Despite leaking online earlier in the week, Game of Thrones still offers tremendous surprises as The Spoils of War takes the battles up a notch.
To say that HBO and Game of Thrones had a rough time of it last week would be an understatement. The premium channel was hit by an attack from hackers, releasing information about unaired episodes of the penultimate season, and later, 'The Spoils of War', the fourth episode of season 7, found its way online, giving thinkpiece and explainer writers a rare edge in the ongoing battle that is internet content expediency. For those who wanted to wait and see what Dany's response to both her latest set back in claiming the Iron Throne and the Lannisters' sacking of Highgarden would look like in glorious high definition, well, patience proved to be more than its own reward.
For an episode as momentous as 'The Spoils of War' to be the one that leaked, it's either the worst stroke of luck for HBO or the sort of thing the premium channel can live with because it makes an already overriding part of the television conversation even more dominant. And this is all happening at the same time creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have generated plenty of discussions about a show that doesn't even have a script yet. In other words, Game of Thrones is no longer content to be part of the conversation; it's on a quest to become the only conversation.
And given all that unfolds during the series' contentiously short season, it's safe to say another breach of HBO's security won't be necessary for talking points to be generated around the show in the days to come.
The hour's high point comes near the end, when Dany, an army of Dothraki, and her trusty dragon catch up with Jaime's men as they're making their may toward King's Landing. Dany's dragons have already been put to the test in battle, when they made short work of the slavers ships in the battle of Meereen. The one-two punch that is three sizeable dragons and an eager Dothraki horde made the Stormborn seem an invincible opponent, especially against an adversary unfamiliar with battling flying fire-breathing beasts with a wingspan the size of legion of men. And so the end sequence of 'The Spoils of War' went, with Daenerys and Drogon laying waste to the Lannister/Tarly forces in spectacular fashion, until Bronn gets off a shot from the Lannisters' dragon-killing weapon, effectively grounding Drogon and putting – depending on how you look at it – Dany or Jaime in harm's way.
The sequence itself is stunning and brilliantly executed. Director Matt Shakman takes his time teasing the arrival of Dany and her forces, so that by the time the Dothraki crest the horizon, the scene's tension is enough to fire the steel missile that nearly reduces the Westeros dragon population by a third. It's an effective strategy that demonstrates just how flexible time has become on Game of Thrones, and how confident David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are in their audience's understanding of the geography that when characters travel great distances it also means a considerable amount of time has passed, even when a character like, say, Dany, is sharing an archeological moment with Jon Snow, marveling over some cave paintings one minute, and the next is intercepting Jaime on his way to King's Landing.
More than that, though, the dragon battle is simply a satisfying release from the past few weeks of seeing Dany play it safe on Tyrion's advice. The Mother of Dragons' arrival in Westeros came with enormous expectations, and after a sea battle and some trickery involving Casterly Rock seriously delayed the gratification many had anticipated would be instantaneous – given the truncated season – 'The Spoils of War' delivers the kind of encounter that goes big but doesn't skimp on the little details that make Dany's wrath awesome and terrifying.
Spectacle can sometimes overshadow elements that might serve to ground a particular moment – even one with a blonde woman riding a fire-breathing dragon – and color by demonstrating the truly horrifying aspect of what's happening. Massive battles like this one here have long been a staple of blockbuster filmmaking but it's still relatively new territory for television, yet Game of Thrones proves deft in delivering more that a mere special effects extravaganza. While there is satisfaction in seeing Drogon swoop down and set a wagon train ablaze, 'The Spoils of War' zooms in on the otherwise wide-angle, cinematic pleasure of the battle to show men on fire desperately trying to douse their bodies with water or horses trying in vain to free themselves from burning wagons. Those otherwise small details carry significant weight and show, without Weiss and Benioff having to hold the audience's hand, the appalling cost of the ambitions of an increasingly small collection of characters.
It's fitting, then, for the cost of human life to be explored in an episode that's marked by moments where the possession of things – Highgarden's gold, above all – and the retention or exchange of those things is at the forefront of almost every key interaction. And when it comes down to it, 'The Spoils of War' is able to make the audience recognize the potential cost by putting three major players at risk, as Bronn, Dany, and Jaime nearly lose their lives trying to kill one another. By the end of it, there's a question mark next to the Kingslayer's name as he was last seen sinking into some murky water. There he'll stay until next week – or until another leak resolves Jaime's fate earlier than intended.
Elsewhere in Westeros
The notion of possession becomes a major theme of the episode, with Littlefinger gifting his Valyrian steel dagger to Bran, who then gifts it to Arya. Meanwhile, Bran better underlines how he's fully abandoned his identity to become the Three-Eyed Raven. Brienne acknowledges Arya's fancy sword before the little assassin offers an impressive demonstration of the new skills she's in control of.
The show made good use of characters' facial expressions to convey a wealth of information that's been seasons in the making. Sansa's face at her little sister's physical prowess is far more powerful a reaction than if the hour had made time for a post-sparring rundown between the two sisters. Similarly, Tyrion's face as he urges his brother to run rather than charge Dany and her wounded but still plenty deadly dragon suggests familial ties cannot be severed completely.
It's hard to say how long Jon and Davos have been at Dragonstone (one imagines it's been awhile), but the Onion Knight's ready to set up a date between the King in the North and the Mother of Dragons.
"Who taught you to do that?" "No one." – Brienne and Arya's exchange is another example of how much fun it seems Weiss and Benioff are having paying off the seasons-long wait for the characters to meet up and just interact with one another.
Game of Thrones continues next Sunday @9pm on HBO.