Is that the Dothraki war cry that Jaime Lannister and his right-hand man Bronn hear in the distance … or is it Robert Plant's opening wail from "Immigrant Song"? Either way, it's one of the most intimidating sounds ever heard on television, and it's only a taste of the carnage to come. In tonight's episode – tellingly titled "The Spoils of War" – Daenerys Targaryen unleashes the full fury of her two greatest weapons: the unstoppable Dothraki hordes and the fires of her black dragon. The recipients are the unsuspecting forces of House Lannister. What follows is thrilling, no doubt. But it's So. Much. More.
As far back as the show's first major battle set piece in "Blackwater," Game of Thrones knew that splitting our sympathies between both sides of a conflict can drive home the horror and waste of war in a way that few other things can. Would supporting the ruthless Stannis Baratheon against lovable Tyrion Lannister be worth it to see Joffrey and Cersei taken down? Two seasons later, the episode "The Watchers on the Wall" pulled a similar trick, pitting Jon Snow and his Night's Watch allies against wildlings like ex-girlfriend Ygritte and the charismatic Tormund Giantsbane, all of them simply fighting for the lives of their people. In conflicts like these, good and bad are irrelevant.
In "The Spoils of War," these irresolvable conflicts get cranked up to an even more unbearable level. Jaime is a repentant villain deep into his redemption arc. Bronn is a mercenary who won over characters and audience alike with his wit and wisdom. Dany is a messianic conqueror who's saved countless lives; the very existence of her her magical beast Drogon is a miracle. How can anyone feel comfortable choosing sides? Sure, House Lannister are clearly the heels in this war, but a victory that reduces beloved characters to ash would be impossible to enjoy.
Writers creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and director Matt Shakman offer us precious little shelter from the zero-sum nature of this bloody game. Twice, they stage one-on-one conflicts between the major characters: First when Bronn stares down the beast with his massive "scorpion" crossbow; then when Jaime grabs a spear and charges the Khaleesi. These are shout-at-the-screen, cower-on-your-couch moments. Even though it appears everyone involved makes it out alive both times, it's to the filmmakers' credit that you feel inches away from the death of a credit-topping character during every second of screen time.
And if you're afraid, hey, you're not the only one. After all, nothing sells the menace of the horselords – their tactics based on the real-world Mongols, who cut through armies from China and India to Iraq and Eastern Europe like a hot knife through butter – or the shock-and-awe power of Dany's pet monsters like seeing seasoned warriors like Jaime, Bronn, and Randyll Tarly (Sam's tough-as-nails dad) scared completely shitless for minutes on end. It's so rare for actor Jerome Flynn look anything but cocksure on this show that his panic during the assault should come with a trigger warning. Meanwhile, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has long been an undervalued member of the cast, but he powerfully conveys the Kingslayer's terror, horror, and grief at watching his men get massacred. When he makes that almost-sure-to-be-fatal suicide run on Daenerys, it feels as much like his version of "suicide by cop" as a last-ditch effort to save the day.
But there's much more to "The Spoils of War" than war itself. A series of interactions far from the field of battle pay off years-long storylines and make the stakes of the fight to come abundantly clear.
In King's Landing, Cersei entertains Tycho Nestoris, the smooth-talking representative of the Iron Bank of Braavos, played by Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss. "I always thought your father was an efficient and effective man," he says admiringly, "but you appear to be redefining those terms." Since said terms include the word "man," you've got to imagine Cersei, who's spent her entire life growing more and more furious with her inability to be taken seriously by the patriarchal system, must take some pride in this – even if she's had to kill countless thousands to earn the acclaim.
In the North, Arya Stark comes home to Winterfell, reuniting not just with her siblings Sansa and Bran but with Brienne of Tarth as well. The young Stark soon beats the towering warrior in swordplay, earning her admiration – but seemingly frightening her elder sister. Their reunion was awkward but ultimately tender, culminating in a hug near their father's crypt as they quietly agreed to let the worst parts of their stories since they last saw each other remain unspoken. But between her kid sister's "kill list" and their brother's combination of psychic power and psychological detachment, Lady Stark – not to mention Jon Snow's death and resurrection – Lady Stark is left wondering if the family with whom she's reconnected is really a family at all anymore. With Littlefinger skulking around, producing a Valyrian steel dagger and reopening the scarred-over wounds of the assassination attempt on Bran during his coma in Season One, she'd better hope they are.
Finally, on Dragonstone, the Khaleesi and the King in the North share a momentous discovery. Deep in the island's dragonglass cavern, they find ancient hieroglyphs and cave drawings depicting the alliance between the Children of the Forest and the First Men against the White Walkers. The resonance of the story, in which former enemies put aside their mistrust to fight a common foe, is obvious to both of them. The power of Jon taking Dany by the arm – the two of them touching for the first time – to show her this sight is palpable as well. And though the Queen still insists that the King bend the knee before she'll promise to aid him in his fight against the dead, their alliance seems likelier than ever.
No, it's not just the mystical symbols and legends that tell us this. It's in what Missandei tells the King in the North and his hand, Ser Davos: The Khaleesi is a queen because her people have freely chosen her. "You can build a world that's different from the shit one they've always known," Jon tells her. After what we witnessed on that scorched-earth battlefield tonight, let's hope he's right.
Previously: Queen Slates