The third episode of Game of Thrones’ seventh season is the story of meticulous strategy and how quickly it can fail.
Daenerys finally meets Jon Snow, but neither of them get what they want from the encounter. Dany’s Dornish alliance ends with Ellaria Sand watching Cersei poison her daughter Tyene in a prison cell. And the Dragon Queen’s gambit to take Casterly Rock succeeds, but it’s a hollow, meaningless victory: the Lannisters have moved their bannermen to Highgarden, where they take out the Tyrells and offer Lady Olenna a merciful death. Worse: moments after the siege on Casterly Rock, Euron Greyjoy destroys the Unsullied’s fleet, trapping them on land with limited supplies.
Daenerys isn’t the only strategist seeing her grand scheme crumble when applied to the real world. Euron’s method to get some love from Cersei isn’t working quite like he’d hoped. Breaking Cersei’s enemies’ naval power and bringing her daughter’s murderer to justice were gambits to win her hand in marriage, but instead, Cersei just tells him he’ll get his reward when the war is over. He has to settle for the love of the common cabbage-throwing people instead. At least he seems pleased with praise as a participant’s trophy. He’s about the only one this week who winds up happy. Apart from Cersei, that is, who faces down the Iron Bank of Braavos, lures Jaime into bed over his protests, and watches the woman who murdered her daughter weeping on her knees. Cersei is feeling so cocky, she’s willing to flaunt her incest with her brother around King’s Landing. There’s certainly no possible way that could backfire, right?
Still, given how many well-laid plans go awry for the heroes (or at least, for the not-so-despicable characters) in this episode, maybe Cersei is better off just following her impulses and and doing whatever she wants.
After the episode, we sat down to discuss the most memorable scenes from “The Queen’s Justice.”
When Dany met Jonny...
Bryan: It’s taken seven seasons, but last night, “The Queen’s Justice” brought Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow together face-to-face. There’s a bit of buildup before things kick off. The opening scene of Jon and Davos Seaworth arriving on the beaches outside Dragonstone is beautifully shot, and Tyrion talking to Jon as they climb the wall to the castle has that warm feeling of two unlikely friends reuniting at long last. But those scenes are prologue to an encounter that stands out as a pivotal moment not just in the episode, but likely the entire series: the meeting of “ice and fire.”
The irony is that neither Daenerys nor Jon really seem to like the other, and the scene highlights their greatest strengths and weaknesses. Jon, ever earnest, seems baffled and overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Dany and the Targaryen throne room. She, on the other hand, is so confident and certain of purpose that she seems genuinely dumbfounded when Jon doesn’t take the first opportunity to kneel before her. It doesn’t help that Jon is pitching Daenerys on the most unlikely of threats: that the White Walkers will soon render the squabbling between the different factions in Westeros irrelevant. “You’ll be ruling over a graveyard if we don’t defeat the Night King,” he says, and there’s the essential rub: she doesn’t understand what he’s seen and gone through, and he cannot comprehend the horrors she’s endured on her way to Dragonstone.
As an audience member, though, I loved this scene, because it put me in a position I haven’t really been in until this point: trying to reconcile the differing viewpoints of two characters I like and have been rooting for. Even setting aside popular fan theories, Daenerys Stormborn and Jon Snow have served as two of the show’s biggest underdogs, characters who have been constantly counted out, betrayed, discarded, and ignored. It’s been easy to get behind them, even in the morally skewed world of Westeros, because they most clearly echo the traditional heroic arcs we’re used to seeing in these kinds of stories. Putting them at odds, mild (and fleeting) though it may be — they end up in a tentative alliance by the episode’s end — left me realizing that as the number of characters in play continues to shrink, we’re going to see characters we’ve loved face off against one another, and likely do some things we simply aren’t okay with.
That’s part of the allure of Game of Thrones in general, of course. George R.R. Martin loves setting up traditional story tropes, then undercutting them entirely — both to his fans’ delight and horror. That dynamic isn’t going to end just because a bunch of characters are now teaming up against Cersei Lannister.
