Game of Thrones: All the Queens’ Men
Three Atlantic staffers discuss the third episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, Lenika Cruz, David Sims, and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
Lenika Cruz: Three episodes into this season, I’m still getting used to just how much more quickly things are unfolding on Game of Thrones in this final stretch. This week, “The Queen’s Justice” gave us plenty of major plot developments: Dany and Jon met! Jorah was cured! Bran and Sansa reunited! The Unsullied took Casterly Rock! The Lannisters took Highgarden! Lady Olenna was executed! Dorne is done! Euron is the worst! A lot of exclamation points, I know, but most of those moments were genuinely Big Deals that collectively struck a nice balance of being either a really long time coming or effective surprises.
The show wisely started out with that momentous meeting of ice and fire that’s long been essential to the mythology of the series: Daenerys and Jon coming face to face for the first time at Dragonstone. That entire first scene got a chance to truly breathe, giving Daenerys and Jon the space to introduce themselves, to feel each other out, to clash a little. We’ve spent six full seasons with each of these characters; we know them and what they’ve seen, overcome, and learned. We even know that they’re blood relatives.
But they don’t know each other. So I thought the writers did an artful job of conjuring up an authentic-feeling meeting between the King of the North and the Rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms that didn’t just offer a recap of their lives thus far. Not only that, but the writers also painted a compelling portrait of two leaders who are slowly learning to inhabit their respective, relatively new roles, with the full weight of several concurrent battles and centuries of messy history bearing down on them. (Amid the seriousness of the occasion, Ser Davos’s “This is Jon Snow” was a perfect little joke; where to even begin with a man who went from being a bastard to a resurrected messiah? The warm greeting between Jon and Tyrion also reminded me of Ned and King Robert’s first exchange back in the pilot. ) Dany and Jon’s first negotiation even ended with a concrete concession, thanks to Tyrion’s help: Dany setting aside her desire for Jon to pledge fealty to her and allowing him to mine as much dragonglass as he needs.
Of course, Dany continued to be the more clear-headed of the two queens vying for the Iron Throne, but judging by appearances, Cersei is the one who’s, in a word, winning. Dany’s still noble-minded, clever, and eager to distinguish herself from her Mad King father—but all it’s done so far is cost her some key early fights and all three of her Westerosi allies. Cersei, on the other hand, is enjoying calm in King’s Landing and even got to mete out the queen’s justice to two of her biggest enemies: Ellaria and Tyene Sand, and Lady Olenna Tyrell, the women responsible for killing two of her children. (Random note: With Ellaria and Tyene’s fates apparently sealed, I’m hard-pressed to think of many, or any, living mother-child pairings on Game of Thrones, outside of Gilly and little Sam.) I worry the latest strategic misfire at Casterly Rock—also concocted by Tyrion—will lead Dany to question her Hand’s judgment, though who could really blame her?
With more liberties being taken with the “how” of the plot in order to hurry things along (the miraculously speedy rebuilding of the entire Iron Fleet being a big one), it was reassuring to see Game of Thrones take time to address some of the logistics of the various conflicts: the Iron Bank of Braavos nudging Cersei about the crown’s debt, Sansa questioning her advisers about Winterfell’s food stores and cold-weather preparedness. There were sequences that I feared would be perhaps too economical: I couldn’t have been the only person who thought, as the end of the episode drew nearer, that the show might save the Casterly Rock battle for next week—and then that it might save the Highgarden battle, ending on a shot of Lady Olenna appraising the armies at her gate before cutting to the solemn strains of “The Rains of Castamere.” But Game of Thrones, fortunately, seems to be saving its energy (and budget) for the battles that really matter.
I have to mention, real quick, the latest Stark-sibling homecoming, which thanks to Sophie Turner’s performance was moving, even if it didn’t quite have the resonance of the Jon-Sansa reunion. Part of me wanted Bran to be a bit more excited to see his older sister, but I’ll allow that spending a couple seasons inside a tree—seeing across time and space, unearthing the secrets of the realm, and witnessing the annihilation of mankind creep ever closer—doesn’t do wonders for one’s social skills. Hence Bran’s unnecessarily obtuse explanation to Sansa of what the Three-Eyed Raven is or does, along with his creepily tone-deaf references to her traumatic wedding night (Bran. Buddy. Seriously).
But much like the maesters at the Citadel in Oldtown, Bran is yet another force operating with no regard for the political chess board of Westeros; while Dany and Jon debate titles and oaths and birthright, Bran acknowledges he’ll “never be lord of anything.” If his mien is odd, it’s because he’s on a completely different frequency—psychic and emotional—than almost everyone else in the Seven Kingdoms: He’s the only person alive who understands the White Walker threat even better than Jon does. I, for one, am ready to finally see Bran’s years of power-honing (and the deaths of Hodor and Summer and Rickon and Jojen and Osha that got him to this point) pay off in the larger storylines.
