Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 4 Deconstructed

by: Geoffrey Golia and Michael Shields

The full fury of Dany’s dragons ignite the most recent episode of Game of Thrones entitled “The Spoils of War”…

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MCS: I am trying to keep my cool here some, but it isn’t easy. I, like all Game of Thrones’ fans, have been waiting to behold the realized potential of Dany’s dragons in action, and damn did Drogon and Co. deliver the goods. I must admit to having been a little conflicted in my rooting interest in this battle that featured Dany and Tyrion versus Jaime and Bronn, essentially. While Jon’s speech to Dany about melting castles and more of the same was touching, regardless of his sentiment, we finally came face to face with the might of Dany’s Dothraki/Dragon war machine. What did you think of this momentous battle, and where does this leave us moving forward in this larger war for the fate of Westeros?

G.G.: Judging by the reaction on Facebook, the forums, podcasts, and by my co-workers and people on the subway, as well as all the “Likes” and “Retweets” this hilarious picture I made received on Twitter, I think it’s safe to say this episode of Game of Thrones will probably be regarded as the best one thus far. Even before the battle, the episode gave us so much of that which we’ve been longing; it almost made us forget just how much the show runners have a habit of withholding. So, yes, we’re all still processing, aren’t we? But, by all means, let’s start at the beginning with what I’ve been calling the Field of Fire 2.0.

For those of us familiar (or, you know, obsessed) with the history of Westeros, we have a sense of the awesome and destructive power of dragons. They are quite literally weapons of mass destruction which, just now, leads me to wonder, “is that all they are?” (That’s a question I will hopefully consider and try to answer one day…) I bring up history (and will bring up a lot of it this week) not just to provide context, but also to let the “Unsullied” (i.e. non-book readers) in on two important historical references brought up in this episode related to the use of dragons.

The first occurs prior to the battle, in the debate that rages between Daenerys, Tyrion, and others regarding her conservative military strategy. In a moment of frustration, Dany states that she should just jump on Drogon, fly him to the Red Keep, and burn the fucking place down. Her advisers protest, and she surprisingly asks Jon Snow for his counsel. As they’ve just come from a near-romantic rendezvous in the obsidian cave (what’s up with Jon and caves?), he seemingly persuades her not to take that course, echoing previous admonitions from her ministers to mitigate civilian casualties and keep the moral high ground. Personally, I think this is bullshit in the light of the fact that Cersei killed tons of Kingslanders when she blew up the Sept of Baelor, including non-combatants. If Dany were to fly to the Red Keep and light the place up, she would only be attacking Cersei and the power elite. Nevertheless, we’re meant to think that Dany is brought back from the precipice of grave human rights violations by Jon.

The reference here is Aegon The Conqueror’s burning of Harrenhal. Up until Aegon’s landing, the King of the Rivers and the Isles was King Harren Hoare, also known as Black Harren. That’s right, he ruled the Riverlands AND the Iron Isles, which means he was both ruthless and a stubborn narcissist. The long and short of it is he built Harrenhal as a monument to his power; huge and impregnable, he rebuked Aegon’s call for fealty and retreated to his castle for protection. Not even Harren’s fortress could endure the dragonflame of Balerion “the Black Dread,” who burned the castles so completely, not only did he kill Harren and all of his kin inside, he charred and melted the stone, leaving it warped and misshapen until the present. Given the condition of the Sept of Baelor, who could be mad if Drogon turned the Red Keep into Harrenhal?

It is, then, rather surprising (but also not surprising at all) when Daenerys, along with Drogon and her Dothraki, ambush a large portion of the Lannister-Tarly army on their way back to King’s Landing from Highgarden. I don’t want to understate the power of this battle. It was skillfully rendered, thrilling, and satisfying for fans of the show. And while it sets up the power of the dragons, moves the plot along, and creates a really good cliffhanger (what will become of Jaime?!), it also evokes another important historical moment, also from Aegon’s Conquest. (Perhaps they’re trying to establish a parallel?)

The Field of Fire is one of the more famous battles from the conquest, and one reason for its fame is that it includes the first use of dragons in an open-field battle. Upon the destruction of Harrenhal, the King of Rock, Loren Lannister, and the King of the Reach, Mern Gardener, agreed to combine their forces against Aegon and his sisters, the armies of his newly-acquired vassals…and also their three dragons. While the men of the Rock and the Reach fought bravely, when the dragons entered the fray, all resolve melted away (see what I did there?). Thus the name Field of Fire. Mern and his kin were killed, ending their line (and establishing the Tyrells as Lords of the Reach), and Loren survived and eventually bent the knee, which is the only reason there are still Lannisters around. This battle convinced more than a few Lords to bend the knee, including Torrhen Stark, the last King in the North until Robb. Aside from the tactical victory in the service of her claim, Daenerys is counting on both the visceral reaction to the recent battle, and the historical memory of the Field of Fire, to evoke the same sense of fear and caution among her current enemies.