Tasha: If anything, the disagreement these two characters have seems milder than I expected in a show that’s so much about confounding expectations. If Game of Thrones was scheduled to run another five years, I imagine this scene would have ended in shouting and threats, and the build toward rapprochement would have been much slower. As it is, their differences seem entirely surmountable, and likely to be surmounted reasonably soon. Daenerys can be imperious when she’s out to impress new allies or bully new enemies, but she drops her guard easily enough around people she trusts, and they’re already building trust. What I enjoyed about this scene is that we can so clearly see how they’d see each other on first viewing. She sees a man summoned to declare fealty who instead is raving about zombies. He sees a young woman who wants him to just shrug off the fact that her father killed one of his predecessors, and who’s so caught up in a grab for power that she’s ignoring the real threat, like nearly everyone else. And neither of them are wrong!
But what got me more than anything about this scene is the hard work being put in by Tyrion and Davos, who are both putting on their most reasonable faces as they try to smooth over their leaders’ frustration and pride, and come to terms. Davos building up a head of steam talking about Jon’s honor and his history is so gratifying, given how often Jon’s been betrayed or rejected or, well, murdered. Tyrion nervously watching this necessary alliance not gel well is a great piece of acting, where you can just see on his face everything going through his mind. This was a well-written sequence, but the performances are also terrific. Both heads of state think they’re being reasonable and that their counterpart isn’t. Both advisors know they can’t be allowed to storm away from each other, offended and angry. There’s so much well-managed tension here.
But points, also, for the little flecks of humor here and there — Jon shutting Davos up with a glance, Tyrion falling over himself to assure Jon that he didn’t sleep with Jon’s sister, even though they were married. And this wry, true bit about Sansa: “She’s smarter than she lets on.” “She’s beginning to let on.”
Bryan: Last week, Euron Greyjoy broke some ships and killed some Sand Snakes, but when it came to wooing Cersei, his biggest get was capturing Ellaria Sand and her last surviving daughter, Tyene. In “The Queen’s Justice,” Cersei gets her moment with both women to deliver exactly that.
I’ll admit, I was expecting Ellaria’s death to be brutal and gory, something similar to the skull-crushing demise that befell her lover, Oberyn Martell. But “The Queen’s Justice” does something very smart: it lets that expectation fuel a long, riveting monologue from Cersei that is more unnerving than any special effect or moment of shock could be. First she taunts Ellaria, recounting the way Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane killed Oberyn. Then she explains how important her daughter Myrcella was to her. Cersei’s mask of cold detachment threatens to drop as she asks Ellaria exactly why she took her daughter.
Then a switch flips, and Lena Headey plays the next few moments as someone using cruelty as a salve on their own wounds. She tells Ellaria exactly how she’d considered killing Tyene — before finally simply kissing the daughter, delivering a dose of slow-acting poison. Ellaria will remain there, chained in that room, watching as her daughter dies and rots.
It’s an act of emotional brutality delivered with precision and relish, and Cersei seems to grow stronger by the moment. She instructs her guards to change the torches regularly so Ellaria never misses a moment of suffering, and by the time she strides from the room, she seems reborn and fully in control of her domain and empowered by the suffering she’s just inflicted. It’s more than just revenge or murder. It’s a reminder that whatever shreds of humanity Cersei had left were tied to her children, and with them gone from the world, she is powered by nothing more than pure cruelty.
Tasha: Which is ironic, considering that her oldest, Joffrey, was himself made of pure cruelty, and any humanity she had around him was heavily tempered with her willingness to make other people suffer terribly in order to give him whatever his evil little psychopathic heart desired. I can’t sympathize with her around his death, but Myrcella and Tommen weren’t monsters, and her pain over them is a little easier to empathize with. This is even more true given that her response here isn’t the brutal gorefest I was expecting. Considering Cersei gave the last woman who crossed her to Gregor Clegane for god knows what, I was expecting a return to Game of Thrones’ famous love of rape and torture and rape-torture, and I was dreading it. This, by contrast, almost seems a little elegant. And boy, does actor Indira Varma ever sell Ellaria’s desperation, frustration, and misery. This is emotional torture rather than physical torture, but she still makes it difficult to watch.
