The spoilers in this post are also quite large.
Game of Thrones is famous for two qualities: explicit violence and explicit glimpses of pseudo-medieval weaponry. And over the length of its eight seasons, no weapon has been more important—or more rarely seen—than the scorpion, the legendary piece of artillery that has enough penetrative power to murder a dragon. In this week’s episode, the scorpion finally took center stage: Euron Greyjoy, the testosterone-crazed naval commander played by Pilou Asbæk, mounted giant scorpions on the front of an entire fleet of warships, then used them to spray burst after burst of artillery fire at Daenerys and her dragons. It wasn’t the first time a scorpion saw combat on the show, but Euron Greyjoy is the first person to use his effectively, in ways Game of Thrones has been teasing for what felt like an eternity. Here’s how the show’s filmmakers employed hardcore historical research, flattering lighting, and clever camera angles to demonstrate the power and size of the superweapons that will no doubt play a crucial role in Game of Thrones’ impending climax.
First, the history. Like most things in Game of Thrones that aren’t dragons, the scorpion is based on an actual weapon, one that would have been easy and natural for members of pre-modern societies to grasp. Although many people have identified the scorpion as a type of ballista, it lacks the torsion springs that ballistae use to thrust their projectiles forward with such incredible force. It’s closer to an even older weapon, the gastraphetes, a Greek word that loosely translates as “belly-releaser.” The gastraphetes was hand-held, but clearly passed on some of its DNA to Game of Thrones’ scorpion, as you can see in this diagram from Hero of Alexandria’s first-century manuscript Belopoeica (as redrawn in Wescher, 1867):
The distinctive shape—two ball-shaped curves flanking an imposing central column—is much closer to Game of Thrones’ weaponry than a torsion-driven ballista. The gastraphetes was fired by bracing it against the user’s hips, then jerking a release lever that sent the arrow spurting toward its target. Unfortunately, it was a hand-held solo operation, which meant its projectiles would be embarrassingly inadequate in size and power for the awesome task of fucking up a dragon. Elongate and engorge a gastraphetes’ central cylinder to the point that a dragon would notice it, however, and it becomes impossible to fire without gripping it more firmly than even the strongest archer could manage. This biological reality led to the development of a mounted version, the oxybeles, which means “pointed artillery.” Here’s how Beton of Pergamon rendered an oxybeles around 156 B.C.:
It’s much larger than a gastraphetes, but its iconic shaft-and-balls shape is still immediately recognizable. The oxybeles fell out of fashion when soldiers discovered they could generate more thrust by slowly tightening, then suddenly releasing torsion springs, but it remained an object of cultural fascination well into the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci was practically obsessed: Not only did he design an absolutely enormous oxybeles—too big to be practical or fun, really—but he also conducted extensive experiments to try to understand its inner workings. And although it’s rare that film and television explicitly depict an oxybeles, it’s never really lost its central part in our culture: HBO’s willingness to occasionally show a quick glimpse of one when broadcast and basic-cable networks wouldn’t was originally one of its chief selling propositions.
On Game of Thrones, the audience had to go through a lot of foreplay before getting their first look at a scorpion, in the Season 7 episode “Stormborn.” Maester Qyburn, the creepy and disgraced scientist responsible for its invention, convinces Cersei to follow him to the cellars of the Red Keep, ostensibly to look at the dragon skulls and etchings on display there. Once they’re alone, however, he dramatically unveils his scorpion for her, then shows her how to use it. You have to pause to get a clear look at Qyburn’s scorpion, but there’s an overhead shot in which you can see all four of its limbs flanking the thick central column, or “fifth limb.”
