Westeros heats up in what might be the season's best episode
Credit: HBO

All the leaks in the world couldn’t wreck “The Spoils of War.” Game of Thrones’ shortest episode ever — and part of the show’s fastest-paced season ever — didn’t feel rushed at all, and the story’s impact remained incredibly strong no matter what you knew ahead of time. We got a hugely enjoyable and pitch-perfect reunion between Arya and Sansa, a joyous sparring scene between Brienne and Arya, some intriguingly intense Jon and Dany eye contact, and an incredible dragon battle sequence (if you watched the low-res leak’s copy, you did it wrong). We start with–

Winterfell: Littlefinger visits Bran and does his best to woo him, gifting him that valuable Valyrian steel dagger that an assassin once tried to kill him with back in the show’s second episode. “Do you know who this belonged to?” Bran asks Littlefinger, and we really wish he would tell us. Even in the relatively brief period of the show’s timeline, this knife has had quite the history.

(Here’s everything we know about this dagger, for those who want to know; everybody else skip this graf: First an unnamed assassin used it to nearly kill Bran. Then Catelyn brought the dagger to King’s Landing, where Littlefinger said he once owned it. Yet Littlefinger claimed he lost it to Tyrion in a bet, something that apparently wasn’t true. Littlefinger reclaimed the dagger after Ned was arrested and has held it until now. The dagger is Valyrian steel, which, of course, is the other substance — along with dragon fire and dragonglass — that can kill White Walkers. A very similar-looking dagger was in the book Samwell was reading earlier this season. So basically, if you’re still confused about the dagger’s importance, that’s perfectly okay — this scene suggests there might be more to learn…Oh, and one other thing: Arya was actually shown wearing this rather distinctive dagger in EW’s cover photo way back in May! A few sharp-eyed readers spotted it, and, no, it totally wasn’t supposed to be there. GoT insiders hoped fans wouldn’t notice this spoiler hiding in plain sight on the cover of our magazine and, for the most part, they didn’t.)

Anyway. So then Bran just shuts down all of Littlefinger’s salesmanship by saying, “Chaos is a ladder.” This is one of Littlefinger’s motivational speech declarations to Varys back in season 3. This worries Littlefinger, as well it should. It’s like Bran just started reciting Lord Baelish’s browser history. If Bran knows that about Littlefinger, what else does he know?

RELATED: Hear the latest from EW’s Game of Thrones Weekly podcast

They’re interrupted by Meera saying goodbye to Bran because she’s served her purpose (both for Bran and in GoT‘s story line). Bran’s cool robotic goodbye understandably upsets her, and he gives this rather eloquently simple explanation: “I remember what it was like to be Brandon Stark. But I remember so much else now.” Next: A lone wolf returns to her pack

Outside, Arya arrives at the gate and has an amusing exchange with the guards, who are convinced she’s an imposter. (I was on set for this scene, and here’s a tidbit: When Arya first arrives and this Rosencrantz and Guildenstark duo stop her, she originally shot back, “F— off, I live here.” I loved that spunky Arya line, but it evolved to her calmly explaining that Winterfell is her home. It was probably because the guards are telling her to f-off repeatedly, so perhaps the idea was to have Arya seem more chill by comparison — these guys aren’t worth her getting annoyed enough to swear. But it’s just a tiny example of the type of perfectionistic tweaking that happens all the time on GoT, where even lines that sound great get tossed because, for one reason or another, they’re not quite right.)

In the crypt, Sansa and Arya reunite. They’ve never been the closest family members, but they are both genuinely happy to see each other. It’s downright heartwarming to have Arya look a bit like her old self after her homicidal spree. They have a neat exchange: “It’s a long story; I imagine yours is too” … “Not a very pleasant one” … “Mine neither” … “But our stories aren’t over yet.” Arya mentions her death list to Sansa, who at first thinks she’s joking.

Arya and Sansa go outside to interface with the Branbot-9000. He’s sitting in his new wheelchair by the weirwood tree. We bet he’s been tapping tree roots to watch upcoming episodes of Game of Thrones — Bran’s the ultimate hacker. (Maybe Bran’s the one who infiltrated HBO? Somebody get to work on that fan theory!) Bran notes he saw Arya at the crossroads and that Cersei is on her death-list of names. Sansa is startled — she realizes Arya wasn’t messing around. Bran gives Arya the dagger, and Sansa’s threat alert is triggered. She knows Littlefinger must be up to something by giving Bran a valuable gift, and she doesn’t like not knowing what it is. She is never going to be entirely comfortable with him lurking around, nor should she be.

