Featuring the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Bran’s back at Winterfell! Wait, that’s not it.
People thought dragons were gone forever, but here they are. Perhaps we should all examine what we think we know.
After 62 episodes of television and over two decades of George R. R. Martin’s writings, “The Queen’s Justice” finally puts Ice and Fire together. Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Thrower of Shade…and the Bastard of Winterfell, the King in the North, the Undead, Jon Snow. Fans have been drooling for this summit since the beginning of the series — what would happen? Would Jon win her over to his cause? Would he betray his people and bend the knee? Would they fall instantly, hopelessly in love? Or would she take him prisoner, the latest ill to befall a Stark who went south at the request of a Southron ruler?
No, of course not. At least, as Dany says, “not yet.” These are strong-willed people, and though the Queen didn’t need anything from Jon except fealty when he arrived, now he might be her only viable military ally. Her conquest isn’t going that well. Of the three great houses pledged to her, two have already been wiped off the board — Dorne, with Ellaria Sand currently doomed to watch her daughter Tyene waste away before her eyes in Cersei’s dungeon, and the Tyrells of Highgarden, which rolls over for Jamie the moment he appears outside the gates. The third, the Greyjoys, simply changed sides, with Yara’s fate yet to be determined and her preening uncle Euron, the only character on Thrones still having any fun, earning a thin promise from Cersei that he’ll get his reward — her hand — “when the war is won.” Sure, and I’ve got a wheelbarrow of dragonglass to sell you. (As for Theon, he gets fished out of the sea to a new world of derision and shame. Rock, meet bottom.)
The point is, Jon and Dany are certain to be allies; it’s only a matter of when, and of what she’s willing to give up. “The Queen’s Justice,” written by Benioff and Weiss with their feet firmly planted on the gas, launched us another ten steps forward into the series’s endgame: Jon at Dragonstone, the Unsullied to Casterly Rock, Euron back to King’s Landing then also to Casterly Rock, Jamie in King’s Landing for three-quarters of the hour then riding to Highgarden and taking it. We even got another Stark reunion with Bran making it back to Winterfell, though I doubt that was the one you wanted, either (Arya, evidently, had the week off). Yes, the show is moving fast. Sometimes absurdly so. But there’s nothing convenient about it — Sam, for example, could have spent weeks reading books out of the Restricted Section, we simply don’t know. But if you’re annoyed by the plot acceleration and negligence of the geographical distances established by the show’s first six seasons, I just have one question: What would you rather fill the time with? More poop montages? More of the Sand Snakes? More of people walking and sailing and staring off parapets? I’ll pass, myself.
One thing I’ll concede, however, is that the show has all but stopped developing its characters. Everyone is in the service of the great Plot Engine, with precious little room left for growth beyond their already-determined purposes. Jon’s still sad, Dany’s still imperious, Tyrion’s still too clever by half, Cersei’s still a monster, Jamie swings back and forth on the pendulum of “rascal” and “complicit in legit evil;” I could go on. This isn’t bad writing, just functional and plot-driven, drawing from the reservoir of goodwill built over the long haul to maneuver all the pieces toward a climax we’ve already seen coming for years. And yet, I still come away satisfied — why? Because I’m invested in the idea of what becomes of this world once the smoke settles, and every scene puts us closer to finding that out.
There are a few exceptions, though. It’s rewarding to see the Hound (like Arya, off this week) discover his humanity. It’s also fun to watch Sansa develop as a leader. Winterfell is bracing for a food shortage, and will soon be collecting grain from the surrounding keeps. “Command suits you,” Littlefinger remarks. But more than her strength, he admires her cunning, which he believes he can develop into a mind as sharp as his own — even Tyrion and Jon see her potential. More importantly, it’s the kind of flattery Sansa, who’s been thought of as naive and dull all her life, will genuinely respond to. He’s beginning to infect her. “Fight every battle, everywhere, in your mind,” he Miyagis. “Everyone is your enemy, and everyone is your friend…live that way and nothing will surprise you.” Even Littlefinger’s obvious ulterior motive, we should assume; every cutting quip Sansa directs his way makes him all the more fanatically obsessed. You can imagine Baelish’s fantasies include Sansa in a dominatrix outfit calling him names, as he replies only in metaphors.
Anyway, let’s talk Dragonstone. As excited as I was for Jon to meet his aunt, I was just as much looking forward to his reunion with Tyrion — the last they saw each other, the Lannister was pissing off the Wall and mocking the superstitions of what lay beyond it, and Jon was a green Black Brother who had yet to make any friends. Now, Jon has already been Lord Commander on his way to becoming King of the North, and Tyrion has been Hand of the King, killed his father, escaped to the East, and swapped his King for a Queen. “It’s been a long road,” Tyrion says, “but we’re both still here.” As they catch up, cagily, they get buzzed by one of the dragons. But as Jon has seen some stuff, he seems less agog at the fact that the dragons are real than at the sheer size of them. All the old legends are coming back, more than he or Dany or even Melisandre know.
Jon knew he might be walking into a trap, and flaunts danger by refusing to bend the knee anyway. His initial meeting with Dany is fraught — she patronizes him, he disrespects her. It’s how all the classic romances begin. “I am not your enemy,” he tells her. “If the dead get past the Wall and we’re squabbling amongst ourselves, we’re finished.” Yawn, yawn. Jon, never a source of charisma, would make a terrible party guest, always yammering on about the Night King when you’re just trying to make small talk. Dany, despite having brought three dragons into the world and been the subject of her share of prophecies, claims to not put much stock in myths or legends, only herself: “I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.” If Jon won’t pledge to her, even if she names him Warden of the North, he’s not much use to her at all. But Davos steps up, arguing that Jon’s been through some stuff: “He took a knife in the heart for his people, he gave his–” and there, Jon cuts him off with a look.
