Disclaimer: There are no spoilers in this article. I have no knowledge of what is to transpire in this story. Any views or content expressed are solely personal theories, opinions and insights.
THE SPOILS OF WAR
Clocking in at a duration of 46 minutes, the shortest episode in Thrones history felt anything but. In just one short episode, Arya makes it back to Winterfell after an impossibly challenging journey; things heat up between Jon Snow and Dany in the caves below Dragonstone; and last, but certainly not least, we see Dany ride a dragon into battle for the very first time. Oh, and let’s not forget about the ancient inscriptions we saw in the caves below Dragonstone. These symbols are thousands of years old and point to some of the most significant hidden truths of this world — truths that may just determine how this entire story ends. But we’ll get to that. Any of these developments were meaningful enough to carry an entire episode, so getting all at once was quite a bit to process. So let’s begin.
TO THE VICTOR GOES THE SPOILS
In an episode entitled The Spoils of War, there were many “spoils” of recent battles revealed in this episode, both good and bad. The most obvious spoils were those won by Cercei in her siege of Highgarden, which we see as the episode opens up with Jamie sending all of Highgarden’s gold off to King’s Landing. Cercei is seen moments later talking with Tycho of the Iron Bank, reminding him that his gold is on the way and that a Lannister always pays their debts. But Cercei mentioned something else — something many may have missed — something which revealed a part of her future plan. Cercei tells Tycho that she has reached out to the Golden Company to help her secure some of the things that belong to her.
As a quick refresher, the Golden Company is an Essos-based army of sellswords who do not fight for any house or ruler, but rather for whoever contracts and pays them. We’ve heard of the Golden Company in the past as Daario Naharis once fought for the Golden Company, prior to pledging his allegiance to Khaleesi. (Speaking of Daario Naharis, what’s he been up to and when will we see him again? I digress…) Anyway, it was a very quick nugget of dialogue, but not one that was coincidental, so it’s worth considering what Cercei is hiring the Golden Company for and what it is that she hopes they can return to her. But back to Jaime and Bronn at Highgarden, as they send their newfound gold back to King’s Landing, they instruct Randyll and Dickon Tarly to collect all the farmland produce of Highgarden, an additional spoil of war (remember, Highgarden has the most fertile lands in all of the Seven Kingdoms). Little do they know that those carts of food are never making it back to King’s Landing…
A MYSTERIOUS DAGGER
Things have been quite busy at Winterfell as of late and that trend surely continued this week. We arrive at Winterfell as we see Bran sitting in his new wheelchair, looking just as distant and aloof as he did last week. Knelt before him is Baelish, who presents him with the Valyrian steel dagger that was used in the attempt to kill Bran back in season one. Bran asks Baelish if he knows who the dagger belonged to and Baelish tells Bran that he does not. For starters, this is inconsistent with what he told Catelyn Stark back in season one, so Baelish was either lying to Catelyn or is now lying to Bran. Let’s do a quick recap of what we know about this dagger — because my bet is that there is more to come on this.
Back in season one, Bran was climbing the walls of Winterfell and saw Jaime and Cercei sleeping together, at which point Jaime pushed Bran from the wall to protect the secret of their incest. But when Bran survived the fall and lay comatose in bed, somebody came to finish the job — a man with the Valyrian dagger we saw this week. Catelyn tried to save Bran, but it was Bran’s direwolf, Summer, who killed the assassin and saved Bran’s life. Catelyn then left for King’s Landing (with the Valyrian dagger) to inform Ned (who was already at King’s Landing at the request of King Robert) of the attempt to kill Bran. In a scene at Baelish’s brothel, Catelyn presents the dagger, at which point Baelish tells her that the dagger had belonged to him but that he had lost it to Tyrion in a bet. Believing this to be true, Catelyn had Tyrion arrested when she encountered him on her trip back to Winterfell (this led to Tyrion being held prisoner at the Vale, before demanding a trial-by-combat, at which point Bronn fought for Tyrion and won, gaining him his freedom). After Ned was arrested in King’s Landing, Baelish retook possession of the dagger and has presumably had it ever since. Now, years later, he chooses to present it to Bran, but tells Bran that he does not know who it belonged to, which is quite different from what he told Catelyn years prior.
Going one step further, a few episodes back, we saw a dagger that looked quite similar in one of the books that Sam Tarly was reading. My guess is that they were not showing a different dagger that looked very similar to this one, but rather that they were the same dagger, which further amplifies the significance of the dagger we saw today. There are some definite question marks around this Valyrian steel dagger, but it seems to be a safe assumption that it is of moderate to major significance.
