Daenerys stomped across the beach of Dragonstone distraught, standing there in front of her team infuriated that the advice of her advisers had cost her another ally. She looks out over the water to see her three large dragons flying around, basically running stalling patterns, and she thinks: What kind of queen is she if she continues standing idly by as she loses this war without using the two weapons her enemies have long been most afraid of — those dragons and the Dothraki horde. How then can she convince anybody, let alone herself, that she’s giving it her best shot?
So, the Mother of Dragons takes action. And what we get, in “The Spoils of War,” episode four of Game of Thrones seventh season, is the most epic, heart-pounding battle to date. The Loot Train Attack, as it’s being called, is on record as the most fiery one in television history. It’s the first time two major, series-long central characters (Dany and Jaime Lannister) have engaged in battle. Dany, aboard Drogon and with the Dothraki army, launches a surprise attack upon Jaime, Bronn and the King’s Guard on the road after taking Highgarden and all of its resources (Dany’s resources). Dany incinerates the lot of it and engulfs entire groups of Lannister soldiers in fire that their bodies literally turn to dust in front of you, and the Dothraki warriors wipe out pretty much everyone who’s left. Drogon is shot down, assumed merely wounded, and Jaime charges at Dany, who Drogon swings around to protect in the last second. And Jaime, tackled off of his horse, out of the way and into the lake, is drowning as the episodes fades to black.
It is, for the first watch through, the longest, most stressful 20 minutes of your life — for me, terrified for Dany, as she gripped to Drogon who’s falling out of the air. My wife was standing up, in our small living room, shouting at the TV. (This is one of those moments, Where were you when Jaime charged on Dany? Isn’t it?)
Then it is, the second time I watched it, an amazing cinematic accomplishment. And like a good book, the second time you watch it, you notice new things. Like, how in the hell is Qyburn’s Scorpion the only wagon not burned to the ground by Dany and Drogon? And also you think of new questions. Like, man, what must Jaime have been thinking when he’s sitting their still atop his horse, having dodged death a couple times already, looking over all of the turmoil the surprise attack has caused, and then to see bright-haired Dany, in the flesh, the girl Robert Baratheon wanted to kill as a baby to avoid a future conflict like this, the girl who has been discussed and monitored so closely by her enemies for so long, there seemingly within striking distance of ending this whole war right now.
This is the shortest episode of the series, and, without thinking too hard on it, my favorite episode to date. And it’s not singularly because of the Loot Train sequence. “The Spoils of War” has to be one of the best Arya episodes ever.
Despite some attempted plot misdirection, Arya, too, returns to Winterfell. She toys around with a couple of dumb guards who swear she can’t be Arya because Arya is dead. (Which, by the way, do we know what the source of this rumor ever was?) And later, she engages in an awesome sparring match with Brienne.
Arya has so much swagger, a radiant confidence about her; she’s her own person, a whole new person compared to the one older sister Sansa knew as a child. Unlike Sansa, who arguably has become who she is in large part because of the things that have happened to her, Arya has done almost everything proactively to become the person she wanted to be. The separation of these still-living Stark kids has been driven home during these reunions — Bran’s last week, Arya’s now. Bran barely claims the Stark name anymore, Arya is as independent and comfortable going it alone as one can be, and Sansa is more traditional — back home to raise the Stark banners in the North once more. When Sansa reunites with Arya in the crypt, she still treats her like a little sister rather than an adult. Yes, call me Lady Stark, giggling about Arya’s supposed list. Maybe there’s some positioning going on, at least from Sansa’s point of view. Yeah, Jon has always liked Arya better, but I’m the older sister. Later, when Bran confirms Arya’s list (Sansa can do a quick cross check, as Bran knew about her own truths) and then when Arya spars with Brienne, Sansa slowly builds to a silent realization that many viewers will wonder about. She’s, of course, taken aback by the swordsmen Arya has become. It’s staggering how skilled she is. Maybe there’s some envy there, that so much has happened to Sansa while her brothers and sisters (the ones who stayed alive) have been able to carve out their own paths. Maybe that makes her feel a little disconnected now. Bran gives Arya the dagger, I think, because he foresees her playing an important role in the zombie battle to come. He, on the contrary, has been pretty short-winded and cold with Sansa since his return.
Now, one Jon Snow would make a complete Surviving Starks reunion. He, though, is still in Dragonstone, showing Dany more evidence of White Walkers, though still not bending the knee and now piggybacking on Tyrion’s reserved advice for Dany’s battle plans. Don’t use your dragons, don’t burn cities to the ground, don’t be like your father, which has become a pretty annoying stance at this point. The new advisers are so worried about Dany’s reputation with the common people of Westeros, which is fine or whatever, but it was refreshing to include in this episode Missandei’s explanation to Jon and Davos about why she and the others chose the queen they did. They don’t care who were father was, this man none of them ever knew. They know Dany, they know she’s unique, they know she’s better.
This has not been a good season for Jon. He’s trying to form an alliance with the right person, definitely, but how bad of a negotiator can one person be? Really? He’s so convinced that the evidence will be so overwhelming to Dany that she will have no choice but to commit forces to his side without the promise of anything in return. Get over yourself, Jon. She’s willing. She believes him. But he’s got to bend the knee. I have a feeling she’s not going to let him leave until he does.
And now Jon’s also backing Tyrion’s advice not to use the dragons. I don’t think Dany wants to burn the whole world to the ground, but she knows she can use them to get a win — a win she’s in dire need of.
As she stomps across that beach, she turns on Tyrion, who’s imploring her to keep faith in the original plan. “Our enemies? Your family, you mean. Perhaps you don’t want to hurt them after all,” she says.
This is a heart-breaking statement to make, but I don’t believe it’s true — I believe Tyrion was most concerned watching the Loot Train battle when he saw Drogon, carrying his queen, get struck and start falling out of the sky — and I don’t think Dany truly believes it is either. But it’s a necessary statement to make.
It’s an important power play leaders must make at a time like this. Remember who’s advising who. Remember who’s in charge.
Dany is their queen. She’s gotten herself there. This is her way of saying, You all are going to start listening to me now. She’s calling the shots again. Now, just let us Dany-backers hope it’s not too late.
“My enemies are in the Red Keep. What kind of queen am I if I’m not willing to risk my life to fight them,” Dany says. “A smart one,” Tyrion replies. Maybe, but no. That’s Cersei. Dany is the kind of queen who will risk her life to fight her enemies and to protect her people. That’s why we love her. That’s why — Tyrion ought to know this — so many risk their lives to fight for her.