I expect we’re going to be watching more of it, given Qyburn’s casual statement that the poison they used on Tyene takes an unpredictable amount of time to fully take effect. (Convenient, that, and not entirely believable, though he could be lying to torment Ellaria.) I’m sure we’ll get at least one more scene with them together. Who knows, given that there’s clearly an antidote, maybe they’ll even survive. Traditionally, when villains say, “I’m going to leave you in this cunning deathtrap to die slowly while I go do something nefarious,” it doesn’t go well for the villains. That said, Game of Thrones rarely sticks to familiar tropes and conventions. Maybe this is the one cunning deathtrap that actually works.
A Stark homecoming
Bryan: Where the beginning of the episode brought two favorite characters together, the latter half reunites two long-lost family members: Bran and Sansa Stark. When Sansa first sees her brother, she’s overwhelmed with emotion. The steely presence she was focusing on her troops just moments before melts away at the sight of him, and she leaps to hug him. Since the children were scattered to the wind early in the show, every minor Stark reunion feels like a reminder of everything that’s been lost.
Bran, though, barely seems to even register the moment on an emotional level. Later, when Sansa insists that he’s the proper lord of Winterfell, he casts that idea aside saying that he is now the new Three-Eyed Raven. Sansa doesn’t understand what that means, and Bran doesn’t do a great job of explaining, other than telling her he can see “everything that’s ever happened to everyone.”
Then he delivers an emotional gut-punch: telling Sansa he’s sorry for what happened to her on her wedding night — which, if you’ve blocked it from memory, was one of the times she was assaulted by Ramsay Bolton, in what was one of the show’s most upsetting and controversial scenes. The sibling’s conversation is effective in demonstrating how emotionally detached Bran has become with the powers of the Three-Eyed Raven. The boy that used to be Sansa’s brother is gone now, and we’re not likely to see him return. Just one more casualty for the Stark family.
In another sense, however, I found the scene to just be a cruel reminder of some of the worst things that can happen in this show. Before Bran arrives, Sansa is demonstrating her newfound leadership abilities and strategic insights; she is serving as the survivor and leader she’s become over time. But the show follows that moment by dredging up some of the worst things that have ever happened to Sansa. Now, I’m not expecting happy reunions, and I don’t expect things to work out well for anyone. But Game of Thrones has done a good job this season of pulling back from some of its crueler tendencies. I suppose I’d enjoyed forgetting that some of those moments had happened in the first place.
Tasha: Before Bran shows up, Sansa’s also getting what I registered as a fairly idiotic lecture from Littlefinger, who’s still trying to pretend he’s her intrigue-mentor and that she needs him to explain what’s up. She’s walking around doing eminently practical things — inventorying food against the coming famine, planning for feeding refugees, pointing out defects in the armorers’ breastplate schemata — and then he shows up to deliver a bunch of ponderous Polonius circular abstracts about how she should fight every battle at once everywhere so she can never be surprised, and should assume that every possible iteration of events is happening everywhere. Even acknowledging that this isn’t a remotely practical way of planning — how do you respond to an event that actually happens when you’re too busy responding to the 50 things that didn’t happen? — it’s still a bunch of hooey, and the expression on Sansa’s face seems to acknowledge it. (I still haven’t figured out why she and Jon haven’t kicked Littlefinger out of Winterfell. She’s insulted him to his face, and Jon has physically assaulted him. Clearly they aren’t that worried about angering him and losing the Vale’s support.) The transition to the Bran scene feels like the world’s tiniest sequence of comic moments — “Follow my nonsensical advice and you can never be surprised!” he says. Cue the big Bran surprise! And then the camera lingers on Littlefinger’s face for a second, and on his clear disappointment. She was listening to him again, just like old times! But then here comes the world to kick him in the ass.
