Note: I’m reviewing “Game of Thrones” from the perspective of someone who has read all of George R.R. Martin’s novels, while my colleague David Malitz, who hasn’t read the books, will be writing straight recaps. His write-up of episode 3, “The Queen’s Justice,” will appear at The Post’s Style Blog. This post discusses the events of the July 30 episode of “Game of Thrones” in detail. You can find my recaps of every prior episode of the show here. Can’t get enough “Game of Thrones”? Come on over to my Washington Post chat here Monday at 1 p.m.
I don’t normally keep time while I’m watching “Game of Thrones,” but with just 10 episodes of the series to go after this one, I did find myself checking my watch occasionally, just to see how things were moving along. The challenge of “Game of Thrones” has always been how the series would bring its characters and plot threads together. And while “The Queen’s Justice” followed the patterns of the previous episodes in this season, front-loading lots of dialogue and saving the big developments for the final season, it braided stories together even as it introduced an interesting thematic instability into the proceedings. That’s always sort of been the point of the show: that even if Good King Whosiwhatsis Tarnnistark takes the throne, the rules of high fantasy won’t apply, and chaos will come raining down anyway. “The Queen’s Justice” got us closer to a possible resolution, even as it reminded us just how difficult it will be for the remaining contenders for the Iron Throne to establish a dynasty, much less defeat the real enemy to the North.
As it has tended to be this season, the focus in “The Queen’s Justice” was on women, and the men who work for them, petition them or are enthralled to them. (In this, as in all things, Samwell Tarly, who is played by John Bradley, is a notable exception. And let me tell you, for the amount of time we’re spending on it, the White Walkers better have some form of greyscale or this particular plot point is going to feel like a gross and frustrating diversion.)
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) are the three remaining women contending for the Iron Throne, or at least thrones somewhere in the Seven Kingdoms. And “Game of Thrones” hasn’t exactly been subtle about the complimentary ways in which they and Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg), the Queen of Thorns, have been hardened by their quests for power.
Dany, in her attempt to add moral legitimacy to her dynastic claim to rule, has applied her ruthlessness to those who stand in the way of her mission of social change, though at this point in the series, it has also perhaps made her overly cautious. As Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) tells Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Dany consolidated her rule in Essos in an effort to rid Slaver’s Bay of the sort of monsters she hopes to defeat in Westeros. But in waiting again, this time for a solution that will allow her to save Westeros without destroying it, Dany has doomed her own forces. Yara Greyjoy’s (Gemma Whelan) fleet was destroyed by her uncle Euron (Pilou Asbæk), and she and Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) were captured in the process. Tyrion’s desire to conquer his ancestral home at Casterly Rock led Dany to commit Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and the Unsullied to a castle stripped of its resources and strategic value. She’s so vulnerable that Dany is actually considering riding out with her dragons herself to burn the fleet that’s been bedeviling her.
Cersei, by contrast, has become promiscuous in her cruelty. “The Queen’s Justice” is, of course, a joke as a title: Cersei amuses herself by poisoning Tyene Sand (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) in the same way that Ellaria poisoned Cersei’s daughter, Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free).
I’ll take a pause from thematic analysis to note that “Game of Thrones” has adopted some of Cersei’s nastiness as the show’s own: “The Queen’s Justice” may have spared us the sight of Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) torturing the Sand women to death in graphic fashion. But keeping him lingering around the edges of the shot whenever Cersei is in a particularly vengeful mood has the effect of making me almost nauseated with terror. I know lots of fans are looking forward to seeing Gregor and his brother Sandor (Rory McCann), who’s been much missed these past few episodes, go up against each other again. At this point in the series, though, the inevitable dread and disgust of that spectacle has left me with a permanent bubble of acid in my chest, and not in a good way. As horrible as the Sand women’s fate is, the looming presence of the Mountain undercuts it: At least we didn’t have to watch something much worse.