The angle may not be particularly flattering, but it clearly shows the mechanism that gives Qyburn’s secret superweapon its incredible power. It’s rare that the show’s directors resort to anything as explicit as an anatomical cross-section, however, because Game of Thrones is not interested in scorpions per se; it’s interested in scorpions as they affect the power dynamics between its characters. A more typical approach is found in a later shot in the same scene, after Qyburn explains to Cersei how his scorpion works and invites her to pull the lever that makes it fire. Watch how director Mark Mylod focuses on Cersei’s face as she steels her nerve, then uses a rack focus to move lightly but quickly along the weapon’s full length, from root to tip:
The scorpion may not look entirely natural when Cersei straps it on, but it’s still devastatingly effective, effortlessly penetrating a dragon skull almost the second she whacks the lever. A different variation of the scorpion appears a few episodes later, in “The Spoils of War,” this time wielded by Bronn, a trained soldier who’s had his entire life to get comfortable with projectile weaponry.* As with Qyburn’s dramatic unveiling for Cersei’s benefit, Bronn’s scorpion is something of a surprise. A group of Lannister troops are under dragon attack, and Bronn is being chased across the battlefield by a Dothraki warrior as he attempts to unleash his scorpion to retaliate. Bronn lures his pursuer into what appears to be a private tent, but when the Dothraki rips the cloth open, he discovers to his dismay that Bronn’s scorpion is already cocked and, worse still, is pointing directly at him. It’s smaller than Qyburn’s—director Matt Shakman uses that rack focus shot again to show us every inch—but in Bronn’s skilled hands, it’s surprisingly effective. When Bronn fires, his projectile explodes into the Dothraki warrior with unstoppable force, pinning him against a wall; the camera stays on the Dothraki just long enough for us to see him collapse, completely spent:
After Bronn unfolds the tent, exposing his scorpion to everyone on the battlefield, we get a clear look at the firing mechanism of this wagon-mounted variant. At the moment of release, Bronn reaches around to the underside of the scorpion and jerks hard:
Bronn’s scorpion may be smaller than Qyburn’s, but what it loses in brute force it gains in finesse. But Qyburn and Bronn’s scorpions both pale in comparison to Euron Greyjoy’s, which is the perfect union of power, size, and mobility. Although Cersei and a few other characters had presumably already seen it, the audience got its first look at Greyjoy’s scorpion in this week’s episode. It’s mounted on the front of his ship just above his distinctively-shaped combination figurehead and naval ram, and it is easily the biggest scorpion on the entire show, unless you count whatever that combination figurehead and naval ram is wearing atop its head:
Greyjoy’s weapon is so massive he needs the help of three full-grown men to tilt it up at the proper angle. On the other hand, the sense of power and satisfaction he feels when he stares down its length and girth is easy to see:
Greyjoy has added a chair so he can practice with his scorpion for hours at a time without tiring, and made a clever modification to the firing mechanism too: Instead of fumbling around awkwardly at the base of the shaft like Bronn, Cersei, and Qyburn, he’s got a thick cable he can wrap both hands around, then pull back hard when he’s ready to unload. These changes mean it’s easy for Greyjoy to avoid prematurely shooting his payload, as we see when Daenerys tries to set his scorpion on fire. Watch Greyjoy lean back and relax as Daenerys bears down on him until he can tell from the sound of her scream that she’s close. When the moment is right, it takes only a single hard jerk from Greyjoy to whack his scorpion off the edge, thrusting its payload into the air with tremendous force. It’s magnificent, in its way:
Greyjoy’s scorpion has one undeniable disadvantage when compared to Bronn’s: He can’t get it to fire if he’s all alone. But even this has an upside. With a crew of dedicated sailors helping him reload, Greyjoy’s scorpion has a refractory period of less than a minute. Look how happy it makes him when he realizes he’s ready to go again so quickly:
That’s the kind of power that can absolutely slay a dragon, and Greyjoy knows it. It will be interesting to see how many other characters are brave enough to erect their own scorpions on camera before the series reaches completion. But the meticulous attention Game of Thrones’ showrunners have paid to their scorpions—their design, their size, and above all their functionality—is already paying off. The key seems to be keeping a firm grip on the underlying reality at the base of the show—but not too firm a grip. Euron Greyjoy’s scorpion belongs to Euron Greyjoy alone: There’s nothing exactly like it in our world, any more than there are dragons. But Greyjoy’s scorpion feels alive and real to the audience because it’s modeled after very real predecessors that nearly all of us have encountered at one point in our lives or another, or at least seen pictures of in old books. It’s a hard-hitting way to drive home one of the show’s deepest themes: Some things about war never, ever change.
Correction, May 7, 2019: This post originally misspelled the name Bronn.