After Baelish presents Bran with the dagger, he tries to appear empathetic to the “chaos” Bran has returned home to. However, Bran cuts him off and reminds him that “chaos is a ladder.” Bran is referring to the “chaos is a ladder” speech that Baelish gave to Varys in the third season. Baelish’s face turns stern and he appears threatened by the fact that Bran is aware of these words he once spoke. After all, if Bran knows this, what else might he know about Baelish? But looking one layer deeper — what does this “chaos is a ladder” reference tell us? After all, if the sole intention of this scene was to expose Baelish and show us that because Bran is now the Three-Eyed Raven, he is aware of something Baelish once said, well then writers could have chosen any of Baelish’s wise words for Bran to repeat. But they chose these words for a reason. Baelish’s full quote follows, with the video below: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
Now, let’s piece that quote together with present-day context. Baelish has been lurking around Winterfell, often hidden in the shadows, leaving all of us to wonder what he’s up to and what his true intentions are. Well perhaps these words — the words he spoke many years back — words the all-knowing Bran chooses to repeat — sum up Baelish’s true intentions. For him, the climb is all there is. It is not so much about the endpoint, as much as it is the climb to get there. In short, it is all about the game and how you play it — to him, that is the very purpose of life. If the words he speaks are true, then he is not interested in love or the gods or the good of the realm — his only interest is the climb itself and Bran appears to be aware of this.
And yet, there is another interesting layer to this scene, one that can only be understood when considering Baelish’s history. About 20 years ago, it was Brandon Stark (Ned’s oldest brother and heir to Winterfell) who was set to marry Cat. Baelish, a young boy in love with Cat, challenged Brandon to a duel to win the hand of Cat. Brandon agreed to the duel, promising Cat that he would not kill Baelish. Brandon was a powerful warrior and Baelish was far from a fighter, so as one would assume, Baelish was badly beaten and severely injured. Brandon would later ride to King’s Landing to free his sister Lyanna, and would be killed by the Mad King, which resulted in Ned marrying Cat instead of Brandon. In any event, this experience would forever impact Baelish, as he was severely humiliated, physically beaten and also lost the woman of his dreams. Though he would not admit it, he developed a strong jealousy and hatred for the Starks as a result, and many believe this is why he would betray Ned and have him arrested in King’s Landing many years later.
Now, in this scene, Baelish tells Bran “Anything I can do for you Brandon, you need only ask.” When assessing the authenticity of Baelish’s statement, it’s significant to note that he refers to him as Brandon instead of Bran. Very few have referred to Bran as Brandon. Couple that with the fact that it was Brandon Stark (Bran’s uncle) who badly defeated Baelish, and there is some definite undertone to Baelish’s choice to refer to Bran and Brandon. And going back to Baelish’s earlier quote: “Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them.” Baelish’s fall was his defeat at the hands of Brandon Stark — a fall that would not break him as it has broken so many others. For Baelish, it was that very fall that serves as the driving factor for him to keep climbing the “ladder of chaos.”
Elsewhere in Winterfell, Arya finally makes her return home. After years separated, the reunions of so many of the Stark children so close together seems a bit odd, but let’s look past that. Let’s reflect upon all that Arya has been through to lead up to this moment. Witnessed your father’s beheading? Check. Present for the Red Wedding when your mother and brother are ruthlessly murdered? Check. Spent years getting beaten, blinded and tortured in Braavos? Check. Arya has been through enough pain and torture to last 10 lifetimes, yet she has overcome it all and prevailed as an incredibly powerful character who has willed herself back to Winterfell against all odds.
But, similar to the reunion last week between Sansa and Bran, the reunion this week between Arya and Sansa was less than emotional. After all the time these family members have spent apart, we all assumed their reunions would be wonderful and emotional and joyous. But, the reality is that these characters have experienced an incredible amount of hardship and have been reunited as very different people. That said, what is interesting about the reunion between Sansa and Arya is that the juxtaposition of their characters is still quite similar to what it was all the way back in season one. At that time, Sansa only wanted to be a lady and Arya was the rebel who wanted to fight with the boys. Fast forward years later and they are reunited with Sansa being the lady of Winterfell and Arya being a ruthless assassin. Ironically, in many ways, they’ve both become the people they always wanted to be — albeit neither forecasted the pain they’d experience to become those people.
