Earlier this year, IndieWire named the 20 best-directed television dramas of the 21st century. “Game of Thrones” clocked in at #17, but it stands to move up a position or two after last night’s “The Spoils of War.”
In his “Thrones” directing debut, Matt Shakman managed to upstage series veterans Jeremy Podeswa and Mark Mylod and deliver an hour of television completely driven by directorial vision. Scene after scene, his decision making elevated every line of dialogue and every performance. Simply put, it was the kind of directing that proves why “Thrones” really is extraordinary television.
The climactic battle between Daenerys’ forces and the Lannister army is the scene everyone is talking about from the hour, and for good reason. Shakman, best known for helming episodes of “Fargo,” “You’re the Worst,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” proved he was a fan of the series by crafting a battle sequence that combined the strongest elements of two of “Thrones” most iconic action scenes: The Battle of the Bastards and Daenerys’ attack on the Sons of the Harpy (both of which took place in Season 6, Episode 9).
The smartest decision Shakman made in crafting this battle was in making sure the aesthetics of the scene changed depending on which side you were experiencing the events through. The shots of Daenerys atop Drogon were some of the most grandiose and epic the series has ever done. A wide shot of the dragon flying across the frame from left to right and laying waste to the army below him was a particular jaw dropper. In these moments, Daenerys was glorified as the franchise’s most badass hero. But that’s not how Shakman viewed her while directing from the Lannister perspective.
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The battle on the ground replaced sweeping VFX images with unsettling practical effects (the episode reportedly set the record for lighting stuntmen on fire) and such grounded immediacy that it felt like “Thrones” as if it was a horror film. Shnkman even took a page from “Bastards” director Miguel Sapochnik in executing an anxiety-ridden long-take of a character (Bronn) in the throes of chaos. The shots from the Lannister army had a you-are-there horror feeling that was hard to stomach.
By juxtaposing the high-flying spectacle of Drogon burning the Lannister army alive with the gruesome reality of actually being on the receiving end, Shakman toyed with the audience’s allegiances to Daenerys and Jaime Lannister and crafted a battle sequence of unrelenting suspense. Daenerys was equal parts hero and villain, and Drogon was equal parts savior and destroyer. As “Thrones” gets closer to its end game, the more we’re going to be seeing characters we know and love in direct conflict. We can only hope these encounters are as well staged as what Shakman achieved here.
But the triumph of Shakman’s direction in “The Spoils of War” extends beyond the climactic moment. His choices were uniformly strong throughout the entire episode. Even a shot-reverse-shot conversation between Littlefinger and Bran was heightened by Shakman’s escalating close-ups, each cut making the tension tighter. When Bran uttered one of Littlefinger’s most famous lines, “Chaos is a ladder,” Shakman pulled a Jonathan Demme by cutting into a tight close-up of each character staring directly at the camera. It’s a simple but startling choice, one that rattles the viewer as much as it does Littlefinger, who must surely be worried that whatever Bran can dig up as the Three Eyed Raven could ruin his mission for power.
The training fight between Arya and Brienne was also a stunner. This tussle was never going to have a deadly ending, but Shakman managed to create so much suspense out of his blocking and editing that he turned a mock duel into one the series’ best action moments. Each cut from an establishing shot of the two women fighting to individual shots of blades meeting and bodies attacking made you flinch, and the cutaways to Sansa watching from above didn’t break the tension as much as they added a level of fear to it. Arya is no longer the sister Sansa remembers, and Shakman directed the moment as much to show Arya’s growth as a fighter as he did to lay out the relationship between Sansa and Arya. It’s a character-driven action set piece, and it’s the kind “Thrones” excels at.
Season 7 has delivered on giving fans historic moments they’ve long been waiting for, from Jon and Daenerys finally meeting to a near-complete Stark reunion in Winterfell, but what had been sorely lacking until “The Spoils of War” was a complete hour of directorial vision. The first three episodes had their moments, but certain scenes and set-pieces felt unsually flat (none more so that the chaotically edited sea battle in episode two). Shakman was in control of every moment in episode four and it made it full of moments “Thrones” fans will never forget. Knowing he’ll be back behind the camera for the next episode is great news indeed.