TV REVIEW: Game Of Thrones 7.3 “The Queen’s Justice”

 

Spoilers for this episode lurk below, people, just waiting to surge up from the sewers.

 

 

Well. That was a lot of nonsense, wasn’t it? “Queen’s Justice” couldn’t have made less sense if David Lynch had directed it in Klingon. I realise that with only seven episodes to fill this year the narrative has to be rather hurried along, obviously. It’s also true that there weren’t actually enough combatants we care about in each of this week’s frontal assaults to make either one worth spending a great deal of time on.

So the fact a viewer could have nipped to the kitchen to brew a cuppa and miss both Casterly Rock and Highgarden falling doesn’t bother me. It’s a shame we didn’t get more, but what are you going to do? It’s not the brevity that’s eating at me, then. It’s that not one damn part of either the Lannister plan or its astonishing success makes the slightest lick of sense.

Before I get to tearing into the finale though, let’s talk about the aspects of the episode that genuinely worked. Or mostly worked, anyway. Right now there are three queens in Westeros (shut up; Sansa absolutely counts), and we’re given the chance here to consider and contrast their conceptions and applications of justice. With so different a set of characters, there’s any way to sort them into distinct piles so I can go through them one at a time. I shall plump for the most obvious option, though, which is to divide them up based on whether their approach to justice revolves here around this issue of fathers, daughters, or brothers.

Singe Of The Father

Once again, we’ll begin at Dragonstone. At long last, here we have the first meeting of Daenerys Targaryen (titles, titles) and Jon Snow. It’s safe to say it doesn’t go well, and I’m not just talking about the butting of heads. In fact, Dany’s approach here is rather concerning. Up until now her approach has always been to earn the fealty she enjoys. She made a point of throwing away her master’s whip after Astapor, telling the Unsullied they need not follow her unless they wished to. She enabled the slave population of Meereen to rise up in rebellion and took control of the city with their explicit and enthusiastic support – sure, the Wise Masters hated the idea, but to hell with them. The people were behind her. So were the Dothraki once she burned their rapey khals to cinders.

Meanwhile, though there’s no actual evidence that the people of the Seven Kingdoms have bought into Dany’s PR – whatever arrangements for the post-war realm the Unburnt has made with Ellaria and Olenna, I doubt they were put to a vote in Dorne or the Reach – there’s certainly no lack of reason to believe they would prefer her to Cersei. This is a ruler who seized the throne immediately after murdering hundreds of her own people in a violent coup. She’s killed the most popular queen in living memory, and the High Sparrow who won over so many of the smallfolk with his genuine commitment to providing welfare to the poor and justice to the rich. There’s also that small matter of her blowing up the most sacred building on the entire continent in order to avoid her well-publicised trial for fornication and perjury.  The people of King’s Landing and beyond must absolutely loathe her.

(Or a least, they damn well should. As Steven Attewell pointed out over at his own entirely excellent site, the idea the crowds would cheer for Euron Greyjoy is ridiculous. Quite aside from their reputation for reaving and raping, the Greyjoys are both historic and contemporary rebels – it was just a few weeks ago that they were in open defiance of King Tommen and the beloved Queen Margaery. It’s awfully difficult to swallow the idea that the cityfolk of King’s Landing are delirious with joy because Euron Greyjoy – an  infamous pirate – has agreed to prop up an illegitimate and murderous monarch. Are we supposed to buy the idea Cersei’s line about the Great Sept’s destruction being a “tragic accident”? Please. Bakers in the Riverlands know it was Cersei, for Gods’ sake. Because when you don’t show up to your own trial, and then the courtroom you’re absent from explodes, and explodes because a dangerous weapon has been stockpiled under the building, and the dangerous weapon in question is one your own family used in battle a few years earlier, people will work out what’s going on. Frankly far more people should believe Cersei killed her youngest child to seize the throne than that the Great Sept exploded because someone left the gas on.

Anyway, I said I’d do my yelling afterwards.)

Matters are different with Jon, though. Here, Dany faces a ruler of a newly independent kingdom whose own people chose their leader. Admittedly that choice was made by the northern aristocracy, so there’s a hard limit on how much I care about their decision, but it’s better than any other ruler in the Seven Kingdoms save Euron can claim. She’s finally facing someone who refuses to accept her authority, but has done nothing to actually warrant her overthrowing them. There is no moral cause for Dany to set herself against Jon. If anything, the opposite is true.

So what does Dany do? She demands his fealty because his great to the nth grandfather swore an oath to her great to the nth grandfather, purely so that he and his men wouldn’t all have been burned alive.

