Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 7, “The Dragon and the Wolf”

“The Dragon and the Wolf” isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t quite make up for the narrative failings of the previous two episodes, but it’s spectacular in terms of the acting, directing, and cinematography, and a massive 81 minute runtime means that there’s more space for everything to play out instead of being rushed. The scenes in King’s Landing felt like a return to GoT of old, and the confrontation between Tyrion and Cersei may be my favourite scene of the season.

It’s a very well-paced episode, but its greatest strength lies in the way it weaves its character arcs. Arguably, there’s as much character development in “The Dragon and the Wolf” than there was in the previous six episodes of the season. Tyrion, Jaime, Cersei, Daenerys and Jon all have a mini-arc of their own in this episode, and you can make the same argument for Theon, Arya and Sansa.

My issues with “The Dragon and the Wolf” are mostly limited to minor quibbles (Jon’s name is Aegon? Seriously?) and the fact that it doesn’t do quite enough to resolve some of the season’s earlier storytelling issues. Yes, Sansa and Arya were revealed to be on the same side, but that doesn’t excuse her weird behaviour in “Beyond the Wall”. Also, the lack of #CLEGANEBOWL was concerning, but #BoatSex mostly made up for it.

King’s Landing would be the logical place to start this review. I was a little concerned to see that the first dialogue of the episode was some of the usual ‘witty banter’ that Benioff and Weiss are known for, but the conversation quickly took a turn away from cocks and eunuchs to something more prescient. I don’t know how Grey Worm got to King’s Landing, or who controls Casterly Rock, or how Euron sailed back round Westeros (again), but I’ll let these problems slide, for now.

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The first 12 minutes of the episode concern the buildup to the parley in the Dragonpit, and it was good to see the reunion between Podrick, Bronn and Tyrion – something I was pleasantly surprised by, as I’d completely forgot it was happening. Brienne and the Hound also bonded over their not-quite-parental ‘love’ of Arya Stark. The location used for the Dragonpit and the scenes surrounding it is beautiful, and the long takes are fantastic. More on the cinematography later.

Things get going once our main characters reach the Dragonpit. Dany comes soaring on her dragon, in a scene that, frankly, is a little shoddy, but would have been impossible for the VFX team to make believable. Everyone shares some tense looks. We get teased for Cleganebowl, though ultimately the brawl that was promised never takes place. But that’s okay, because this is a talky episode, and a massive fight in the middle would have been a bit distracting. On that note, I can see why they got Jeremy Podeswa to helm this one, because the man is a master at long, complicated dialogue scenes. Between his excellent blocking and direction and the damn-near-flawless performances of all the actors (both the five principals and the supporting cast), the whole Dragonpit scene is one of the show’s most memorable, and it doesn’t rely on fancy VFX. And to give credit where credit is due, Benioff and Weiss wrote some truly outstanding material for this scene.

However, the best scene of the episode is the one which comes after, where Tyrion ominously walks back into the Red Keep and sits down for an audience with Cersei. Lena Headey’s Emmy is long-overdue, but if there’s ever been a scene that is Emmy gold, I think this is it. Headey and Dinklage have some of the best screen chemistry in the entire show, playing off each other’s subtle cues perfectly. Headey’s Cersei is like an onion; peel away the layers and you will reveal a vulnerable soul, but beneath that vulnerability is iron, and beneath that are yet more layers. It’s a strange world where a woman’s reluctance to kill her brother – one of the show’s most beloved characters – is heartbreaking. And as for Dinklage, his performance opposite Headey reminded me of why I loved his character so much in Seasons 1-4. This is also one of Dinklage’s very best episodes, matching up to “Baelor” and “Blackwater” – the former of which he won an Emmy for. It was one hell of a performance. And once again, this scene was impeccably directed and shot.

