“No more clever plans.”
‘The Spoils of War’ is an apt title for the fourth episode of Game of Thrones‘ seventh season because its an hour (or just under at 47 minutes, the shortest episode of the season) all about battles. Battles on horseback between armies and savages and dragons, battles between the old ways and new, battles between young and old, and battles of the mind. Wars are not just the province of empires and vast legions but rather the ongoing struggle between the myriad, disparate elements that make up the world of Westeros and beyond.
What becomes clear in the most straightforward of ways by the end of ‘The Spoils of War’ is that the end game in Game of Thrones is going to come down, in no small part, to money. Gold becomes the investment hedge fund of George R.R. Martin’s feudal construct, a literal grounding of financial capital the all-powerful, monolithic Iron Bank will use to pick the side they believe has the best chance of winning. Last week it became clear that capitalism was going to play a major role in how the landscape of Westeros will look beyond the ultimate wars to come, and here that point is hammered home: if the numbers line up, the game will be won.
Even despite a much-needed victory for Daenerys Targaryen by the end of this episode, the numbers frankly still look good for Queen (or should that be Darth?) Cersei. Had the Tyrell gold, grabbed in the unexpected sack of Highgarden in ‘The Queen’s Justice’, not reached the gates of King’s Landing, the outlook could be different, but even with a depleted Lannister standing army following what will surely be known as the Battle of the Reach (one of the best battles the show has ever done, incidentally), if Cersei has the ability to pay the significant debts built up by the poor rulers that preceded her, the Iron Bank will back her claim and, honestly, Daenerys may as well pack up and go back to Meereen.
Ah, but Dany has three dragons! Sure, and she has several bloodthirsty armies backed with zealous worship of a woman they consider part-God, but practically those armies are just men who can be destroyed by Ironborn ships or larger armies (Golden Company sell swords, as Cersei points out to Tycho Nestoris, who overtures have been made toward), and dragons which can be felled by powerful siege weaponry. Bronn’s shot may not have killed Drogon but enough would take him down as arrows eventually take down giants, and he was wounded enough to put Daenerys a hairs breadth away from Jaime Lannister’s lance.
In other words, dragons and armies do not a victor make, and this perhaps is something Tyrion Lannister is acutely aware of. Dany’s advisor was forced to eat some humble pie in this episode; stumbling after the resolute failure of his Trojan Horse plan at Casterly Rock, outmanoeuvred by Cersei and the unpredictability of Euron Greyjoy, Tyrion even suffers a moment of distrust from Daenerys, given his ‘family’ have the upper hand. Why wouldn’t she wonder if Tyrion knows what he’s talking about? He’s made some serious tactical errors and it takes risky, blunt force by Daenerys, against the original advice of her advisors, to win back a level of victory.
What you suspect Tyrion sees in this episode, as he watches Lannister armies burn in fire and curses his brother for risking his life to try and kill Daenerys, is the death of his idealistic dream. Remember, Tyrion may seek a level of revenge against Cersei for her actions, but he doesn’t hate his family – he loves Jaime especially. Tyrion wanted a bloodless campaign as much as possible, wanted Daenerys’ actions to engender her to a people who have been ignored, starved or worse by Lannister rule since King Robert’s death. He wanted them to believe she was different from Cersei or Joffrey or the Mad King, but the Battle of the Reach puts a visible dent in that idealism.
You wonder if Jon Snow would have approved of her actions here, given Daenerys appears to do precisely the opposite of what he suggests when she asks for his advice on Dragonstone. Jon too wants to believe in this woman (that was the whole purpose of the moment with Missandei, even though it just looks like another chance for Davos to shamelessly flirt with her). He wants to believe she is good and just enough to ally with, not bend the knee. Jon even casts off Davos’ suggestions of attraction at this stage, conscious of the bigger battle to come, a battle he knows they will need to believe in each other to win. Daenerys slaughtering armies may be something of a phyrric victory for her, and idealistically it could become a costly one.
Jon’s own idealism is solidified in showing Daenerys the ancient cave drawings inside the dragon glass mine underneath Dragonstone, which serves as almost a spiritual moment for both ice and fire attempting to reach common understanding and belief in each other. The crude cave drawings by both the Children of the Forest and the First Men underscore a truth we as the audience already know – the mythical Long Night was real and the only way to overcome it was to work together, moving beyond banners and houses (as Daenerys even mentions). Crucially the murals frequently display circular emblems, wheels of the like Daenerys swore to break. Not only is myth and destiny cyclical in this world, Daenerys also in this episode proves she is a long way yet from breaking that wheel.
