'Game Of Thrones' Review: 'The Spoils Of War' Brings Fire And Blood In A Perfect Episode

(In our coverage of Game of Thrones season 7, we'll be examining each episode with one simple question in mind – which character is winning the game of thrones this week?)

As the internet made abundantly clear it the run-up to its premiere, "The Spoils of War" is the shortest episode of Game of Thrones. Not by much, but enough to lead many people to believe it would be a filler episode, 50 or so minutes of table-setting following last week's stunning final moments. These episodes are required in a series this sprawling – the pieces need to be in the right place and the gears need to be turning at the right speed for those trademark big "wow" moments to pay off.

But we didn't get a filler episode. Instead, we got what may be the best episode of the series thus far, an hour of television that supplied spectacle and character, an hour that paid off numerous plot threads while tearing a dozen more from the series' increasingly bloodstained tapestry. "The Spoils of War" is Game of Thrones at its best, a reminder of why we fell in love with the show in the first place. Great characters, complex relationships, and massive conflicts that tear our allegiances in every possible direction.

Oh, and dragons.

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The Lannisters Count Their Chickens

Before things go to hell later in the episode, House Lannister is riding high. House Tyrell is dead. The castle of Highgarden belongs to them. Their gold supply is being loaded into wagons. Their crops are being collected for the long winter ahead. The Iron Bank of Braavos, always skeptical and never afraid to make a new enemy, is suddenly very interested in working on a partnership with Queen Cersei. After all, a Lannister always pays their debts and she's going to pay off the crown's debt in one fell swoop. The support of the world's most powerful financial institution will be a boon in the war ahead.

And while Jaime is still reeling from Olenna's (let's be honest: totally badass) deathbed confession about her role in the assassination of Joffrey, the commander of the Lannister forces has a big job ahead of him. He has an army to command. He has gold to transport. He has emergency winter farming to oversee. He has a Bronn to pay. And tellingly, he has a Randyll Tarly to discourage from whipping Highgarden survivors into working faster and harder. Jaime may be cruel (he's a Lannister, after all), but he's always been more practical than his sister. Like his little brother, he sees the entire canvas while his queen/sister/lover only sees the individual brushstrokes.

These early scenes only confirm what we've been seeing all season: the Lannisters have their act together in a way that no one saw coming. While the Starks prepare for a war on two fronts and Daenerys struggles to get a foothold on the continent, Westeros' wiliest house has done what they do best: they've achieved victory after victory through subterfuge, deceit, backstabbing, and good 'ol fashioned wheeling and dealing. When it comes to playing the game of thrones, no one does it better.

But in a classic case of counting your chickens (dragons?) before they hatch, the Lannister victory proves to be premature. Because intrigue alone can only take you so far.

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The Starks Hold a Reunion

After many seasons apart, the majority of the surviving Starks have reunited at Winterfell and all is joyous! Kind of. Sort of. Family reunions are awkward experiences because you're dealing with a group of disparate people who only occupy the same space because they share the same DNA – you don't pick your family, and you sure as hell don't have to like them. But you're stuck with them.

Thankfully, the Starks seem to still like each other (for the most part), despite having grown into completely different people during their time apart. Everyone is rightfully reluctant to discuss their tragic transformations into "hardened leader," "face-changing assassin," and "eternally nonchalant wizard." Thankfully, Jon isn't around to inform everyone that hey, he's also a zombie of sorts. The Starks, once the most straightforward of the Houses, have gotten weird.

Still, that weirdness didn't get in the way some of a very sweet reunion between Sansa and Arya, who haven't seen each other since the Lannisters massacred the Stark family guard back in season 1 following the death of King Robert Baratheon. Back then, these two had a contentious relationship: the princess-to-be and the tomboy never saw eye-to-eye on anything and bickered at every possible opportunity. Years (and plenty of murders and ugly marriages) later, these two have finally found common ground. Though united by shared pain, the spark of sisterhood is enough to unite two young women who would otherwise have no reason to be friends. Their shared moment in the crypt below Winterfell, their embrace before the tomb of the father they both watched get executed by a vicious tyrant (though from very different perspectives), is a powerful moment. The tomboy and the princess are back together at last.

Because that's what family really is, right? An excuse to love someone, even if that someone's journey doesn't align with yours in any way. My brother is a former cop and I write about fantasy television shows on the internet – the mere fact that we're adults who have been roughed up by life in our own special ways is enough to form a bond that simply couldn't exist in our younger days.