Cersei comes out and proclaims that she’s going to fight alongside the Northmen. Of course, this is a lie – like her pregnancy, I suspect – and I think Tyrion knows it. Nonetheless, Jon and Dany accept that this is the best that they’re going to get, and head off to Dragonstone together. The rest of the King’s Landing arc is the build-up to Jaime finally saying what we’ve been waiting for him to say since Season 5: inspired by Brienne and Tyrion, he tells Cersei that if she wants to take back the Seven Kingdoms, she can bloody well do it alone. There’s a moment where Ser Gregor threatens Jaime – to which I had a genuine “holy shit” reaction – but then, in a brilliant scene that parallels the Cersei-Tyrion encounter from earlier – she shows mercy once again, and displays some weakness under that cold veneer. She heads off after him, but stops himself. She must be a queen.

Over on Dragonstone, there’s a council meeting where Jorah attempts to subtly cockblock Jon, but the real point of these scenes are the conclusion to Theon’s fantastic arc in this episode. While I felt the “I have no balls” trick was a little cheesy and over-the-top, it does a wonderful job in keeping to the ironborn idea that “what is dead may never die”.  Theon gets back up, beats the shit out of ratface, and then falls down in the sand. This shot, designed by DP Gregory Middleton, with Theon in the foreground and the bluffs of Dragonstone behind him, is absolutely perfect.

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Up at Winterfell, Littlefinger gets schooled. Sophie Turner’s performance as Sansa was so genuine that I believed that Sansa had fallen for his shtick, and that this was ‘bad writing by those untalented hacks D & D’. So I was pleasantly surprised when the scene was turned on its head, and Sansa, in a brilliantly written scene, turns Littlefinger’s words on him and has him comprehensively torn to pieces. Then there’s Aidan Gillen’s reaction; he goes from mild confusion to desperation to a complete broken man in a scene that demonstrates the full extent of the actor’s ability. Farewell, Littlefinger. I won’t miss you… but at the same time, like all good villains, I think I will.

On the whole, I still don’t think this justifies the Winterfell storyline this year, which has been damnably poor in places. Though at the same time, I don’t think Benioff and Weiss could have conceivably written anything else. Winterfell is “on hold” this season, and for the plot to last until the finale, Littlefinger has to make some dumb decisions and Bran has to not bother talking to his sisters.

The scene ends with Sansa’s “the pack survives” line from the trailer. I was pleased to see the reprisal of the battlements shot from “The Winds of Winter”. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this shot closes out the series, with the surviving Starks standing solemnly together on the wallwalk as we cut to black one last time.

Sam turns up at Winterfell unexpectedly late in the episode, and immediately shares his findings with Bran, in a scene that felt a bit ‘off’ for reasons I can’t really describe. Bran then does some shady stuff with the fire and transports himself to Rhaegar and Lyanna’s wedding. I found it strange that Bran didn’t already know about this; considering that he’s done so much ‘research’ into Jon’s lineage, his findings didn’t really amount to anything. After so many years, we finally see Rhaegar… and he’s a bit disappointing, looking a bit like a discount Viserys. Personally I think would have been better to tease us with the joining of hands, but not to show Rhaegar’s face, but it’s not a huge problem, I suppose. This scene is intercut with Jon and Dany having tastefully directed sex on a boat… #BoatSex it wasn’t everything it had been cracked up to be, but then again, what more do you want? Also, Jon Snow’s name is Aegon, apparently. I still think Aemon would have been a much better name for him, but it’s not like everyone’s going to be calling him Aegon next season, is it?

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The episode ends with the Wall coming down. The Night King soars in on Viserion and burns the whole thing to rubble, allowing the army of the dead to swarm through the gap while an ice dragon soars overhead. It was what I’d been expecting since the start of the season, but seeing the great icy monolith – one of the few remaining constants in Westeros – come crashing down truly emphasized the power of the foe that the Seven Kingdoms will be facing in the wars ahead.

“The Dragon and the Wolf” is the episode that has rescued Season 7. It’s not a quiet episode, but it is reflective and thoughtful, and the reunions we saw here will not be easily forgotten. More than that, from a visual and cinematographical standpoint, this is possibly the most beautiful episode in the entire show. Whatever missteps Podeswa and Middleton made in previous seasons are always and completely forgiven. I’d be surprised to see this director back for Season 8, but with this sort of legacy, does it really matter?