This is the hill Dany wants to die on (or wants Jon to die on lit up like a Roman candle, I guess)? Three hundred years ago a man chose to not have his people die in excruciating pain so now Jon has to bend the knee? That’s transparently outrageous. It’s also a terrible simplification of what is actually at work. You’d generally expect an exchange of promises in this kind of situation, with Torrhen Stark swearing fealty in perpetuity to the Targaryens in exchange for a vow from Aegon about protecting the north and recognising the local authority of the Starks. If that is indeed what happened, Dany’s claim to the North died before she was even born. And if not, if Aegon Targaryen was so grotesque a man he insisted Torrhen swear at dragon-point to remain loyal no matter what he or his descendants got up to – if setting fire to the north’s lord paramount and his heir for giggles doesn’t violate whatever agreement Torrhen signed – then all we learn is that the relationship between Winterfell and King’s Landing has been poisonous from the very start. An agreement that forces you to serve the man who murdered your father and brother without trial is not an agreement you can demand be upheld. Not without clearly marking yourself out as a monster, anyway.

It very much feels that after all her pretty talk about wanting to break the wheel, Dany is revealing here that she wants to ride atop it like everybody else. Her conception of justice that was once her greatest strength has somehow become corrupted, becoming about what she believes she is owed rather than what’s actually best for those she wishes to rule over. As Jon points out, she’s insisting her right to rule trumps the people’s right to self-determination, and all because of who her daddy was. Up until now she’s always held that the fact of a person’s power is of far less relevance than how that power has been acquired and applied. The idea she will glibly invert that stance the instant doing so might swell her territory is worrying to say the very least.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been more disappointed in Dany, or more convinced that the only acceptable way for this story to end is not with the Mother of Dragons seizing the role of monarch, but with her abolishing it. That all seems pretty far away right now, though. Frankly, I think Jon should be given a medal for being as diplomatic as he is here, especially when Daenerys has the brass neck to complain that he hasn’t called her queen. Yeah, Dany; just think how aggravating it is when you’ve been crowned as monarch and someone else tells you you’re not! Can you imagine? Somehow though Jon manages not to lose it at his host herself, however, emptying his quiver into her Hand instead.

He’s absolutely right to, by the way. By suggesting that “it takes no time to kneel”, Tyrion is suggesting Jon should consider the impending apocalypse as sufficient motivation to sell out his entire country. That would be a fairly terrible idea even were it not for the fact (unknown to Tyrion, admittedly) that last time he made common cause with someone the north hated he was literally stabbed to death. At the same time, though, Tyrion is arguing that whatever Jon and his kingdom’s needs are, they can’t possibly be serious enough for him to expect Dany to alter course. To follow Tyrion’s advice, Jon would need to accept that the incoming army of the dead and its demonic/genetically engineered generals are simultaneously an existential threat and not actually all that big of a deal. It’s not hard to fathom why he utterly refuses to accept this framing.

(Which isn’t to say I blame Tyrion for trying. The argument over control of the north might be infuriating, but on the specific matter of Cersei vs White Walkers  I think everyone here is doing the absolute best they can with an immensely difficult set of circumstances. It’s almost as though the writers can understand and work with characters’ established politics, desires and personalities, not that you’d know that from what goes on this week with the Lannisters NO RIC BAD RIC YOU SAID THE WHINING WOULD COME LATER.)

By the end of the episode, Daenerys has softened her stance somewhat – in fact it’s worth noting that every concession between the two rulers comes from her. That’s down to a rethink on attitude, however, rather than her recalibrating what she considers a just outcome regarding Jon’s “rebellion”. Her central insistence that Jon and his people owe her their loyalty remains, which means my concerns are staying put for now as well. There can be no justice without fairness, and the queens’ towering hypocrisy here badly undermines any suggestion that fair-mindedness is currently foremost among her positive qualities.

All that said, however, Jon is still right about one thing. Dany is, at least, better than Cersei.

The Lion And The Snake

This brings us rather neatly to the scene which most obviously parallels the episode’s title. Once again, Cersei has been given the opportunity to deliver what she considers justice, and once again she demonstrates how much she likes her punishments poetic. This was clear already from her treatment of Septa Unella, which involved pouring liquid on her face, demanding she confess, and finally leaving her in a locked room with her own personal tormentor. Really, though, there have been signs of this ever since the first season, when she settled on doing in her drunken, violent husband by getting him so drunk he fails to safely slaughter an angry pig.

