As one of the shortest episodes in Game of Thrones‘ run, “The Spoils of War” has no choice but to be a more focused not-quite-50 minutes of television. Unsurprisingly, the decision to focus on a small number of locations and characters works to the show’s benefit; “The Spoils of War” is an hour-long crescendo filled with powerful moments of reflection and conviction, small building blocks leading to an incredible finale that once again raises the stakes on the physical brutality of war in Westeros, and the depth of emotion released by GoT‘s characters when the phrase “life and death” becomes a visceral reality.

There’s been a number of Stark reunions in season seven of Game of Thrones, but perhaps none is played  to greater emotional effect, then when Arya makes her return to Winterfell. Though the show continues to pound home the notion Arya is not recognized by anyone, seeing Sansa and Bran’s individual reactions to her arrival (as well as scheming Littlefinger’s) give life to the emotional chasm that’s formed at the heart of the Stark family since Ned’s death. Seeing them all together in Bran’s bedroom is a powerful sight, crystallizing the individual journeys of each character through the six-plus seasons they’ve been separated, and giving amazing weight and scope to just how much has happened since they were last together as a family. Forget they’ve lost both their parents and every single person they grew up around (Arya looking for Luwin and Rodrick was particularly touching); in the six seasons since they’ve been together, Bran’s become a douchebag hipster with the power to travel across space and time, Arya’s become a shapeshifting assassin, and Sansa survived just about every emotional and physical trauma a woman married to a tyrant and a torturer could possibly handle… and that’s not even mentioning the bastard brother who survived death, and the other brother that nobody ever really gave a fuck about, whose death in an open field was the catalyst for one of the show’s most important battles (sorry, Rickon).

The Stark family journey has been the heart of the series, even through the show’s exponential expansion through the years, so to see those stories contract into a single, almost wordless exchange between siblings, is the kind of cathartic emotional payoff Game of Thrones has been building towards for years, a difficult moment to nail without seeming like self righteous fan service. Watching Sansa laugh off Arya’s mention of her list is a small moment in a (very) dark crypt, but one that’s rewarded in spades throughout the episode’s time at Winterfell; from the mystery Arya’s presence exudes, to her stunning display of skill and agility in her sparring match with Brienne (a personal highlight of the episode), Sansa’s consistently blown away by Arya’s prowess and maturity, putting her own arc of growth into stark (sorry) contrast with her younger sister’s.

Of course, the most interesting moment is perhaps the only one that doesn’t feature the Stark sisters; Littlefinger’s vain attempts to swoon Bran provide a fascinating bit of familial politics into the mix of the episode, which is otherwise concerned only with the larger strategic machinations at Dragonstone and King’s Landing. Since Bran is “no longer Bran” (UGH shut the fuck up Bran), one might think Littlefinger’s nifty little speech and gift would be lost on Bran the Sophomore Philosophy Minor; however, it appears Bran’s ability to see deep into the past has revealed to him the many, many machinations on Littlefinger’s part to affect the Stark family, in ways that betray Littlefinger’s speech about protecting Catelyn’s legacy by protecting the children she left behind.

(And though this season has gone far out of its way to have Bran express his “new” (lame ass) identity, Game of Thrones can’t help but tip its emotional hand a bit when Arya’s in the room (showing the writers’ favoritism of Arya over Sansa, something that’s lingered over the show for years), as Bran hands her the Valyrian steel blade originally destined for Bran’s throat all the way back in the second episode of the series (an event I’m still convinced Littlefinger was behind, in some way or another). It’s really a disturbing contrast between how Bran approaches his first conversations with the two of them: Sansa gets reminded of the brutal rape that was her wedding night, while Bran gives Sansa purpose, an emotional bond that remains unbroken – whether intentional or not, it’s always worth a mention how Game of Thrones views Sansa and Arya, and how that manifests in the reactions of characters close to them.

He knows he’s giving her that weapon for a purpose; he’s seen the woman she’s become, and understands her journey is destined for a much darker, violent path than his own – and perhaps, is throwing more shade towards Littlefinger by placing another weapon in the hands of the family assassin, a deft little move by a man who has professed his separation from his own humanity and identity (poor, unappreciated Meera, but a powerful female pawn in a man’s “more important” journey), only to betray it by tipping the scales of justice in favor of his own family (an interesting parallel to Samwell at the Citadel, and how he’s ignored the rules of his maesters to help the people he cares about, I might add). Duty and destiny are big, fun ideas, but underneath is always lineage and family; and as often as characters want to break away from the traditions and habits of generations past, blood is still thicker than water or wine, and remains an important foundational piece of every relationship in Westeros, positive or negative.

Outside of Winterfell, “The Spoils of War” really only visits two other locations; a redundant scene in King’s Landing reiterating the Iron Bank and the Lannisters commitment to each other (boring), and the battle on the Roseroad outside King’s Landing, a battle scene so dramatic and kinetic, it challenges Blackwater and Battle of the Bastards as the best battle scene Game of Thrones has ever aired. The moment Bron yells “Listen!” to Jaime and Dickon, “The Spoils of War” launches into another dramatic stratosphere; beginning with the rolling, thunderous crescendo of Dothraki hooves racing towards Jaime’s small contingent of soldiers, and continuing as Drogon makes his first true appearance on the battlefield, throwing everything into utter chaos, and delivering one of the most breathtaking sequences in the show’s history. Forget how surprising the ambush is; Drogon lights the entire goddamn battlefield on fire, throwing trembling fear into soldiers and viewers alike, a sequence so visually harrowing and audibly traumatic it left me sweaty and shaking at the end.