It would be remiss not to recognise Michelle Clapton and Ramin Djawadi for their roles in this episode. Having everyone all in black has been unsettling, but it has paid off, and Djawadi’s score – particularly “Truth” and “Army of the Dead” – has been exemplary.

As for Benioff and Weiss… well, they’ve made some mis-steps with this season, notably in “Beyond the Wall”, but if you want proof that they can write, look no further than this episode. Oh, I’ll nitpick them to death, but I respect these ‘talentless hacks’ really.

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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 4, “The Spoils of War”

This review contains SPOILERS for the fourth episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “The Spoils of War”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.

At just 50 minutes long – leaving me thinking, wait, is it over? – “The Spoils of War” is the shortest episode of Game of Thrones to date. Nonetheless, this episode perfectly demonstrates that quality is far better than quantity – a maxim this season seems to be taking to heart. It’s an incredibly tight piece of writing far superior to anything else this season, but though the dialogue scenes of “The Spoils of War” make up its skeleton, its heart comes from the action sequence which bookends the episode, an explosion of high fantasy action and violence that should make even the most cynical Thrones-viewers stare agape at their screens. Every time I hear the phrase “YASSSSS QUEEN” I get a slight urge to scratch out my eyes, but for once that sentiment rings true with this episode.

The ending sequence of “The Spoils of War” is the love-child of “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome”; in shooting the final sequence, director Matt Shakman and DP Robert McLachlan have definitely taken cues from last year’s bloody extravaganza directed by Miguel Sapochnik, with cinematography by Fabian Wagner. That being said, Shakman and McLachlan have definitely brought some personality of their own to the early segments of the episode.

In the case of these battle episodes, you have to be careful not to judge the entire episode on the merits of a single sequence. In the case of “Battle of the Bastards”, the complete lack of story continuity means that I cannot in good faith rank the episode any higher than tenth in my list of favourites. But even without the final ambush scene, “The Spoils of War” is a fantastic episode. The scenes at Winterfell and Dragonstone justify that, with all the actors displaying excellent chemistry across the board. I feel like I should immediately address my comment from last week about Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington’s chemistry. Last week they seemed awkward and stilted, as though performing against each other’s doubles and then having the pieces stitched together in post. But in this week’s cave scenes, under low lighting, careful blocking, and with a script that inferred romantic tension instead of blaring out the obvious, they were fantastic together, and I’m now thinking “The Queen’s Justice” was the exception rather than the rule.

S07E04 Dany Album Cover.jpgThe Dragonstone scenes were excellent all round. I particularly enjoyed the callback to Season 5 in the exchange between Jon and Davos – “How many men do we have to fight [the Night King]? 10,000? Less?”; “Fewer”; “What?” – which proves that Benioff and Weiss can be more subtle in their nods to the fandom than they have been previously. My only criticsm of these scenes is that the Jon/Theon scene felt a little too small in the grand scheme of things, though for the sake of pacing, I think D & D made the right choice in cutting it.

(And I’ve contradicted myself already. Great.)

Meanwhile in Winterfell, Arya comes home. Her arrival, and the subsequent challenge by the guards, is a lovely callback to a scene from Season 1 when she arrives back in King’s Landing and is similarly sent away. I liked that Benioff and Weiss made the circumstances of her arrival different to how they had been with the Jon-Sansa and Sansa-Bran reunions. I wouldn’t have complained about the usual courtyard embrace, but I think the idea of giving Arya one last trial at the end was a beautiful way both of concluding her six-season-long arc, and of illustrating the changes all the Starks have faced along the way.

