Monday, May 4, 2015

Breaking Down a Game of Thrones Action Sequence

So this past Sunday the beloved Barristan Selmy was presumably slain at the hands of the “Sons of the Harpy”. This was particularly surprising considering he’s still alive in the books and is probably one of the more likely characters to not die for quite some time. I actually applaud this decision and the willingness to stray quite clearly from the path that the lethargic George RR Martin has set, it means the show will be less predictable and it also means that Peter Dinklage will likely have a more interesting role in the future; which can only be a good thing.

However in eliminating an exalted combatant such as Selmy one needs to take special care that the audience doesn’t lose faith in his skills in the process of him dying. In this case 7 Unsullied + Barristan fought around 20 knife guys and apparently everyone died except Grey Worm (Grey Worm himself being another of the foremost warriors in the world), this wasn’t an ambush in favor of the 20; no no no in fact the assassins were chased down and caught essentially, which in any case would put them at a severe disadvantage.

Non Orthodox troops, such as guerilla fighters in modern wars will only have a functional advantage when fighting regular Orthodox troops if they have the initiative; if the ambush is laid by them and triggered as they expect. Orthodox troops will absolutely annihilate non-Orthodox in a straight fight, and must be worn down over time. The Unsullied are supposed to be amongst the best troops in the world so naturally they would have an enormous edge in this fight, even when outnumbered. For the whole “Dagger beats spear” in close quarters argument, yes that’s true but Greek Hoplites also wielded swords and it’s rather farcical for spearmen to be roaming the streets as police when they could easily be using their swords instead; however even if they used spears they would probably still have an edge simply due to superior training and teamwork.

However in the show they really don’t have any teamwork, in fact there’s little or no communication at all once the fighting starts. The Unsullied could have easily held the hall with 4 or so men abreast on either side (reminiscent of Winfield Scott Hancock’s stand at Chancellorsville that secured the Union retreat); but instead they split up for no reason and just acted like morons in general. Even accepting that the Unsullied somehow lose this impossible to lose fight you still have Grey Worm and Selmy backing them up, and presumably these 2 could probably take a whole shitload more knife guys unless they were incredibly capable (from the shows’ depiction they just seem to be fanatics and not ably trained warriors).

For Grey Worm I’ll draw a comparison to one Zhao Yun or Zhao Zilong, Zhao Yun is historically one of the greatest Chinese warriors who ever lived and his most famous accomplishment was riding amongst a 200,000 man host with only a few companions and wreaking havoc for about 5 or 6 hours, saving the totally worthless Liu Shan in the process and even nabbing a really nice sword for more killing. This is ably discussed in Three Kingdoms but as far as I know this is not a fabrication, there are certainly elements of RoTK that are but Chang Ban is an historical event and Zhao Yun really did lead a cavalry charge through enemy lines reminiscent of JEB Stuart’s performance during the peninsular campaign. So essentially Zilong was worth say 200 guys or so on that given day, if he is capable of that then surely a fictional character in a universe with dragons and undead ladies is capable of taking on 10 chumps with daggers.

As far as Selmy goes he even has it worse, he gets in there right near the end of the fight which should have been quite a surprise for the Harpy bros and immediately starts murdering fools. But the harpys don’t even give a shit, they’re not taken aback by his presence instead they seem to fight with even more fervor; this is not how this supposed to work. He only had around 7 to fight and he could easily eliminated 3 of them with his opening salvo so there would remain 4 or so, and these 4 would not really be up for fighting immediately if he doesn’t give them a chance to catch their breath and pushed his advantage; he might take a few wounds so doing but this is the best warrior on the planet surely he can handle some random guys. Nope.

If we want to go more in depth with the numbers game we can look at more Three Kingdoms examples, such as Zhang Liao’s 800 man rush into Sun Quan’s army of 100,000 which led to the defeat of the Southern army. Yes perhaps in actual history Sun Quan only had 10,000 men or so but that’s still over 12 times as many troops; so yes 8 elite warriors can take on 20 knife wielding scrubs and even do so easily as long as they’re not in a horribly disadvantageous position. The preposterousness of the scene just eventually caught up to me, despite my appreciation for killing off Selmy randomly.

So, what options do we have to make the scene better? Well I count three. The first is simply to add a shitload more Harpies, hire more extras you cheapskate bastards, if there were 80 of those guys in there I would have totally bought what happened; but it just wasn’t compelling enough as is. The choreography could use some work as well but that’s beside the point. Though of course 8 guys could probably take 80 in a narrow hallway where the number advantage was largely negated, so this option is not really that great.

The next option is to let Selmy and Grey Worm win the fight, however as they reconcile and gradually walk off into the sunset out of the blue an individual harpy runs up from behind and stabs Barristan through the heart. Selmy is enraged by this impossible event, turns around and decapitates his assailant. He then says “I am a Knight” and dies in Grey Worm’s loving arms. This is a little silly but it does work, the only situation where the Non Orthodox troops will win in a straight fight is when they catch the opponent unawares.

The third option is a lot more interesting and would show a level of tactical thought that neither George RR Martin nor whoever directed this episode possesses, however one can dream. The Unsullied chase down the Harpies, who briefly fight and lose a few men and then run (as Non Orthodox troops would always do in this situation), the Unsullied give chase and wind up in a large empty room. Suddenly over a hundred Sons of the Harpy close in from all sides and bumrush the Unsullied. They still fight poorly in comparison but the positional advantage combined with the surprise leads to their eventual victory after taking many casualties (think Tet Offensive numbers); Selmy bursts in and the tide seems to be turning in favor of him and Grey Worm, but Selmy is mortally wounded in the proceedings.

This is called a feint, a simple action to pretend an offensive measure only to lure the opponent into a more dangerous trap; feints are a thing of beauty and something that Satellites have kind of ruined as far as major wars go. In executing this tactically brilliant maneuver the Sons of the Harpy seem much more threatening while Selmy’s erstwhile invincible reputation remains undisturbed and everyone’s pretty much happy in the end.  Except Bronn because he really is invincible.


  1. it seems illogical of that these preeminent fighters would be bested by the sons of the harpy. I too was surprised by the scene when I watched it. I suspect that the message is that the unsullied are not as strong as people think they are. Grey worm is not supposed to feel pain but he did. This all gives evidence of the fact that this was intentional. I suspect the Queen will have to enlist her dragon or bring the unsullied army out into the field of battle to research it's down minutes.

    1. Sorry. Voice recognition. to re assert its dominance

    2. Trusty voice recognition. I think the Unsullied have to be almost as intimidating as Daenerys' dragons for the eventual siege of King's Landing and the rest of Westeros to be believable, since they're eventually going to be outnumbered 4 or 5 to 1. The Unsullied being randomly killed off every other episode is a weird decision to be sure.