Of course, Arya's reunion with Bran is a little less emotional because the youngest surviving Stark boy has gone full Three-Eyed Raven and his, well, unique perspective places him on a plane above all other humans (and we all know someone like that in our own family, right?). He now has a wheelchair to replace Hodor and plenty of guards to replace a departing Meera, who can't believe that her companion for the past five seasons doesn't seem especially thankful for her help. To be fair, Bran does have other things on/in his mind, specifically, the entire history of Westeros. Friends must seem so small in comparison.

And while Bran isn't a barrel of laughs, his newfound abilities make him a key ally for House Stark in ways both massive (he can see the White Walkers on the move and knows the lineage of Jon Snow and such) and small. The latter showcases itself in "The Spoils of War" when Petyr Baelish attempts to make nice with the newly rediscovered Stark kid, offering him the Valyrian steel dagger that was used in an assassination attempt on him way back in season 1. New Bran has no need for such a thing, but he does use the moment to quote Littlefinger's own words back to him: "Chaos is a ladder." Littlefinger, not one to be shaken easily, is shook. When your entire talent lies in being able to play every side and lurk in the shadows, a super-psychic is your literal worst enemy. Right now, Littlefinger is a fox in the henhouse, but he's a useful fox. But now there's a hound there, too. A hound that can sniff out his attempts to make the wrong move.

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Brienne Meets Her Match

That Valyrian steel dagger ends up in the hands of Arya, who, skilled little killer that she is, happily adds it to her belt. And that brings us to perhaps the most joyous moment in the episode: Arya and Brienne meet again.

You may recall that Brienne and Arya met back in the season 4 finale, when the lady knight battled Sandor Clegane to "rescue" Arya and take her under her protection. It didn't go well for The Hound (who barely survived the encounter) and it didn't go well for Brienne, who lost the Stark girl and had to wrestle with the guilt of letting the late Catelyn Stark down on just about every front. But now, in the courtyard at Winterfell, the two of them can be allies. They can come to an understanding. And they quickly realize what we knew all along: Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth are totally going to be BFFs.

Think back to when Brienne first encountered House Stark. Think back to her early days as a knight sworn to Catelyn. Think back to when the late Lady of Winterfell first met this woman with dreams of being a warrior, a woman who rejected the patriarchy so she could swing a sword. Their dynamic spoke volumes: Brienne, the tomboy-who-could, reminded Catelyn of her youngest daughter, the one who was more interested in battles and swords than dresses and good manners. That was the quiet tragedy of their relationship. Arya was missing and presumed dead at the time, and Catelyn had found a surrogate, a woman who embodied everything that her little girl dreamed of being.

So when Arya volunteers to spar with Brienne in one of the most delightful scenes to ever grace Game of Thrones, we're seeing the meeting of two women destined to fight side-by-side. Sure, Arya's assassin training makes her a very different fighter than Brienne, whose heavy sword and heavier armor contrasts with the Stark girl's lightning-fast approach, but they're cut from the same cloth. They are spiritual sisters, both loved by the same dead woman, and now both pledged to defend Winterfell until death. And if their skirmish is any indication, they're equally matched when it comes to the art of killing those who threaten the people and institutions they cherish.

This scene also clues Sansa in to what her little sister has been up to and her reaction suggests that she's unhappy, or perhaps disturbed, to learn what has become of the little Arya she once knew.

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Jon Gives a Cave Tour

The last time Jon Snow was in a cave, he got lucky in the most direct and filthy sense of the phrase. In the newly minted King in the North's second big cave scene, he got lucky in a very different way – he may have just convinced Daenerys Targaryen that the White Walkers are real and that he's not just some crazy bastard barbarian from icy lands of the north. While their alliance is still contingent on him bending the knee, headway is being made. The two most stubborn people in Westeros are coming around to each other. Their different definitions of honor and nobility are slowly making their way through the universal translator. They'll be seeing eye-to-eye soon. But will it be before or after Bran lets Jon know that Daenerys is technically his aunt? That's going to be a weird conversation.

