The Loot Train battle is the best in Game of Thrones - here are the secrets of its genius

The Game of Thrones season 7 Loot Train battle isn’t about two great armies clashing on the battlefield. That sounds idiotic, but bear with me. It messes with what we unconsciously expect from a Game of Thrones battle by using perspective, music, and visual storytelling to goad us into having a much stronger reaction than we’ve had towards any other war sequence in the series to date. It confuses who we think we want to win, it uses new camera angles and music to communicate the horrors of war, and - above all - looks bloody incredible. We’re going to explore why the battle works so well and just how it emotionally manipulates us. 

Let’s start with the basics: the Loot Train Battle is a long scene, made up of four states that the screenwriter extraordinaire Robert McKee explains in his book ‘Story’. They are: desire, action, conflict, and change. Desire in this case is for Jaime to get the grain and his troops back home. Action comes with the arrival of the Dothraki and Jaime’s decision to stay. Conflict isn’t just in the battle as the fighting starts but also in your emotional state throughout. Who are you supposed to be routing for? Daenerys or the Lannisters? Whose cataclysmic loss in this battle turns them into a sympathetic force? And lastly, change - in who you’re supporting and the outcome. Everyone expected Daenerys to win - and by the end she has - but your feelings about the battle have changed in a major way. 

Focusing on the suffering war brings instead of the glory of battle, everything you see makes you reassess how you feel about each side. The Lannister’s grain is gone, Drogon is injured, and Daenerys has destroyed Jaime’s army mercilessly. But what’s even more likely to change how you feel about Daenerys is the haunting scenes of men on fire, screaming in gut-wrenching pain, hopeless in the face of the Dothraki and dragon onslaught. The rules of warfare have changed, and the battle is centered around making this abundantly clear. This is precisely how it does it. 

Waiting for the battle to start

The whole battle takes place over 11 minutes and 50 seconds (for reference Battle of the Bastards, the last major clash in season 6, was 23 minutes long). Yet the build up actually starts 1 minute and 49 seconds earlier with Bronn, Jaime and Dickon talking. 

With its wide shots of the loot train heading towards King’s Landing, this scene isn’t just here to show the audience the scale of the soon-to-be battlefield. Although it’s undeniably part of the reason, it’s also where we’re given our first emotional connection to one of battle’s central characters - in this case Dickon. His experience with war as a chaotic, distressing event rather than a glorious exploit about prepares us for the oncoming fight even though we don’t initially realise it. It’s not going to be honorable - it’s going to be harrowing.

This is a battle based around anticipation. There are only 82 words spoken once the fighting starts, meaning action - and the lack of it - is the central focus. For the first 50 seconds of this conflict we see nothing but panic and preparation. Conveyed with 16 different shots over the course of 30 seconds, all of them feature a lot of movement in both the foreground and the background and with multiple directions of travel. The shots are busy, building the sensation of tension and dread surrounding the arrival of the Dothraki horde. We’re waiting for the soldiers to settle - but they never quite do. Even when they fall into line they’re shaking, terrified. 

Long, slow pan shots of the environment like the one of the hills before the Dothraki arrive, coupled with the rising score, build the anticipation - especially given that the audience, at this stage, is expecting a dragon. A dragon we don’t see until 4 minutes after the initial set up for this fight. It’s all about making us wait, which isn’t a payoff typically used for battle scenes when you want as much action as possible in a short period of time. The slowly building musical crescendo puts the audience on edge and amps up even more tension as you wait for the battle music to begin. This technique is called a shepard-risset glissando, which as Vox has recently pointed out, Hans Zimmer uses extensively (albeit in a more extreme way) in his film scores like in Dunkirk. 

Combined with wide shots of the line of soldiers intercut with close-up shots of scared or puzzled faces, this technique drives home the emotion. The characters are prepared physically, but unprepared mentally. This is an unexpected battle, and at this stage we (as the viewer) are worrying about the fate of the soldiers. Having just seen them lounging around in a more informal context, these fighters are more sympathetic to us than usual. We realise now that they’re just men - not a faceless, unstoppable force.