As a mix of marvel and terror carries over Jaime’s face, you can feel the tides of war themselves shifting, as he tries to merely survive the one-sided onslaught brought to his door by a powerful dragon and an Dothraki horde fighting on Westeros land for the first time ever. Dany has spent much of the last two episodes lamenting her presence as a “smart” leader by staying put while her armies are defeated, cornered, or burned to the ground, and holy shit does that pay off here. With all her allies outside of Dragonstone gone, Dany spends the early parts of “The Spoils of War” lashing out at Tyrion’s ill-advised strategies (she even goes so far as to question his loyalties, which crops up later when Tyrion expresses dismay at his brother’s kamikaze run at Dany), even as she’s trying to absorb the knowledge shared by Jon in the caves below Dragonstone. Jon points out the threat of the Night’s Army is very real, and something that neither of them can fight alone; this finally catalyzes Dany to get off the goddamn sidelines after six seasons, and ride a fucking dragon down to the battlefield to make a point about what fire can accomplish when applied directly to a problem. It still remains to be seen whether Dany will act as the Great Uniter, bringing the seven realms together to fight off the Night’s King during the longest winter ever, but in the context of her strategic options available at the moment, it’s as satisfying to watch Dany take to the battlefield – a Westeros battlefield on the main land, rather than some fight against forgettable slave traders or dudes really good at illustions – as it is to watch the remaining core Stark children reunite.

These moments are years in the making; and for every obvious fault and flaw in Game of Thrones‘ seventh season, it’s undeniable the show is hitting its big moments with confidence and passion, delivering scenes both quiet and loud to bring long-running conflicts and delayed reunions to a head. As the battle for the soul of Westeros continues to heat up (again, sorry), these smaller reunions and reconciliations provide the emotional backbone deep character development and careful plot mechanics can no longer sustain. As it moves through a condensed timeline to a big, dramatic ending, it’s heartwarming to see Game of Thrones remember where it came from, not just with callbacks to long-running mysteries, but with strong, subdued scenes that strike at the heart of the emotional connections built between show and audience. Its ability to deliver on those important moments, without being self-referential or back-patting, is perhaps the most impressive element of the surprisingly tight, mostly focused four hours that have opened this momentous, insanely anticipated season. With only three left to go (and nine in the entire series), “The Spoils of War” is a promising sign that despite the smaller details and moments that don’t quite work, Game of Thrones is up to the  task of delivering on the biggest, most anticipated conflicts and moments of the series, a tall task that grows more daunting and important with each passing hour.

 

Other thoughts/observations:

  • for those who don’t remember Bran’s comment to Littlefinger, it came in a conversation back in season three’s “The Climb”, in a philosophic debate between Littlefinger and Varys. “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, they cling to the realm or the gods or love. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
  • one more time for poor Meera; she went through all that shit, just for Bran to say “thanks, bro” and give her a peace sign on the way out.
  • Sansa: “Hey guys, listen to how awful and challenging my life has been?” Arya, Bran, and Jon: “Hold my coffee.”
  • Another small, important moment GoT nails this week: both Theon’s reaction to seeing Jon (an innocent “I didn’t expect to see you here”), and Jon’s proclamation of how he’d rip Theon’s head off if he hadn’t saved Sansa’s life. There really is nobody left that’s happy to see Theon show up anywhere, and that is a consistent source of humor for me. Fuck you, Theon!
  • Bran’s scenes were much better this week; not sure if that’s a byproduct of the performer he’s with, or just that everyone liked Arya more than Sansa anyway.
  • oh, Podrick – you silly man.
  • now I *really* think Littlefinger is going to be killed by Arya.
  • what else can be said about Drogon’s debut on the battlefield? Dany showed she’s a force to be fucked with, but she also learns that diving in headfirst can have dangerous consequences; she nearly loses Drogon to a well-timed arrow shot by Bronn from Qyburn’s Scorpian machine. There’s so much revealed about the decisions of these characters this scene, it makes for a fascinating rewatch. And to think, it all beganins
  • I’ve never been more anxious during a scene of television, than when Drogon was flying overhead, and Jaime and Bronn were trying to figure out how to survive. The sound design, the direction, the amazing choreography and effects: this was a fight scene of the highest quality, one that is interested in both the spectacle of a battle, and the harrowing trauma that rests at the heart of all the death and destruction that comes with it. This fight has some serious weight to it, and it comes from the design of the entire sequence, not just a few moments here or there where we see big stabbings or throat slicings.
  • I don’t talk enough about the production design of this show, but how Arya’s gear matches that of her father’s when she arrives in Winterfell, touched my heart in ways most costuming can’t even dream. Just stellar work by the production team there.
  • Tyrion talking to himself during his brother’s suicidal run at Dany is such a powerful, overshadowed moment: as much as he hates his family, he has to come to terms with the potential for him to kill all that remain, which includes Jaime, the only family member that offered him even a modicum of respect. Watching him beg for Jaime to flee was as strong as anything in this hour,  a moment that GoT drops into the climatic moments to outstanding effect, even if it is overshadowed a bit by the dramatic cliffhanger ending.
  • Knowing the gold made it to King’s Landing softens the impact of this fight a bit before it starts, but it’s still an impressive bit of production work nonetheless, and can rely on the emotional stakes between characters to derive drama.
  • Boy, the spiral drawn by the First Men and Children of the Forest in the Dragonstone cave looks awfully similar to the spiral of body parts found in the first scene of the series.
  • If you haven’t been listening, we’ve been covering each episode on The TVRoundtable podcast, and will continue through the rest of this season.
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A TV critic since the simpler days of 2011, Randy is currently the TV Editor of Goomba Stomp and the co-host of The TV Roundtable Podcast. In the past, he's written for outlets like Sound on Sight, TVOvermind, SLUG Magazine and Processed Media. He can be found on Twitter at @rjdank.