‘Game of Thrones’ just pulled off one of its greatest episodes in the shortest amount of time

Jaime Lannister Bronn Game of Thrones season seven Macall B. Polay

Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Game of Thrones” season seven, episode four, “Spoils of War.”

Despite being a record-short time of just 50 minutes, “Spoils of War” might go down in history as one of the greatest episodes of HBO’S “Game of Thrones.”

The best hours of “Game of Thrones” follow a certain recipe. There needs to be balance between epic scale and human tragedy. You need a dash of sexual tension (if not outright romance) and a sprinkling of humor. More importantly, the best “Game of Thrones” episodes are the ones where you find yourself rooting for an unexpected character. 

And of course, a gigantic dragon breathing fire is never a bad idea.

“Spoils of War” had it all. And even more impressively, HBO managed to pack it into a brief 50 minutes.

The opening centered Jaime as the focal point of the episode

The episode started with Jaime, Bronn, and the Lannister army making the march from Highgarden back to King’s Landing with wagons full of gold and food. Bronn noticed something weighing on Jaime’s mind — clearly Olenna’s final moments where she confessed to killing Joffrey and told Jaime that his twin/lover Cersei would be the end of him has Jaime rattled.

Jaime Lannister Game of Thrones season seven episode 4

Arya’s return to Winterfell was both touching and revelatory

Though “Spoils of War” is packed with tear-jerker and fist-pump-inducing moments, Arya’s arrival to Winterfell is peak “I’m about to cry” TV. After years of running and fighting and murdering and getting beaten up and hardening herself to the world, Arya returns home. She sees her sister Sansa and they embrace not once but twice. They admire each other’s survival instincts and acknowledge that though their lives have been marred by suffering, their stories aren’t yet over.

They have a frustrating conversation with the Three-Eyed Raven aka former-Bran, and Arya gets a second badass weapon gifted to her from a brother — the mysterious Valyrian steel dagger used in Bran’s assassination attempt. We later get an incredible scene showing Arya training with Brienne, and besting her every time.

Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth Game of Thrones season seven

Arya trained extensively with the Faceless Men on seasons five and six, though we mostly saw that work through small montages. Seeing her in prime form, and in an outfit that echoes Ned Stark, is beautifully inspiring. Arya cheekily tells Brienne that “no one” taught her how to fight, which is technically true.

Jon and Daenerys grew closer and the tension is thick

On Dragonstone, Jon and Daenerys work on their possibly alliance with a cozy cave scene (a not-so-subtle nod to Jon’s first foray into love with Ygritte in a cave). Davos throws around some great quips and grammar lessons he learned from Stannis and Jon emotionally confronts Theon about his past grievances.

Jon Snow Dragonstone Game of Thrones season 7

This is when the best part of the episode kicks off and the tension is immediately palpable. Even after Jon tried to talk Daenerys out of using her dragons on King’s Landing, we hear that she’s left Dragonstone. To where? The scene stops short of having Jon explain, but the immediate cut to Jaime and the Lannister army says it all.

The Lannisters were the most empathetic characters on the episode

The ensuing showdown between Daenerys’ Dothraki and Drogon against the Lannister forces is arguably one of the best battle sequences “Game of Thrones” has ever delivered. And that’s a very high bar.

The biggest success of the Lannister/Dothraki battle was how much it made you sympathize with the Lannister men. Everyone cheered after the season seven premiere when Arya slaughtered the Frey men. And up until this episode, you might have thought a Lannister massacre would bring about similar feelings of vengeance and righteousness. 

But instead, we got looks at the young men in the Lannister army literally shaking as they face the Dothraki. Men were shrieking as they burned alive inside their own armor – men who turned into a pile of ash within seconds.

Drogon Lannister army Game of Thrones season 7

We watched this battle from the Lannisters’ point of view for most of the sequence and it brought the horrors (and spoils) of war to the forefront. This was also great payoff for the Ed Sheeran cameo scene, which served to humanize the young men serving Cersei.

The bleakness was only made worse when we saw Tyrion standing on a nearby cliff, watching as the men sworn to defend his family name were wiped out without a second thought from Daenerys. She also incinerates all the food stores, making us wonder if she’s really the best rule for Westeros after all.

Tyrion on cliff Game of Thrones season seven

The score, directing, and writing were all in harmony this week

We must take a moment here to acknowledge the beautiful work of the score in this episode, crafted by the show’s composer, Ramin Djawadi. Jaime’s distinct theme song (first introduced on the sixth season) was reused to great effect, as was the Lannister song “Rains of Castamere” and a new Dothraki battle-cry tune. 

By the time Jaime was thrown into the water by the newly heroic Bronn, viewers were left speechless. 

“Spoils of War” was written by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and directed by Matt Shakman. Though the series’ progression away from George R.R. Martin’s published material often results in mixed-reviews (if not outright anger) from some fans, this episode proved Benioff and Weiss can create magic on screen all on their own.

The surprise factor plays a huge role in the episode’s success

In this way, the episode was reminscent of my personal favorite: “Hardhome.” The element of surprise cannot be underestimated when it comes to “Game of Thrones.” By now we’re conditioned to believe the biggest moments of the season will come on episode nine, which means any epic scenes placed in earlier hours of the season will automatically amp up the hype levels. 

Night King white walker hardhome Game of Thrones HBO

Just as in “Hardhome,” the madness onscreen on “Spoils of War” was a feat of CGI magic, incredible stunt work, fantastic directing, and seamless writing. All done without the support of Martin’s book material (that we know of).

Jaime’s arc moved forward in a fantastically complex way

Jaime, who has been a rather boring character of late, was the star of this episode. His first sighting of a dragon along with seeing Daenerys Targaryen — the last remaining daughter of the Mad King Aerys, was breathtaking. Jaime has spent his whole life dealing with the fallout of his decision to break his Kingsguard oath and kill Aerys, a difficult choice he made when faced with the prospect of allowing Aerys to burn King’s Landing, and everyone in it, to the ground. 

Jaime Lannister Game of Thrones season seven

Watching Jaime see that Daenerys was just “more of the same” (as Jon put it), was extremely powerful. “Game of Thrones” excels when Martin’s characters, who you might have been separately cheering for, come together and force the viewer to realize that picking sides isn’t nearly as black and white as you might have thought.

This story is more than just Lannister versus Targaryen, or good versus evil. It’s not about dragons, or direwolves, or magical ice zombies. “Game of Thrones” is a story about the cycles of war, vengeance, and justice, and how those larger-than-life purposes affect change at a human level. “Spoils of War” honed in on this theme with the perfect amount of nuance and grandiose production quality often seen in feature films, all with just 50 minutes of screen time.

SEE ALSO: Here’s the preview for the next episode of ‘Game of Thrones’

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