Some may have felt unsure coming into this season with the loss of ‘Battle of the Bastards’ director Miguel Sapochnik. However, they had their doubts firmly crushed in a stampede of screaming Dothraki and an inferno wreaked by a scarily-well CGI’ed Drogon. Considering that final fifteen-minute battle in the Reach (arguably giving the Pelennor Fields a run for its money), it’s a staggering achievement that the rest of the episode doesn’t feel outshone.
Let’s start in the North, and work our way down. Bran’s new identity as the Three-Eyed Raven is getting a lot more interesting, as we see him struggling, in a Dr Manhattan-eque way, to interact normally with Petyr, Meera, and then Arya.
His “chaos is a ladder” line to the former is nailed by Isaac Hempstead-Wright, and visibly unnerves Littlefinger. It’s a mystery why Petyr chooses to give Catspaw to Bran, but he looks suspiciously satisfied when he sees it has been passed to Arya later on in the episode.
Arya’s return to Winterfell is heralded with the stunning House Stark score by Ramin Djawadi, and the nostalgia is ramped up by a confrontation with two guards reminiscent of a scene she had outside the Red Keep in Season 1.
The following reunion scenes with Sansa and Bran are kept earnest and realistic, heartfelt without toeing the line to cheesiness. D&D chose to retain the awkwardness that would be natural after years of separation, giving the scenes a palpable tension. It must be said, however — Bran’s wheelchair is hilarious.
It was nice to check in on Brienne and Podrick as well. I’m glad they got a couple of strong character scenes, although the fight with Arya edged on cliché. It’s one of the few questionable moments of the episode for me.
Down in Dragonstone, we are given another questionable moment: the romantic tension between Jon and Daenerys in the dragonglass cave. The forced quality of it may be down to Emilia Clarke’s generally forced performance, but I also think it was unnecessary for the writers to shoehorn in the romance so early into their alliance.
To be fair to Daenerys, she also produces the best dialogue in ‘The Spoils of War’ when she confronts Tyrion. She makes a perceptive, discomposing observation that his “master plan” was heavily impacted by an unwillingness to hurt his brother.
This weakness of Tyrion’s comes to a heartbreaking head in the Field of Fire battle in the Reach, where we find our real standout performance: Matt Shakman, the director. After helming It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and episodes of Psych and Fargo, Shakman had proved his directorial range, but not with large-scale battle sequences like this.
Man, did he deliver. (Full disclosure — I may be biased, because Jaime Lannister is my favourite character.) As the Dothraki hoard gradually approached the Lannister train, and Drogon materialised in the sky above them, my skin crawled. The next fifteen minutes are a true Game of Thrones emotional rollercoaster.
Like with the Blackwater, viewers are attached to characters on both sides of the conflict. When Bronn aims the Scorpion at Drogon, with Tyrion looking on and Jaime surrounded by fire, you can only watch in horror, not wanting any characters to be hurt, not sure who you want to win. The CGI on Drogon as he falls from the sky is far too good for television, considering they had no real-life reference when crafting the mythical creature.
The battle treated us with two absolutely breathtaking camera shots, which compete for the most impressive in the entire show. There is the long take tracking shot following Bronn as he battles his way to the Scorpion. Then, another tracking shot follows Jaime charging down Daenerys and Drogon through fire and water.
Tyrion’s less active role on the clifftop is equally stellar. He watches the carnage of the queen he serves decimating his brother’s army and his city’s food supplies. His internal conflict is communicated wordlessly by the always outstanding Peter Dinklage. When he whispers, “flee, you idiot,” to Jaime, it’s heartbreaking.
Nothing is more heartbreaking, however, than the moment the credits roll over Jaime and Bronn’s sinking bodies as Jaime’s armour weighs him down to the bottom of the Mander River. Next Sunday has never felt so far away.
Quick thoughts from a book reader:
—From the mention of the Golden Company in Cersei’s conversation with Tychos, is it too much to hope for an appearance by Aegon Targaryen? It’s probably way too late to introduce him and give him a character arc with only one season left. If D&D find a way, though, I won’t complain.
—Since Meera’s going back to the Neck, is it possible that we’ll get to see Howland Reed this season?