I rather like this idea that Cersei is fixated on the “eye for an eye” approach, actually; constantly yelling “See how you like it!” fits in very well with her self-obsession. In her mind, only the things that happen to her are actually real, so the punishments she doles out need to parallel her own experiences. How else can she be sure they will hurt? Ellaria’s daughter needs to die, just as Cersei’s did.

At the same time, however, the sentences have to be ramped up a notch in terms of nastiness, so that Cersei can know she’s won. That doesn’t quite apply to arranging Robert’s death, but you probably have to sacrifice something to pragmatism when you’re conspiring to murder the king. With Unella though, Cersei was free to let fly, replacing spirited religious scourging with endless torture at the hands of an undead thug. This theme is very much repeated here, with Cersei suggesting Lady Olenna be stripped naked and whipped through the streets (a kind of leveled-up “walk of shame”), and forcing Ellaria to watch her daughter be poisoned, die, and ultimately rot. These vindictive punishments stem from not just Cersei’s solipsism, but her sadism.

The result in the case of Ellaria and Tyene is a profoundly disturbing scene, as Cersei relishes the slow unveil of her horrifying verdict. This is probably the most grimdark the show has been in a little while, actually, given that Ellaria and Tyene are both terrible people who have earned the death penalty under the law of the Seven Kingdoms – Ellaria killed the Prince of Dorne and the sister of the king, and Tyene is a known rebel and accessory to kingslaying – and yet Cersei ends treats them with such callous, smirking brutality your sympathy ends up with them by default (much as with King Robert and Septa Unella, actually, neither of which were particularly pleasant people). The result is rather mixed in terms of its success. It’s ultimately hard to get too enthused about watching terrible people be terrible to each other. For all that the scene so neatly fits in with who Cersei is, it still feels to me like it crosses the line into being unnecessarily unpleasant. It hardly helps that once the episode ended I had the distinct feeling that far more thought had gone into how Cersei could torture/murder two women in the cruelest way possible than into how the Lannister twins would turn the war around.

(Before we move on, let’s note the absolutely delicious irony of Jaime thinking he’s sparing Olenna Tyrell – the Queen of Thorns, of course, linking her to the episode’s title – from another bout of Cersei’s poetic justice, only to learn that Olenna poisoned his son just like he’s now poisoned her. Apparently Jaime has no way of stopping Cersei from delivering her bouts of appropriately-shaped revenge. This is actually rather important, as it strengthens the theory – suggested to me at Nine Worlds this weekend – that if Jaime does kill his twin sister, she’s likely to choke him to death right along with her. Which of course fits in with the twin’s belief that they will leave the world together, just as they came into it. I confess thought that I’m a sucker for the theory that Cersei and Jaime are the Mad King’s children (for all sorts of reasons), and I like the idea of him getting his own dragon much more than him dying at his sister’s hands.)

Suspended Sentence

At first glance it might seem that Sansa is the odd ruler out here. Not because she alone doesn’t actually call herself queen; that couldn’t matter less. What separates her from Daenerys and Cersei is the fact she has no opposite number to play off. Dany and Jon clashed over their fathers, Cersei and Ellaria over their daughters. There are two brothers in Sansa’s storyline here – the one who has left and the one who has returned – but both of them are hers.

In truth though, this doesn’t work against the central theme, so much as it further demonstrates how far Sansa has moved beyond Littlefinger. Dany here is faced with having to treat Jon as an equal, and Cersei shows how she deals with those who set themselves up as a powerful enemy. By altering the episode’s approach in its first Winterfell scene, then, the show reminds us that as far as Sansa is concerned, Petyr Baelish is a long way from being either. It’s clear she is entirely in charge at Winterfell, with both Maester Wolkan and Lord Royce tripping over their chains and ego respectively to ensure her – very sensible – commands be followed. At this point, Littlefinger is almost entirely irrelevant, an irritating fly buzzing around her head, not yet swatted purely because there are more important things to be done.  Even his once useful advice has dried up, with his commentary this episode veering between the blatantly obvious and the immediately self-refuting. Littlefinger is a guy who gets grabbed or choked out way too often for the idea he can’t be surprised to stick, and the sudden arrival of the long-believed-dead Bran moments after that nonsense dribbles out of his mouth just underlines how totally pointless his presence has become.

Speaking of Bran , it’s worth noting that he is in himself a sort of vision of the future. With Arya headed northwards it’s only a matter of time before she returns home too. The three surviving Starks will soon have  gathered at Winterfell – a sorcerer, an assassin, and a queen. That’s not a triumvirate I’d want to bet against. That’s not a triumvirate serving up justice if I’d strayed from the path of righteousness. And with Bran capable of seeing visions of his father’s past, and Arya’s commitment to murdering those who have betrayed her family, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Littlefinger’s days of imagining every scenario are about to come to a very abrupt end. Put another way, Littlefinger’s irrelevance means that Sansa has decided to put the application of justice on hold for the moment. This is not a state of affairs which will continue indefinitely.