The anticipation continues even after the Dothraki arrive on the battlefield. Unlike in other standout battle scenes like Battle of Isengard in The Two Towers where the two sides clash instantly, it takes almost two minutes after the arrival of the Dothraki for the two sides to physically clash (that’s ignoring the dragon burning through a line of Lannister troops). During the entire 11 minutes and 59 seconds only 20 out of 347 shots are of the two armies coming together in close-combat. We’ve built up an idea in our heads about what the battle between these two armies should look like, but we don’t see a lot of fighting once they meet. Instead more time is spent on the soldiers’ suffering and inability to counterattack, which shows how unprepared they are for Daenerys’ forthcoming onslaught, and how unprepared we are as viewers for the horrors that are about to unfold.

Seeing the battle through different eyes

Another key reason this battle is so good is the way it plays with perspective to make this scene more about chaos than heroism. I’ve already mentioned the connection we feel to Dickon Tarly, who begins the scene by telling us what war is really like. Now that he’s shown his vulnerable side we care about him, which is why he’s included in the battle. Notice that the less sympathetic character, Randall Tarly - who advocates flogging stragglers - isn’t shown at all. This battle is about sympathising with those in it - not about rooting for one character over another. 

You’re repeatedly put in the shoes of the fighters. From over-the-shoulder shots, to sequences where you’re riding on a horse like a Dothraki, to the almost found-footage style sequence with Bronn running through the battlefield, we’re brought as close to the action as possible rather than consistently following one central character, like we did with Jon in Battle of the Bastards. He was the one we cared about most, so to increase the tension the camera followed his movements through the battlefield -  because the last thing we want is for him to get hurt. The Loot Train battle is far more about understanding the mass casualities of war and how different it looks from each side. In one bit you’re even looking at the battlefield as Drogon, the weapon incarnate. 

But it’s not just about seeing things through the eyes of the main characters. Through careful camerawork we also see what it’s like to watch it happening from standing on the ground, looking up at the action as it happens around us. We see Lannisters getting necks slit, Dothraki jumping up on horses, and multiple other shots, all from below. Creating a sense of being dangerously overwhelmed and crowded, we feel swamped by the action, and above all feel especially vulnerable as things come toppling down around us, to our level. 

When Bronn’s running through the chaotic battlefield trying to get to the ballista, it’s as if we’re looking through the eyes of a soldier whose focus snaps between Bronn and the distractions around him: people on fire, soldiers fleeing, a Dothraki screamer, and - of course - Drogon’s appearance out of the smoke. We’re brought closer to the unfiltered horrors of war than we want to be. This is because the camera angles are not where we typically expect them to be. Positioning them just above ground level means all the shots have us looking upwards, putting us in a constantly perilous position where it feels like soldiers could collide with the viewer at any moment. 

This battle isn’t about winning; it’s about surviving. Most battles in movies and on TV start with you knowing who you want to win, whether it’s Jon Snow, or King Theoden, or Captain Miller. In this one you don’t. Looking through multiple perspectives - from the main players to the supporting characters like the Lannister foot soldiers and Dothraki screamers - confuses any clear ideas of right or wrong. We support Daenerys, but we like Jaime and Bronn too - and we don’t enjoy seeing soldiers being burned alive and massacred by the Dothraki. If Cersei were leading them in battle here, we’d probably feel a lot better about the Lannister’s defeat. But she’s not. Our ideas about who we want to win are constantly in flux, thanks to a level of sophisticated cinematography we don’t typically see in movie or TV battles. 

Comparing it to another of Game of Thrones’ epic battles, the Battle of the Bastards, shows just how much shooting from different characters’ perspectives can influence who the audience roots for. We mostly only get shots from Jon’s side, almost never from Ramsay’s because we’re urging Jon to win. Ramsay is the enemy, the aggressor, and so having less shots from his point of view makes it harder to sympathise with him. It’s also personal, much more about Ramsay vs Jon rather than Bolton vs. Stark. The Loot Train battle is more about the infantry and - more importantly - their suffering. 

Interestingly, we never see anything from Daenerys’ perspective. Even when we’re up in the air we mostly seeing the battlefield as Drogon. Unlike with Battle of the Bastards, the showrunners don’t want us to sympathising with Daenerys - instead we’re made to feel like she’s the one we should be scared of. 

The arrival of Tyrion on the battlefield towards the end is an unusual break from the action in a battle scene. Except in this case he has a very important role to play: that of the audience. In this situation Tyrion becomes a viewer of the battle much like everyone at home and the audience can instantly identify with what he’s thinking meaning there’s no need for dialogue. Like everyone who’s been watching for the past 9 minutes and 34 seconds of this battle he’s conflicted about which side he should root for. 