What constitutes breaking the mythical wheel of cyclical history in Westeros? Remember, the Long Night saw the dawn but it didn’t put paid to the darkness. Why? The Night King, created by the Children in their misguided attempts to win their own primitive battle for land and country against the First Men (a more primitive game than the one we’ve witnessed in this feudal society), and his Walkers endured for millennia. They simply retreated. Walls were built, great houses forged, but memory faded, lessons were lost and the wheel turned. The second Long Night has been brewing for generations, even if nobody (except perhaps the Three Eyed Raven) knew it. The wheel of time and destiny can only be broken by a different approach.
These metaphysical concepts arguably are issues Bran Stark is now wrestling with as he transforms consistently into the new incarnation of the Three-Eyed Raven, a role one wonders may have existed since time immemorial. Was it passed down to the old man who lived in the tree, before it came to Bran? Must there always be a gatekeeper of knowledge and truth in a world where only nature and time understands the grand tapestry. Either way, even if Daenerys has constructed a God-myth around herself and her revolutionary crusade, Bran is now the closest anyone in Westeros has to the real-deal. He has thrown off the shackles of traditional sentience and evolved, transmuted, into something greater.
There’s something quite heartbreaking, in fact, when the point is hammered home in the scene with Meera Reed, the young girl who lost and risked everything to bring Bran home. The young man admits Bran is gone, that he essentially died in ‘The Door’ after the Raven downloaded everything into him. We have witnessed that gradual process and erosion over the last season as Bran has consumed knowledge of the universe, of past and future, seeing all possible events and timelines running in tandem. He has become that metaphysical construct Littlefinger told Sansa in the previous episode and, indeed, David Benioff & D.B Weiss have done a much better job depicting the slow change and death of Bran as a person than they have done with Jon, following his resurrection.
Perhaps because one wonders if they simply didn’t feel Jon’s rebirth wasn’t simply Martin writing them, figuratively, into a corner. If Jon turns out to be Azor Ahai, the prince who was promised to save the world from the Long Night, the resurrection will have served a purpose, but it could just as easily at this stage be Daenerys or Beric Dondarrion or even The Hound (as some fantastic theories have lately espoused). The difference with Bran is that his transformation into a spiritual, computer-based entity essentially, a living God of time and space, has a clear value: not only in visions allowing us as an audience to witness key events in Game of Thrones history, but to set specific characters onto the paths of destiny they need to take.
Bran does this here with Arya Stark, following her unexpected and emotional return to Winterfell (yet another moment of pay off in a season truly sticking the landing where that’s concerned). Arya probably has the most in common with Bran in many respects; she too has experienced a level of transference into something beyond the limits of humanity. Sansa & co at this stage don’t know the half of it; Arya may be able to best Brienne in swordplay and spook her sister with her death list, but Arya can literally become no one and anyone, via means that can only be magical in nature thanks to what she learned through the Faceless Men. If Bran is a conduit, Arya is an instrument.
One wonders if this is what Littlefinger suspects, given he gives the dagger to Bran, the dagger of Valryian steel used originally by a hired assassin to murder Bran way back in the first season after he witnessed Cersei & Jaime’s incest. If anything suggests people have been wrong about Littlefinger not having a master plan, it’s giving this dagger to Bran. Remember the significance of this dagger – beyond the attempt on Bran, it was later primed to Catelyn Stark as part of Littlefinger’s unknown to this day machinations that started the War of Five Kings, led to Ned Stark’s death, and triggered almost the entire political instability that has existed since King Robert’s death. Everything started with Littlefinger.
Bran knows this. He specifically quotes Baelish’s ‘chaos is a ladder’ speech which he gives Lord Varys back in the days they haunted King’s Landing, manipulating global events behind the scenes. Bran is aware of Littlefinger’s ultimate game, and likely understands how far ahead his mind is working. Recall what Littlefinger told Sansa in the last episode; metaphysically fight and wage every battle in your mind, always. He’s the ultimate proponent of not just game theory but almost an evolutionary level of transference himself. Where he may find Bran useful is attempting to ally and tap the literal manifestation of this he can see in the Stark boy.
Did Littlefinger use Bran here? That’s the question. It’s unlikely. Bran gave that dagger to Arya for a reason neither we nor she at this stage understands. A dagger to defeat White Walkers perhaps, or to destroy the Mountain or Cersei. Either are possible. Both are chess pieces Bran understands as part of the larger whole he can now see, as in many respects can Littlefinger. Arya comes to realise, as does Sansa, how much their lives have changed in the years since Ned was alive, as they look upon a crypt statue they find inaccurately constructed. Memory, again, at work in the tapestry of Game of Thrones. Knowledge, wisdom and understanding, even down to remembering the faces of people who mattered.
By the end of ‘The Spoils of War’, one senses profound changes are brewing across Westeros, in a variety of domains. The chess pieces are continuing to move but the wheel is holding. Daenerys hasn’t found the way in which she can break the cyclical nature of events which have caused history to repeat time and time again, and it may take events out of her control to make this a reality. For while the battle here may have taken a significant turn, the war has most certainly not yet been won.