“The Spoils of War” is named most directly for the centerpiece of this week’s major conflict: the Lannister-led loot train heading to King’s Landing from Highgarden, weighed down with Tyrell gold and supplies. In a broader reading, the title is a double entendre for all that has been lost after years of conflict, the characters coming to terms with how they have been forever altered by war and suffering.
There are few characters in which this is more apparent than the three surviving Stark children. Meera Reed, who has been with Bran for some time and knows his heart well, is shocked to see the lifelessness in Bran’s demeanor when she comes to tell him that she plans to head home. She wants to be with her family in the Neck when the White Walkers come, and says that he no longer needs her now that he is safe at Winterfell. To this, he dispassionately agrees, offering only a flat “thank you” when pressed. Stunned, Meera points out all who have died protecting him: Hodor, Bran’s direwolf, and her own brother Jojen.
It turns out that Bran died in that cave, too– or at least the Bran we all knew. After inheriting all of the visions of the former Three-Eyed Raven, Bran admits that his old feelings are but a distant, trivial memory. With the memories of all of humanity stored in him, finding his own humanity is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Littlefinger also visits with Bran and gives him a strange gift: the Valyrian steel dagger that was once used by an assassin to try to kill him while he was in a coma from his fall in Season 1. At the time, he was protected by his direwolf, Summer, and his mother, who was cut badly by the blade in the attempt. This assassin’s weapon became a major tool in motivating the Starks against the Lannisters; Littlefinger, who previously owned the knife but supposedly lost it in a bet on a joust, claimed that Tyrion Lannister was the one who won it off him. Catelyn, fueled by this knowledge given to her by a friend, whom she trusted, never believed Tyrion’s denials.
Littlefinger himself admits that the question of the knife’s owner started the entire War of the Five Kings in the first place. The assassination (and resulting war between the many great houses of Westeros) led to the chaos in which he could, and did, rise in power. He played the Starks, pitting them against the Lannisters, and leading to their own demise. His claim to wish to take the blade that killed Catelyn to his own heart in her stead rings false under such circumstances; it was his artfully-orchestrated chaos that ultimately cost Catelyn her life. The only reason why he has the knife to give to Bran is because he took it off Ned after betraying him in King’s Landing.
When Littlefinger tries to ingratiate himself to Bran, commending him for his bravery in surviving as a fugitive amid the chaos of the realm, Bran looks directly at him and says, “Chaos is a ladder.” This shocks Littlefinger, who clearly does not know or understand Bran’s powers. After all, this is one of his most famous lines, one that he uttered to Varys alone in King’s Landing. It is also the essence of Littlefinger’s entire motivation: chaos is a ladder, an opportunity to be exploited for personal gain.
Bran revealing his knowledge of this must have dangerous implications for them both, for what else does Bran know? Does he know that Littlefinger betrayed his father? Essentially sold Sansa off to Ramsay Bolton, whom he must have known was a brutal sadist? Used Lysa Arryn and others to lure the Starks into a foolhardy confrontation with the Lannisters? Littlefinger’s sins against the Starks are endless. Will he try to shut up Bran before more can be revealed? Or will Bran actually tell his sisters these several illuminating facts of Littlefinger’s involvement in their family’s demise?
Notice the plural “sisters” in that last sentence? Arya has returned home to Winterfell at last, outsmarting the two guards to get into the castle. She looks around at the old stone walls and direwolf banners with bittersweet nostalgia, relieved to be home, but appreciating how much has changed since she was last within its walls.
When Sansa hears that a girl who was posing as Arya, asking for Maester Luwin and Rodrik Cassel, a look of remembrance flashes over her face. Though the guards lost track of her, she knows exactly where to find her sister, if it is truly her. Indeed, she finds Arya down in the family crypts gazing upon her father’s statue. They share an embrace that is both relieved and tentative; so much has happened since they last saw one another, and it’s important to remember that they didn’t even particularly like one another, or at least shared very little in common (that clip is the last scene to show them speaking together until this episode). They both know that they are almost like strangers now, bound by their shared history and blood, but separated by a chasm of unfamiliar sufferings.
As they both look at their father’s statue, they grow sad. Ned’s beheading was the last time Arya saw her sister. Reunited at last, Arya remarks that the face does not really look like him. Sansa says everyone who knew his face is now dead, though Arya points out that they’re not. They share a moment of appreciation for each others’ resiliency. Arya was always tough, but she was so young. Sansa was older, but far less prepared to defend herself. It must be such a shock and a relief to find one another once more.
