“The Queen’s Justice,” the third episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season, so thoroughly makes the argument that the final two combatants in the battle for the Iron Throne will be Cersei Lannister and the Night King that I might be a little disappointed when Daenerys inevitably rallies.
Even Dany’s greatest triumph in this episode — she takes Casterly Rock! — is hollow, because she was basically set up to take it by the Lannisters, who left the Unsullied now occupying the fortress without provisions or much of anything at all. Meanwhile, Cersei wipes out the Tyrells and much of the rest of Dany’s fleet. The Queen of the Seven Kingdoms is making quick work of her opponents so far, and Dany had better start learning some lessons from all this losing quickly.
What’s odd about the episode is that it’s a bit of a throwback to the show’s first season, when major, major battles mostly happened offscreen, then were summarized by the characters afterward. (In the most famous example of this, Tyrion was about to head into battle himself before he was knocked out and missed everything.)
This happened back when the show was in budget conservation mode — not now that it has more money than anybody else. Granted, I probably didn’t need to see the invasions of either Casterly Rock or Highgarden in great detail, but the show’s approach (which is to have a few bloody images with somebody summarizing what’s happening in voiceover) occupies a weird middle ground that doesn’t really satisfy one way or the other.
That means this episode is about evenly split between winners and losers, too. Here are the seven winners and six losers who made “The Queen’s Justice” just a bit of a drag.
Winner: Olenna Tyrell, who won for losing
Did Olenna end this episode drinking a giant glass of poison? Yes. Is this the last we’ll see of her? Probably.
But oh boy was it fun watching her go out. A lengthy scene between Diana Rigg and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau offered both actors meaty material to rip into as Jaime offered Olenna what he obviously thought was a kind way to leave this world, then she sunk in her teeth after she’d imbibed the poison.
For a moment, I thought perhaps Jaime and Cersei had figured out Olenna was behind the assassination of Joffrey way back in season four — after all, they were having her drink poison out of a wine glass — but from the shock on his face once she admitted to the crime, the thought obviously hadn’t occurred to Jaime. In the meantime, Olenna got in some barbs against Joffrey and Cersei (she’s a “disease,” and Olenna is sorry for her role in spreading that plague) and mocked Jaime for just how in over his head he is in re: Cersei. Not every character who dies on this show should get a lengthy parting scene — but I’m so, so glad Olenna did.
Loser: Basically every other one of Dany’s allies
Olenna dies. The Unsullied take Casterly Rock but it’s the definition of winning a battle but losing the war. Tyrion’s smarts are seriously in question. Yara and Ellaria are held prisoner in King’s Landing, and the latter is forced to watch as Cersei doses her daughter, Tyene, with a deadly poison contained in a kiss. Meanwhile, Dany hangs out at Dragonstone and rants about how great she is.
I rather doubt that this series has been building to Daenerys arriving in Westeros and promptly revealing just how unimpressive she truly is, but “The Queen’s Justice” is the first episode that made me think this might end up being just a little amazing. While Dany’s been off freeing slaves and gathering her army, Cersei has been slowly steeping herself in her own bitter grievances, and she’s somehow become the greatest military strategist of all time.
Yeah, she has the help of Qyburn and Jaime and Euron. But “The Queen’s Justice” explicitly pits Cersei against Dany in both its script structure (which devotes barely any time to characters not in King’s Landing or Dragonstone) and in the way director Mark Mylod’s shots play the two off of each other. It’s almost like they’re dancing, and try though she might, Dany can’t take the lead. That’s going to prove deadly if she doesn’t figure out what she’s doing soon.
I was idly speculating with a friend the other day that one of Dany’s dragons just has to die at some point before the end — and then this episode spent so much time talking about how indestructible they are that I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen in the next episode. (Before, I was just betting on somewhere in the final season.) You don’t load up a story with that much foreshadowing without paying it off very, very quickly. Which dragon will die, though? Place your bets.
Winner: Cersei Lannister
This one is pretty self-explanatory, and I’ve already delved into much of why she wins in this episode above, but allow me to advance a perhaps controversial theory: What if Cersei is the hero of this story?
