But much like past episodes like “Hardhome” and “Blackwater,” this episode enters the show’s upper echelon on the strength of its finishing battle. After showing off his abilities in previous spurts, this was Drogon’s mighty unveiling as Westeros’ nuclear option. Tyrion’s previous warning that jumping too quickly to a dragon-based solution would only end in ashes proved to be prophetic, with the Lannister defector staring out over a battlefield of torched armies fleeing flames from above.
One of the major strengths of “The Spoils of War” — and by extension Matt Shakman’s direction of the episode — is feeling the true consequences of Dany’s proactive decision to ride Drogon into battle. Yes, there were the soldiers walking through frame in head-to-toe pyrotechnics like one of the combatants in the news team melee from “Anchorman.” But as these unfortunate soldiers remove their helmets to soak their burning flesh in water, there’s a sense of the kind of devastation that these dragons will continue to wreak upon the Seven Kingdoms for as long as Dany’s hand is forced.
“Game of Thrones” has always benefited from an overwhelming sense of scope, but few moments have visually hammered home the full power of the series’ budget quite like those Drogon-eye POV shots, high above the burning caravan. Showing how far that literal line of fire extended through the Lannister forces reinforced the scale on which these battles are now operating. The charred bodies of the soldiers at the front line disintegrating into nothingness shows just how quickly the tide of this war can turn. It’s the kind of horrific carnage that makes a loan repayment or a giant sack of coins feel hopelessly insignificant by comparison.
Not merely by dint of its single-take delivery, Bronn’s frantic scampering through the fiery wreckage is easily the most impressive piece of storytelling Season 7 has whipped up yet. A stark contrast to the slapdash, dimly-lit filmmaking on display in Euron’s surprise siege of the Dorne-bound fleet in “Stormborn,” Bronn making his way to Qyburn’s mammoth crossbow delivered the full weight and perils of this unexpected attack.
Without it, Jaime’s last stand feels like a brash bit of military hubris, aimed at a clearly superior opponent. But the terror in Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s eyes proved that this was Jaime’s best (and likely only) chance to cripple Cersei’s biggest enemy. Charging with spear in hand, he’s unable to deliver his intended death blow before he’s whisked off his mount out of the path of a fiery Drogon belch. If that truly is the last we’ll see of Jaime, descending to watery depths, it’s a fitting end to a tragic life that his last chance at sacrificing himself for his beloved sister is thwarted by an act of mercy.
Still, “The Spoils of War” still had a few of the show’s bad habits coming through. The business with Arya’s newly gifted Valerian steel blade might as well have come with a neon sign blaring “REMEMBER SHE HAS THIS WHEN THE WHITE WALKERS COME.” (Bet you all the coins in the loot train that exchange pops up in a “Previously On” by series’ end.) Dany walking the shores of Dragonstone after being informed of the Casterly Rock debacle was an overstaged opportunity to throw all of the castle’s notable inhabitants in a nifty flying-V formation. And as grand as that dragon-led ambush was in offering up some stunning aerial perspective, the non-Bronn, on-the-ground combat felt like a chaos of choppy hand-to-hand insert shots rather than a fully realized battle sequence.
But those are small gripes for an episode that finally delivered on the promise of this season. Dany’s decision to firebomb the Lannister-loyal forces was a turning point the series had been dancing around for weeks. Whether Jaime survives his underwater plunge or not, this feels like the first true major domino to fall in a war that’s fully arrived. The White Walkers still lurk beyond the periphery, but now that major players are on the same page about their existence, let’s hope the tension builds to another major showdown and delivers on both fronts once more.
“Game of Thrones” Season 7 airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.