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

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

Macall B. Polay/HBO

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

As epic and satisfying as it is to finally see dragons and Dothraki face off against the Lannisters outside of King’s Landing, the more important battle of “The Spoils of War” is between Game of Thrones’s two types of storytelling. The first, which plagues the episode’s first 20 minutes, is the stuff of pure exposition: tactical discussions, cryptic premonitions, and theory. At best, the language occasionally crackles in the right hands, as with the way in which Mark Gatiss cloyingly portrays the Iron Bank’s representative, Tycho Nestoris. “Arithmetic, not sentiment” makes for the sort of too-calculated approach that can swamp an episode before it even begins. It’s not much better when Jon Snow (Kit Harington) invites Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to view the obsidian tunnels beneath Dragonstone. Sure, there are cave drawings that show the Children and the First Men fighting together against the wights, but that convenient bit of ancient history simply isn’t compelling.

Game of Thrones Recap Season 6, Episode 8, "No One"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 8, “No One”

HBO

Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 8, “No One”

Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) isn’t a good person, but neither is he the villain that his prisoner, Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), thinks he is. When Edmure asks how Jaime can sleep at night, his answer is simple: He loves his sister, Cersei, and he would do anything to be with her. Though there’s clearly at least one other soft spot in his heart, as he allows Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) to escape from his siege of Riverrun, he claims nothing else matters to him, which means that all of his violence is justified. His terms to Edmure are just as straightforward: If he wants to stop Jaime from taking his infant son and launching him into Riverrun via catapult, he will seize control of the castle as its rightful lord, and force his uncle, Brynden “Blackfish” Tully (Clive Russell), and his men to surrender. With such a personal threat, there’s no hesitation from Edmure, though he knows he condemns at least his uncle to death, and this gives truth to Jaime’s worldview: Nobody is evil, they’re just differently intentioned.

Game of Thrones Recap Season 6, Episode 5, "The Door"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 5, “The Door”

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 5, “The Door”

There’s been much talk of prophecy on Game of Thrones, but it’s usually in an abstract sense. After all, those who follow the Lord of Light, like Melisandre (Carice van Houten), have been wrong before, and the newest Red Priestess, Kinvara (Ania Bukstein), might be wrong about Daenerys being the chosen one. But she’s right when she tells a skeptical Varys (Conleth Hill) that God is never wrong, only sometimes misinterpreted by his messengers. Even more accurate is her observation that “Terrible things happen for a reason.”

Game of Thrones Recap Season 6, Episode 4, "Book of the Stranger"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 4, “Book of the Stranger”

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 4, “Book of the Stranger”

According to the Book of the Stranger, the religious tome of the seven-pointed star from which this episode of Game of Thrones takes its name, death makes strangers of us all. Some, like the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce), take that to mean that there’s no point in the luxuries of life, and that we must instead do our best to simply live in peace. Others, like the masters of Slaver’s Bay, take the other extreme, finding meaning only by intensifying the anonymity of their slaves and thereby elevating themselves.

Game of Thrones Recap Season 6, Episode 1, "The Red Woman"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 1, “The Red Woman”

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 6, Episode 1, “The Red Woman”

Previous seasons of Game of Thrones have played a precarious dance between the past and present action detailed within George R.R. Martin’s series, but the season-six premiere episode, “The Red Woman,” provides viewers with their first glimpse of what the future looks like, and it’s disappointing. Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the sorceress from whom this episode takes its title, stands over the bloodless corpse of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and remarks that “I saw him in the flames, fighting at Winterfell.” Magic may yet play a role in some sort of resurrection, but this episode focuses only on the weary, bitter state of affairs in Westeros.

Game of Thrones Recap Season 5, Episode 10, "Mother’s Mercy"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 10, “Mother’s Mercy”

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 10, “Mother’s Mercy”

It’s long been a given on Game of Thrones that “All men must die.” The question, then, is less a matter of whether they will, but how they will. Those who accept death, like those in the service of the Many-Faced God, are ironically those who manage to find agency in the time they have left. On the other hand, those who break the rules and customs of the land are those most likely to suffer most before their last breath.

