Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Brandon Nowalk’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.
As it reaches its final 10 episodes, the temporality of Game Of Thrones is its ultimate enigma. For all of its mysteries and prophecies and fan-theory-inspiring teases, my central question for the show is less “who is the Prince Who Was Promised” and more “how are the events being depicted mapped onto linear time?”
However, it’s a central question I’ve learned to ignore over the course of the show’s run. It has been clear for some time that the writers have chosen to elide time itself, presenting us events in the order that makes the most sense for the story being told. And so the show has continually had people and messages travel at unrealistic speeds, all in the interest of ensuring that the story doesn’t slow to a crawl as people or information moves from point A to point B. And in the early seasons, this concern made sense: whereas time was a way for Martin to elongate his storytelling and indulge in world-building in the books, time is of the essence in a television adaptation.
But here’s the thing I’ve realized with the seventh season: back then, Game Of Thrones was still a slow show. Even though time was constantly ignored, the show still moved methodically, with some stories stuck in place while others moved gradually forward. Every season was a crescendo, building to a climax but doing so in a very measured way. If time was being ignored, it was for the pacing of the season to remain on the right side of lethargy, a decision that made logical sense to me.
But in the first three episodes of season seven, Game Of Thrones is anything but a slow show. It is moving at lightning speed, taking only three hours to fundamentally dismantle Daenerys Targaryen’s alliance. By the end of “The Queen’s Justice,” the show has brought Dany and Jon Snow together on Dragonstone, rebooted Euron and placed him as the head of the Crown’s naval forces, and wiped both Dorne and the Tyrells off the map entirely. While there have been moments in the past where Game Of Thrones has moved swiftly, this type of breathless pacing is new, and I frankly find it equal parts alarming and refreshing.
The alarming part has to do with the issue of mentally constructing a timeline: even if the show has trained me not to, I find it incredibly challenging to avoid attempting to triangulate the different timelines. Based on the time that has passed since Sam sent Jon word of Dragonglass in order for it to arrive at Winterfell before Jon traveled to meet Daenerys, is Jorah halfway to Dragonstone by now? I know these questions are futile, but with everything moving so quickly I find myself grasping for something approaching clarity. I realize the show is not committed to a linear timeline, but with so much happening it seems like the entire show is happening in a vacuum. How is no one talking about the mass murder of the Freys? Or did that actually happen after other events we’re seeing, despite starting the season? As more deeply eventful things happen in Westeros, the lack of a clear cause-and-effect set of reactions makes the timeline choices a point of concern.
However, the refreshing part of all of this is that it allows the show to remain focused, which has been its biggest strength thus far this season. As much as Olenna Tyrell is one of the show’s most dynamic characters, she was never going to play a part in the conclusion of a story that is fundamentally about the generational transfer of power. As much as Ellaria Sand and Dorne would be a valuable ally to Daenerys, this is fundamentally not their story, given the way the show’s adaptation of Dorne limited their involvement in the quest for the Iron Throne (which is still a decision I support, if one the show struggled in executing). And so while the timeline of all of the carnage that takes place in “The Queen’s Justice” is still going to rattle around in my brain as I think about the rest of the episode, I take comfort in the fact that from a narrative and thematic perspective the show is making decisions that allow it to focus on what matters: the people who are fighting for the future of Westeros.
This is most prominently operating through Daenerys Targaryen, Mother Of Too Many Titles, and Jon Snow, King In The North. Their meeting was much anticipated, although not because they’re dynamic characters: Dany is a little too cold and distant to make for much of a conversationalist, whereas Jon just mumbles his way through everything. There is far more electricity in Jon and Tyrion’s reunion on the beach than there is in Dany and Jon’s throw-down in the Throne Room on Dragonstone, but I don’t necessarily consider this a flaw.
What works about the scene is that it’s pulling out their flaws as much as it’s pulling out their strengths. Dany is assertive and learned in her first attempt to convince a leader from Westeros of her claim to the throne, but she’s also stubborn, unable to understand Jon’s request for help as something other than a refusal to kneel. Jon, meanwhile, is earnest and steadfast in his focus on gaining Daenerys’ support and also respecting his Northern lords, but he struggles with how to articulate his own claim, with Davos being forced to give the speech about him that Dany had previously given about herself. Later, when they stand watching the dragons fly, Dany implies that they’re just enjoying doing what they’re good at, but Jon says it plain: he does not enjoy this, even if others have made it his duty based on their belief in his capacity to complete the task. Dany was denied her throne, and has fought tooth and nail to be able to claim it: Jon never asked for any of this, and has fought his own instincts by accepting the duty placed on him. Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington are not the most nuanced performers in this cast, but the contrasts they drew within tonight’s scenes at Dragonstone felt productive in understanding who these leaders are, and where they’re headed as Jon prepares to mine dragonglass and head back home.