Cersei also indulges herself by flaunting her relationship with her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), now that the people who tormented her for incest and adultery are dead. If Dany finds purpose in claiming the moral high ground, Cersei seems liberated by throwing it away, even to the extent of pushing herself on Jaime when he turns down her advances.
And in the North, Sansa buries her feelings about her ambiguous position by throwing herself into preparations for the winter to come with a strategic foresight her male advisers, other than the omnipresent and oleaginous Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), seem to lack. Dany may talk about ruling ethically, but Sansa is actually doing it by making plans to store grain to feed her armies in case of a long battle and an even longer winter. Cersei may claim, with some justification, to rule strategically as she conquers Highgarden and takes the gold that she hopes will allow her to pay off the Iron Bank of Braavos. But Sansa is preparing for the real battle, not denying that it exists.
As Sansa rises in the North, Olenna falls in the South, extracting one final, bitter victory as Sansa prepares for a still greater one. This was, once again, an exceptionally talky episode of “Game of Thrones,” but the action at Highgarden was a reminder of what the series can do with talk when it pairs up its strongest actors. (Dinklage remains one of the show’s absolute all-stars, but in the Dragonstone scenes, Clarke and Harington mostly served to bring out each other’s most wooden line readings.) Baelish may claim that his cunning imagination is a tool of strategic genius, but as Olenna reminds Jaime as she warns him about Cersei, imagination can make you a monster, too.
There’s so much to be drawn from the contrasts between these women, or even from the idea that women are ruling — or at least governing — in all three major remaining centers of power left on the board. Tycho Nestoris (Mark Gatiss), the Iron Bank’s representative, even sounds a little bit like a Hillary Clinton campaigner when he compliments Cersei on her unprecedented position alone atop the Iron Throne.
But “Game of Thrones” has always encouraged us to look past the things that are easy and make us feel good. And if any show has been a cautionary tale about the difference between female empowerment and true social change, “Game of Thrones” has been it. Cersei is both a first and a contagion, a woman who rules with all the cruelty and capriciousness of the last Targaryen king. Dany’s choices in Essos and her conviction that she is a more just ruler than any other option on the table have increased her iron faith in herself rather than made her more open to new ideas and new ways of running a country. And Sansa’s traumas have, quite understandably, closed her off instead of making her more open and empathetic. She can prepare a keep for winter, but it’s hard to imagine how she might cope with spring and a season without crisis.
And beyond their individual circumstances, the women of “Game of Thrones” share something that reveals the weakness of the model in which they operate: They have no children, no heirs who might bring stability to Westeros. Dany is, as far as she knows, infertile: Dragons may make for nice children in wartime, but they’re hardly the kind of progeny to which you can entrust a kingdom. Cersei’s children are dead, and though she may talk about having more children with Jaime, they remain purely theoretical. Sansa has neither husband nor lover, and doesn’t seem in a rush to acquire one. And Olenna, though she sought revenge and not the opportunity to reign, had no one left to install as her proxy.
These women’s barrenness, whether literal or metaphorical, is a symbol of the system’s aridity. They might win the throne; they might even defeat the White Walkers. But even Jon, who is enough of a visionary to try to convince Dany of what he’s seen in the North, hasn’t thought past the Night King. It’s hard enough to imagine an army of the dead. It might be harder still for the women, and men, of “Game of Thrones” to contemplate what they would do with what’s left of their ruined and dishonored and beloved homeland.
That’s why two fleeting moments of great courage and empathy in this episode, both carried out by young men, mattered so much in the midst of all this madness. Sam’s brave decision to shake Jorah Mormont’s (Iain Glen) hand after curing him of greyscale was a wonderful note of decency, a physical and ethical parallel to Cersei’s cruelty in leaving Ellaria and Tyene chained up but just out of reach of each other. And Bran’s description of Sansa’s wedding night suggested something that she couldn’t quite accept, but that might prove immensely valuable: the prospect that someone in her family can, through magical means, understand what she went through at Ramsay Bolton’s (Iwan Rheon) hands and her difficulty being home again in the place where he did that to her. If the characters are to get through this, healing matters.