When Arya first mentions her “list” to Sansa, they both laugh over it, the older Stark surely thinking that she is speaking in a figurative sense. She asks how Arya got back, but she only replies that her road was unpleasant. Sansa agrees, acknowledging the pain of her own pathway home. This shared suffering leads them to embrace each other once more, this time with more natural warmth.
Sansa brings Arya to the godswood to meet with the other recently-returned Stark sibling, Bran. When Arya hugs him, he again looks without affect over her shoulder, making Sansa recall their own lukewarm greeting. He reveals to Arya that he saw her at the Inn at the Crossroads and expected her to head to King’s Landing. Startled, Arya looks to Sansa who explains that Bran is seeing “visions”– clearly he has not explained his powers to her any further. Surprised to hear that she was headed to King’s Landing, Sansa asks why, and this time Bran is the one to mention Arya’s list of names. When Sansa asks who else is on the list, Arya says that most of them are dead already, and it still seems unclear whether Sansa understands that this is because Arya herself has killed most of them.
In noticing the Valyrian steel blade on Bran’s lap, Arya remarks that it is strange that a common assassin would carry such a priceless weapon. Bran flatly says that someone “very wealthy” wanted him dead. Was the hit ordered by a Lannister, hoping to finish the job (since it was Jaime who pushed him from the tower), or Littlefinger himself?
Sansa admits plainly that she does not trust Littlefinger and believes that he would never give anything without expecting something in return, but Bran seems unconcerned (as he does with anything these days). He gives the knife to Arya, knowing she will make better use of it, which she later affirms by expertly handling it in a mock duel with Brienne.
Brienne and her squire Podrick Payne admire the three Starks as they return to the castle together, Arya pushing Bran’s new wheelchair. Pod remarks that Catelyn Stark would be proud of Brienne. She once pledged herself to Catelyn’s service, to return the Stark girls to their mother. In Season 4, Jaime gave her a blade, armor, and even Podrick himself so that she might fulfill that promise. “I’ll find her, for Lady Catelyn and for you,” she told Jaime.
Later, when Brienne is practicing with Pod, Arya approaches and asks to train with her– after all, she was the one who beat the Hound in combat (which Arya witnessed). Brienne accepts, and starts out easily on the much-smaller Arya. However, Arya quickly uses her training to slide into many positions that could deliver a killing blow to Brienne. Startled, Brienne stops going easy on her, and manages to knock Arya’s sword (Needle) away. Arya then deftly grabs her new dagger, using agility and speed to match Brienne’s superior strength and length. Eventually, they both get a blade to each others’ throat, ending the spar with mutual respect and appreciation.
In the meanwhile, Sansa and Littlefinger look on from above, watching the whole thing. Littlefinger looks somewhat impressed, at least at first, until Arya gives him a pointed, might-be-a-warning glance at the conclusion of the fight. Sansa, meanwhile, looks worried and even disturbed. Her thoughts were hard to read in this moment, but I took it to mean that Sansa only just realized that Arya’s “hit list,” which she thought was more of a figurative expression, is actually real. Her younger sister, tomboy though she once was, is now a veritable killing machine capable of besting even Brienne of Tarth, one of the best knights Sansa has ever seen. Whether she’s scared of her, for some reason, or mourning the full loss of her sister’s– and, therefore, her own– childhood, it’s unclear, but hopefully she finds a way to put her sister’s newfound skills to good use (Littlefinger always being a worthy target, under the right circumstances).
At Dragonstone, Jon Snow and Davos continue to discuss the need to get Daenerys as an ally in their fight against the White Walkers. Jon speculates that they only have 10,000 soldiers “or less” (to which a newly-literate Davos corrects him with “fewer”– a nod to how Stannis used to correct his own grammar). Davos even hints that he knows Jon is attracted to Daenerys, which Jon does not deny, only insists that there is no time for such matters when facing down the Night King.
Jon leads Daenerys through the dragonglass mines. He shows her the cave paintings that were left by the Children of the Forest and their allies, the First Men. Daenerys assumes, at first, that they would have warred with one another, but then Jon leads her silently to an ancient carving of the White Walkers (including the Night King himself). He says that the Children of the Forest and the First Men united to fight against the undead forces that threatened their existence, just as Jon and Daenerys must do now.