Anyway, Jon's cave tour (complete with music so reminiscent of John Williams' score of Jurassic Park that my viewing party started humming it during the scene) does a fine job of tying various strands of Westerosi legend together. Here, on the island that was the initial home of House Targaryen, is cave art depicting the Children of the Forest and the First Men battling their common foe: the White Walkers. The north may be the region most obsessed with legends and old gods and monsters and grumkins and snarks, but this isn't a regional phenomenon. The tales of the north are bound to every corner of the continent, even the corners currently not looking toward the Wall with growing dread.

We don't spend too much time on Dragonstone in "The Spoils of War," but every scene is a gift. Jon, never one to make a graceful entrance, interrupting Dany and Missandei's chat about Grey Worm's skills with his tongue. Davos' lewd (but admittedly hilarious) line about Missandei's "heart" that leads to a genuinely touching conversation between the northern reps and Dany's trusted advisor. The arrival of Theon Greyjoy, which fills Jon with so many mixed emotions (He betrayed Robb! He saved Sansa! Lisa needs braces! Dental plan!). And finally, the news that Casterly Rock was a bust, Highgarden has fallen, and the Mother of Dragons deciding that it's time to stop with the clever plans.

After all, the Lannisters have mastered the clever plan. Even with Tyrion in her corner, that's a tough way to fight. But clever plans are delicate things. Thankfully, Daenerys brought a hammer...and his name is Drogon.

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Daenerys Declares War

In episodes past, we have heard of the Targaryen invasion of Westeros. We have heard tales of how Aegon the Conquerer and his sisters rode their dragons across the Narrow Sea and decimated their foes. We've heard of how dragons made all the difference on the battlefield and how a traditional army didn't stand a chance.

In episodes past, we have heard the Dothraki discuss their desire to take on the men of Westeros, to fight the soldiers in the metal suits and storm their stone houses. Their weapons may be rudimentary compared to the great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms, but they have numbers and speed and a ferocity that cannot be matched. Fans have wondered what a proper showdown between well-equipped Westerosi troops and a Dothraki horde would look like.

And now, we know all of this. After three episodes of misfires, of trying to beat the Lannisters at their own game, Daenerys finally decided to start living up to her House's words and bring Fire and Blood to the battlefield. The Lannister forces, riding high after an easy victory against House Tyrell, never stood a chance. The Dorthraki offer no quarter as they slash through the Lannister lines. Daenerys, high above the battlefield on the back of Drogon, ruthlessly burns the supplies of food the Lannisters were collecting to feed their growing armies (in a throwaway line, it's mentioned that the Tyrell gold has already been delivered, so at least the Lannisters have that going for them).

It's the kind of spectacle we've come to expect from Game of Thrones, albeit on different kind of scale. We've seen big battles, but we've never seen a battle quite like this, with a dragon transforming rows of troops into ash while horsemen from another continent slay medieval knights. Director Matt Shakman, a TV veteran best known for directing 44 episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, now has 15 minutes of footage to show every producer in Hollywood when he decides he wants to direct the next major blockbuster.

"The Spoils of War" is a remarkable Game of Thrones episode not because it delivers one of the most stunning and vicious action scenes in the show's history, but because it does so after so many wonderful character moments and so many big-hearted and genuinely warm reunions between friends. This episode is the series at its most epic and its most intimate, a reminder that dragons melting Lannister armies works because we've come to care about those doing the melting and those being melted.

And that's something we need to talk about in more detail.

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Bronn Earns His Pay

Let's look back to the other big battles on Game of Thrones. At Blackwater, our beloved Tyrion defended King's Landing from Stannis, a grump we never grew to like. During the Battle of Castle Black, Jon Snow defended the realm against an army whose leader had righteous intentions but never truly emerged as a character to treasure. At Hardhome, Jon and his squad battled remorseless, emotionless zombies. In the Battle of the Bastards, Jon and his motley crew of allies took on the most vicious son of the bitch in the Seven Kingdoms.

In other words, the major battles of Game of Thrones have always given us someone to root for. Even as the rest of the series existed in shades of grey, with different sides splitting our loyalties, the main events have been one-sided. We knew going in who we wanted to win.

That changes in "The Spoils of War," the first major Game of Thrones battle to feature characters we care about and like on each side of the conflict. The show puts us in the shoes of Tyrion, watching from the sidelines, begging his brother to turn and flee. As much as we enjoy the spectacle (and it is one hell of a spectacle), it's an almost unbearable sequence to watch. We don't want to see the leads on either side of the fight die.

