For the third episode in a row, Game of Thrones has devoted its final act to the sort of blockbuster battle sequence that would’ve been unthinkable on TV a few years ago. Now it’s a weekly treat, and the dish presented to us in ‘The Spoils of War’ was the most visceral, disarming battle since Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton went head to head in the sludge at Winterfell.
Indeed, the sequence – led by a shot of Bronn in the chaos which owes a lot to the opening scene of The Revenant – overshadows all that comes before it. Raised eyebrows abound as Jon and Dany enjoy a deeply flirtatious look at cave paintings, whilst Arya, Sansa and Bran are reunited (reminding us that three way conversations between child actors are, at best, tedious). In King’s Landing, Cersei settles her debts with the Iron Bank and immediately takes out a second mortgage on the Red Keep. But this episode is really about the clash between the looters of Highgarden and the Dothraki horde (oh, and a full grown dragon ridden by the presumptive queen of the Seven Kingdoms), with one character rising above the fray: Bronn.
This was an episode that reminded us that the ultimate battles – for the Iron Throne and against the army of the dead – are not the only successes and failures in the Game of Thrones universe. Bronn, a Flea Bottom dwelling sellsword, is in a position where he’s bartering for the keys to Highgarden, historic seat of one of the greatest houses in Westeros. But Bronn has not just been elevated in terms of titles, cash and castles; he’s become the great hero of the baddies. For seven seasons now, he’s been fighting for the teams we dislike – against the Starks, for the Lannisters, and now firing arrows into Drogon – without becoming a villain himself. Indeed, because of Bronn, whom we like far more than the one dimensional Dothraki, we’re in danger of sympathising with House Lannister as their troops are immolated from the sky and scythed down on the ground.
Bronn is the ebb and flow, the rise and fall, of Game of Thrones, far more than the lords and ladies who have merely shuffled their cards over several years. Bronn started without a hand at all and even though he still doesn’t hold all the aces (that sort of social mobility is reserved for Littlefinger), he has solid cards and he plays them with the chutzpah of a man throwing himself in the way of dragonfire. He is a mercurial presence in the narrative, spinning our impressions of characters on a sixpence: he redeemed Tyrion when he seemed to be little more than drunken comic relief, and he has inadvertently redeemed Jaime, in the face of incontrovertible criticisms. He is in the awkward position of being the hero of House Lannister, the side everyone is rooting against.
The final 10 minutes of ‘The Spoils of War’ create the same sort of bladder-clenching exhilaration that characterised ‘The Battle of the Bastards’, ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ and ‘Hardhome’. That it comes out of nowhere and is set against backdrops that initially look like the painted landscapes of 1940s Westerns, was initially disarming, but the crush of steel, flesh and fire that ensued was distraction enough. If this is what they’re offering up as the coda to a mid-season episode, then it is hard to avoid drooling in anticipation of what will be served up when ice and fire climatically, and conclusively, meet.
For now, however, we shall have to make do with a chargrilled army and an unlikely hero. In its final moment, as Jaime faces annihilation at the mouth of the Khaleesi’s wounded dragon, the show reminds us that, while the biggest Game has yet to be won, there are smaller triumphs to be celebrated. Ser Bronn of the Blackwater not only brings down a dragon, he also makes a final second tackle that Bobby Moore would be proud of. The Game may not be over – though his race may soon be run – but Bronn is already a winner.
Game of Thrones airs on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 2am and 9pm.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.