Daenerys pledges to join his fight, so long as he bends the knee to her. Jon refuses again, saying that the North will no longer accept a ruler in the south after “everything that has happened to them.” Daenerys presses him, arguing that the North will accept it if their king, Jon, convinces them that the threat of the White Walkers is too great to play the game of thrones– essentially, the same argument that Jon has presented to Daenerys himself. He does not give an answer, but hers is probably a convincing argument; after all, the North has only known a few years of local rule in recent history, and given the seriousness of the threat, they’ve already proven that they’re willing to make allies with longtime enemies such as the wildlings if it means bolstering their forces.
On the beach outside the cave, they meet Varys and Tyrion who regret to inform them that, though Grey Worm and the Unsullied captured Casterly Rock, they were outmaneuvered and Highgarden was lost. Daenerys is furious, blaming Tyrion for his poor strategy and the loss of Dorne, the Iron Islands, and the Reach. This means not only the loss of key allies, but also their soldiers and their supplies. Tyrion suggests that they use their remaining ships to bring the Dothraki into the mainland, but Daenerys is still skeptical that her still-superior numbers will even matter when she cannot feed her troops.
She sets out to use her dragons at long last, against the advice of her counsel. She wants to burn the Red Keep at King’s Landing to the ground once and for all, but stops to ask Jon’s opinion. Jon says that Daenerys is a unique ruler, having brought dragons back from obscurity when no one thought they would ever exist again and freeing people from bondage. He claims that using her dragons would just be more of the same.
Jon and Davos meet Missandei and, through conversation, learn once again that she and all of Daenerys’s followers have chosen her as their queen, not been pressed into service. Both Jon and Davos seem impressed, warming to the idea that the invader queen is not exactly as she first appeared, but actually as Tyrion and Missandei say: she is a vanquisher of real monsters, worthy of devoted followers.
They spot a single Greyjoy ship in the waters near the Dragonstone beach. Eventually, Theon lands in a rowboat, stunned to see Jon Snow for the first time since Season 1. Back then, Theon was always cruel to Jon, calling him the “runt of the litter.” Theon also betrayed the Stark family by abandoning Robb and invading Winterfell, even pretending to execute Bran and Rickon.
With the weight of this history, Theon bows his head a little and says a tentative, “Jon?” not knowing how he’ll react. When he asks if Sansa is safe, after helping her escape from Ramsay Bolton’s Winterfell and leaving her on the way to Castle Black, Jon says that the only reason why he didn’t kill Theon was because of what he did to help Sansa. Theon asks to speak to Daenerys, since he wants her help in rescuing his sister, Yara, who has been captured by Euron Greyjoy. Jon informs him that Daenerys is gone, leaving Theon to once again stew in his own failure.
In King’s Landing, Cersei and Tycho Nestoris (from the Iron Bank of Braavos) meet over the news of the sacking of Highgarden. Tycho flatters Cersei once again, favorably comparing her to her father. He’s never seen someone pay such a large debt in full. He offers to open up new lines of credit for her, and she says that she has been talking to the Golden Company, a mercenary army from Essos. In fact, this army is considered by many to be the largest and best sellsword army in the Free Cities, and it’s where Jorah Mormont spent some time after fleeing Westeros (fearing that Ned Stark would execute him for participating in an illegal slave trade). Tycho agrees that they would be happy to help Cersei fund this expenditure, as soon as the gold is received (which ominously foreshadowed that the gold might not, in fact, ever arrive).
Outside of Highgarden, Jaime Lannister is still reeling from the bombshell Lady Olenna dropped on him last episode (that she murdered Joffrey). He gives Bronn a bag of gold and sends the rest on to King’s Landing, where they will be used to pay off the crown’s debts. Bronn accepts the payment, but asks for the castle he was promised. He says he’ll even take Highgarden, but Jaime says that Bronn would never be able to hold it, especially with the war with Daenerys still ongoing. He cynically argues that, when everything is said and done, he’ll have his pick of castles to choose from, implying that there will be few to survive Cersei’s campaign to unite the Seven Kingdoms under her rule.
Jaime, Bronn, and Samwell Tarly’s kin continue on their way to King’s Landing laden with gold and supplies from Highgarden. They approach slowly, continuing through the lands of the Reach in order to seize food supplies from Tyrell-loyal farmers. Lord Randyll Tarly (Samwell’s dad) argues that they should push the grain wagons quickly to King’s Landing, even suggesting that stragglers are flogged to “motivate” them. The gold goes ahead of the rest of the train and gets safely delivered to King’s Landing, according the Tarly.
Not far to the southwest of King’s Landing, Bronn stops and signals to what sounds like thunder. Soon it becomes clear that it is not a storm, but an enemy cavalry. The Dothraki soon appear over the hill, vastly outnumbering the hastily-arranged Lannister troops. Bronn tries to get Jaime to ride on to King’s Landing, but Jaime refuses to leave his troops. He believes they can hold the line.
