Episodes in which Daenerys can say “Dracarys” and a few hundred thousands dollars go off in CGI smoke are kind of low hanging fruit for the show. Payoffs are always more exciting than buildups. But of course, it takes a lot to get a payoff right, so this should be viewed against the backdrop that we’re talking about one of the best-made series on TV right now. And boy, does this episode shine! I already hinted last week that the clumsy setup would be eclipsed by the payoff built on it, and it’s true. This episode is a rollercoaster of payoffs, and of withheld payoffs.
Consider Winterfell, for example. Arya finally returns home, finding the place much changed. Her entry is a callback to the first season when she announced to the guards that she was “the Hand’s daughter”. Now she has to do the same shit again, and she’s taking it with a zen-like grin, waiting until she can dupe the guards like in the good old days. A good Starkling, she goes immediately down to the Crypts, where Sansa finds her. Their embrace is awkward, as their relationship always was, but also heartfelt.
A rather withheld payoff is the meeting with Bran. He knew that Arya was alive and on the road (such a prick, not telling Sansa) and is mildly surprised she didn’t go off killing Cersei. This is the only weak link of the episode, as the whole “I’m the detached, all-knowing Three-Eyed-Raven now”-routine is growing thin rather quickly. It is totally unclear what Bran actually knows and what he’s up to, and I don’t find his mystic demeanor suspenseful. It’s rather annoying, because it’s not like they wouldn’t need a shitload if intel right now to prepare. But maybe a better payoff waits further down the road. For the moment, Bran is aloof, as we can see when he dismisses Meera without so much as a good-bye.
On the other hand, Arya meeting Brienne and the two best female fighters of the continent having an undecided piss contest is just pure gold. Beautifully done and choreographed, the only element I can’t place are the reactions of Littlefinger and Sansa. Petyr Baelish looks more and more like a guy who really shouldn’t be in the presence of a seemingly all-knowing Stark, and if he is, he really shouldn’t make the topic THAT HE STARTED THE WAR OF THE FIVE KINGS front and center, but as Bran uncannily reminds him, chaos is a ladder, so maybe he’ll get to climb somewhere. Where Sansa’s problem with Arya is, I cannot say. It doesn’t matter. They are united, and it’s time to kick some zombie ass.
Progress is being made in that direction on Dragonstone, albeit slowly. Jon is showing Dany some rock carvings by the Children of Forest that he discovered, showing them fighting side by side against the Others, not incredibly subtly indicating that this is what they need to do. Dany goes so far as to commit to helping the North once Jon bent the knee, which is progress. Their light touch on the arm is payoff and payoff withheld at the same time, because the love relationship everyone is waiting for is taking its sweet time to arrive for sure, but on the other hand, the weight of the situation is beautifully done.
My heart, however, is flying out to Davos, who first unconsciously summons his inner Stannis by correcting Jon’s grammar (all Night’s Watch men do say “less”, dammit!) and then asking if he may defect to Dany’s cause because she’s a queen chosen by her people with a fervor that Jon isn’t exactly instilling. He’s ironic, sure, but the comment is hitting a bit close to the mark anyway, amirite?
Another payoff is the news of the failed attack on Casterly Rock which leads Dany to a well-deserved dress-down of Tyrion’s “clever plans”. Waking the dragon, so to speak. Dany hotly decides to melt down the Red Keep, and not having anymore of Tyrion’s wisdom, she asks for Jon’s. Another step towards an alliance is taken, and a deep feeling of satisfaction is spreading in the viewer’s guts.
Olenna gets the late satisfaction of being right, at least in part: Dany ignores the “clever men” Tyrion and Varys, but not Jon – but he didn’t qualify as one anyway, so that’s ok. In true Dany fashion, she severs the Gordion Knot and goes to do…something. For the moment, it’s not revealed what.
And that’s all good, because else, the final segment of the episode wouldn’t be a payoff quite as thrilling and fulfilling as it is. The latter half of the episode is essentially a cascade if bait-and-swichts (one should make a montage with a Rick-Roll). First, Cersei secures her life’s dream when Tycho Nestoris admits that she’s “a better man than her father”, and we expect his ominous “when the gold arrives” to mean that she’ll soon lose it. But no, “Game of Thrones” is more clever than that. The gold is safe, and Jaime, Bronn, Randyll and Dickon (Bronn’s mirth equals my own) are left to watch “all the food of the reach” being brought over the Blackwater Rush.
It’s in this moment that a giant horde of Dothraki decides that GOT has decidedly too little Westworld in its DNA and attacks the treck, Indian war cries included. Seriously, this is the scene everybody and their mother has been waiting for since Dany wed Drogo way, way back in the first season. Or the first book, in which case the waiting time is tripled for you. It’s Dothraki. Attacking Lannister soldiers. Jaime Lannister and RANDYLL TARLY are scared shitless, and even Bronn looks concerned. And that’s before Dany is flying in on Drogon, ordering some Dracarys on their heads. I weep tears of joy.
The whole battle is full of the bait-and-switches I mentioned. You’d expect someone important to die, seeing as major characters are facing off, but no, it’s always just implied and then ripped away. Even Dickon (BRUHAHAHAHA) manages to survive the battle. Also, Drogon doesn’t get shot in the jaw. That’s a relief. It remains to be seen how bad the wound is, but my gut feeling tells me it’s more like the spear wound he gets in ADWD in the arena. Tyrion, meanwhile, gets his own payoff as he watches the might of his family and a lot of people he knew go up hideously in flames. Not the sort he wanted, but the one he deserved.
Bronn survives the fight against the Dothraki (although his horse doesn’t). Jaime survives his Ride of the Light Brigade, mirroring Tyrion and Davos on the Blackwater and Tyrion on the Rhoyne (only for book readers, of course). These mirrors and payoffs are everywhere. And over all this we have the pure insanity of it: Dany burns an army that could help stand against the Others. She burns the food that could feed an entire capital of a continent for nothing. And Winter is Coming. That’s a payoff I’m fully expecting in the not-too-distant-future.