While it is nice to see these characters reunite, there are giant question marks around what comes next for these siblings and whether or not they are even truly on the same team. As they stood in the crypts of Winterfell, Arya tells Sansa about her list — the list of people she wants to kill. Sansa laughs this off, assuming her sister must be joking. Yet, moments later, she sees the skilled fighter Arya has become as she is able to best Brienne, one of the most skilled fighters in the land. Interestingly, when Brienne asks Arya who taught her, she cleverly responds, “Nobody.” As Sansa witnesses this, she realizes the truth of what her little sister had revealed about her list and the person Arya has become. She seems displeased to say the least, and she walks away, Baelish looks on with a grin, perhaps identifying a new opportunity that he can leverage.
Out in the Godswood, Bran, Sansa and Arya are all reunited together, in a place that is most sacred to House Stark (and now, especially to Bran). Sansa casually reveals to Arya that Bran is able to see everything that any person has ever experienced. Moments later, Bran gives that mysterious dagger to Arya, furthering the significance of this weapon. Given Bran’s wisdom, it is unlikely that he gave it to Arya simply because he did not have use for it. Rather, it is more likely that Bran is aware of the significance of this dagger and the role it may play in the hands of Arya. Looking on, Sansa seemed somewhat displeased, furthering the tension that exists between the two.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SPIRAL
At Dragonstone, Jon Snow has discovered the cache of Dragonglass and takes Dany into the cave to see it. The scene (intentionally) felt intimate and steamy, with Jon and Dany alone in a dark cave — a familiar setting to Jon Snow (it was in a dark cave that he first got it on with Ygritte many seasons ago). It felt as though there was potential for Jon and Dany to get it on right then and there, and though this never would have happened that quickly, the stage is certainly set for the possibility of it happening in the future. Yes, they are blood and she is his aunt, but they don’t know that yet. And even if they did, remember that the Targaryens practiced incest for thousands of years to keep their bloodline pure. And while the alone time Jon and Dany had was a nice buildup to what might come, there was a much bigger takeaway from this scene.
First, Jon discovered the Dragonglass — enough of it to presumably make weapons for an entire army to fight off the White Walkers. But even that was not the biggest takeaway here. Imagine that — supplies were just discovered which will enable the humans to possibly fight off an army of the dead that threatens the very existence of humanity — and that wasn’t even the most important discovery! So what was the biggest takeaway here? The answer is the inscriptions on the walls, more specifically, the spirals. Though we do not fully understand what the spirals represent, we do know they are extremely significant and possibly represent the ultimate clue to how this entire story will play out.
So here’s what we know. The inscriptions on the walls were made by the Children of the Forest thousands of years ago. As we know from this story, the Children were the very first inhabitants of Westeros, having lived off the land for thousands of years before the First Men ever arrived. You can read more about the Children of the Forest and the First Men here — and if you aren’t fully clued in on this history, I would highly recommend you refresh yourself. Though the Children lived without humans for thousands of years, the inscriptions on the wall show the Children and the First Men together. As Jon explains to Dany, they banded together to fight off the White Walkers, which we also saw on the wall. But that wasn’t all we saw on the wall. Perhaps most significant were the spirals — a symbol we have seen throughout the show since the very first season — and one that is going to be extremely important. So let’s recap where we’ve seen this symbol to date.
In the very first episode, a ranger of the Night’s Watch stumbled upon some dead bodies north of the Wall. When he returned, he saw the corpses mutilated and rearranged in the below orientation.
A few seasons later, again north of the Wall, we see a bunch of dead horses arranged in an even more definitive spiral (below), again the work of the White Walkers.
But things get a lot more interesting, because we later learn in season six, that it is not just the White Walkers that deal in these spirals, but also the Children of the Forest. In one of Bran’s vision, and in an incredibly important reveal, we learn that it is actually the Children of the Forest that create the very first White Walker (who is probably the Night King we see today) by inserting Dragonglass into his heart (see below for a refresher).
What we also see in this vision is a bird’s-eye-view of the tree where the Children created the first White Walker. At this very important location, we see a similar spiral (below).
And last, but certainly not least, the teaser trailer for this season culminated with another similar spiral, before it is engulfed by the blue eye of the Night King (below). The importance of this spiral and what it has to do with the White Walkers could not be made any more clear.
