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Game of Thrones season 7, episode 4: 11 winners and zero losers from “The Spoils of War”

This week’s biggest winner: the American viewing public.

Game of Thrones
Sansa Stark presents: Back in the North (Live)
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“The Spoils of War” is the kind of episode Game of Thrones fans live for. You’ll sit through the talky episodes, or the bland scenes with lots of exposition, or even the enjoyable buddy comedy adventures of certain pairings — but you know you’re going to get to the big stuff eventually. And almost every time it hits one of these massive episodes, Game of Thrones delivers.

I’ve spent much of season seven feeling as if the series was holding something back. Indeed, the last couple of episodes seemed to be trying to conserve the show’s budget, which I theorized was being held back for some massive setpiece later in the season. Well, the last 15 minutes of “Spoils” delivered on that front and then some.

There was fire! There was chaos! There was heroism! There was a dragon! There was surprisingly adept action filmmaking from a man whose most prominent credit is directing 44 episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia! And it all climaxed with the tease that Jaime Lannister himself might die. (Though, c’mon, Jaime’s not dying because he drowned.)

The episode was, in short, a whole lot of fun and a bountiful cornucopia of Game of Thrones goodness. Yes, it will primarily be defined by that concluding battle between Daenerys’s and Cersei’s respective forces, but even the earlier scenes, which were largely the talky, exposition-filled scenes that have been so prevalent this season, had a spring in their step.

With that in mind, here are 11 winners and no losers from “The Spoils of War” — because we’re all winners here.

Winners: Daenerys, dragons, and the Dothraki, for setting everything on fire

Game of Thrones characters standing on a beach.

The most obvious comparison point for “The Spoils of War” is “Hardhome,” the best episode of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, which similarly started with a series of scenes checking in on characters around the show’s universe, then transitioned to a lengthy battle scene. In that case, Jon Snow and his Night’s Watch companions battled with the White Walkers, and Jon had his first real showdown with the Night King.

That makes it all the more intriguing that the series has paired its big ice battle with a big fire battle, set in the midst of a battlefield that Dany’s forces have laid waste to. There are sequences and shots in the midst of this battle that capture the surreal hell that would be a war fought with gigantic, reptilian beasts that can breathe literal fire.

But it’s worth talking about this sequence from a character perspective as well. After being soundly beaten back in the past two episodes, Dany wins a major victory here and destroys the Lannister army, reducing much of it to ash.

I’m not entirely sure what the series is attempting to say with the argument that Dany needed to be personally responsible for her army in order for it to win, or how it’s attempting to contrast her with Cersei (who remains safely ensconced in the Red Keep), but the implication is clear: Daenerys Targaryen isn’t someone who can win by hiding in a massive fortress. She needs to be in the heat of battle, even if she risks injury or death.

We also haven’t really seen the Dothraki on the battlefield very much over the course of the series. “Spoils” convincingly paints them as an absolutely terrifying force of nature — so numerous in number that it’s impossible to stand against their oncoming rush, and so ruthlessly efficient in how quickly they can kill you. At one point, a Dothraki warrior leans off his horse to cut off the foot of Bronn’s horse, and that seems like a succinct encapsulation of their fighting style. Just when you think you’ve figured out a winning strategy, they’ll find a way around it.

Winner: Bronn, for stemming the tide

While everybody else on Team Lannister is gobsmacked at how thoroughly they’ve been battered by a dragon, Bronn is the guy who makes the desperate scramble for the gigantic spear gun (called a “scorpion” in-episode), loads it all by himself, fires, misses, loads it again, then connects to bring the dragon down to earth.

And as if that’s not enough, he’s the guy who comes racing in from out of nowhere to knock Jaime out of the path of oncoming dragon fire, that he might live another day (and/or die in a murky pool — but again, that won’t happen). Everybody else is losing their heads, but Bronn keeps his.

Add to that a pretty impressive long take that follows him around the battlefield as he staggers toward the scorpion and his earlier suggestion that Jaime should get the hell out of Dodge, and you have the one guy who seems to realize that while the Lannisters have been winning a lot of late, they don’t have much room to get over-confident. It’s good to have Bronn back for more than a single shot.

Winner: Director Matt Shakman, for a stirring Game of Thrones debut

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The battle scene is filled with great little moments and shots.