There are at least a million other things to delve into, David and Spencer, so I’ll let you two have at it. How glorious and cold was Lady Olenna’s final scene (I’ll miss you, Dame Diana Rigg)? What did you make of Melisandre’s farewell and her cryptic predictions to Varys? Are you as tired of Euron’s efforts to be the “New Ramsay” as I am? And what do you think Littlefinger is trying to do with Sansa, other than seeding paranoia in a woman who is clearly coming into her own as an assured leader (“Fight every battle everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend,” might be one of the more Baelish-ian things he’s said in a while)?
David Sims: After the slightly ponderous opening to the season, I was utterly delighted by this episode, one that I felt had a real respect for the years we’ve all put into these characters and this wonderfully convoluted world. Things are definitely moving quickly now, but I think you’re correct to identify a lot of these battles (like the hollow victories of Daenerys and Cersei’s armies) as being less important than they might seem. “The Queen’s Justice” devoted most of its running time to the things that really matter. Jon seeing one of Daenerys’s dragons, Jaime learning of Olenna’s murderous scheming, even Cersei’s out-loud reckoning with the loss of her daughter—those were the star moments from this episode for me, and I thought the creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss nailed them all.
Especially the sight of that dragon. As our story heads toward the final showdown, the speed with which everyone’s traveling around Westeros has become a little alarming, and it would be easy to ignore the sheer weight of some of these big meetings just to keep the plot moving. But I loved how important Jon and Daenerys’s first summit was and how the episode gave it the proper amount of build-up. Talk of dragons aside, no one alive in Westeros has ever seen one of the mythical beasts. When Drogon swooped over the heads of the Northern visitors as they walked to Dragonstone, Jon and Davos hit the deck—as well they should. These beasts are terrifying to behold, and their sheer existence remains the crux of Daenerys’s claim to the throne.
Which is why I also loved the politicking between Jon and Daenerys once he finally made it to her throne room and was read her long list of regnal names. For all Dany’s accomplishments, her power in Westeros remains purely theoretical, and her presentation came off partly as flimsy posturing, so quickly undercut by Davos’s plain introduction of Jon. But when she stepped off the throne and unfurled her personal narrative, her resolute will in the face of untold challenges, it was easy to see Jon getting ever-so-slightly swayed by her, as so many have before. Rather than have the connection be instant, Benioff and Weiss let it develop slowly through the episode (encouraged, of course, by Tyrion). But it’s undoubtedly there—and Daenerys doesn’t even yet know that Jon is her nephew.
Another realization, concerning Jaime’s relationship with Cersei, is taking a similarly long time to build up, but trust me, it’s coming. The episode saw Cersei having sex with her brother and openly parading their relationship in front of her attendants, but his investment in their union continues to feel tenuous. His argument to Olenna Tyrell for Cersei was clunky and unconvincing: Simply, that all this chaos would somehow lead to a long reign of peace and prosperity, which would be enough to forgive all her monstrous deeds. That’s a long line of bad credit for Cersei to run up—remember, her war cabinet right now consists of Euron Greyjoy, a mad scientist, and a silent zombie—and that’s before she’s tried to engage in open warfare against three dragons.
The idea of Cersei reigning over anything but a severely diminished kingdom in open rebellion is a tough sell, and Jaime knows it—he remains an excellent tactician who did a great job evacuating Casterly Rock and setting up shop in the better-located Highgarden. But he still doesn’t fully seem to accept Olenna’s warning of just how monstrous his sister has become, dutifully poisoning her on Cersei’s orders and finally learning the truth of who really killed his son Joffrey (what a tremendously played final scene by Diana Rigg). There’s a reason everyone is trying to dismantle his family line, root and branch, and I still believe Jaime’s going to come around to that and return to his Kingslayer days (only, this time, acting as a Queenslayer).
But for now, Cersei remains a victor, coming out on top of another military engagement, keeping the Iron Bank of Braavos from calling in Lannister debts, and even putting off the possibility of marriage to Euron (for now). But last time I checked, being on top in the middle of a season of Game of Thrones was practically a death warrant: Think of Robb Stark, Tywin Lannister, or the High Sparrow. Cersei’s doing her best to scheme, but every alliance she’s built is founded either on fear or bribery, and those are the kinds of alliances that will quickly collapse in the face of dragons and White Walkers. She’s not playing the long game, and she never has, but it is wonderful for now to watch Lena Heady sink her teeth into Cersei-as-Queen.
