Things Heat Up in Game of Thrones, ‘The Spoils of War’

Jamie and Bronn in Game of Thrones Spoils of War
Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

“The Spoils of War” Plot Summary:

Arya (Maisie Williams) reaches the end of her long journey and reunites with her siblings, while Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) receives a gift from Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Cersei (Lena Headey) discusses a deal with the Iron Bank. Jon (Kit Harington) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) explore the caverns beneath Dragonstone. Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) encounters unforeseen resistance on his return to King’s Landing.

I don’t know if Bran was ever anyone’s favorite Stark, but he sure has become the wet blanket of the family. Even Bran’s existential breakdown, though, can’t dampen the explosive developments in “The Spoils of War.” Another week, another Stark reunion and epic battle to close out the episode—yet this week’s reunion and battle manage to blow last week’s completely out of the water. “The Spoils of War” may be the shortest episode in the history of the series (clocking in right at 50 minutes), but it’s also one of the best episodes yet.

Before I get into the latest awkward family reunion at Winterfell, I’d like to address the battle in the Reach because that was dragon-tastic! The show has included dramatic uses of Daenerys’s dragons before, but Drogon’s latest appearance is perhaps the most significant and visually stunning. HBO is paying a fortune for CGI dragons and pyrotechnics, and I can safely say that every penny spent was well worth the cost. Not only is this battle an incredible spectacle, the conflict also marks one of the few times two characters we’ve become incredibly invested in meet on the battlefield. As exciting as the Greyjoy naval battle and the siege of Casterly Rock were, this dynamic helps establish the Dothraki ambush as the most epic, tension-filled clash since the Battle of the Bastards. Whether you’re rooting for the Lannister forces or Daenerys, this episode’s final scene will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

What will likely be fans’ second favorite scene of the episode, though, is the duel between Arya and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). While the scale and stakes of this fight are significantly lower than those of the aforementioned battle, seeing two extraordinarily skilled women go toe-to-toe was yet another exciting sign that Westeros’s patriarchy is coming to an end. Yes, this melee did not advance the overall narrative in any discernable ways, but fan service such as this is difficult to find fault with.

Of course, “The Spoils of War” also included several less action-packed moments, but these scenes were by no means less dramatic. Having all of the remaining Stark children (except Jon, but he doesn’t really count) back at Winterfell is a development in the making since the very first episode of the series, yet this reunion felt oddly unsatisfying. I’d argue, though, that this sense of minor dissatisfaction is purposeful and a brilliant representation of how all of these characters feel about the situation. Sansa (Sophie Turner), Bran, and Arya have all experienced traumatic events in their years of separation and are by no means the same children they once were; Ned’s offspring obviously care for one another still (well, except maybe heartless Bran) but also recognize that each of them has grown into something foreign that the others cannot truly understand (well, except maybe all-knowing Bran). So, as much as I would have loved to see an overwhelmingly emotional rekindling of sibling affection, the end result felt much more fitting.

Besides Cersei’s semi-significant but entirely utilitarian conversation with the representative from the Iron Bank, the episode’s remaining drama is confined to Dragonstone. One of the few criticisms I have of this episode is Jon’s discovery of the cave carvings amongst the dragonglass; having Jon find evidence that the White Walker threat is real right under Daenerys’s new digs was far too convenient, and I would have audibly groaned if that “proof” was convincing enough for Daenerys to drop everything and join Jon’s cause. Thankfully our favorite Targaryen is still as stubborn as ever. What that encounter lead to, though, was the strongest moment between the Mother of Dragons and King in the North yet. Jon clearly doesn’t have a fondness for ruling or Daenerys’s natural charisma, but he understands who she is and what she has the opportunity to stand for. Let’s just hope Davos (Liam Cunningham) doesn’t manage to hook the two rulers up before Jon’s walking paternity test (AKA Bran) shows up.

Outside of the cavern artistry beneath Dragonstone, my remaining issues with “The Spoils of War” are essentially the par for the season. While the shortened travel times and exponentially quicker pace of the season mean viewers receive major action on a more regular basis, I’m beginning to feel the effects of narrative whiplash and question how the timelines of each story lineup (ex. if the Dothraki can make it to the Reach in the span of half an episode, why hasn’t Jorah arrived at Dragonstone yet?). Likewise, Littlefinger’s decision to give the Valyrian steel dagger to Bran appears to be a rather contrived means to tie up one of the show’s earliest loose ends. With less than ten episodes left in the series, we obviously have a significant amount of ground yet to cover, but convenient plot devices and uncharacteristic pacing are somewhat lazy ways of pushing the narrative ahead.

In no way do these annoyances, however, significantly tarnish such a stellar episode. Had this episode occurred in a past season, “The Spoils of War” could have easily been a fantastic penultimate episode or season finale. Instead, the old gods and the new have gifted us with perhaps the most exciting mid-season episode to date. Much like the poor Lannister soldiers in the Reach, this show is absolutely on fire.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Josh Sarnecky is one of Pop Break's staff writers and covers Designated Survivor, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. His brother, Aaron, is the site’s TV Editor, but Josh is the family’s reigning Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars champion.