Spoilers follow for Game of Thrones season seven, episode three, “The Queen’s Justice.”
The best-laid plans of Daenerys Targaryen have gone awry again.
Fresh off the major setback she experienced at the end of "Stormborn," this week's episode of Game of Thrones, "The Queen's Justice," saw the Mother of Dragons lose yet another one of her key supporters: Olenna Tyrell, the “Queen of Thorns.”
Dany and her ally Tyrion Lannister thought they had an excellent plan to rebound from the shocking defeat of Yara Greyjoy’s fleet, by sending Grey Worm and his Unsullied soldiers to seize the Lannister family castle of Casterly Rock in a surprise attack.
But it turned out that Jaime and Cersei Lannister remained one step ahead of their little brother and the dragon queen he serves. Largely because they needed money to repay the crown’s oft-mentioned debts to the Iron Bank of Braavos, they decided to sacrifice Casterly Rock and sent their armies instead to seize Highgarden. That’s the stronghold of the wealthy House Tyrell, which is ruled by Olenna Tyrell and has been aligned with Daenerys since Cersei blew up all the other Tyrells in last season’s finale.
With some crucial aid from Randyll Tarly — Sam’s father, a bannerman to Olenna who eventually chose his loyalty to the crown over his loyalty to her — Jaime’s forces seized the castle. And once inside, Jaime himself offered Olenna a merciful death via a cup of poisoned wine, in a scene that gave the great Diana Rigg one final showcase before her exit from the series.
As one final twist of the knife, Olenna admitted to Jaime that yes, it was indeed she who poisoned King Joffrey back in season four — something viewers have known for a while, but the Lannisters have remained ignorant of. “Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me,” Olenna said, before Jaime left her alone to die.
A retrospective of Olenna’s impact on the game of thrones
Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell was a joyous addition to Game of Thrones from the moment she first arrived at King’s Landing back in season three, spewing acid-tongued insults at everyone in sight.
But in contrast to the other self-interested schemers in the world of Game of Thrones, Olenna was never particularly interested in power, influence, or, as she once called it, “that ugly iron chair.”
As Olenna said in her first scene in the series, she had cautioned her family against getting involved in the war for the throne. But her granddaughter Margaery had other ideas — her ambition was to be “the queen,” she once said. So Margaery and her brother Loras aligned the Tyrell family first with the rebellious Renly Baratheon (Loras’s lover), and then, after Renly’s death, with the Lannisters and King Joffrey.
That spurred Olenna to join the capital’s intrigues with the goal of saving her family members from themselves. She quickly sussed out, for instance, that Joffrey was in fact a monster — and concluded that she could never let Margaery marry him. Meanwhile, she realized that Joffrey had a younger brother, Tommen, who was Joffrey's temperamental opposite: meek, kind, and compliant.
Olenna’s solution was ruthless and elegant: She collaborated with Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in a plot to poison Joffrey at his own wedding, and to frame Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark for it. Then, she anticipated, Margaery would marry Tommen, and the danger would have passed.
Most of the plan went off without a hitch. But in retrospect, it led to the eventual destruction of Olenna’s entire family. Specifically, it was her decision to frame Tyrion for Joffrey’s murder that triggered an unpredictable series of events culminating in Tyrion murdering his father, Tywin Lannister, during his escape.
Up to that point, Tywin had been ruling King’s Landing with an iron fist. And while he was a ruthless and calculating man, he was someone Olenna could deal with (and indeed, appeared to enjoy dealing with).
But Tywin’s death left a power vacuum in the capital and unleashed forces that were far more volatile and less rational: namely, Cersei Lannister and the Faith Militant.
Without her father to keep her in check, Cersei sought to strike against the Tyrells by arming a movement of religious zealots that arrested both Margaery and Loras. That movement — as overseen by its leader, the High Sparrow — eventually established itself as the most powerful force in the city, turning against Cersei herself and winning the submission of King Tommen and Queen Margaery.
Olenna never could figure out a solution to the problem of the Faith Militant, and she herself left the capital after being warned by Margaery that her life was in danger from them. Before she departed, Olenna scoffed at Cersei, “You’re surrounded by enemies, thousands of them. Are you going to kill them all, by yourself?” As it turns out, Cersei’s answer was yes — she blew up the Sept of Baelor, wiping out the Faith Militant as well as Margaery, Loras, and Olenna’s son Mace.
With her descendants dead and Olenna as apparently the last remaining Tyrell, she devoted herself to revenge against Cersei, and joined up with Daenerys Targaryen to that end. But she won’t live to see that revenge, now that Jaime Lannister has served her a cup of poisoned wine much like the one she used to kill Joffrey, his son.
Game of Thrones' showrunners have chosen to prevent Daenerys from winning a runaway victory
At the end of last season and the beginning of this one, Daenerys and her forces appeared ludicrously overpowered in comparison to Jaime and Cersei Lannister. Dany had three dragons, an army of Unsullied, and a horde of Dothraki.
Furthermore, she had already lined up three alliances with major powers in Westeros —the Dornish, the Tyrells, and the Theon-and-Yara faction of the Greyjoys.
Well, scratch that — if you’re keeping score, the Lannisters seem to have knocked all three of those newfound allies out of the war. Euron Greyjoy destroyed Yara’s fleet and took her prisoner, he also either killed or took prisoner all the leaders of Dorne, and Olenna’s death (and Randyll Tarly’s rebellion) seem to mean the end of the Tyrells as a power.
And while Grey Worm and the Unsullied did win a victory in taking Casterly Rock, they now seem to be stuck there. Euron Greyjoy attacked their ships, and Jaime explained that they’ll be stranded on the west coast of Westeros, unless they make a long journey back eastward by land.
Overall, it’s clear that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have chosen to begin this season with a series of setbacks for Dany to level the playing field somewhat. These early, dragon-less skirmishes between the Greyjoys and at Highgarden also serve the purpose of dispensing with a bunch of second- and third-tier characters, while whetting viewers’ appetites for bigger conflicts between the top-tier players later on.
Indeed, Dany and Tyrion have said they’re hesitant to use the dragons or the Dothraki, fearing that doing so could cost too many innocent lives and turn the people of Westeros against her. But unless Dany somehow convinces Jon Snow to fight a Southern war he seems to have little interest in, it now appears she’ll have no other choice.
That's certainly what the late Lady Olenna would advise. After all, as she memorably counseled Dany in last week’s episode: “You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”