Major spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season seven, episode four, “The Spoils of War.”
On Sunday night, Game of Thrones gave us the most satisfying and stimulating moment of this short seventh season so far: At the end of “The Spoils of War,” Daenerys Targaryen and Jaime Lannister’s armies came face to face with one another in a blazing fight.
Giant arrows screamed through the air. Dothraki scythes became smiles dripping with the blood of the Lannisters’ allies. Spears broke backs. All the while, Dany’s Boeing-sized dragon tore through the sky and scorched the earth, torching everything in its path.
The battle was beautiful, bloody, and chaotic — a spectacular production success that felt like watching an action movie. (I would probably pay to see the sequence in an IMAX theater.) But the battle was also a triumph in terms of what it achieved in storytelling.
Cersei Lannister’s strategic march on Highgarden, which just last week saw her notch a major win against Dany, has suddenly become a failure.
Jaime now knows what the full force of Targaryen wrath looks like.
Dany has come face to face with her enemies, and hurt them gravely — but not without one of her dragons being injured. The episode ended with her dragon wounded by one of the Lannister army’s scorpions (those giant dragon-killing crossbows).
As we turn the corner on this short season (there are now only three episodes left!), Game of Thrones has really turned up the volume on the Targaryen-Lannister war and made a massive finale feel inevitable.
Dany got tired of holding back her dragons while her allies were defeated
Since Dany and her crew first landed at Dragonstone, they’ve been trying to play a strategic game but have been embarrassingly bad at it. Tyrion Lannister, who has given Dany plenty of sage advice in her quest for the Iron Throne, has accidentally led her astray with his battle strategies, which have seen her allies get picked off one by one: Yara Greyjoy was captured and her fleet decimated; the savage Olenna Tyrell was unprepared for an attack on Highgarden (Tyrion advised Dany’s forces to take what turned out to be a mostly abandoned Casterly Rock) and is now dead; and Ellaria Sand is watching her last living daughter die and rot in Cersei’s basement.
In the wake of these setbacks, Dany was faced with the frustration of knowing she might have been able to do something to help her allies — namely, by riding in with her dragons to save the day — and asked Tyrion if the blunders he’s led her into are the result of him going up against his own family. And in response, he told her that his strategy, and the need to hold back, is what will make her a “smart” queen.
Tyrion presented Dany with two guidelines. The first is to minimize casualties in war, and not spill the blood of innocent people. The second is to keep herself safe, and allow her warriors to fight her battles for her. He doesn’t want her risking her life fighting with her army.
The scene underlines Dany’s dilemma: whether to be an honorable queen who inspires — the kind of queen that Dany wants to be and has been — versus a “smart” queen who holds onto power.
It’s fascinating that Game of Thrones is making this distinction, because the latter is how we think of Cersei. She’s become a major villain, but she’s also shrewd, and has been very successful in acquiring and holding onto power. That Tyrion and Cersei think alike — that it’s better to be smart and rule than to be loved and valiant — makes sense, since that seems to be the Lannister way.
In the episode’s second act, Dany is fed up with Tyrion’s advice, and she doesn’t appear in the episode again until she’s descending upon the Lannister forces. We don’t see whatever deliberation might have taken place between Dany learning that her allies have fallen and launching the assault on Jaime Lannister’s men. We don’t even know if such a deliberation even happened. After all, Tyrion was previously insistent that she stay in Dragonstone, because riding her dragons into battle would make her an easy target
“The Spoils of War” insinuates, with every arrow that zooms by Dany’s head during the its big battle sequence, that Tyrion was right about the risk she takes every time she flies into battle alongside her men.
Thus, even though it was fulfilling to see Dany (finally) inspire her army and wreck some enemies, the consequence was her dragon’s injury. It might not have been the smartest decision.
Further, the Dothraki seemed to hold their own against the Lannister army. Did Dany need to be there for them to win?
Dany is still figuring out what kind of queen she wants to be. Her council is still figuring it out too. Does she want to be inspiring and loved, or does she want to be successful ruler? Does she need to be out on the field for every battle?
Tyrion’s advice, even though it went sour and lost Dany three important allies, is still something she has to think about. Because being the most inspiring queen or well-loved ruler doesn’t really mean a thing if you’re dead.
The consequences of this battle will help drive the season
What’s been slightly forgotten this season, which has featured a lot of talk about war and the intricacies of battle, is that Dany and the Lannisters really don’t know each other on a personal level. Mostly they’ve just heard things about each other, from other people. That made the scene in which Jaime and Bronn quake in their boots at the sight of Dany on her dragon even more powerful.
Meanwhile, we got to see in action the giant crossbows that Qyburn has been working on. Dany was shocked that the Lannisters had managed to construct a weapon that could injure one of her dragons.
This might affect the way Dany and the Lannisters do battle from now on. Dany has no idea how many dragon crossbows the Lannisters have, or how fast they’re building them. She’ll probably think twice before charging in again, since the Lannisters aren’t as vulnerable as she once thought them to be.
As for the Lannisters, their crossbows were able to injure a dragon — but not kill it. Plus, we’ve now seen that the devices are easily destroyed. Should there be a next time, we can assume that Dany’s war council will look for a way to incapacitate the crossbows before Dany flies in.
There’s also the question of how this battle will affect Jaime. This is a man who saw his army melted down in minutes. How does he recover from this? What does he tell Cersei? And Bronn, in particular, seemed pretty shaken up by Dany’s dragons and the Dothraki brigade after spending much of the episode bragging about how death doesn’t make him flinch.
But the biggest unknown of all is how Cersei will respond. How does she save face? How does she maintain her alliance with Euron? Will the Iron Bank stifle her power?
I recently predicted that she was headed for a rude awakening. This battle seems to have provided exactly that.
Ironically, the major character most deeply affected by the climactic battle in “The Spoils of War” may be the one who wasn’t even on the battlefield.