But let’s circle back to the sheer destructive efficiency of dragons for a brief moment. The battle needed to be somewhat suspenseful, I suppose, for television audiences, especially since we’re torn in terms of whom to root for…and Dany had to utilize the Dothraki at some point. I’m sure more than a handful of viewers had a bit of an existential crisis when Jaime was jousting towards Dany trying to remove the scorpion arrow from Drogon’s shoulder, but the history of Aegon’s Conquest, particularly Harrenhal and the Field of Fire, demonstrates that dragons are a near-unstoppable force, who have the capacity to bathe targets in flame with almost no refractory period. So I’m left wondering, aside from drama, why Dany didn’t have Drogon continuously rain down fire on the troops and wagon train? That’s the only real issue I have with what was a really satisfying sequence.

To fully understand the powerful psychological effect this battle will have on the population of Westeros, we must also dive into the history and mythology of the Seven Kingdoms. In particular, Daenerys’ triumph, which appears to have occurred just west of King’s Landing, will bring up the collective memory and trauma of invasion and mass destruction, which looms so large in the Westerosi psyche.

To start, Westerosi identity, both with respect to actual ancestry and the social construct of “races,” is intrinsically tied to invasion. According to the histories, Westeros was initially inhabited by the Children of the Forest, a diminutive group of humanoids, and giants, who don’t need much of an introduction – both of whom were considered mythical, though we know they’re, in the context of the series, both real and, to a degree, still present in the more remote corners of the continent. No one is certain when the Children or the giants came to Westeros, and there’s a view that they, essentially, have always been there. This is, perhaps, one reason why this period is known as the Dawn Age. Additionally, no one is certain exactly when the First Men came from Essos across the Arm of Dorne (which was, at the time, a land-bridge), though it is said that they invaded and settled Westeros between 12,000 and 8,000 years prior to the events of the series.

While initially welcomed by the Children, the First Men soon set about establishing permanent settlements. When they began to fell the forests of Westeros, the Children became more hostile to their presence. The tipping point came when, fearing the surveillance of the Children via what is essentially a medieval Internet/closed-circuit television system (you know, what Bran uses to creep people out), the First men began cutting down some of the weirwoods, leading to a long, drawn-out war. During the thick of the fighting, using some ancient sorcery, the Children shattered the Arm of Dorne into the Stepstones (the islands that pepper the Narrow Sea between Dorne and Essos) in hopes of stemming the tide of invaders. The war ended in a stalemate and, finally, peace was established between the Children and the First Men at the Isle of Faces, where the children would have the forests and men would have the open lands.

This pact, and the subsequent peace, led to a kind of cultural and religious syncretism. Many of the First Men came to worship the old gods and revere the weirwoods while certain groups of men, like the crannogmen of the Neck, developed greensight and other supernatural characteristics of the Children, and while forested areas eventually gave way to towns and villages, the First Men developed an appreciation for nature borne of the Children’s animism. I suspect that this peace, which allowed the culture, and population, of the First Men to proliferate, ultimately caused the decline of the Children and the giants. It’s more than just a crude Darwinism; where men go, magic and the mysterious ultimately decline, and there was no more room, geographically or ontologically, for the Children.

With the hegemony of the First Men established, the Dawn Age gave way to the Age of Heroes: Bran the Builder established House Stark and built the Wall, the Winged Night of the Eyrie…did whatever he did, and forts and towers gave way to castles and fortresses. The Age of Heroes ended with the coming of the Andals, a distinct group of people from Essos. The Andals brought iron weapons, the warrior culture of knights, and a fanatical devotion to the Faith of the Seven. Unlike the First Men, who eventually adapted and assimilated much of the Children’s culture, the Andals were, fundamentally, conquerors, seizing land and killing the Children and First Men alike. All of the southern kingdoms either fell to, or were married into, Andal families, erasing the blood of the First Men and their weirwoods south of the Neck. Only the North were able to withstand the Andal invasion at Moat Cailin, preserving the religion and heritage of the First Men and, to a lesser extent, the Children.

Aside from the arrival, as refugees, of the Rhoynar, the other key invasion, prior to the current hostilities, was by the Targeryens, the blood of Old Valyria, their allies, and their Dragons. The Targeryen conquest ultimately led to the end of regional monarchies, and a consolidation of the various Westerosi people groups into a single social, political, and military polity. This exacerbated the tensions between the people’s long established regional, ethnic, and familial identities, as well as their new identities under a consolidated kingdom. It is estimated that 4,000 to 8,000 years elapsed between the invasion and assimilation of the Andals and Aegon’s landing. This, I imagine, led to deep ambivalence about Targeryen rule, and that ambivalence is playing out with the Westerosi drawn to Daenerys’ cause.

