*** WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD ***
The Spoils of War isn’t quite perfect, but it comes very close. Game of Thrones can still be as clunky as a sluggish Lannister soldier on a macro-plot level but, when it focuses on quality character moments and thrilling set pieces, it explodes like nothing else on television before.
The dust of incinerated Lannisters is still settling, but without a doubt it will be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the best, episodes of the show. You could make a pretty good argument that this is one of the greatest episodes of television – ever. (Obviously, this is all pretty subjective but I would place it comfortably within the top 10.)
The Spoils of War is as sharp as a Dothraki arakh. Aspects of Game of Thrones which it handles poorly, namely larger political moves and strategy increasingly inspired by convenience and narrative efficiency, take a back seat to beautiful and tender character moments, as well as an unbelievably brutal and unique war scene.
Let’s get the very few things to quibble about out of the way.
It’s mildly ridiculous that the guards at Winterfell would be so adversarial towards Arya. She namechecks two of the most important and well-known people from the castle’s recent past, both Brienne and Sansa know she is alive, and another supposedly deceased Stark kid just rocked up last week with no trouble at all proving his credentials.
Randyll and Dickon Tarly have required very few scenes to create distinctive and impressionable identities, yet it is constantly bewildering that Sam was able to steal the family’s priceless Valyrian steel heirloom sword with absolutely no ramifications.
Jon’s discovery of the Children of the Forest’s drawings in the caves below Dragonstone examines the world’s mythology and gives us the clearest sign of love bells between him and Daenerys. However, while this adheres to both book and show canon, the origins and nature of the White Walkers remain a bit of a muddle. Hopefully, before they emerge as the inevitable antagonists of the final season, we can delve into their backstory a bit more.
The delivery of the Tyrell’s gold to the Iron Bank to pay off the Lannisters’ debts is extremely conveniently timed – allowing one more barrier to Cersei’s power to evaporate while also providing a blank cheque to bolster her future military powers. In strategic terms, it means the later attack has little consequence in shifting the overall balance of power.
What truly makes this episode brilliant are the character moments.
The reunion at Winterfell on Arya’s return is devastating. Of all the characters in Game of Thrones, Sansa, Arya and Bran show the most distinctive impacts of their respective journeys. Sansa has morphed from a gleeful teen into a respected leader, Arya a tomboy troublemaker to a skilled assassin and Bran a crippled child to a cold-blooded mystic.
Meanwhile, Rob and Rickon are dead, bastard Jon is really a cousin, and the adopted captive craven Theon a disappointment, which makes the confluence of the remaining true Stark children particularly impactful.
It’s heartbreaking to see these characters grapple with the weight of the new roles thrust upon them, while confronting the recognition of the deep trauma they all have endured.
The fight scene that closes the episode is only about 15 minutes long. It shows that the predominant creatives behind this episode, writers and showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss and director Matt Shakman, prioritised a taught and succinct visual narrative over anything else.
The crescendo of Dothraki warcries and emergence of Daenerys perched atop Drogon is truly spine-tingling. The threat of dragons has long been hinted at, but only now do we see their horrifying power.
Incinerating everything in their path, melting defensive lines in their wake, eviscerating backup supply chains in a single breath; it’s a terrifying example of the sheer horror these beasts can exert. Tyrion and Jon caution Daenerys about using dragons against cities and now you feel the nuclear impact it would have if she was contrarian.
Cersei’s anti-dragon scorpion wasn’t as impactful as she perhaps hoped, but they are making a very deliberate point to show that dragons are much more susceptible and vulnerable to attack than we may have believed.
Jaime’s fall into the abyss of the lake is a poignant closing image, but logistically it’s a bit of a laugh that the drop-off from the shore appears to be about 15 metres deep. Even though his armour should weigh him down, presumably this opens the door for his capture and a rapprochement with Tyrion.
The two Lannister siblings have been a little listless recently as their sister wreaks havoc across the Seven Kingdoms, but their prior scenes have been dynamite. I have all fingers crossed that there can be a fruitful reunion that reinvigorates their character arcs.
It’s the very definition of a critic to look for things to be critical of, but The Spoils of War is something to stand up and applaud. It is a truly remarkable and redefining episode of television.