“You’re Expecting Realism In A Show About Dragons?”

Right. Thematic considerations thoroughly covered, let’s get into the bilious yelling. The amount of stuff in this episode that qualifies as insultingly stupid was infuriating. I’m not even talking about the idea that the Lannister army has made it from Casterly Rock to Highgarden since the season opener and Jaime gets there over the space of half an episode. That feels cheap, and it means Jaime’s comment about the Unsullied struggling to get from the Rock to the east coast is basically an act of trolling, but fine. We’re having to hit fast-forward this year, and I guess there’s no reason to assume the attack on Highgarden couldn’t take place days after Jaime’s earlier scenes in the episode.

This concludes my apologies for the episode’s approach, though. Almost the entirety of the political and military action outside of Dragonstone and Winterfell this week was risible at best. There’s so much badly and obviously wrong here that it’s genuinely difficult to know where to start, so for lack of a better idea I’ll run through the foolishness in chronological order.

That of course puts Euron on deck (HAH!) first. I admit the degree to which I apparently missed the mark in last week’s discussion of the eldest surviving Greyjoy was considerable, meaning everything I’m about to say could be interpreted as sour grapes. Regardless, now that Euron has apparently accepted Cersei’s word regarding them getting married once the war is over, I can see only two options. Either Euron is playing the long game, or Beniof and Weiss have turned in some of their worst writing in the entire series. I’m hoping for the former, naturally, but I’ve been burned by these two before. How could anyone possibly genuinely believe Cersei would honour an agreement once she didn’t need you any more? I’m not sure there’s a single fact about the queen more obvious than how she makes alliances in haste and plots betrayal at leisure. It’s so central a facet of her character she needs to insist to Jaime that opportunistic betrayal is a universal truth of humanity just so she can live with herself. Euron is courting her in the full knowledge that the Tyrells saved King’s Landing and her son from Stannis’ invasion, and in return she spurned, slandered, and ultimately murdered them. Any implication that he would be happy with a promise she will marry him once the war is over is as transparently ridiculous as a glass-blown statue of break-dancing tapirs.

(Apologies to any who don’t think tapirs are inherently ridiculous creatures. You are wrong. Don’t @ me, as the kids once said.)

Whilst we’re on the subject of Euron Greyjoy, let’s discuss his magic fleet. I let the show off for letting veteran corsair Yara be surprised by a hostile force at sea, because Euron fell on her ships at night, during a storm, whilst she was flirting with Ellaria Sand. I imagine there are a few lookouts she’d want to keelhaul if they hadn’t already been axed to death after her uncle’s assault, but sentries failing to do their duty when their not expecting trouble isn’t particularly far-fetched, historically speaking.

At the Battle of Casterly Rock, in contrast, we’re expected to believe the Unsullied flotilla (and what’s happened to the Tyrell and Dorne fleets we saw at the end of season six? Oh right, they’ve inexplicably vanished to make Dany’s position seem untenable rather than unassailable) could sail into battle against the erstwhile richest house on the continent and not be on the lookout for a hostile navy presence. On a calm sea. On a clear day. Did the writers hope we’d forget how horizons work? Because I haven’t, actually.  I realise the Unsullieds’ rigorous and brutal training might not have focused on naval engagements, but here they show an unwillingness to look behind themselves that would shame the flightiest teenage heroine of the most cliche slasher film. This is writing so lazy it’d refuse to have instant noodles for tea because of the effort needed to boil the kettle.

Even all that doesn’t go far enough to explain the unfolding idiocy, however, because we must also contend with Euron’s forces being able to move contrary to the laws of physics. Apparently, Euron’s fleet was capable of sailing past Dragonstone (where Dany has made her base) and attack the rebel Greyjoy fleet, destroy it, sail back past Dragonstone (where Dany has made her base) so Euron can deliver his “prize”, and then sail past Dragonstone again (where DANY HAS MADE HER BASE, YOU PEEPS! WHAT THE HELL!?!) so he can loop around Dorne and the Reach to attack the Unsullied from the west in the time it took for Grey Worm’s ships to head straight to their target. All of this without being detected, too.