One one side there’s his queen, Daenerys, who’s given him her approval and made him her Hand a relatively short time after meeting him. It’s something his father never thought him worthy of, but Daenerys realises his true potential. On the other side there’s his brother. Having saved him from jail and sticking up for him in front of Cersei, their relationship has blossomed - and more importantly, he’s the only blood relation Tyrion has a meaningful connection with. Seeing it from Tyrion’s point of view - and understanding his thinking without a word being said - is one of the reasons we feel so conflicted about this fight and why it’s so impressive. 

How music confuses who we want to win

As I’ve mentioned, the reason this battle is so memorable is because of the emotional journey it takes you on in such a short space of time. At the beginning of the fight, the music is designed to make you feel worried for the Lannisters. As the sound builds, so does the sense that something bad is going to happen. 

Then, just 3 minutes later, with the shot of the Dothraki standing on top of their horses, we hear the sound of heroic trumpets creating a feeling of victory. But it’s for the Dothraki, the opposite side to the one we start off seeing things from. This switch is something you don’t often see in cinema or TV. Traditionally there’s always a hero and and villain to any story, but in this case,we have two quite likeable characters with their own armies, who both are major players in the story. So the producers need to be able to communicate that sense of conflict, not just in the physical sense with clashing swords and fighting but for who you emotionally want to win.

Fast forward to the later stages of the battle and the tone shifts again, this time back to the Lannisters. These are people who have killed tens of thousands yet because of the way they’re portrayed through the shots and musical score we, again, feel a sense of loss as they’re chased from the battle and killed. It’s worth noting too that the screams from the Dothraki and the Lannisters become almost indistinguishable - there’s so many of them that we can’t tell which are war cries, and which are people howling in agony. Again, we’re confused about who to support because even though we prefer Daenerys over Cersei, we’re told to pity the Lannister soldiers through the imagery of the battle. 

This all leads up to the final sequence of the battle where the audience’s emotional conflict reaches its peak. One shot shows Drogon gliding over still water in an oddly peaceful sequence. Seeing it alone, you wouldn’t be able to guess this is in the middle of a battle. It’s about appreciating Drogon’s beauty, about seeing him as an elegant creature - further confusing your emotions about the men burning alive below because of him. 

After this calm scene and as things ramp up to Drogon getting injured, Bronn is made out to be the hero, valiantly fighting against a Dothraki who’s hunting him through the battlefield. The score as he loads the ballista for the second time is inspirational, but the instant the arrow connects with Drogon he becomes the villain, with the music changing to one of sadness as the dragon plummets towards the ground. This conflict is exactly what director Matt Shakman was going for, and he’s since said that there’s “all these people that we love and have been rooting for and have been following, that any one of them could die at any minute…I think the goal always was to keep the possibility of death imminent.”

Let’s not forget that ending either. There’s a specific score which Thrones uses to let the audience know they’re experiencing - or are about to experience - the death of a character. We can hear it during Hodor’s death, when Jon is in trouble at the Battle of the Bastards, and after the Red Wedding. It’s not a coincidence that it’s the same score we hear when Drogon gets hit by the arrow and when Jaime sinks into the water. The repetition of this bit of music throughout the show when major characters die makes us unconsciously wonder if Jaime really is dead when we hear it in this sequence (even though we know it’s unlikely for his character at this point). 

A battle that isn’t about glory, but suffering

Don’t forget: all these changes in perspective, music, and shots take place over just 12 minutes. We’re swung between emotions literally every second, meaning that at the end we’re amped up but not entirely sure why it’s made us feel so different from any other battle we’ve seen. This battle isn’t good just because of the way it looks or sounds. It’s because it uses every filming technique at its disposal to manipulate how we feel. What could have been a simple battle between foot soldiers and cavalry instead overwhelms us with the horrors of war and complicates who we’re supposed to be rooting for. 

The Battle of the Loot Train is one of the most carefully composed, exquisitely executed fights in Game of Thrones (and TV and cinema in general) to date. Director Matt Shakman poured all his effort into making it not only a feast for the eyes, but a complicated portrayal of the show’s changing warfare. And that, dear reader, is why the Loot Train battle is one of the best battle scenes on TV to date.