It seems like a further irony that Bran promptly tells Sansa he can now see everything happening everywhere, which is not a thing a normal human can do, but which just might make Littlefinger’s advice a bit more practical. Westeros has a surprisingly good intel system, what with all the spies and the mail ravens, but you just can’t beat the power of perfect information gathering. Bran is the ultimate weapon against secret plots, assuming he can be put to use.
Nonetheless, this scene is a magnificent fake-out against the audience, which was presumably expecting Arya to finally arrive at the gates of Winterfell. Bran, on the other hand, was last seen at the Wall, with no indication that he was moving on from there. So hey, now we have the chance for a three-way reunion. Even a four-way reunion, if Jon makes it back from Dragonstone. But how beautifully sad that this reunion falls so flat after that first moment. Everyone on the show has been through painful changes, and Sansa has to come to terms with the fact that her little brother is not only different from the child he was, but not really the human he was. I’d run off from that meetup, too. (C’mon, Bran. If you’re going to throw out lines like “I’m the Three-Eyed Raven,” you could at least try to explain. Remember when you were frustrated all the time because you didn’t understand it either? What is this, Lost? Learning the answers to a mystery and then refusing to help other people through it is a dick move.)
The Battle for Casterly Rock
Bryan: Game of Thrones has had both epic and tepid battle sequences in the past, usually depending on how much budget was being thrown at a given sequence. The Battle for Casterly Rock in “The Queen’s Justice,” however, manages to sidestep that dynamic, delivering a clever take on the battle scene without epic resources, thanks to more of the clever filmmaking and editing that’s been standing out this season.
The sequence begins with Tyrion explaining to Daenerys what Grey Worm and the Unsullied will face when they try to take the Lannister stronghold, Casterly Rock. Director Mark Mylod (and editor Jesse Parker) cut to what appears to be a hypothetical visualization of Tyrion’s strategy, as the Unsullied attempt an assault on the castle walls.
Back at Dragonstone, Tyrion explains that when Casterly Rock was built, he was in charge of the sewers, and he built a secret entrance to better enable him to carry out his more lascivious endeavors. We then cut back to Grey Worm, infiltrating the Rock through the secret entrance, and as we realize we’re watching the actual battle itself, he takes down the Lannister forces from the inside.
Of course, the whole thing ends up being a ruse: Jaime Lannister has pulled most of the Lannister forces away from the castle, and Grey Worm watches helplessly from Casterly Rock as the Unsullied ships are destroyed, effectively stranding him and his men. But the entire sequence is able to cleverly play with expectations and time, portraying an intricate battle with simplicity and focus. It’s just a really big bummer for Team Daenerys.
Tasha: I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as you did, it seems. I thought the whole thing fell pretty flat. Given how many people were expecting Grey Worm to die in this episode, I appreciate the momentary “He’s dead, Jim” fake-out, both for its cruelty and for its brevity. At least we didn’t linger on the lie. And as a strategic move, and an undoing of Tyrion’s scheming (he is not doing well at strategizing so far this season!), the Casterly Rock maneuver is pretty brilliant.
But the actual execution just felt cheap to me. The cut between Grey Worm killing a few people and him striding across a rampart covered in bodies felt like a cheap elision, a maneuver motivated more by budget limitations than by directorial choices. Even a battle that’s over faster than expected, and that turns out not to matter, should take some time and have a little impact on the viewers. This scene felt to me like it happened on fast-forward. Also, what is up with Euron’s teleportation abilities? Wasn’t he just at King’s Landing with his fleet about five seconds ago?
