Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers.
Even amid the ongoing renaissance of peak TV, it’s sometimes hard to believe “Game of Thrones” is unspooling its penultimate season across the small screen.
The sheer scale of its action sequences — those fierce malestroms of blood, dirt, and steel the show semi-regularly delivers, from “Hardhome” to “Battle of the Bastards” — is staggering enough to expand our understanding of high fantasy’s potential on television; and Sunday’s “The Spoils of War” is a prime example of that, pitting beloved characters against one another in an expansive, tensely enthralling climax that’s sure to cast a long shadow across the remainder of season 7.
In its fourth episode back, “Game of Thrones” finally let loose, proving that the gathering tension beneath each methodical move across the chessboard over the past three weeks was always going to explode into some truly magnificent military maneuvers. And as it so happened, Daenerys — who’s been incurring heavy losses all through this season due to some combination of Cersei’s cunning genius, Tyrion’s seemingly middling counsel, and Euron’s bold, violent theatrics at sea — was the triumphant architect of this episode’s central sequence, regaining sure footing — and, if Jaime Lannister survived his ill-advised attempt at assassination by spear and consequent fall into deep waters, some valuable political prisoners — after two tough weeks in which her claim to the Iron Throne was significantly undercut by unexpected military masterstrokes from Cersei.
Responding to the Lannisters’ unexpected takeover of Highgarden and execution via poisoning of Lady Olenna, Dany ultimately chose to throw caution to the wind, riding into battle on Drogon, her favorite and at this point most battle-savvy dragon, in order to breathe flames all over her enemy’s forces and in many cases turn the opposition to literal ash. Certainly the season’s most gloriously intense sequence to date, it also was a turning point for Dany, who’s been largely sequestered to Dragonstone throughout the past few episodes and seems finally to be realizing that her individually legendary presence, complete with and completed by dragons exclusively loyal to her, could and likely should be a central part of her military strategy. Tyrion, for all his world-worn wit and wisdom, is no all-seeing prophet, and no piece of advice he’s given the Khaleesi thus far has reaped benefits as vast as those she’ll surely savor after decimating the Lannister forces from on high in this episode’s finale.
Enough can’t be said about the sequence itself, a sprawling, nearly 20-minute frenzy of frantic close-ups and swiveling perspectives in which Dany’s combination of Dothraki cavalry and dragonfire almost immediately catches the Lannister forces — including Sam’s younger brother Dickon and mercenary Bronn, whose valiant attempts to down Drogon with that souped-up crossbow weapon we were introduced to back in King’s Landing — off-guard, with little opportunity to regroup before meeting sticky (and in many cases smoldering) ends.
“Game of Thrones” consistently operates in the uppermost echelon of fantasy television, and “The Spoils of War” deserves the utmost credit for allowing the series to climb even higher in its execution of sweeping yet achingly personal action sequences, bolstered by their impressively epic scopes, but rooted in the fates of characters we’ve grown to care about immensely over the course of seven seasons.
The core of this one can be read in Tyrion’s eyes as he watches all manner of hell rain down on the Lannister forces, both the men of his family and those he’s sworn to fight against. Wide-eyed as Jaime mounts one last-ditch charge against Daenerys after Bronn successfully forces Drogon to the ground with a skewered wing, the turn-tail Lannister murmurs, “Flee, you idiot,” indecision writ large across his furrowed brow. Though there’s little chance Tyrion is holding out hope for the siblings who repeatedly left him for dead, “The Spoils of War” is the first time Tyrion has been confronted with the brutal realities of combat. With his literal brother at the center of that chaos, this particular maneuver, something planned out on the beaches of Dragonstone mostly by those nowhere near the fray, takes on an unexpected heft for the schemer.
Bronn seemingly knocked Jaime into the water to evade an otherwise unavoidable death by Drogon’s fire, but one has to wonder how Tyrion will wrestle the idea he in part plotted the downfall of the only relative who really ever displayed any kind of affection toward him — and that he may in fact have ended his life. It seems unlikely that Jaime is truly dead (I personally subscribe to the fan theory that he’ll end up killing Cersei in order to prevent bloodshed on an unfathomable scale, fulfilling a prophecy in the progress), but he’s at the very least in a pretty bad way after this battle, and that’s something Tyrion will have to answer for.
Just earlier this episode, Dany insinuated that Tyrion could be working against her, even subconsciously, to protect his family; even though that’s all but definitely a baseless accusation, his aversion to seeing Jaime dealt potentially mortal blows makes all the sense in the world. No one said war was easy.
With its fervid, fire-and-brimstone tableau, the battle is of a pair with the icy, forbidding “Hardhome” sequence, and it’s clear some of the parallels are intentional when one takes into account how Jon’s presence has already influenced Dany’s plans of attack back at Dragonstone.