I referred to Matt Shakman above via his 44 episodes of It’s Always Sunny, which are his most prominent credit. But I left out that he’s directed episodes of everything from Fargo to Mad Men to You’re the Worst to The Good Wife, and his episodes have often added a necessary cinematic flair to even the scuzzy interiors of Sunny. He’s one of those TV directors who’s been around for ages (since 2002), but mostly working out of the limelight, bouncing between comedy and drama. (Also, he starred as “the son” in the late ’80s family sitcom Just the Ten of Us, which I just learned.)

Well, Shakman likely won’t be an anonymous craftsman much longer. His Thrones debut is a pretty bold and brutal episode to make a mark with, and I loved many of his choices. In particular, the way his camera pans slowly across the horizon as the Dothraki can be heard but not yet seen — hidden just behind the crest of a hill — builds tension beautifully, until that dragon streaks in out of the sky.

And the long take of Bronn stumbling through the battle, dragon fire burning everywhere, is much, much better than last season’s similar long take in “The Battle of the Bastards.” It conveys the chaos of battle, yes, but also gives you a good sense of just why Bronn takes every step and makes every move he makes. He’s saved by dumb luck, sure, but also because he thinks quickly on his feet. And the camera tilting up just in time to catch a dragon flying by is the coup de grace.

Winner: Katie Wieland, for some excellent editing

Editor Katie Weiland deserves tons of credit for this episode, too. In particular, the heightening tension as Jaime plunges toward Dany, knowing he’s probably doomed, with frequent cuts to Tyrion imploring his estranged brother not to piss off the giant dragon, made for a white-knuckle end to an already impressive episode.

Winner: Bran Stark, for being creepy in a much better way

Okay, other stuff happened in this episode, too, and lots of it happened up North, where the three surviving Stark children have been reunited for the first time since the series’ pilot.

But I’ll come back to that. For now, I want to talk about Bran, who’s still creeping people out with his ability to see all of time and space. Last week, he used this to tell his sister he’d seen her horrible wedding night. But this week, he’s using it to clue Littlefinger in that he can see alllll of Littlefinger’s life.

When Lord Baelish brings up chaos, Bran says, flatly, that, hey, “chaos is a ladder,” a reference to a memorable scene between Littlefinger and Varys back in season three, one that referenced Littlefinger’s constant need to keep spinning new conflicts in order to advance his position.

Of course, one of the foremost ways Littlefinger has done this is in betraying Ned Stark, which led to the latter’s head being chopped off. Bran isn’t just letting Littlefinger know he’s seen that chat with Varys — he’s letting him know he’s seen everything else too. Shakman ends the scene on Littlefinger’s face in close-up, looking almost directly into the camera lens. It’s unsettling, but it’s meant to be so. Clearly, he’s spooked.

(One complaint I have about Bran: I sort of don’t buy just how non-human he’s become. It feels like the series skipped over a couple of steps in its rush to get here, and maybe some of his scenes in season six would have been better served explaining just how he got from point A to point Three-Eyed Raven. Feign interest in Meera leaving, Bran! Feign it!)

Winner: House Stark, for getting the band back together

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If the reunion between Sansa and Bran last week was intentionally frustrating, then the reunion between Sansa and Arya is cautious but moving. The sisterhood between the two characters drove a lot of the book’s early plot, especially the way they clearly loved each other but also clearly didn’t understand each other one bit. Now, Sansa’s running Winterfell, and Arya has a lengthy list of people to kill. They might not understand each other any better, but they’re glad to see each other.

Of all the reunions this show has teased, the reunion of these two sisters has been the one that held the most potential for something moving. But Game of Thrones doesn’t dive in right away. It holds back — just as these two young women would hold each other at arm’s length at first. But within a few hours, they’re walking around the courtyard with Bran, the three of them talking about old times like it’s no big deal.

And, honestly, with Arya’s combat skills, Sansa’s political wisdom, and Bran’s ability to see all of space and time (including, apparently, alternate realities — I almost read Bran’s invocation of Arya’s visit to the Inn at the Crossroads as a suggestion he saw both a future where she went to King’s Landing and one where she turned North), I wouldn’t bet against House Stark, even at this late date.

Winner: Brienne, for gaining a new pupil

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Brienne and Arya are going to be great pals.

Brienne bests Arya in combat, but only just, and the younger Stark sister is eager to learn from the woman who managed to beat the Hound all those years ago. The sequence where the two fight struggles a bit (as Thrones often does in close-quarters combat), but it’s worth it just for teasing an excellent new team-up possibility.

