There are currently two queens vying for control of Westeros, and the latest episode of Game of Thrones centers around the ways in which they rule. “The Queen’s Justice” is an effective summary of the various futures and beliefs for which the protagonists are all fighting for, but much of the episode feels as if it’s going through familiar motions. First there’s Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), stuck repeating the lessons of her father, Tywin. Her sense of justice is nothing more than revenge, and we already saw that play out in the far more masterful “The Winds of Winter.” And then there’s Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who stands in direct contrast to Cersei by distancing herself from her own father, apologizing to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) for Mad King Aerys’s evil, but then again, that’s also nothing new for her.
The most defining moment of the episode, the softening of Daenerys’s steely resolve to force Jon to kneel before her, criminally happens off camera. When confronting Jon, she seems peeved by his lack of protocol, the way he calls her a child and, when she insists that ruling the Seven Kingdoms is her birthright, shruggingly responds: “You’ll be ruling over a graveyard.” Why, then, does she suddenly agree to let Jon mine the wight-killing obsidian from her home? Jon’s strategy is equal parts naïveté and judo in that he refuses to give her anything to be angry about, for he doesn’t threaten her or mince words. It’s almost comic how little he cares for pomp; after Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) has finished recounting all of Daenerys’s many titles, it’s left to Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) to sheepishly announce his lord simply as Jon Snow, the King of the North.
At least Cersei’s decisions, however vile, are plainly worn upon her face: She relishes the opportunity to play the game. When Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) swaggers his way back into her court with Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) in chains, Cersei easily deflects his desire to marry her and become king, promising instead only that he’ll have his “heart’s desire” once the war is won. Her face lights up—and kudos to Headey for remembering the daddy’s girl lurking within the horrific Cersei—when she’s paid a compliment from Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss) after she convinces his company, the Iron Bank, to bet on the Lannisters and not the instability of a revolutionary’s reign. As she confesses to Ellaria with a soft-spoken yet savage surety, she hardly even sleeps, so obsessed is she with planning her next move.
Maybe it’s because Headey is the superior actress, or because audiences like a simple revenge story, the episode dwells on Cersei’s celebrations, particularly her poetic punishment for Ellaria. Cersei poisons Ellaria’s daughter, Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), just as Ellaria once poisoned Cersei’s daughter, and then leaves them chained just a foot out of reach from one another—the mother forced to eventually watch the daughter die and then, over the years, rot away into dust. At last, Cersei is able to find the sleep that she’s clearly been craving, though not before she decisively takes her brother, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), into her mouth. For now, the future debts that she owes—to Euron, to the Iron Bank—aren’t her problems. And that’s where she fails as a queen, and why Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) rightly describes her rival, to Jaime, as “a monster.”
We’ve seen Cersei take revenge upon others so many times that her half-raised smirk of satisfaction is now boring. Equally tiresome is how Daenerys, in recounting to Jon the horrors that she suffered in Essos, from being sold to being raped, sounds as if she’s pantomiming someone else’s pain—or as if Clarke is unable to bring new shadings to the same old song. By contrast, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) provides a glimpse at the complex emotions she’s struggling with after Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), newly arrived at Winterfell, rather callously apologizes for what he, as the Three-Eyed Raven, knows she went through on her wedding night with Ramsay Bolton.
Three episodes into this truncated seventh season and Game of Thrones is spiraling toward a preordained place, finding little room to contemplate how its kings and queens grapple with the weights on their shoulders. Yes, it’s affecting to see Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) prove his self-worth in curing Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) of greyscale, but what does his epiphany really have to do with the story of these kings and queens beyond eventually allowing Jorah to find his way to Daenerys? It’s also impossible to see Melisandre (Carice van Houten) as anything other than a pawn, given that after her grand entrance last week, she now slinks out of Dragonstone before Jon arrives, telling Varys (Conleth Hill) that she doesn’t want to be a “distraction.” She’s not wrong, but announcing as much makes it exactly that.
The weakest part of “The Queen’s Justice,” however, is its climactic fight: the clash between the Unsullied and the Lannisters at Casterly Rock. For the first time ever, Game of Thrones nods to author George R.R. Martin’s historical approach, but the interpretation is clumsy and misrepresentative, suggesting a cross between a documentary and the final act of the film Clue. So as to make the whole thing fit into five or so minutes, director Mark Mylod brings to life each of Tyrion’s strategic predictions, showing us how the fight could have happened—thousands of Unsullied dying in an attempt to scale the walls on giant ladders—before revealing how it actually would have gone down, thanks to the secret passages Tyrion installed as a means of smuggling in prostitutes.
This first twist feels unearned, because it’s predicated on showing us something false. And the effectiveness of the second twist, which reveals that the majority of the Lannister army marched instead on House Tyrell, is undercut by the way in which it is both shown and told, this latter part recounted like a post-game analysis between a captured Lady Olenna and a triumphant Jamie. “The Queen’s Justice” is a confidently mounted episode of Game of Thrones, but at the same time, it’s a shadow of the sort of show it could be if it were truly willing to abandon the game and focus on the players.
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