Lady Olenna goes down swinging
Tasha: Normally, I don’t believe anyone on Game of Thrones is dead until I’ve seen a body. (Sometimes even that doesn’t work, given Jon’s resurrection.) But the way Olenna Tyrell ends the episode — alone in her tower at Highgarden, having just swallowed what Jaime Lannister promises her is a painless poison — I think it’s pretty safe to say her days on the show are over. If nothing else, after what she tells Jaime, I don’t believe he’d leave the room unless he was absolutely sure she would never be leaving it herself.
But I admire Jaime’s self-control in not hurting her as she informs him that she, not Tyrion, murdered his son Joffrey. Olenna paints a vivid and ugly picture to remind Jaime of how she made Joffrey suffer. It’s clear from his face that what she says hits home — he obviously still regrets Joffrey’s death, even though the kid became a sadistic, murdering monster — but he controls himself. It’s one more step toward what I believe will eventually be Jaime’s rehabilitation. He may or may not betray Cersei and join the ranks of the angels (and the weak, ineffectual “no” he gives her when she jumps him in this episode suggests to me that he won’t), but the show has long been working toward making him more sympathetic. His statement that he argued Cersei out of stripping and whipping Olenna through the streets, or having her skinned alive, is a reminder that he’s still comparatively kind as far as Lannisters go. I wonder whether it’s occurred to him yet that his brother Tyrion has finally been proved innocent — or whether that matters after Tyrion killed their father Tywin?
Regardless, Olenna has been one of the series’s consistent high points, and it’s good to see her going out with dignity and control, keeping her tongue and her wits sharp even after her keep has fallen, her strategy has failed, and her death is guaranteed. I would have rather seen her on the Iron Throne after all this was over, but I suppose that was never an option.
Bryan: Lady Olenna has always been a marvel, and the seasons where she and Margaery Tyrell were at the forefront were some of my favorites in the series. So I was obviously a bit bummed when everything went south for the Tyrells. Of course, that’s what happens. Anybody that even remotely touches the Lannisters eventually withers and dies.
But leave it to Olenna, always the master schemer that nobody recognized, to go out in a magnificent blaze of glory. She doesn’t just channel the moment of audience catharsis that was the Purple Wedding, and she doesn’t just one-up Jaime Lannister after he’s technically killed her. She is able to strike back at Cersei, long-distance, in her final moments.
I actually feel sympathy for Joffrey’s father. As you point out, the show has been working to make Jaime more likeable since he started palling around with Brienne of Tarth, but I was still surprised by my reaction. I don’t know that I’ll ever root for Jaime Lannister — he’s done far too many horrific things over far too many years — but he’s a fascinating example of how a show can help us embrace a character despite the most glaring, ghastly flaws one could possibly conceive.
Bonus scene: That time that Melisandre freaked out Varys
Bryan: There are a lot of characters who know how to keep their powder dry in Game of Thrones, but nobody seems as unflappable as Varys. He’s so controlled that I practically want to jump off the couch and shout anytime somebody actually does get under his skin — and it turns out it’s even more fun when Melisandre is the one doing it.
Earlier this season, everybody’s favorite child-burning priestess showed up to recommend that Daenerys meet with Jon Snow, so in “The Queen’s Justice,” Varys finds it a little strange that she’s AWOL when said meeting occurs. He tracks her down on a cliff at sunset (of course that’s where Melisandre would be hanging out), where she waves off the particulars as the result of some terrible mistakes. Otherwise, she says, she’s done her part. “I’ve brought ice and fire together.”
Melisandre informs Varys that she’ll be heading to Volantis, a land we’ve heard about at various times in the show but have yet to visit, and he warns her that she shouldn’t return. But she tells him she’ll have to come back one final time. “I have to die in this strange country,” Melisandre tells him. “Just like you.”
The look on his face is wonderful. He showed up thinking he had all the leverage in the situation, and instead realizes he has no control, and that the priestess knows things about his own fate he himself can’t comprehend. For Varys, knowledge and influence is everything, and there’s nothing more unsettling than the realization that somebody he cannot control has more of both than he does.