One of the big things that Game of Thrones struggles with is that it constantly subverts expectations, while simultaneously seeming to play out a dual “chosen one who will save the kingdom” narrative involving Dany and Jon. The idea that the show would end with Dany and Jon facing off against Cersei, then turning their attention to an epic battle against the evil of the White Walkers, has always felt a little too easy to me.
But what if Cersei, who has learned and learned and learned from every single failure and dark moment and horrible action over the years, is the one we’re supposed to cheer on? Doesn’t that make a certain amount of sense?
If there’s one thing the characters in this show are supposed to have deeply ingrained in their psyches by this point, it’s the idea that you must do anything you can to secure power, even if it stretches the rules of propriety. That’s the only way you can ensure the safety of those around you. And, sure, that’s a pretty grim view of the world, but, hey, look at the world these characters occupy.
Everybody else on the show has some degree of hopefulness at this point, but Cersei knows that’s all foolishness. Jaime’s right — if Cersei wins this war, nobody will care what she did to build the world that follows. And Sansa was right back in the season premiere, too. There’s something worth admiring there, even if you’d rather not. Cersei will probably see her comeuppance eventually. That’s how stories usually work. But this episode came dangerously close to making me think she not only will win the war but should win the war.
Loser: Jon Snow, who sounds like he’s losing it
Jon has become really, really bad at tailoring his message to his audience. He has a bad tendency to blunder into basically any situation and start ranting about the Army of the Dead.
I mean, yes, Jon, this is something you need to deal with, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you need Dany’s dragonglass by leading with your craziest fan theories. He’s rapidly turning into that guy you don’t want to sit next to at the dinner party, the one who keeps saying, “Yes, we’re having fun right now, but death is coming for us all.” Technically, probably, he’s a winner, since he gets the dragonglass without having to swear allegiance to Dany — but I make the rules here, and I’ve decided he’s got to lighten up.
And at any rate, the only reason he gets anything done in this episode is because Tyrion gets him to let go of the obsession for a couple of seconds. And even then, it’s “Army of the Dead this,” and “Army of the Dead that.” What a bummer! Just like...
Loser: Bran Stark, for becoming a major bummer
Sansa: “It’s so good to see you, Bran. I’m glad you’re alive.”
Bran: “I am both alive and dead, for I can see both states. I can see all of time.”
Sansa: “Okay, well, time for you to become Lord of Winterfell!”
Bran: “Oh, I don’t think I’ll be doing that. I’m the Three-Eyed Raven.”
Sansa: “What’s that?”
Bran: “Ha ha ha! You are like a little baby! Basically, I can see all of everything, so I basically know everything you need to do to beat the White Walkers.”
Sansa: “Are you going to tell me?”
Bran: “No. I’m going to revisit your wedding day, a.k.a. the worst day of your entire life. And I’m gonna be a real creep about it.”
Winner: Euron Greyjoy’s cocky smile
I mean, who couldn’t love a face like that? I know he’s a horrible pirate, but he’s so happy about it. That’s what counts, right?
Winner: Tyrion Lannister’s flair for storytelling
Set aside the complete and utter implausibility of Tyrion only deciding to tell all his best pals about his secret plan to defeat Casterly Rock until weeks after the Unsullied set sail. Set aside, even, the way that he drones on about just how hard it will be to take the fortress before doing a hard pivot to, “JK. There’s a secret back door in.”
Tyrion’s still got a flair for telling a great story. He paces it properly, and puts the twist in just the right place, and he’s conscientious enough to be explaining what’s happening in such a way that we can follow the largely disjointed shots of the Unsullied taking Casterly Rock. If nothing else, he’ll be a cinch to win several sessions of whatever Westeros’s version of The Moth is.
Of course, Tyrion can’t really be a winner, because...
Loser: Tyrion Lannister’s flair for military tactics
Good Lord, Tyrion. Remember when you defended King’s Landing against the invasion of Stannis at the Battle of the Blackwater? Remember how you came up with all of those great ideas about how to hold the city and the use of wildfire? What happened to that Tyrion?
The Tyrion of “The Queen’s Justice” is way too cocksure and unable to see the speeding train with his sister’s name on it headed right for him. I think it makes some sense that Tyrion would underestimate his sister, but I also feel like it’s a bit of a stretch that he wouldn’t have seen any of Cersei’s attacks coming. Wouldn’t he have surmised that Euron and company would be out there, at least?