My heart began beating faster when I saw a sight more unusual than a dragon in the skies over Westeros: the generally stoic Bronn looking not only overwhelmed, but scared. The appeal of this lowborn former sellsword has always been his unflappability. Nothing surprised him when he was a ragtag mercenary, nothing surprised him when he commanded the City Watch for Tyrion, nothing surprised him when he trained Jaime how to fight with his remaining hand, and nothing surprised him when he went on a journey to Dorne. Hell, he doesn't even seem that surprised to be a knight and to have risen through the ranks of the Lannister army in record time. As long as he gets paid, he gets the job done. That's just Bronn. It helps that he's charming and hilarious and a scoundrel that we can't help but love. Like the best Game of Thrones characters, he exists in a permanent shade of grey. You want to share a drink with Bronn, but you also want to avoid him at all costs because he won't think twice about sticking a knife in your eye.

Seeing Bronn fearful and outmatched, stumbling through a battlefield ravaged by dragon fire, is something we have never seen before. Daenerys may be the "hero" in this equation, the more heroic character here to save the day, but Bronn is our guy. He's the commoner who just wants a paycheck who has found himself in the middle of a battle against a dragon and a Dothraki horde. He's not a highborn lord squabbling over power. He's a blue collar stiff who just wants to make sure his paycheck clears. And that's a goddamn dragon in the sky!

Just like how he proved to be the MVP at the Battle of the Blackwater with a perfectly executed flaming arrow, Bronn's aim is true once more. He situates himself behind Qyburn's dragon-killing device, aims, and fires, wounding Drogon and sending Daenerys and her most powerful ally plummeting to the ground.

I cannot recall a moment in all of Game of Thrones when I felt so conflicted about two characters staring each other down. Although both characters ultimately survive the battle, I watched Bronn take aim and wanted (needed!) him to miss – Daenerys has my sword in this war and Drogon is her child, a companion we have literally watched grow up from infancy. But Bronn's aim also had to be true. Because I sure as hell didn't want to watch Bronn die.

This is a testament to Jerome Flynn, who has transformed Bronn into such a beloved force of nature. It's also a testament to the Game of Thrones VFX teams, who have made a dragon who exists only in a computer a living, breathing animal that I care about as much as Daenerys does. It's a testament to Game of Thrones itself and its stomach-churning, soul-shaking storytelling. When traditional good and evil do not exist, when a story refuses to render both sides in black and white, a battle like this stops being exciting and starts being...harrowing? Upsetting? Disturbing? All of the above?

All I can say is that watching Bronn take aim at Drogon filled my stomach with so much dread that I'm still feeling the after effects a day later. I'm queasy. I'm exhilarated. I cannot wait for more.

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Jaime Sinks to a New Low

"The Spoils of War" ends in a cliffhanger. Jaime Lannister sees a grounded Drogon, Daenerys attempting to yank the spear (courtesy of Bronn) from her dragon's side. And in this moment, we can feel everything the Kingslayer can feel, see what he sees. This is his chance to strike the invader down, to end the war, and perhaps, reclaim the glory that rotted away with his good hand. Jaime has been a warrior in name only since his unfortunate encounter with Locke – killing the Mother of Dragons would get his name in the history books. It would restore his tarnished name.

But as Olenna Tyrell coldly informed Jaime minutes before her death, Jaime Lannister tends to learn his most valuable lessons from making poor choices. We don't see who pushes Jaime out of the way in the nick of time, saving him from Dragon's flames (Bronn? Dickon Tyrell?), but that's the only reason he's alive. Based on his own decisions, his own foolishness, Jaime Lannister would be a literal pile of ash, something to be swept away when the next strong breeze comes through.

That brings us to the cliffhanger, of course. Jaime, still wearing his heavy armor, sinks into the river. It's a profound loss for House Lannister and that final image sums it all up: a powerful man in his powerful armor is lowered into the abyss, unmoving and shellshocked, weighed down by everything that makes him powerful in the first place. What are you supposed to do in the face of an enemy like this?

The Players

This is normally the part of the review where I run down the various players and discuss who is currently winning and losing the game of thrones before deciding on a final victory. That feels redundant here. Daenerys Targaryen has flown in and kneecapped House Lannister. Now that she's actually on the battlefield, Team Fire and Blood looks nothing short of unstoppable. Jon Snow had better get around to bending the knee after this display of power.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: Daenerys Targaryen