Yet many do truly believe in Dany, and recognize that she could be a more just and humane leader. And for those who do need a bit more convincing, she has the dragons, and not only myriad historical examples of their power, but now also a fresh example as well.

game-of-thrones-brienne-arya

MCS: Holy smokes Geoffrey – you just laid it down! Wow. Well, while I take a moment and pick my jaw up from the floor, let’s take a moment and talk Arya, as her homecoming was, well… interesting. It’s unique how unsentimental these Stark children reunions are. They truly have been through so much, and changed dramatically in their time apart, that they are almost strangers at this point. I am curious what you thought about the trio of Starks together, and what you think was going through Sansa’s mind as Arya was training with Brienne? Is Sansa threatened by Arya?

G.G.: The people in the North have a reputation for being tough and unsentimental. Life is hard in the North and we’ve certainly seen our share of examples of this. Yet, people in the North also seem to have a sense of humor and a warmth that, I imagine, can only develop when you have to cope with the challenges of summer snows, shitty wine, and Wildling raids. Interestingly enough, solemn Ned Stark was also a warm and attentive father, who demonstrated love but also gave his kids important lessons for survival in an unjust world. This is the kind of constitutional balance that Northerners would probably brag about. I can’t speak to its effectiveness, but it’s certainly there. I’d like to think that this balance is present in the reunions, particularly the one between Sansa and Arya, and that there is something sentimental (or at least nostalgic) about the presence of this balance (between, say, mirth and toughness) in their interaction.

And, of course, there’s also the trauma. It makes sense why the Stark children would be wary, although in Bran’s case, I think he just got really weird. For the Stark children, we can’t help but understand why they might be cautious after all the betrayals they’ve faced. This mistrust kind of rubs off on us, the viewers. While ultimately I think Sansa’s reaction to Arya training with Brienne is positive (“look at my badass sister who can definitely protect me from basically anyone”), we can’t help but wonder if the family will fracture again. And Littlefinger there doesn’t help, though we also know that Bran is on to him. (This tension is present, as well, in Arya, who you can’t help but think is trying really hard not to murder anyone who looks at her wrong, and return to that amoral killing machine she had been…)

There’s something more deeply significant to their reunion, though I don’t know what that is yet. On its face, though, I think it lines up important players with important information: Bran will use the Westerosi Internet/CCTV to discover and report important past and current intelligence; Sansa will become the Lady of Winterfell when some of Bran’s data indicates that Jon is a Targeryen and will marry his aunt, with Arya as her right-hand, who can also still go “Faceless Man” and kill even the most skilled knights. And they’re all in the North as Winter finally arrives.

MCS: I can’t put my finger entirely on what Littlefinger’s gameplan is. What’s your take on his reasoning for bequeathing Bran with the Valyrian steel dagger that was almost used to kill him in the first season? And what do you foresee that blade being used for now that it is in the hands of the very capable Arya? Also, how badass was it when Bran quoted Littlefinger back to himself, reminding him that “Chaos is a Ladder,” as he once told Varys in Season Three1?

G.G.: It’s hard to say what Littlefinger’s plan is, since he’s admitted his chief tactic is (you guessed it) chaos. On its face, it seems like he is trying to butter Bran up and demonstrate his loyalty and affection for House Stark. This may be part of his ploy to woo Sansa by wooing her family. Or maybe he senses (and now knows) that Bran knows some stuff, which could be either useful or make Littlefinger vulnerable. Ultimately, I think to a greater extent, the conversation with Bran, and to a lesser extent, Arya’s ninja demonstration, made Littlefinger “shook,” as the kids say. Plus, if Bran knows about the “chaos is a ladder” remark, he probably also saw Littlefinger betray Ned in the Throne Room leading to his beheading. I can’t see this ending well for Petyr, especially given that Arya has that pretty little knife.

MCS: I appreciated Dany giving Jon the brass-tacks in stating: “Isn’t your survival more important than your pride?” (Something Jon once told Mance Rayder!) and that leads me to wonder, isn’t it indeed time for Jon to bend that knee?

G.G: It’s funny because I really don’t think Jon’s refusal to bend the knee is about pride. This is my opinion, and not based on any knowledge from the books, but Jon is carrying the trust and hopes of an independent people who really do not want to be ruled by an external force, malevolent or benevolent, even if they do need some dragons and some dragonglass. Jon is right to argue that the North chose him, and Robb before him, because they were sick of Southron shit, and feel distinct enough to practice self-governance. I really don’t think Jon enjoys ruling, even if he happens to be a fairly competent and pragmatic leader. So, to me, his reluctance speaks to his honor more than his pride.

But, regardless of what is keeping Jon from bending the knee, it is not more important than survival, and Dany told him what he needs to do if he wants her help. Still, the point is probably moot due to Jon’s not-so-secret-anymore parentage and the fact that they can (and will) solve all of these squabbles through a marriage that is equal parts hot and kind of icky.

Join us next week for ATM’s Deconstruction of Episode 5, “Eastwatch.”

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SHOPTHEMARGIN

  1. In an episode entitled “The Climb. []

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