What’s more, how did nobody on Team Dany realize that Highgarden was perhaps the most prized location for Cersei to grab? Warfare is often about trying to guess what your enemy is thinking, but Dany and Tyrion (especially) are far too enamored of what they’re thinking, which means they go down to ignominious defeat over and over again in this episode. Get it together, Tyrion! We were counting on you!
Winner: Director Mark Mylod, who spices up some long, talky scenes with pretty images
Whether it’s Ellaria and Tyene straining to reach each other from their separate bonds, or Jaime standing over the conquered Olenna but realizing how little he actually understands, or even just that first meeting between Dany and Jon, which keeps cutting to wide shots to emphasize how far apart the characters are physically (as well as alliance-wise), Mylod comes up with some smart ways to stage scenes that could have easily become long-winded and boring.
Blocking — the process of moving actors around within the frame — isn’t always this show’s strong suit, but I found the Jon and Dany scenes, especially, to be exceptions to this rule. Yes, the characters mostly remained frozen in space, but Mylod made every little inch that Jon got closer to Dany count, and when they were finally in the same place (when she came down to tell him he could mine dragonglass), that, too, had a significance to it.
“The Queen’s Justice” is an episode of talking and talking and talking, but Mylod turns out to be a great fit for all that chattering. This is an episode about characters, half a continent apart, circling each other, and Mylod captures that wariness beautifully.
Loser: Fans of big battle scenes
I know the show is evidently trying to save money for something, but boy, the battles in this episode felt like they were thrown together over a couple of days with some spare props the show had just laying around. Maybe that’s what the series was going for. It was still a bit odd.
Loser: Sam, who lost for winning
Technically, I suppose, I should argue that Sam is a winner for having cured Jorah’s greyscale, in a manner that impressed even the Arch Maester.
Jorah will be back with Dany just in time to explain to her exactly what she needs to do to win the war, and Sam gets to be proud of his ability to properly follow instructions, like a smitten boyfriend who wants his girlfriend to be really impressed he printed out the AllRecipes.com recipe for chicken parmesan and made it exactly so. Even better, Sam doesn’t have to do anything gross this week. Win-win, right?
Nah. Every time Sam does something good, he gets punished for it. Sure, he’s not kicked out of the Citadel, but he has to copy all those manuscripts. One presumes there will be something very important in those manuscripts — we’re getting so much Sam this season, so he’s obviously going to uncover something important — but for now, he’s still doing grunt work. See you later, Sam!
Winner: Book readers, who’ve been waiting decades for some of this stuff
The first person to say, “Boy, I can’t wait for Daenerys and Jon to meet!” probably said that while wondering if Bill Clinton or Bob Dole would win the upcoming presidential election. Yes, A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series came out 21 years ago in 1996, and the natural response to reading it was to wonder how on earth Martin was going to weave together his two most far-flung characters into the same narrative.
But it goes beyond even that. Sansa and Bran haven’t seen each other since early season one. Olenna’s admission of her guilt in Joffrey’s murder to Jaime hasn’t been quite as long in, coming but has still been one of those things fans are waiting for. And if you’re not a book reader, the show still gains power from just how long it’s managed to put a lot of this stuff off.
In some ways, Game of Thrones is an elaborate juggling act. It tossed a bunch of balls in the air back in season one, then waited to see how long they would hang up there. Along the way, it introduced some pointless busywork to keep us all occupied, but now, those balls are descending and crashing into each other, and it’s kind of marvelous. So we watch and wait to see if the show can possibly catch everything that’s up in the air. Probably not, but that’s part of the fun.
Other winners: Melisandre, for knowing how both her and Varys die, for some reason; Sansa, for understanding very basic things like “People need food to live” when everybody else in Winterfell forgot about them; the long night, for apparently returning in the near future; Jorah, for not dying of greyscale; Davos, for keeping everybody from fighting.
Other losers: House Tyrell, for being so bad at maximizing its strategic advantage throughout the entire series; poetic justice, for not realizing it was being meted out against Olenna; Theon, because I forgot he was in this episode entirely; Varys, for not being immortal.