In what is fast becoming a thrilling pattern, the fourth episode of Game of Thrones season 7 (opens in new tab) delivers a wonderful untangling of fan-pleasing narratives, teasing out revelations and reunions from its characters, before climaxing in a breathless slice of action that - once again - completely raises the bar for the entertainment potential of TV. In other words: some quiet smarts, followed by a big bang. And oh what a bang it is.
The Spoils of War is actually a wonderfully stripped-back episode of Thrones, its run time actually the shortest of season 7 to date. It’s as close to a Bottle Episode as this show gets, focusing on three main plotlines, yet delivering staggering amounts with each one. You’re here because you want to read about that incredible, epic battle at the end, so we’ll start there. It’s sensational. Not just because HBO has lavished millions of dollars to bring it to life (which it absolutely did), but because the pacing, the cinematography, and the timing of it all perfectly compliments the utter spectacle.
Let’s overlook the slightly wonky plausibility of it. Daenerys would, in all likelihood, never be able to reach that battlefield in time after hearing word of Highgarden’s fall. This is all about entertainment and the satisfaction of her finally scoring a victory on Westerosi soil. From the ominous thunder of Dothraki hooves at the opening, to the last gasp charge by Jaime against a fully-grown and utterly furious dragon, this is a masterclass in presenting the horrors and glories of war on the small screen.
What sticks in my mind is the way the Lannister soldiers shake and appear terrified before the charge of the Dothraki. It does more to humanise them than ten clumsy scenes with Arya chatting to Ed Sheeran (opens in new tab). And that makes the subsequent slaughter that much more poignant. While we all delight in the savagery of Game of Thrones’ battle scenes, season 7 has done something very clever with its action so far. Last week’s episode, Queen’s Justice (opens in new tab), was very much a win for the bad guys. Yet the method of their victory seems so much more humane and civilised compared to Daenerys’ massacre in Spoils of War. We don’t even see the battle of Highgarden, nor much of the sinking of the Unsullied fleet, and Lady Olenna Tyrell poisons herself at Jaime’s suggestion, spitting one last piece of venom about the murder of his son. Perhaps I’m being too generous in my assessment of the subtleties of the narrative - it could just be a budgetary thing, because my god some money was spent on this battle - but Game of Thrones 7 is at pains to blur the lines between good and bad that many viewers had drawn up. This battle, while technically a victory for the ‘good guys’ feels like butchery, and it could be the end of one major character on a very human path to redemption. Conversely, last week’s victories for the bad guys would have been classic, noble wins for the plucky underdog, had they not been in favour of the group we’ve deemed ‘evil’.
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But still, it’s bloody brilliant television. Bronn’s session with the scorpion a classic piece of build-up TV, with his final save of Jaime the perfect way for the battle to end on a cliff-hanger. As with season 6’s Battle of the Bastards, there’s even one of those wonderful moments where viewer and character on screen are saying the same thing: “just flee” breathes Tyrion as he observes Jaime eyeing up the spear ahead of his final, ill-advised charge. We were all sat at home saying the exact same thing. Add that to the blood, the smoke, the flames and all the horror and confusion of war, and you’ve got one of the best battles not only of Game of Thrones, but any TV show or movie ever.
It’s almost hard to forget, then, that this was the episode where Arya finally made it home to Winterfell. That her entrance was blocked by two clumsy guards is perhaps the least entertaining part of the episode (although, I’d be hard-pressed to describe it as a negative), but it’s more than made up for during her sparring with Brienne. While it was just a display designed to show Sansa and the assembled crowd that she’s a total badass now, the duel between Arya and Brienne finally gives fans a glimpse at how well the Stark girl can actually fight. Turns out, she really, really can. Seems a shame that we’ve only really seen her poison enemies so far. There’s likely a showdown coming with Littlefinger real soon.
Speak of which… Littlefinger’s attempt to give Bran the catspaw blade that was used in his attempted assassination seems a very clumsy move for Baelish. He passes it off as a gift of the dagger that was meant to kill him, likely to win the favour of Bran, but it’s a serious underestimation of his target, which is very out of character for Littlefinger. That Bran answers his comment about chaos by quoting the line “Chaos is a ladder” - itself something Littlefinger says to Varys in season 3 when they’re both fighting for power amongst the enemies of Winterfell - genuinely surprises him. As, I think, does the competence of Arya’s fighting. Littlefinger is possibly starting to realise he’s bitten off more than he can chew by attempting to manipulate the Starks.
Arya’s touching reunion with Sansa in the Stark crypt, cleverly shot under the shadow of her father’s statue, is one of those wonderful moments that delivers on its promise - no need to try and be clever here: just give the viewers what they want and expect for a change. When the pair visit personality-vacuum Bran, that reunion is a little less awkward than his initial chat with Sansa, but still far from a party. His cold dismissal of Meera earlier in the episode had obviously helped to leech out a little of the Stark boy’s teenage gloom. Overall, it feels like we’ve been robbed of that magical ‘all Starks together, let’s all laugh and be happy’ scene that many craved, but Game of Thrones does delight in undercutting the expectations of its viewers. Before exceeding them elsewhere…
Finally, then, to Dragonstone, where everyone is starting to get a little friendlier. The scene where Jon shows Daenerys the dragonglass and then the cave paintings is a neat little moment of timeless magic, and could well be the start of a growing romance between the pair. It was hard not to chant “kiss, kiss, kiss!” as the pair stood in the torchlight, in a beautiful cave, staring into each other’s eyes… discussing the possible death of the entire human race. For me, though, that isn’t even the highlight. Nor was the tense meeting between Jon and Theon.
When they return to the beach and Daenerys learns of her ‘losses’ at Casterly Rock and Highgarden (no, they weren’t technically defeats), she finally turns to Jon, a signal that not only does she trust him, but that she respects his opinion. His speech to her is the stuff of pure fantasy entertainment, a lovely piece of inspiration off the cuff that no normal human being would be able to actually articulate. It humbles the assembled crowd, and awes the audience into proud admiration. My, my - hasn’t the ‘know nothing’ Jon Snow grown up.
While Jon Snow’s personal and intellectual growth is necessary for the story, it very much reflects the shows own evolution, especially since it increasingly cast off the narratives of the novels and started to go its own way. Much like the Bastard of Winterfell himself, the potential was there from the start… but Game of Thrones - and Jon Snow - is becoming something truly exceptional this season, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens to them next.