So what does all of this tell us? Well, we may not know exactly what the spiral represents, but we know it is important. Perhaps the spiral represents some sort of balance between dark and light, good and evil, fire and ice. Whatever it represents, what we do know is that it was something significant to the Children of the Forest, who were a magical species. What’s more, we know that the White Walkers learned this truth from the Children and are referencing it today. Bringing it full circle to tonight’s episode, we see that these very same spirals were carved into the cave thousands of years ago. And not just in any cave — into the cave which shares the story of the Children banning together with the First Men to fight off the White Walkers — and the cave that also contains the Dragonglass needed to fight off the White Walkers today. In short, these spirals are extremely significant and could contain the secret to what is really going on here — a fundamental truth shared between the Children and the White Walkers — and one we will likely find out before this story comes to an end.
FIRE AND BLOOD
It was only a matter of time until Khaleesi flew a dragon into battle, and after being dealt several decisive blows in the last few weeks, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Khaleesi, on the back of Drogon, flew into battle with her Dothraki army and decimated the unsuspecting Lannister army. For the first time, we saw the full impact that a dragon can have in battle, burning men by the hundreds with each breath of fire. And we saw the destruction that Targaryens have inflicted for hundreds of years, scorching alive those who defy them, watching their flesh melt and burn. This battle was a direct allusion to the Field of Fire — perhaps the most famous battle of Aegon’s Conquest.
As Khaleesi approached, Bronn encouraged Jaime to flee but Jaime refused to abandon his men. Incredibly, Jaime and Bronn both managed to remain unscathed (at least for most of the battle). One of the more powerful moments of this battle was Tyrion ascending over the hill to look on at the Lannister army being destroyed, men being burnt alive. Though he is obviously not a typical Lannister, the reality is that these are still the people that he called his own his entire life. It is one thing to strategize about how to defeat your family when they are halfway across the world; it is another to come face to face with the realities of your decision, especially when those realities result in the death and destruction of your people. As much hate as Tyrion had for Tywin and still has for Cersei, a part of him had to be questioning his decision as he watched the Lannisters forces being burned alive.
And then he sees Jaime, who he can only hope is smart enough to flee. The timing could not be more poignant, as just last week, Jaime learns that he made the right decision in saving his brother Tyrion, who was in fact not responsible for the death of Joffrey for which he was accused. Yet one week later, Jaime’s life is at risk, in large due the brother he saved. Jaime sees a vulnerable Khaleesi within striking distance, and decides to go after her, no doubt willing to risk his life to eliminate the principal threat to his sister’s reign. Just feet away from taking out Khaleesi, who has been grounded after Drogon was harpooned, Drogon turns to Jaime and breathes fire in his direction. Jaime is all but dead, until he is tackled off his horse and into a body of water, just in the nick of time. It appears to be Bronn that saves Jaime, but this is not definite. It also appears that Jaime avoided the fire, though the nature in which he continues to sink deeper, seemingly lifeless, brings question to this. Assuming that he is alive, will the tables now be turned, with Tyrion having the opportunity to save his brother, the way Jaime once saved him?
Above all, one thing is abundantly clear. The world will soon know of the fire and blood that Khaleesi’s dragons can bring. How will the people of Westeros react when they hear this? Will they support the return of a rightful ruler or fear the madness of a Targaryen?
ODDS & ENDS
- Meera informs Bran that she must return home to her family. She knows the White Walkers are coming and she must be there to protect her family. (Though the show does not really touch upon it, House Reed is a major house in the North and it will be interesting to see if we get to see Meera’s family). Much like when he was reunited with Sansa last week, Bran once again shows no emotion as he says goodbye to Meera. Meera reminds Bran of all the people that died to save him, and though he understands her point, he reminds her that he is no longer Bran, but rather the Three-Eyed Raven.
- Though Drogon was wounded, he will likely be okay. A non-lethal wound might turn out to be a small price to pay for Team Khaleesi to have learned about the secret weapon Cersei has been working on.
- When Brienne asks Arya who trained her, she responds “Nobody.” She could have been referring to Jaqen H’ghar, the Faceless Man who trained her quite some time. But the man who truly taught her what we witnessed in this scene, was Syrio Forel, the man who taught her the Water Dance (a Bravoosi way of fighting) all the way back in season one. While Jaqen was a Faceless Man and it would make sense to refer to him as “nobody,” the same cannot be said of Syrio, unless Syrio was in fact Jaqen H’ghar all along. It is entirely possible that Jaqen was training Arya since the very beginning, pretending to be Syrio Forel in the first season.
- Dany again asks Jon Snow to bend the knee and the next thing we see is the two walking out from the cave. It is possible that he bent the knee without us seeing.
- Jon Snow comes face to face with Theon and does a pretty good job at composing himself.