In the courtyard, Arya enters and challenges Brienne to spar. The dragon battle later in this episode is totally amazing, but this is my favorite scene in “Spoils of War,” and I hope you don’t mind if I geek out a bit:

First, from a writing standpoint, a big challenge of reuniting characters (as GoT producer Bryan Cogman once pointed out) is the temptation to have each recap to each other what’s happened to them. We want that as viewers, but it’s also telling the audience what they already know, and it can dull a show (there was arguably a tad too much exchanging of histories in the first Jon and Dany meeting). So this courtyard scene is a super-smart way of Arya showing Sansa, not telling her, what she has learned in a hugely entertaining scene. There’s so much going on here non-verbally with all the actors, from Brienne’s bemusement of Arya’s challenge that evolves into surprise and impressed respect, to Littlefinger looking like he’s about to make some snarky comment about Arya to Sansa and then wisely thinking better of it.

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Arya and Brienne sparring is pure joy. Here are two female characters who are very different from each other in many ways, physically and mentally, yet they’re discovering each other through a set of skills that are so rare for women in this world.

And then there is Sansa. Her reaction to her kid sister’s skills is so interesting. What’s going on here? Is she jealous? Angry that she never learned how do defend herself in the same way? Part of the reason Arya is doing this is so her big sister can see her. It’s an unusually childlike instinct for Arya, trying to impress — look at me, look at what I can do! So when Arya turns and sees Sansa has departed, you can see the disappointment on her face…which then shifts into a rather grown-up calculating expression. She’s thinking about what her sister’s departure might mean.

All the actors nailed these Winterfell scenes, with Sophie Turner (whose reactions to Arya were so complex throughout) and Maisie Williams absolutely killing it. Next: Things heat up on Jon and Dany’s third date

Dragonstone: Jon Snow takes Dany for a romantic cave / art museum stroll by torch-light. Unfortunately, there’s no hot spring pool in here like he enjoyed with Ygritte. Jon shows her the glorious dragonglass cache, and some pre-modern art of the Children and the First Men uniting to fight the White Walkers. See? This is what we need to do.

They’re making some serious eyes at each other. At one point, he rather unnecessarily takes Daenerys by her forearm to turn her torch (pretty smooth, Jon Snow, you know something after all). But Dany disrupts their rising tension by saying she’ll help him fight the Army of the Dead, but only if he’ll bend the knee in return. He still won’t do it. “Isn’t [the North’s] survival more important than your pride?” she asks. Men and their commitment issues, am I right?

Outside, they run into her advisors, who have more bad news on the warfront. Dany is losing, and all the polls and pundits assumed she would easily win (clearly she should have spent more time campaigning in the Rust Belt). She rips into Tyrion for his failed strategies and even questions his loyalty. Then she puts Jon Snow on the spot. This is a big moment in their relationship. Dany’s treating him like a trusted insider rather than an outsider. “If you use dragons to melt castles and burn cities, you’re not different; you’re just more of the same,” he opines.

Later, Davos accuses Jon of having a Dany crush. The King in the North claims he doesn’t have time for such shenanigans. We of course disagree. The Onion Knight also continues happily chatting up Missandei. Is he…flirting? Being fatherly? Is this right-hand-man to right-hand woman chat? When he tried to get Dany’s advisor talking in the season premiere, I assumed this was his stab at diplomacy. Now I’m not so sure. I don’t think we’ve ever seen him this cheerful. Missandei explains the virtues of the Mother of Dragons, though to an outsider her praise sounds a bit cult-y. “Will you forgive me if I switch sides?” Davos pants.

Next, Theon returns to Dragonstone. Uh-oh. The former Stark ward betrayed Jon’s family, and his actions put Winterfell into the hands of the Boltons. Kit Harington chooses a rather surprising Jon Snow Expression for this moment that’s really effective. He sees Theon and looks…hurt. He’s like: You…how could you. Then he shifts into wanting to beat the hell out of him. Only Theon rescuing Sansa has saved the craven turncloak.