Her scene with Ellaria and the remaining Sand Snake was particularly powerful, not for the nastiness she unleashed on her captives, but for her reflection on the loss of Myrcella, the moment where her decline into utter heartlessness really began. Cersei’s parenting concepts have always been a little askew, but her connection to her children has always felt intense and real, the only thing (along with Jaime) that really tethers her to the world. With Dorne toppled, only Tyrion remains in her vengeful sights, and after that, there’ll be nowhere to firmly direct her wrath, given that the person responsible for Tommen’s death is ... Cersei Lannister. The Queen might have won the battles this episode, but I don’t think she or Jaime really know what she’s fighting for at this point.
Spencer Kornhaber: The final few minutes of this Thrones episode had me flashing back to some of the great strategy titles of computer-game history—Warcraft II and its ilk. What geek hasn’t found themselves in the situation that Daenerys now does? You think you’re so clever by sending your forces to pick off what you believe to be a vulnerable stronghold, but it’s the wrong bet. Suddenly your trusty squad of paladins—think of them as Highgarden knights—is just a mess of red pixels and dying sounds. At least Olenna eagerly chugging poison and confessing to regicide made for a more poetic cutscene than anything I’ve seen from Blizzard Entertainment.
I bring up games because they provide the sort of thrill—substantial but also fleeting, transactional—that much of this season has delivered. After all, the buzz of a really good bishop-takes-rook moment has its limits. Moreover, even a TV show as complicated as this one can’t fully pull off the logically consistent intricacy of chess or Civilization. It seems Thrones understands that fact, though. Littlefinger’s spiel about seeing every eventuality before it happens wasn’t just him making time for some game theory; it was a wink at viewers who have already diagrammed out every turn that Thrones’s plot can take. So, as you both noted, Benioff and Weiss have been smart to emphasize the emotional nuances of the dialogue scenes rather than the drama of the war. Fundamentally, the advantage a years-running TV show has over any other medium is in the depth of the viewer’s knowledge of its characters.
Which brings me to why something felt strange about the Camp Dragonstone Summit. Daenerys and Jon at first seemed to be talking past each other, no? He inexplicably acted like she had any clue what the army of the dead was, and she inexplicably acted like there’s credibility to the Starks’ ancient pledge to House Targaryen. As Cersei astutely put it elsewhere in the episode, Dany styles herself as more of a revolutionary than a monarch—so what’s with the sudden obsession with bloodline and hierarchy? True, Dany’s hardline stance may be part of a negotiating tactic, and the source of Jon’s palpable anxiety in this episode was well-explained. But it’s hard not to suspect that tensions are running so high now simply for entertainment reasons: It will be all the more more satisfying to see the eventual alliance form.
A more convincing, yet much harder to watch, riff on longstanding character dynamics came from Cersei’s torture of the Dornish. The sight of Euron dragging Ellaria and her daughter through King’s Landing filled me with deep dread for a few reasons, prime among them the knowledge that a scene of Cersei’s sadism was surely nigh. The queen took her time explaining the levels of horror in her retribution against Ellaria, but one bit of awfulness still went unmentioned: It was the Mountain who initially fueled the blood feud between the Lannisters and the Martells by raping Oberyn’s sister and killing her children. The mere thought of him now having his way with Ellaria or Tyene is hideous, as is, of course, Cersei consigning a daughter to gradually die in front of her mother. One tiny spot of hope—Lady Lannister’s desire for slow vengeance means there’s a chance her two resourceful victims might find a way out.
Then again, Cersei isn’t making mistakes lately, at least judging by her string of military victories. Perhaps her success owes to the fact that she doesn’t bother with moral issues, unlike with Dany and her avoidance of civilian death. Perhaps she’s winning because she keeps her eye on concrete logistical matters such as the crown’s debt to Braavos, just as Sansa now has developed a keen eye for the practical details of ruling Winterfell. Perhaps Cersei's secret is that the great Bronn is back and fighting for her. Or perhaps she is, as David suggested, simply enjoying a short spell of good luck. Flaunting her relationship with Jaime is one level of hubris—but having handmaids stylized to look just like her, Dr. Evil-and-Mini-Me style, is an even greater sign of pride that might come before a fall.
That Tyrion line reads even more cuttingly in light of all the people claiming to be all-knowing throughout this episode. Bran tried to inform Sansa that he could see the entirety of history; Littlefinger tried to lecture her that she needed to try to see the entirety of the future. Melisandre unsettled Varys with a pronouncement that the two of them, both foreigners, would die in Westeros. Olenna made a marvelous display of seeming unsurprised by the sudden sacking of her city. And Sam aced his experimental medical procedure simply by reading up on instructions that had been available all along.
It’s all a reminder: This is a world of powerful prophecy, deep lore, and mystical cycles. Which makes the unsureness and debate we saw tonight from Jon, Tyrion, and Dany intriguing. As we near closer to the end of the saga, will these characters seem to be writing their own stories? Or will they just come off as peons and footmen, ordered around the map by an unseen game player?