Then, the battle turns on the roar of a dragon, not seen on the field of battle for several lifetimes. In rides Daenerys on Drogon, clearly foregoing the advice of “wise men” (as Lady Olenna called them) and taking the battle into her own hands. Using Drogon, Daenerys opens up a hole in the Lannister ranks, allowing the Dothraki to ride through and split their lines.
Drogon continues to torch the supply train, lighting up much of the Lannisters’ “spoils of war.” The Lannister forces fight as much as they can, but the Dothraki outnumber them and the dragon overpowers them. Many soldiers are burned alive in their metal armor, or turned instantly to ash.
Jaime tries to get a group of archers together to target Daenerys on the back of Drogon, but she pulls the dragon up in time to deflect the common arrows. Drogon then roasts the archers, with Jaime diving out of the line of fire just in time. He manages to fight his way through the Dothraki, with a little help from the young Dickon Tarly, and instruct Bronn to use Maester Qyburn’s massive ballista against the dragon.
Bronn aims and shoots the ballista, but just misses Daenerys and her dragon. Spotting Bronn from above, Daenerys leads Drogon right into the path of the weapon. He manages to hit Drogon on this course, piercing his right shoulder and sending him into a free-fall. Daenerys rights Drogon just before they hit the ground, turning him on the ballista, destroying it just as Bronn jumps off and away unscathed.
Though Maester Qyburn’s demonstration of the weapon looked impressive to Cersei, he used it against an old skeleton, not a living, fire-breathing dragon. Drogon’s armored scales managed to protect him from a lethal blow, but the spear eventually keeps him grounded. Daenerys is forced to hop off and try to dislodge the bolt.
Tyrion has been overseeing the battle from afar with a look of mild horror in his expression. After all, these were once his family’s men, and his brother is among them. Seeing foreign invaders and such a brutal weapon used against his own people has surely given Tyrion pause.
He spots his brother near Daenerys and the landed Drogon and curses at him under his breath, knowing that Jaime’s going to get himself killed trying to take out the Dragon Queen. He watches hopelessly as Jaime, the brother who freed him from bondage and a certain death, rushes toward Daenerys with a single spear.
Drogon notices Jaime and lowers his head to protect his mother, blasting the attacker with flame. Bronn manages to tackle Jaime just in time, pushing him into the river. Covered in metal armor and sporting a golden hand, Jaime sinks further and further into the water, and the screen goes to black.
Other thoughts on “The Spoils of War”:
- I don’t think this is the end of Jaime Lannister. My guess is that someone will save him from drowning, but who? Bronn, to the rescue again? I actually think Daenerys might save him somehow, maybe using Drogon to reach into the water and use his jaws to pluck Jaime out. Jaime would be a very valuable hostage, after all, and it certainly wouldn’t be his first time in such a position. It could also give Daenerys a way to show her capacity for mercy, especially after such a ruthless display.
- I predicted that we would probably see Littlefinger’s Valyrian steel blade again after seeing a drawing of it (or a similar knife) in one of Sam’s books from episode 1 of this season. The big question is why does Littlefinger give it to Bran? Given the fact that he doesn’t yet know or understand Bran’s powers, what could he seek to gain from giving the knife to Bran? It’s also an odd token, considering that it was used in his own attempted murder, it resulted in bodily harm to his own mother (who grabbed the blade with her bare hands in order to protect her son), and was arguably the impetuous for the disastrous War of the Five Kings. Bran seems to test him by asking if he knows who owned the blade, though Bran must already know the answer. Littlefinger’s non-answer would have been unsatisfying to the part of Bran that is still a Stark– somewhere in there. Hopefully passing on the blade to Arya is his way of eventually getting justice against Littlefinger, whom he would know betrayed his father and his family.
- Littlefinger does call Bran “Lord Stark,” trying to ingratiate himself to the young man. Perhaps he’s trying to divide the Starks, creating a little chaos between the siblings (as he clearly tried to do with Sansa and Jon). By calling him Lord Stark, he’s also perhaps trying to undermine Jon, whom he would not put much faith in after last week’s neck-grabbing display. He might hope Bran would assume the title at Winterfell and encourage Jon to find his place elsewhere (leading the army, for example), allowing Littlefinger more room to scheme.