To begin with, there’s the fall of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). As foreshadowed a few episodes back in the advice given by Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) to Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), those who kill the people most devoted to them rarely inspire future devotion. Stannis has broken several natural laws in his determined, mindless quest to recapture the Iron Throne, most recently when he commanded his beloved daughter be set ablaze as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light. Though his actions may have broken the bitter winter that threatened to destroy his army before he could even besiege Winterfell, they’ve also divided his army, with half of his forces committing mutiny and running off in the night. (His wife also chooses to flee, albeit at the end of a noose.) But it’s not Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) who gets him in the end. Instead, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) tracks him and lands the killing blow—not because he dared to challenge the Boltons, but because he murdered his own brother, Renly, with blood magic. Perhaps realizing the depths of his own horrible actions, Stannis confesses, accepting the consequences of his actions: “Go on and do your duty.”

Game of Thrones Recap Season 5, Episode 3, "High Sparrow"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 3, “High Sparrow”

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 3, “High Sparrow”

Despite being home to the Faceless, the House of Black and White is filled with a variety of visages: statues to the various gods of Westeros. These are at once examples of the Many Faced God whom the Faceless worship and a pointed demonstration that the one true god is the one god who doesn’t need to be memorialized in stone—because that god, Death, is already everywhere. It’s a fitting setting for Arya (Maisie Williams) as she begins training under No One, the mysterious assassin currently wearing the face and name of Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha). It’s here that she can begin reclaiming her independence, after seasons of fear and flight, though—ironically—she can only do so by first figuratively murdering herself, casting off all her possessions in service to the god of Death. (There’s still a trace of the defiant girl from previous seasons when she chooses to hide her sword, Needle, rather than to throw it into the ocean.) It’s a perfect example of the erosive effects of tragedy, in that a person can only survive by becoming something else, and not for nothing does Arya spend the majority of this episode silently doing menial tasks, scrubbing away the past.

Game of Thrones Recap Season 5, Episode 1, "The Wars to Come"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, “The Wars to Come”

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 5, Episode 1, “The Wars to Come”

The fifth season of Game of Thrones begins like a fairy tale: Once upon a time, two girls walk through a forest, muddying up their fancy clothes in search of a fortune-telling witch. One of the two is terrified, and halting, but the other is confident and brave, leading her friend by the hand, and facing down the hag. However, the interesting thing about fairy tales, like history, is that so much weight hangs on the perspective of those hearing the tale, and so as we realize that this bold little girl will one day grow up to be Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), we notice that she didn’t lead her friend through the woods so much as pull and coerce her. She’s not Snow White in this story, but rather the Wicked Witch, the one who’s told “You’ll be queen, for a time. Then comes another. Younger, more beautiful.”

Game of Thrones Recap Season 4, Episode 10, "The Children"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 4, Episode 10, “The Children”

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 4, Episode 10, “The Children”

Contrary to the structure of most serial television, Game of Thrones tends to peak with its penultimate episode, leaving finales open to operate as a form of self-summary. They take stock of the dead, consider the implications of arc climaxes, and anticipate how characters will move forward in the subsequent season. This structure fits with the mission statement of George R. R. Martin’s books: to dispel the orthodox narratives and tone of fantasy to consider how magic and dragons might impact something closer to medieval history and anthropology.

Game of Thrones Recap Season 4, Episode 4, "Oathkeeper"

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Game of Thrones Recap: Season 4, Episode 4, “Oathkeeper”

HBO

Game of Thrones Recap: Season 4, Episode 4, “Oathkeeper”

As with any episode of television that bears Michelle MacLaren’s directing credit, “Oathkeeper” does not merely look good. More than most shows, Game of Thrones benefits from great direction, with a careful eye for suggestive composition and subtle flourishes than what usually adorns a writing- and acting-first medium. But the difference between an episode done by one of the show’s stable of talented and intuitive directors and one from MacLaren can be so vast that the lifelong TV vet with no feature-length theatrical releases to her name resembles less a gun-for-hire than the Scorseses and Finchers who stunt-direct glamorous pilots. Contrary to HBO’s motto, when MacLaren works on Game of Thrones, it’s clear how much the rest of the series looks like TV.