Though the Stark reunion was touching, and I certainly felt something in my cold stone heart, the most emotional sequence for me this week was the parting of Bran and Meera. It’s good that D & D explained the change in Bran – “I am the three-eyed raven now” – though I still think this should have been illustrated early, perhaps instead of one of the filler scenes from “Stormborn”. Nonetheless, this is an unjust, harrowing, and horrifically inappropriate ending for Meera, one of the show’s must underappreciated and heroic characters. But this is GoT, and even moreso than in the books, heroes do not get what they deserve. There will be no Bran/Meera romance, no expressions of love or even friendship, only this moment to remember her… and the chance at living away from the horrors of the Long Night with her family, which, I suppose, is reward enough in this world.

But because someone has to say it, I will. Thank you, Meera Reed – though ‘thank you’ is not enough. You deserved better. And thank you, Ellie Kendrick. You acted your heart out of this, and didn’t get nearly enough appreciation either. I hope to see you back in Season 8, and maybe with Howland Reed at your side.

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Brienne got a scene this week, and Podrick had his first lines of the season, which is good. While it’s a shame that Brienne hasn’t really had much to do this year, it’s good to see Gwendoline Christie putting in a performance somewhat more in line from the Brienne we know from the books, instead of the murderous killing machine from Season 5. Her sequence with Arya was also one of the best small-scale fights the show has ever done; I particularly liked Shakman’s choice of set – one where it allowed Sansa to overlook things but gave a sense of confinedness to Arya and Brienne’s fight at the same time – and his use of POV camera angles. And damn, those are some acrobatics.

But the meat of the episode is the Field of Fire, where Jaime and Bronn facedown against Dany and her dragons. Without doubt, these 15 minutes of battle are some of the most heart-poundingly beautiful and fantastically tense we’ve ever seen in Thrones.

A lot of the battles in Thrones come down to their iconic moments, and “The Spoils of War” has these in abundance. The episode is shot to make you remember these instances: the charge of the Dothraki and their yodelling war cry, the moment Drogon descends from the clouds and Ramin Djawadi’s excellent score amps it up, the shots Bronn takes at the dragon from Qyburn’s ballista, coupled with the excellent sound design of… um… burning men. The VFX department deserves all due credit for making Drogon look more realistic than ever (so that’s where the budget went) – indeed, to paraphrase Joe Bauer himself, “the best thing you can say about VFX is that you didn’t notice it”. But the thing which elevates “The Spoils of War” above “Battle of the Bastards” is its emotional through-line. Much as BotB followed Jon, we’re now encouraged to follow Jaime, Bronn, and lastly Tyrion through the battle. It’s an interesting choice to shoot Dany from a wide-shot, limited perspective, as it gives her that cold aloofness that I think we need to show her that she is not just the mother of dragons, but also that dragons are a merciless and potentially apocalyptic weapon of mass destruction. “The Spoils of War” gets this across possibly for the first time.

There were moments when I was rooting for Bronn, only to remember that without Drogon we don’t get any of these sequences, only to remember that Bronn is cool, and so on. And in the final sequence, where Jaime was charging down Dany, I admit that I was firmly in the Jaime camp at that moment… yet from a narrative perspective, we would feel so cheated if Benioff and Weiss killed off Dany here. So Dany has to live. But Jaime also has to live. But—

In the end, I think Bronn should have died. I think both he and Jaime will miraculously make it to next week, but in that case, I feel like this is ‘jumping the shark’ a little too much. Nonetheless, I can’t deny that Bronn’s epic sideways dive was among the most exciting moments of Thrones, possibly ever, next to scenes like Dany’s arrival on the battlefield… the Bronn tracking shot… the ballista scene… wait, these were all in the same episode.

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In the end, the only thing that remains to be judged is whether “The Spoils of War” is the best battle of all time. I think I’m going to have to go with “No”, since the sheer feelings of dread conjured up by Hardhome weren’t overtopped, but it’s a damned good battle, and the story and emotional moments make much more sense that “Battle of the Bastards”. However, it’s an incredible feat for 15 minutes, and when you put the rest of the episode next to it, “The Spoils of War” definitely stands up as the finest episode of the season so far, and one of the top 5 episodes of all time.