In the time since we last saw him, Jon has uncovered (weirdly well-preserved and very weirdly appropriate to Dany’s current predicament) cave drawings that depict the Children of the Forest and the First Men setting aside their differences in order to fight off the White Walkers. Foreshadowing, guys. It’s the name of the game so far as Jon is concerned this season; everything from his noticeably eyeing of Dany to his inner conflict over aiding her against King’s Landing versus returning to the North in order to battle White Walkers, suggests a personal crossroads straight ahead, maybe as soon as next week. For her part, Dany’s still waiting on Jon to take the knee, but the proud Northerner seems unlikely to oblige any time in the near future. It’s worth noting that the pair seem to be enjoying one of the most peaceable and mutually beneficial relationships of any two political players at this point in the game of thrones; and with everyone else out for themselves, the two stand a chance of uniting their singular abilities, to spectacularly successul ends.
At Winterfell, meanwhile, more Stark reunions are ensuring this season continues to be a one-box-of-Kleenex-a-Sunday affair. This time, it’s Arya who appears on the doorstep, having clearly decided after her encounter with Nymeria in the woods to at least make an effort to come home to the only family she has left. With stakes as high as they are, the closest “Game of Thrones” gets to humor these days is in throwaway banter with cursory characters, and “The Spoils of War” indulges in a little of that with two hapless guards in disbelief that the grimy, hardened young woman before them is a Stark.
Needless to say, Arya’s faced worse, and before you can say “Valar Morghulis,” she’s properly reuniting with the sister with whom she never truly had the chance to grow up. Thankfully for both of them, it’s a more joyous occasion than Sansa’s cold reunion with Bran (he’s just as much of a pretentious jerk in this one, for anyone who was wondering, calling himself the Three-Eyed Raven and denying those who shepherded him to Winterfell even a semblance of warmth). Arya, on the contrary, is full of love for Sansa, and the two share a tender, somber moment beneath a large, shadow-soaked statue paying tribute to their father, Ned Stark (Sean Bean, from way back in the hinterlands of season 1).
Much has been said this season about the long, hard roads Starks have been forced to travel over the years, and the timing feels right for members of this long-persecuted, oft-betrayed clan to begin binding together. There’s a scene between Arya the assassin, Sansa the general, and Bran the Greenseer where their combined might is near-palpable (and one gets an odd whiff of how the next few “X-Men” movies will probably shake out). That’s not necessarily good news for Littlefinger, who can’t seem to avoid coming off as a manipulative creep to any of the younger-generation Starks he says he’s always looked out for, but simultaneously great news for anyone who’s spent the majority of “Game of Thrones” rooting for a glorious, blood-soaked Stark comeback.
With the exception of a probably important but oh-so-talky scene at King’s Landing, “The Spoils of War” kept focus on its three major sets — Highgarden, Winterfell, and Dragonstone — resulting in a tighter-than-usual hour that still fit in more content that we’ll be able to fully process before next Sunday.
And though the burning question on everyone’s mind will likely revolve around Jaime’s fate, “The Spoils of War” left me with more existential quandaries. Jon, growing closer to the Mother of Dragons in ways that make Davos raise an eyebrow and the rest of us grin hopefully, warns her at one point that using her dragons to unleash hell on King’s Landing and topple Cersei would make her no better than the vindictive, power-hungry rulers to whom she considers her just temperament a solution. And he’s probably right about that. After Highgarden, there’s no question that Drogon and his fellow dragons are Westerosi WMDs, capable of decimating almost all the tech at Cersei’s disposal and certainly all her warriors. At the same time, the war for the Iron Throne is already incurring heavy casualties, and Tyrion’s arc in this episode bent toward a greater understanding of just how personal some losses may be. Dany’s ultimate decision to ride into battle and wreak havoc pointed to clear cognizance that she’ll need to put her own life on the line to stand a chance of beating Cersei, and that’s on one level admirable. She’s got skin in this game in a way few of the other political players (most since deceased) we’ve seen vie for power throughout the series did. But war is about more than individual heroics, and word of the horrific manner in which Dany dispatched the Lannisters’ forces will no doubt travel fast.
It’s true that war always comes with a cost, but just how much of Dany’s characteristic empathy will remain by the time she makes her final bid for the Iron Throne? How much of her press toward it is about family legacy? How well will power actually suit Dany? That’s the ultimate cruelty of the titular game, forging young men and women like the Starks and the Targaryens into hardened warriors bent on victory — even at the expense of any capacity for love, hope, or innocence a more peaceful world would have afforded them. Even the title of this episode feels like a taunt. Dany’s gaining tactical ground here and securing leverage in her campaign for the Iron Throne, but she’s done so at the expense of a great many lives. What’s spoiling, beneath the layers of armor wartime has forced each of these characters to don, could be any chance they have at a life beyond the battleground.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @i_feldberg.