of the troop movements and timing in general. Moving a Dothraki horde over land or by sea in order to intercept a caravan on their way across the continent is hardly impossible, but it would help me to know what path they took to get there and still maintain the element of surprise.
I’d also like to know what they end up calling this battle, because so many battles in this series have evocative names, ready to be placed in a Maester’s chronicle, and spoken of with reverence by the citizens of the world itself–the Battle of the Blackwater, the Battle of the Bastards. Centuries before, the Lannisters were subdued and the Gardeners obliterated by Aegon the Conqueror at the “Field of Fire.” This battle feels similarly iconic.
– Supplemental Material: The lore of the cave paintings describes the Long Night, in which the White Walkers first attempted to coat the world in their dead armies and ice. The history of this is robust and significant, so here’s a primer on it–it’s been teased out through stories, visions, and other comments throughout the series, as well as the exceptional bonus histories released along with each season.
The Children of the Forest were the first sentient natives of Westeros, and ruled the continent alongside the giants. The First Men crossed into Westeros from Essos via a now-destroyed land bridge, and shortly after the migration both civilizations came into conflict. The First Men were industrious and ruthless, cutting down the forests at will, including the godswood trees, and were otherwise overwhelming the Children, pushing them further back into the north.
The Children, desperate, created the White Walkers by infecting the heart of one of the First Men with dragonglass. The White Walkers were meant to be a fearsome weapon of the Children, but they broke free of control, and proceeded to spread their winter throughout the continent.
Only then did the Children and First Men band together against this common enemy. During this apocalyptic conflict, called The War for the Dawn, the hero of the final hour was man named Azor Ahai, who crafted a magical sword out of both steel and the sacrificed soul of his own beloved wife. After Ahai drove the Walkers back into the Lands of Always Winter, Bran The Builder created The Wall to keep them there.
Azor Ahai is a messianic figure in the faith of R’hllor, the Lord of Light (to which both Melisandre and Thoros of Myr hold allegiance). Azor Ahai is prophesied to return should the Long Night begin again, and is sometimes referred to as The Prince Who Was Promised, although other interpretations hold that the reborn Azor Ahai and Prince Who Was Promised are different beings.
Two points of note: Melisandre spent the last war convinced that Stannis would be revealed as the reborn Azor Ahai, but then over time began to see Jon Snow in her flames instead. But as Missandei took pains to point out, “Prince” is an ungendered word in High Valyrian. The religions of Westeros are plentiful and often contradictory, but other times they converse and support each other’s stories without seeing how. Rather than assuming there is one god, or one pantheon, with an interest in beating back the army of the dead, history and mythology seem to be offering that the crisis about to march south can only be met by a full force that includes both physical AND spiritual unification.
But Cersei, who has no gods save for herself now, who actively destroyed both the orthodoxy and the militancy of the faith of the Seven, exists outside of this idea. While she could be a potent ally for her cleverness and ruthlessness, her ambition has no place in either the conflict or its aftermath. This will ultimately be a component of her tragedy–not only that she fell so soon after her ascension, but that when she had the opportunity to do the most good, she was too blinded by her own desires to be useful.