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Why Game of Thrones has the best action sequences on TV

We have yet to see the Dornish go into battle, but it will be spectacular when they do, we're guessing.
We have yet to see the Dornish go into battle, but it will be spectacular when they do, we're guessing.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: It's easy to see why "The Sons of the Harpy" is the last episode HBO sent out to critics for review earlier this year. This is one riveting, action-packed episode of television. Just about every storyline has a major turn (or two), and it concludes with a massive fight that seems to leave two characters dead.

For as much as I love Game of Thrones for the intellectual and philosophical topics it raises, it's also a damn visceral and fun show to watch. The two big action sequences in tonight's episode are as good as this sort of thing gets on TV, and a far cry from the days when Tyrion would get whanged in the head so the series didn't have to depict a whole battle scene.

Game of Thrones gets a lot of credit for its big battle episodes, like "Blackwater" and "The Watchers on the Wall," but I'd wager that its smaller fight scenes are even more important and just as impressive. If you watch other TV shows, it's rare to have a sustained battle that is told in any sort of coherent fashion. Game of Thrones tends to be much better at this than most, and "The Sons of the Harpy" is a terrific example of this.

Take, for instance, that fight with the four horsemen Bronn and Jaime happen upon. The script (by Dave Hill) has done a terrific job of preparing you for this moment, thanks to the handful of reminders about Jaime's metal hand. It would be easy to make this over-obvious, but Hill slides in a quick joke about how Bronn has to row because Jaime can't instead. It's genius.

But that's nothing compared to the world-weary way Bronn realizes he's going to have to take the majority of these guys, because Jaime, at best, can handle one of them, and only then if that dude is slowed down somehow. What I love about how director Mark Mylod shoots this sequence is that Bronn pretty much leaves it once he's narrowed Jaime's battle down to a one-on-one. We know that Bronn's going to be just fine. It's Jaime who's in serious trouble, and Jaime who's saved by the very metal hand that seemed such an impediment just a few moments ago.

Game of Thrones, in other words, is expert at building jeopardy in these smaller sequences. It calibrates viewers' expectations so the characters never get their wins too easily, and because we've seen enough of these scenes end very poorly, we never get too complacent, even when a bunch of series regulars are involved.

The show is also very good at making sure there are character stakes for the vast majority of these sequences. In the battle on the beach, the character stakes for Jaime involve the simple fact that he's not sure he's of any use in a fight, something he quickly proves true in his sluggish struggle against the swordsman he ultimately defeats, but only through a quick bit of luck. The show underlines how unlikely success will be for Bronn and Jaime, especially with the Sand Snakes ready to strike.

Of course, the really big battle in this episode comes when Grey Worm and Barristan face down legions of members of the Sons of the Harpy. This fight is slightly more chaotic and harder to follow than the one on the beach, but with good reason. First, Grey Worm is backed into a corner, then Barristan comes to the rescue, only to get backed into the same corner himself. It's less a proper fight than something out of a video game, the two of them facing down wave after wave of enemies.

Mylod shoots this fight in similar fashion, too. The only real moments of clarity are the few when Barristan arrives and the fighting pauses just long enough for the Sons of the Harpy to look him over and wonder what the hell just wandered into their corridor o' violence. It's a great example of another thing Game of Thrones understands about great fight sequences: they need proper pauses and punctuation, lest they become too overwhelming.

Nobody is going to read this particular thesis — Game of Thrones has great battles! — and find it to be an incredibly original one, but the primary feeling I had leaving this episode was just that. In a TV landscape that still often struggles to feature coherent fight sequences, it's a real pleasure to watch a show that tosses them off almost as a matter of course.

I really hope Barristan is somehow still alive, even as I know he's not. (That happy story he told about palling around with Rhaegar was basically like a cop telling his partner he's going to retire in a week in a detective movie.) There's a lot going on in this episode, so I'll toss it out to you guys, perhaps by starting with this question — everybody in this episode is dealing with extremism of one form or another. What do you think Game of Thrones wants us to think about these sorts of movements?

Read the recap. Come back for thoughts from Andrew later today.

Previous week's discussion

Next: Andrew on all those fundamentalists

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