This review contains SPOILERS for the fourth episode of Season 7 of Game of Thrones entitled “The Spoils of War”, and for all episodes preceding it, and for the A Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George R.R. Martin, up to and including sample chapters from The Winds of Winter.
At just 50 minutes long – leaving me thinking, wait, is it over? – “The Spoils of War” is the shortest episode of Game of Thrones to date. Nonetheless, this episode perfectly demonstrates that quality is far better than quantity – a maxim this season seems to be taking to heart. It’s an incredibly tight piece of writing far superior to anything else this season, but though the dialogue scenes of “The Spoils of War” make up its skeleton, its heart comes from the action sequence which bookends the episode, an explosion of high fantasy action and violence that should make even the most cynical Thrones-viewers stare agape at their screens. Every time I hear the phrase “YASSSSS QUEEN” I get a slight urge to scratch out my eyes, but for once that sentiment rings true with this episode.
The ending sequence of “The Spoils of War” is the love-child of “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome”; in shooting the final sequence, director Matt Shakman and DP Robert McLachlan have definitely taken cues from last year’s bloody extravaganza directed by Miguel Sapochnik, with cinematography by Fabian Wagner. That being said, Shakman and McLachlan have definitely brought some personality of their own to the early segments of the episode.
In the case of these battle episodes, you have to be careful not to judge the entire episode on the merits of a single sequence. In the case of “Battle of the Bastards”, the complete lack of story continuity means that I cannot in good faith rank the episode any higher than tenth in my list of favourites. But even without the final ambush scene, “The Spoils of War” is a fantastic episode. The scenes at Winterfell and Dragonstone justify that, with all the actors displaying excellent chemistry across the board. I feel like I should immediately address my comment from last week about Emilia Clarke and Kit Harrington’s chemistry. Last week they seemed awkward and stilted, as though performing against each other’s doubles and then having the pieces stitched together in post. But in this week’s cave scenes, under low lighting, careful blocking, and with a script that inferred romantic tension instead of blaring out the obvious, they were fantastic together, and I’m now thinking “The Queen’s Justice” was the exception rather than the rule.
The Dragonstone scenes were excellent all round. I particularly enjoyed the callback to Season 5 in the exchange between Jon and Davos – “How many men do we have to fight [the Night King]? 10,000? Less?”; “Fewer”; “What?” – which proves that Benioff and Weiss can be more subtle in their nods to the fandom than they have been previously. My only criticsm of these scenes is that the Jon/Theon scene felt a little too small in the grand scheme of things, though for the sake of pacing, I think D & D made the right choice in cutting it.
(And I’ve contradicted myself already. Great.)
Meanwhile in Winterfell, Arya comes home. Her arrival, and the subsequent challenge by the guards, is a lovely callback to a scene from Season 1 when she arrives back in King’s Landing and is similarly sent away. I liked that Benioff and Weiss made the circumstances of her arrival different to how they had been with the Jon-Sansa and Sansa-Bran reunions. I wouldn’t have complained about the usual courtyard embrace, but I think the idea of giving Arya one last trial at the end was a beautiful way both of concluding her six-season-long arc, and of illustrating the changes all the Starks have faced along the way.
Though the Stark reunion was touching, and I certainly felt something in my cold stone heart, the most emotional sequence for me this week was the parting of Bran and Meera. It’s good that D & D explained the change in Bran – “I am the three-eyed raven now” – though I still think this should have been illustrated early, perhaps instead of one of the filler scenes from “Stormborn”. Nonetheless, this is an unjust, harrowing, and horrifically inappropriate ending for Meera, one of the show’s must underappreciated and heroic characters. But this is GoT, and even moreso than in the books, heroes do not get what they deserve. There will be no Bran/Meera romance, no expressions of love or even friendship, only this moment to remember her… and the chance at living away from the horrors of the Long Night with her family, which, I suppose, is reward enough in this world.
But because someone has to say it, I will. Thank you, Meera Reed – though ‘thank you’ is not enough. You deserved better. And thank you, Ellie Kendrick. You acted your heart out of this, and didn’t get nearly enough appreciation either. I hope to see you back in Season 8, and maybe with Howland Reed at your side.
Brienne got a scene this week, and Podrick had his first lines of the season, which is good. While it’s a shame that Brienne hasn’t really had much to do this year, it’s good to see Gwendoline Christie putting in a performance somewhat more in line from the Brienne we know from the books, instead of the murderous killing machine from Season 5. Her sequence with Arya was also one of the best small-scale fights the show has ever done; I particularly liked Shakman’s choice of set – one where it allowed Sansa to overlook things but gave a sense of confinedness to Arya and Brienne’s fight at the same time – and his use of POV camera angles. And damn, those are some acrobatics.
But the meat of the episode is the Field of Fire, where Jaime and Bronn facedown against Dany and her dragons. Without doubt, these 15 minutes of battle are some of the most heart-poundingly beautiful and fantastically tense we’ve ever seen in Thrones.
A lot of the battles in Thrones come down to their iconic moments, and “The Spoils of War” has these in abundance. The episode is shot to make you remember these instances: the charge of the Dothraki and their yodelling war cry, the moment Drogon descends from the clouds and Ramin Djawadi’s excellent score amps it up, the shots Bronn takes at the dragon from Qyburn’s ballista, coupled with the excellent sound design of… um… burning men. The VFX department deserves all due credit for making Drogon look more realistic than ever (so that’s where the budget went) – indeed, to paraphrase Joe Bauer himself, “the best thing you can say about VFX is that you didn’t notice it”. But the thing which elevates “The Spoils of War” above “Battle of the Bastards” is its emotional through-line. Much as BotB followed Jon, we’re now encouraged to follow Jaime, Bronn, and lastly Tyrion through the battle. It’s an interesting choice to shoot Dany from a wide-shot, limited perspective, as it gives her that cold aloofness that I think we need to show her that she is not just the mother of dragons, but also that dragons are a merciless and potentially apocalyptic weapon of mass destruction. “The Spoils of War” gets this across possibly for the first time.
There were moments when I was rooting for Bronn, only to remember that without Drogon we don’t get any of these sequences, only to remember that Bronn is cool, and so on. And in the final sequence, where Jaime was charging down Dany, I admit that I was firmly in the Jaime camp at that moment… yet from a narrative perspective, we would feel so cheated if Benioff and Weiss killed off Dany here. So Dany has to live. But Jaime also has to live. But—
In the end, I think Bronn should have died. I think both he and Jaime will miraculously make it to next week, but in that case, I feel like this is ‘jumping the shark’ a little too much. Nonetheless, I can’t deny that Bronn’s epic sideways dive was among the most exciting moments of Thrones, possibly ever, next to scenes like Dany’s arrival on the battlefield… the Bronn tracking shot… the ballista scene… wait, these were all in the same episode.
In the end, the only thing that remains to be judged is whether “The Spoils of War” is the best battle of all time. I think I’m going to have to go with “No”, since the sheer feelings of dread conjured up by Hardhome weren’t overtopped, but it’s a damned good battle, and the story and emotional moments make much more sense that “Battle of the Bastards”. However, it’s an incredible feat for 15 minutes, and when you put the rest of the episode next to it, “The Spoils of War” definitely stands up as the finest episode of the season so far, and one of the top 5 episodes of all time.