Winner: The Iron Bank, for getting its money back — sooner or later

The Lannisters could pay off their debts, which would mean the Iron Bank could move forward with backing Cersei’s push to reunite the Seven Kingdoms … but maybe now it will back Daenerys. (The gold made it to King’s Landing, but maybe Cersei will use it to rebuild her army instead of repay the bank.) But our favorite financial institution has its options open, and it has seemingly endless reserves of cash with which to torment whichever queen it doesn’t back. One thing’s for certain: Everything’s coming up banking!

Winners: Dragonglass and Valyrian steel, for being your best friends in a tight spot, over the centuries

As we all know by now, dragonglass and Valyrian steel are going to be humanity’s best hope at withstanding the White Walker invasion. (Jon would also argue “strategic political alliances” will do the trick, but we already knew that, Jon.) Both materials take center stage in “The Spoils of War.”

The first turns up in a luminous underground cavern, in which Jon not only finds huge seams of dragonglass but also elaborate images of the Children of the Forest and the First Men banding together to fight the White Walkers, thousands upon thousands of years ago. The ancient history of Westeros is always compelling to me, and this is an appropriately eerie tribute to it, as this strange vision seems to only further convince Dany that Jon means some part of what he says. (Can one of those proposed Game of Thrones spinoffs be set during the Long Night?)

Valyrian steel creeps back into the story in a much less expected fashion, however, in the form of the dagger meant to take Bran’s life way back in season one, which is gifted to him by Littlefinger. (Bran doesn’t seem particularly surprised to see it, but, then, he wouldn’t be.) The dagger wends its way from Littlefinger to Bran to Arya — in a potent moment that seems to suggest Bran knows his sister will need it someday — and it’s fun to observe which characters the series is arming with Valyrian steel, and which it isn’t.

Winner: Book fans, who still have a bit of that smug superiority

So far as I know, the show hasn’t really dealt much with the identity of the person who sent that assassin into Bran’s bedroom way back in season one, where the books have devoted a fair chunk of real estate (particularly within the heads of Catelyn Stark and Tyrion Lannister) to solving this particular mystery.

Before this week, I thought the show had mostly exhausted everything the books had left to offer, but here, at last, is another area where book readers probably have a leg up on show viewers.

Who tried to kill Bran? Readers have devoted a lot of time to puzzling that out, but the show hasn’t really encouraged viewers to hazard a guess. Now, belatedly, it is, and those who’ve read the books have a much bigger knowledge base, to the degree that the books have all but told readers who ordered the assassination — where the show has left viewers mostly in the dark.

Winner: The passage of time, for existing again

Credit where it’s due. After I wrote a piece mildly complaining about how the show seems to have taken complete and utter leave of temporal reality, “Spoils” was largely confined to a period of a week or two, and all the better for it.

To be clear, I don’t think the show needs to show exactly how much time is passing (though a hint here or there wouldn’t hurt). There is a lot of stuff happening and a lot of ground to cover, and the show is right to skip past as many uninteresting bits as it can, even if it has to gleefully vault forward across weeks or even months.

But “Spoils” reminded me, again, just how thrilling this show can be when it confines itself to smaller periods of time. When it focuses in on one conflict, or one particularly dark turn in the story, it gains a power from its immediacy, from the way that bad things turn to worse and good things quickly turn bad. Not every episode of Game of Thrones can work this way, or the show’s pace would become excruciatingly slow. But it’s always a treat when the series focuses in, with razor-sharp execution.

Other winners: Arya, for being far better at combat than I ever imagined; Sam, for not having to do anything horrifying for one week; Theon, for living yet again; the other two dragons, for not having to sustain any massive injuries; Cersei, for receiving complimentary comparisons to her father; Game of Thrones fans, for getting a really great episode after a couple of hours stuck in neutral; the First Men and Children of the Forest, for making all of this possible.

Other losers: There are no losers, only winners. But, okay, the guy who carved the Ned Stark tomb, for really missing what made that guy shine.

Correction: As originally written, this post was more or less accurate in regards to what happened to the Lannisters’ plundered gold, but I amended it, later, to be inaccurate, stating the gold was destroyed in the dragon attack, after watching just the scene between Cersei and the Iron Bank’s representative, but not the later scene where the gold is declared to be safe at King’s Landing. Though it’s not clear that Cersei has actually used said gold to pay back the Iron Bank just yet, she does have it in her possession as the episode wraps. Let us never speak of this again.