Isolated on Dragonstone, Jon and Dany are mapping out the future: meanwhile, Cersei gives the appearance of being obsessed with the past, fighting the war that Jon is trying to convince Dany and Tyrion they shouldn’t be fighting. The episode divides up the two forces the Lannisters dismantle between Jaime (Tyrells) and Cersei (Dorne), who we see return to their romantic relationship in earnest for the first time in quite a while. Cersei has just finished getting her revenge on Ellaria by poisoning her daughter, and while Jaime initially resists the advance, he gives in, too hopelessly in love to hold her accountable for the horrors she’s done. And so while Cersei’s monologue to Ellaria—and the fact it turns her on—gives us insight into how she perceives the pleasures of being Queen, Jaime’s visit with Olenna Tyrell and Highgarden is a chance for us to get more insight into his decision to remain by his sister’s side despite everything she’s done.
It’s a necessary scene because Olenna is right: Cersei has gone to levels she had never even imagined, and yet no one is really holding her accountable for that. It says a lot about how heartless Cersei’s actions were that the only people actively cheering her on is a financial institution, as the Iron Bank is all too happy to have avoided the instability of a religious coup. Everyone else seems to understand that this was a horrific act, but no one is willing to take a stand against it from within the Lannister forces. Randyll Tarly expressed his reservations, but he’s still there riding beside Jaime into the Reach, and Jaime himself has done nothing to reflect on his shock at seeing what Cersei had done when he returned from Riverrun. And so we finally get a chance for Jaime to acknowledge that truth, and he does, effectively admitting to the woman he’s about to poison that he’s too in love to have control of this situation.
Olenna Tyrell thrived on control. She was never the most powerful woman in Westeros, but she relied on being able to take actions that would stabilize her family. And she acknowledges as she faces her death that one of those decisions was to merge her family with the Lannisters, a decision that helped turn Cersei into the woman she has become. It’s a tremendous final scene for Diana Rigg, who from beginning to end has captured the truth of the Queen Of Thorns: she will take shit from no man, or woman. And so if you are going to expedite her exit from this story, it should be with a stirring self-reflexive monologue that turns into the ultimate power play, accepting her painless end while revealing to Jaime that she orchestrated his son’s torturous death, and wants Cersei to know she did.
It is a conversation that will stick with both Jaime and the audience as the war continues, which seems to be the goal of these three episodes as a whole. The “war” that remains is a long, drawn-out one: the Unsullied have taken Casterly Rock but have lost their boats and must now march their way across Westeros (with Grey Worm fighting to reunite with his love), and while the Lannisters now have the financial resources to wage war on the North after their takeover of Highgarden they still must brave the burdens of winter in order to do so. When the season started, “war” seemed like it was an epic battle of large forces fighting for the future of Westeros. However, now that the dust has settled on their skirmishes, there is no such war in place: Daenerys and Tyrion sit on Dragonstone brooding over their failures, the Lannisters sit in the South counting their coin to begin the next stage, and Sansa Stark sits in the North looking ahead to the long winter, and the possibility of a three-front war: the dead in the North, the lions in the South, and starvation inside the walls of Winterfell. After three breakneck episodes (although this was a bit “slower,” given the focus on conversation), it seems like Game Of Thrones is finally settling in for winter and looking ahead to a long, grueling war.
Well, everyone except for Bran. Bran’s arrival at Winterfell was a well-constructed feint: whereas the construction of the scene—Sansa being called to the gates—is meant to evoke last week’s emotional scene of Arya riding north, it’s actually Sansa’s brother instead, a still-meaningful but far less emotional reunion. (Note that the credits spoiled that Bran was in the episode and Arya wasn’t, but I skipped the credits this week, and I imagine some might not realize they only show actors who appear in this episode). Whereas Arya and Sansa would have had lots to talk about, Bran is the worst conversationalist imaginable: he mostly wanted to talk to Jon (to tell him he just unknowingly met with his aunt, among other things), he speaks in riddles about the Three-Eyed Raven instead of trying to explain it to Sansa like a human being, and because he is all-knowing he knows everything that has happened to Sansa, and speaks of it in ways that trigger her trauma at the hands of Ramsay.
But what Bran’s arrival does is push the question of temporality from something happening at a script-level—the writers moving quickly and ignoring temporality to tell their story—to something happening on a character level. Moments after Littlefinger tells Sansa that she has to think beyond the war against the White Walkers to whatever comes next, she is reunited with her brother who believes that all of the answers to the current conflict rest in the past. And then there is Sansa, who is showing great aptitude at simply putting one foot ahead of the other, prepping grain for the long winter and ensuring that their forces are ready for a cold defense of their lands.
And for the most part, Game Of Thrones feels ready for war. When the season started, there was a certain thrill in the air that things were finally about to happen: Dany was coming to Westeros, Cersei was queen, and you could start to piece together the forces that would fight the war in question. But “The Queen’s Justice” is the end of a three-episode arc that provided plenty of action while acknowledging that none of it is the war that we were really anticipating. The show has eliminated the factions that were extraneous to its central storytelling, and cleared the way for an exploration of war as a way to tell stories about its characters, rather than simply bring its most simplistic narrative—the quest for the Iron Throne—to an end.