- Littlefinger always believed that Ned was out of his element when he went south and tried to do the right thing. However, now Littlefinger is finding himself out of his element, having headed to the North with his many schemes only to find them blocked at nearly every turn by the honorable Starks. Ned died in the South– what will come of Littlefinger? I don’t think he can scheme his way out of the Stark childrens’ grasp, once they realize what he’s done to betray their family. And that would make an awfully nice face for Arya to wear when heading south to kill Cersei…..
- Continuing from last week, when I noted that it’s important to keep track of the rare Valyrian steel blades that remain (since they are made of one of the few materials known to kill White Walkers), we can now add Littlefinger’s dagger to the list. With it currently in Arya’s possession, that makes her a potentially lethal adversary in the future battle against the White Walkers. We also have Jon Snow (with Longclaw, the Mormont family blade), Jaime (with Widow’s Wail, Joffrey’s old sword), Brienne (with Oathkeeper, Jaime’s old sword), and Sam (with Heartsbane, which he stole from his father).
- The many symbols on the walls of the dragonglass caves are actually shapes that we have seen before. This is probably a reminder to the audience that the Children of the Forest were actually the ones to create the first White Walker (the Night King) as a weapon against the First Men. They obviously lost control of this weapon at some point and had to unite with the First Men to vanquish it. In that clip I linked above, you see one of the spiral patterns also found on the walls of Jon’s cave in the shape of the Children of the Forests’ monolith formation. In Season 1, episode 1, wildling bodies were arranged by the White Walkers in a diamond shape with a vertical line through the middle, which is another symbol on the wall. Clearly, there is some overlap between the Children of the Forest and their deadly creations.
- Cersei got her gold delivered to King’s Landing before the attack on Jaime’s forces, but she’ll be without her much-needed food supplies (not to mention a large portion of her army). Daenerys might have thought better than to roast the food stores, as they would be valuable for her own campaign had she simply seized them.
- Why did they have Bronn bring up the unfulfilled promise of a castle? I think it’s because he’ll eventually jump ship to join his old friend Tyrion on Daenerys’s side, especially with the Lannister army in such a sorry state. He sticks around so long, saving Jaime and serving faithfully (despite his sellsword nature) probably because he believes that only the Lannisters can offer him the castle he so desires. When he learns of Tyrion’s position, I think his loyalties will shift.
- I said I would die happy if Arya and Sansa were ever successfully reunited, and Arya’s homecoming definitely did not disappoint. While it wasn’t as cathartic as Sansa and Jon’s reunion (they were both so desperately relieved to see one another, having both just survived their lowest points), it certainly made sense how they greeted one another, and definitely brought a tear to my eye to see them together again.
- Arya looked a lot like her father in this episode. But, her sword-fighting techniques are all learned from different masters over the years. First, there’s the light and nimble “water dance” technique, taught to her by Syrio Forel, who was hired by her father. She then honed this technique with the Hound. “What are you practicing? Ways to die?” he remarked when he saw her doing her water dance in Season 4. He told her to use her skills on him, and when she twirled her sword a little and stuck him in the breastplate, he grew incensed and knocked her to the ground, taking her sword. “Your friend [Forel]’s dead, and Meryn Trant’s not, ’cause Trant had armor and a big fucking sword.” From the Hound, she would have learned to appreciate the size of her enemies, and to aim not for their armor, but for the vulnerable areas, like the neck. Finally, from Jaqen H’ghar and the Faceless Men she learned swift dodging and defensive positions, learning to sense her opponent’s next move (especially when she was blind). All of these techniques you see on display in her match with Brienne.
- It’s interesting that Theon saved Sansa, but not his own sister, Yara. (I didn’t put that together until Theon reminded Jon of saving Sansa from Ramsay Bolton in this episode.) He grew up at Winterfell, having been raised as a hostage of the Starks after his father’s unsuccessful rebellion. Ned was always good to him, despite his position, so it makes sense that he would view Sansa as more of a sister than Yara, whom he hardly knew until recently.
- Finally, it felt like such a huge pay-off to see dragons used against Lannister forces– something that’s been brewing since the first season. It was a shock to see, especially after Jon’s advice to Daenerys earlier in the episode that she not use the dragons (counter-intuitively, he argues that it would be more of the same, even though dragons haven’t been seen for 150 years…). In some ways, she does still respect his opinion by not attacking the Red Keep, which would have more than soldiers inside. She does not attack innocents in this campaign, but focuses Drogon’s brutal force on enemy combatants and their supplies. This way, she gets to take direct action (which she has been arguing for all along) without terrorizing the people she means to win over. Still, using the dragons was a terrifying and ruthless weapon of mass destruction, and the show did not shy away from showing the horrors of it all.