RELATED: Hear the latest from EW’s Game of Thrones Weekly podcast

King’s Landing: A quick beat with Cersei and Tycho. The main takeaway from this is that Cersei is acting like (a) she already has the gold to pay off the Iron Bank and (b) she’s already won the war with Daenerys and is looking down the line at what happens next. But she shouldn’t get too comfy. Because this is what happens next:

The Reach: On the way to King’s Landing, we get some Jaime and Bronn time. The sellsword has reluctantly returned to help his Lannister benefactor once again, charging him more gold each time for his invaluable service of armed protection and smart-ass quips. Jaime seems depressed. Lady Olenna’s calculating seed-planting predictions about his sister might have found root.

Lord Tarly stops by wanting to flog their own soldiers to hurry things up and is bummed when Jaime tells him no. His son Dickon is a bit rattled by his first experience of war, but he hasn’t seen nothing yet.

Bronn, ever attuned to approaching danger, hears it first — a horde of Dothraki screamers on the charge. The result is less a battle than an ambush. Jaime orders the men to cluster together. This is a fine tactic for open field warfare but disastrous when facing dragons, as it makes them easy targets. Next: Reign of fire

Dany rides Drogon into war, and the resulting action is just stunning. Some on Twitter were calling this the best GoT action sequence they’ve ever seen. Finally, seven seasons into this fantasy series, we really see what a fully grown dragon can do. It’s like dropping napalm on men who are merely carrying large knives. Many productions use computer effects to depict people on fire and rarely looks convincing. Doing it for real is time consuming, costly, and dangerous. Thrones set more stunt people on fire than any Hollywood production in history for this sequence. It’s almost beyond superlatives how incredible the GoT action scenes have become, and how unique they all are from each other. (You can also catch Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard doing a cameo as a Lannister soldier throwing a spear).

We get a single continuous shot of Bronn amid the chaos —àla Battle of the Bastards — as he ditches his payment and runs to the giant crossbow. It’s technically called a scorpion or scorpio and is based on an artillery piece first credited to the Romans, who used it as a sniper weapon, picking off enemies from high ground with bolts thick enough to pierce shields. It’s also an impressively cool-looking dragon-killing weapon. Dany flies over the lake, leaving a jet-stream wake behind her, as Bronn tries to take her monster out. He scores a direct hit on Drogon — not fatal, yet still serious. The dragon blasts the scorpion as Bronn leaps aside.

Drogon plummets. We worry. Dany gets grounded. We worry more. She tries to pull the giant spear out of her dragon’s hide. Where are her Dothraki? They should be protecting their queen.

We get a hugely suspenseful and potentially fatal moment between three of our main characters: Dany is on the ground and vulnerable. Jaime spots her and charges to take her out. Tyrion watches horrified and helpless from a hill — the man loves both of them, and really, so do we. We’ve been waiting for moments like this the whole series — major characters finally facing off after being separated for so long. Now that it’s actually happening we don’t want to lose any of them.

It looks like Jaime might actually skewer Daenerys, but Drogon spots the threat. His throat glows, which is rad. This is normally the last thing a dragon victim sees. Bronn flying tackles Jaime off his horse and they fall into a lake just barely missing the stream of fire (pretty convenient, but okay).

The last shot is Jaime, weighed down by his armor and golden hand, sinking to the bottom, to an uncertain fate…

Dany has struck a massive blow against Cersei. Not only did she defeat her army without hurting civilians, but she might have killed or captured Jaime Lannister and, perhaps most crucially, nuked at least some of her stash from Highgarden as well.

“The Spoils of War” perhaps didn’t have the scene-setting grandness of the “Dragonstone” premiere, or the intricately plotted thrills of the terrific second episode, “Stormborn.” But emotionally I enjoyed it the most of the season so far — the writing and the performances were so on point. What did you think?

And hey! Here’s a trivia question. Winner gets an “I’ve Brought Ice and Fire Together” mug from the HBO Store. Question: Arya and Davos have both mentioned a dragon that does not belong to Dany. What’s the dragon’s name? First right to ewdigital@ew.com gets it. We’ll have another trivia question in the podcast tomorrow.

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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