So ludicrous is this turn of events that many have assumed that there must be a traitor in Dany’s camp, sending word to King’s Landing of her plans. It’s an understandable attempt to fix what’s going on, given how otherwise inexplicable the Lannister twins’ sudden blossoming into tactical geniuses is – the only previous time Cersei has had any input into military matters she devised a plan that would have set her own city on fire, and Jaime’s strategy to date has been to threaten babies where possible and to charge forward blind when not. The problem, aside from the fact there is no plausible candidate for a mole on Dragonstone, making any revelation about a spy seem cheap, is that Qyburn could have created a ticker tape machine which constantly prints out Dany’s internal monologue, and abandoning Casterly Rock to attack Highgarden would still make no sense.

There are two fatal flaws in the Lannister plan this episode, or at least there are two flaws that should have been fatal. First is the fact that taking Highgarden would be a massive undertaking. It’s a huge damn castle on a hill, for R’hllor’s sake. You can’t take that with a frontal assault using just ten thousand men and without bothering to bring along siege engines. Both its position and (especially) its walls are far higher than, say, Edinburgh Castle, and that took Sir William Drury twelve days to subdue. And that guy had cannons.

Attacking Highgarden shouldn’t work. It shouldn’t work because a protracted siege is almost certainly what the assault will eventually devolve into, and that’s a ridiculously risky proposition given Jaime’s plan relies on the Unsullied moving eastward once they find they’ve no food at Casterly Rock – note by the way that Jaime’s plan therefore explicitly recognises the likelihood of sieges as the exact same time as assuming they’re not needed. And that’s just as far as the Unsullied are concerned, the Tyrells have an entire (former) kingdom to call upon in their defence. Sure, some of them seem to have joined Cersei’s cause, or are at least staying neutral (racism is a hell of a drug), but the idea that support for Olenna would have so totally collapsed after throwing her lot in with Dany (and let’s not forget the Tyrells and their bannermen supported the Targaryens during Robert’s Rebellion) that a Lannister army could march from the Westerlands to the Reach’s power without being stopped, harried or at the very least noticed simply isn’t credible. Even if we accept that Varys is suddenly terrible at his job, or at least somewhat rusty and lacking in birds (just how many sugared plums does Qyburn have, exactly?), you cannot sneak an army across more than half the Reach without the Tyrells hearing about it. And once they hear about it, they can mobilise a defence. Hell, even if every one of the houses sworn to them have turned against them (which is a ridiculous proposition; I don’t care how much the Westerosi think the Dothraki are scum), they’ve got the coin to hire the biggest, baddest mercenaries this side of the Narrow Sea.

Essentially, Jaime is relying on a plan almost certainly doomed to failure in any sensible world, and he’s betting the last ten thousand men his family have (the Reach’s armed forces are somewhere in the realm of eighty to a hundred thousand, if I remember correctly) and sacrificing Casterly Rock to do it. Which brings us to the second flaw in the masterplan: giving up the Rock is tantamount of political suicide for the Lannisters as regards the Westerlands. We know from Robb Stark’s plot in seasons two and three that there are few better ways to lose the support of your bannermen than to have your own castle captured (making Jaime’s reference to learning from Robb rather fall flat here). Jaime has allowed the ancient seat of House Lannister to fall with merely token resistance, and removed the only military force in his homeland capable of keeping the locals safe from Unsullied raids (“Awful foreign invaders are coming for you and your families; that’s why we’ll be leaving you all defenceless!”). Cersei and Jaime have conspired to find pretty much the only way they can turn the Westerlands against them too.

And the thing is, as a kind of last roll of the dice-type gambit, I can believe Jaime and Cersei would go with this. A desperate pair of wagers- that they can both gain the Reach and keep the Westerlands – that constitutes the only way they can keep playing. In fact, the idea of thoroughly wrecking their own reputations with their only remaining safe seat of power is classic Cersei; a short-term advantage bought at the expense of any hope for long-term stability. The problem then is less that they try it, and more that it works so totally without any justification and in complete defiance of common sense, and the idea that as a result Dany’s unstoppable alliance of one third of the Seven Kingdoms is now on the back foot.

It’s this list of nagging problems and obvious missteps that lingers after watching the episode. “The Queen’s Justice” feels not fast so much as hasty – something that tumbles past you at high speed, hoping to hide its basic unsoundness under sheer velocity. And it doesn’t work. I understand a season-long story of how Daenerys Stormborn takes control of the Seven Kingdoms without difficulty would make for a fairly unexciting experience. Just because you recognise a problem doesn’t mean you have to accept any solution that’s suggested, though. There is a difference between generating tension and putting your thumb on the scales. There is a difference between surprising an audience and insulting their intelligence.

Score: 2.5/5

GS ReviewerRic Crossman

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