So just who knows that Jon came back from the dead, anyway? Just the men who were there — Davos, Tormund, and the rest of the Night’s Watch? Does Sam know? How does he think Jon ended up in Winterfell? For whatever reason, Jon is determined not to share that information. Is he ashamed of it, not believing he deserved it? Or is he worried it’d be a bridge too far in convincing Dany to help, since he already needs her to believe in the Night King? For now, though, it’s not enough, and Jon is kept at Dragonstone without weapons or a boat. “You look a lot better brooding than I do,” says Tyrion, in the line of the night. Game of Thrones, as some have noted, lost much of the poetry in its dialogue when it outpaced Martin’s books, but at least Benioff and Weiss still know how to give Tyrion a good one-liner.
The truth is, the longer Jon is kept on the island, the more likely his story becomes. Just when he starts to believe he’s failed to learn from his father’s mistakes, Tyrion convinces Dany to let Jon mine all the dragonglass he wants — partially to keep him occupied, but also because they realize they should starting thinking about the long game at least a little. Tyrion’s decided to trust Jon, despite how nonsensical his warnings sound. “You should never believe a thing simply because you want to believe it,” he tells Dany, trying to pass off his own sayings as “ancient wisdom.” Unfortunately, he’s just as guilty of what he describes. Every tactical decision he’s made since returning to Westeros has backfired, and he’s once again underestimated his sister in ways he doesn’t even yet fully understand — assuming Qyburn’s non-magical Big Crossbow is as effective on fully-grown dragons as she hopes it to be.
Tyrion expected Cersei and Jamie to know the attack on Casterly Rock was coming, but he didn’t expect them to not care. Since the gold mines had already run out, the ancestral seat of the Lannisters only carries symbolic value — and Dany’s goal of avoiding unnecessary collateral damage has left her exposed to an enemy that not only has built a career on the ends justifying the means, but is banking on the commoners agreeing: “When people are living peacefully in the land she built,” Jamie asks Olenna later, “do you really think they’ll wring their hands over how she built it?”
So when Grey Worm (who’s still alive, for now, defying my own expectations) uses Tyrion’s secret sewer entrance to quickly subdue the castle, he’s as surprised as anyone to discover just how few defenders it had. And Team Dragon gets outmaneuvered again just minutes later when Euron suddenly appears off the coast, torching what little remained of Dany’s fleet. What was designed as a fist-pumping moment of triumph, with Tyrion earning a long-awaited payoff for his father thinking him appropriately “low” enough to build the sewers in the first place, is on the verge of evaporating the moment the battle is over. It doesn’t look great for Grey Worm, who now has to hold an unsupplied castle of little tactical benefit, and with no way of retreating by sea. So that just leaves the Dothraki, stuck on a stupid volcanic island with nothing to do except, I guess, throw swords at birds.
It’s even more fun than usual to be a Westerosi villian, and everything’s coming up Cersei. Once Euron triumphantly returns to the Red Keep with his niece and the Sands, it doesn’t take ten minutes before the Queen has given Tyene her own kiss of death, earning revenge for Myrcella. She fortunately remembers to wipe off the poison before paying Jamie a visit, flush with bloodlust, an affair she no longer feels bothered to keep hidden before anyone who might come to the door. Shortly after that, she’s persuading the Iron Bank of Braavos (hello again, Mark Gatiss!) to back her in the defense of Westeros from the Dragon Queen, despite the fact that the Dragon Queen has dragons.
And, as we’ve already noted, by the end of the hour the Pansies of Highgarden have wilted before the Crown’s army (hello again, Bronn!); Lady Olenna takes her own poison with resignation, but not before calling Cersei “a monster” and “a disease,” and noting that what finally did the Tyrells in was “a failure of imagination.” She simply never fathomed that Cersei was capable of doing the things she’s done. The checks and balances were supposed to have held. More people were supposed to have realized how dangerous she was. She should never have gotten all that free coverage on the TV news shows. But Olenna’s also not going to go out without one last dig, finally letting the shoe drop that yep, she’s the one who had Joffrey killed. “Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me.” Damn. RIP the Queen of Thorns, who spent a lifetime spinning webs of subterfuge while hiding in plain sight. She played the best hand she could, and lost. She and Diana Rigg will be missed.
Thrones has itself been holding back its ace, however — a card so powerful that, like, he’s almost too powerful. What do you do with a character that can see all and know all? How do you write the story’s ending without simply turning to Bran ex machina? The lad is sitting on the info that could turn the game board upside down — that Dany’s not “the last Targaryen” at all, any more than Jon is a Stark — but doesn’t seem in any hurry to share it. He shows up in Winterfell as emotionless as Kawhi Leonard, impassively staring into the middle distance, and seriously freaking Sansa the seven hells out. “I’m the three-eyed raven,” he drones, and no one knows what that means, or why Bran just wants to hang out by the weirwood tree in a trancelike state.
The fate of the realm isn’t up to dragons, or Valyrian blades, or a promised prince or princess, but in the hands of your college roommate who comes back baked on the dankest weed and stares at the blank television screen for hours, occasionally mumbling something about giant whales in space. Not that that’s ever happened to me, Greg.
Next week: Cersei shows off her map. Dany gets desperate. Someone flashes a familiar dagger.