This clearing of the decks required some huge leaps in temporal logic, as well as a somewhat unexplained string of failures for Tyrion that the narrative hasn’t really justified or explored as it could have. But what’s left is, I feel, a set of character dynamics and narrative situations that serve as productive engines for telling the types of stories that Game Of Thrones tells best. At the expense of any type of temporal clarity, the show has simplified its storytelling without necessarily reducing the complexity of the broader story it wants to tell, which is something I hope remains true as we get closer—more slowly than in these episodes, I imagine—to the real climax.
- The other major development didn’t end up feeling particularly major: Sam cures Jorah’s greyscale and gives him a second—or third, maybe—chance at life, but it mostly just ends up feeling like a cheap solution. It does reinforce, though, that Sam’s success in this world can be exclusively owed to his literacy, and my sense is that this war is going to need someone who reads books and follows instructions as much as it needs a king or queen.
- The temporality question was not helped by having Tyrion’s voice-over description of the attack on Casterly Rock happening at the same time as the raid: these were likely not concurrent events, but how far apart were they? We’ll NEVER KNOW.
- Theon is pulled from the water not by Gendry, or anyone else exciting, but by a friendly Greyjoy ship who immediately marks him as a coward but still lets him remain onboard. Whatever soul-searching this is meant to inspire in completing Theon’s PTSD arc—and my larger defense of his actions, which I definitely didn’t take issue with the way some did—will have to wait for the rest of the season.
- While the lack of sexual tension between Dany and Jon could theoretically just be a byproduct of a lack of chemistry between Clarke and Harington, my sense from the writing of their scenes is that no sexual tension was intended, which I found refreshing. The incest route doesn’t feel like it’s the right call from my perspective, so I appreciate the show steering away from meet-cute and focusing on their respective relationships with leadership.
- “He really was a cunt, wasn’t he?”—Jaime doesn’t even try to rebuke this claim about Joffrey.
- While Tyrion’s inability to protect against both defeats doesn’t really make sense, I did appreciate Jaime acknowledging he used Robb Stark’s tactic that defeated him back in season one—the episode’s second reminder of Robb, after Dany brought up Jon’s two dead brothers.
- There were actually a whole bunch of reminders about dead people: Tommen, Myrcella, and Joffrey are all memorialized in one way or another, along with Rickon and Robb, and Jon even returns to his grandfather and uncle’s death without realizing that it was actually his grandfather who did the killing (which is going to be awkward once he has his conversation with Bran).
- Qyburn Gonna Qyburn: I’m sort of sad we didn’t get a CSI-style montage of Qyburn reverse-engineering the poison Ellaria used to kill Myrcella.
- I appreciated that Tyene’s death had nothing to do with Gregor—Ellaria’s fear of his presence was horrifying to watch, and captured tremendously by Indira Varma, but I really didn’t want the scene to embrace that type of physical or sexual abuse. I was glad Cersei—and the writers—went for poetry over brutality in that moment, content to evoke the threat of rape without having to depict it.
- Bronn appearing in an episode without speaking just seems like a waste of Bronn—let’s not do that.
- So Melisandre avoids her meeting with Davos, and sails to Volantis for unclear reasons, with a promise to return because she seems to believe she and Varys are both doomed to die in Westeros—an ominous little scene, although mainly just there to explain her absence, potentially for the rest of the season or maybe for half-an-episode given sailing to Volantis could take like 20 seconds as far as we know.
- Speaking of that meeting: Was Stannis allergic to the outdoors, or was there some other reason he never visited the beautiful cliffside vistas or elaborate stone bridges on Dragonstone? Davos was right—this place has changed.
- Interesting framing choices in the showdown between Dany and Jon—whereas Jon is often seen alongside Davos, Dany is almost exclusively shown taking up more of the frame, carrying a more intimidating presence than if they had used wider shots for her dialogue. It’s definitely an example of how the camera serves to indicate power, and here works to make Jon feel smaller (which is not super difficult, as Kit Harington is not a tall man).
- So here’s a question to finish things off: do we feel sympathy for Ellaria when Cersei murders her daughter, given that she murdered Myrcella for no good reason? Whereas sympathy isn’t really a part of Olenna’s death—she accepts her death, she goes out being a badass, etc.—it struck me that someone could easily cheer Cersei getting her revenge, even if I’d argue the context of her disassociation with her children in the premiere and the pleasure she derives from it pulls it away from “justice” toward “cruelty.” But it’s messy, since Ellaria is not a hero, in the traditional sense. Or do we go back to Oberyn’s death at the hands of The Mountain as the initiating act, thus justifying Ellaria’s actions? It’s a complex web, morality.