One of the best and worst parts every season on Game of Thrones is we know episodes as stupendous as “The Spoils of War” are inevitable, making it hard not to want to flip ahead past the plot-rehashing and elaborate place-setting and truncated battle scenes of episodes like “The Queen’s Justice.”
It was well worth it though for an hour this satisfying, capped off with hands-down the show’s best battle scene yet. (I am absolutely making that claim.) Toss in the sweetest Stark reunion yet, a life-giving duel between Arya and Brienne, and a budding romance so I-can’t-believe-they’re-actually-doing-this insane (and incestuous) and this is easily the best episode yet this season.
Before all that balls-to-the-wall excitement though, comes deal-making. Iron Banker Tycho Nestoris extends a fat new line of credit to Cersei so she can hire Essos’ legendary crew of mercenaries, the Golden Company, to help her re-tame the Seven Kingdoms. He mentions that the Golden Company has been especially useful to the Bank in collecting debts; Cersei mentions she too “would like them to recover some things that belong to me.” She means the four-and-change kingdoms in open rebellion, but also probably a certain dwarf she still firmly believes killed her son.
At Winterfell, Bran is still that guy who took one metaphysics class in college and is now too deep in the fourth dimension to not act like a complete jerk-off. #Justice4Meera. The girl sacrificed everything to get Bran back to Winterfell and he replaced her with a chair. She leaves—probably forever—in tears, without a hug or a kiss goodbye (or, hi, getting paid? A fruit basket, even? You deserved better, Meera.) Still, Bran half-redeems himself later by dealing the most insufferable person in Westeros, Littlefinger, the first of this episode’s one-two punch of Stark intimidation. (The second comes from Arya’s deadly dueling skills; I pray to the Seven he dare provoke her one day.) Wheedling and favor-currying, Littlefinger offers Bran the same dagger largely responsible for sparking the War of the Five Kings, a fancy Valyrian steel blade with a dragonbone hilt.
Director Matt Shakman (a frequent It’s Always Sunny helmer, making a hell of a Thrones debut here) all but blares the words “Checkov’s gun” across the screen in those lingering shots of the blade passing from Littlefinger to Bran to Arya. Still, it’s fitting that the weapon should come back into play. It’s the same dagger that the Catspaw assassin tried to use to kill Bran when he was in a coma (lol) way back in Season 1; Catelyn took it, marched to King’s Landing to show it to Ned and demanded to know whom it belonged to—it was Littlefinger who then claimed it belonged to Tyrion, thus purposely instigating the Lannister/Stark divide that devolved into all-out war. (It wasn’t Tyrion’s, it was King Robert’s. Though it’s never explicitly revealed who ordered Bran killed, the books do somewhat imply it was Joffrey.)
Anyway, in all his Three-Eyed wisdom, Bran looks Baelish dead in the eyes and repeats what Littlefinger told Varys when explaining his slimeball raison d’être in Season 3’s “The Climb”: “Chaos is a ladder.” It’s Bran’s wonderfully creepy way of letting Littlefinger know he sees through his manipulations. And, hey: that’s three Starks now, all gathered in one place, who aren’t buying Baelish’s bullshit anymore. That dynamic is sure to escalate soon, especially now that we’ve seen the full extent of what last season’s training did for Arya. Girl. Can. Slay. (Where was all this in her spats with the Waif?) She does what neither The Hound nor Jaime Lannister could and holds her own against the Maid of Tarth in a duel that escalates from friendly, polite sparring to a dazzling display of both ladies’ full prowess.
Brienne’s flattered smile when Arya tells her she wants to train with her is worth a million bucks, and so is what Arya says when asked who taught her to fight: “No one.” The resonance of that line is two-fold: “No one,” of course, is how all Many-Faced assassins identify. But with Sansa looking on from the balcony at her sister in awe, it also takes on a deeper meaning. “No one can protect me. No one can protect anyone” is what Sansa told Jon just before the Battle of the Bastards, when he vowed never to let Ramsay Bolton touch her again. The rare sight of a genuinely unsettled Littlefinger, probably pondering all the artful ways Arya can impale him, is also just [chef’s kiss].
It’s hard to understate how immense Arya’s homecoming feels; her journey, of all the Starks, took her the furthest from home, a continent away across the Narrow Sea. That Shakman allows small, human moments amid all that momentousness though, is what makes these scenes effective: Arya stops to gaze around at Winterfell long enough for the gravity of the moment to set in. And later, with Sansa in front of Ned’s crypt, there’s an amusingly loopy exchange between IRL buddies Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, sharing a scene again for the first time since Season 1, and playing up the awkwardness of two reunited sisters who never had much in common. Arya half-explains her kill list to Sansa—a concept that, in such an intimate setting long before Arya’s duel, sounds comically deranged. A rattled Sansa does her best impression of Selina Meyer’s nervous “what the fuck” laugh, and it’s wonderful. More of these two together, please.
On Dragonstone, Jon Snow and Daenerys’ impasse over bending the knee has somehow, delightfully, insanely given birth to a budding aunt-nephew romance. This show cannot wait for the moment Jon Snow finds out he’s slept with a blood relative and neither can I. Kit Harington sets his smolder to 11 in the firelight under Dragonstone, where he shows Daenerys the Children of the Forest’s paintings. (All the races united in the Long Night war against the Night King, the same needs to be done again, yadda, yadda. One fun tidbit from this exchange: What Dany says to Jon about the Northerners—“Isn’t their survival more important than your pride?”—is exactly how Jon once tried to reason with Mance Rayder, slain leader of the Wildlings who refused to bend the knee to Stannis. From the startled look of recognition on his face, now Jon knows how Mance felt.) Daenerys exchanges a hilariously recognizable glance with Missandei as Jon Snow approaches them—the look of two friends who’ve obviously spent time talking about the cute guy one of them wants to bone. Even Davos has begun picking up on all the incestuous tension: “I’ve noticed you staring at her…good heart,” he quips pointedly, to a suddenly red-faced Jon.
One of the episode’s few bum notes comes when Missandei explains her devotion to Daenerys. Speaking to Davos, she sums up her slavery backstory with a faintly cringey dose of white savior-worship, made worse in light of the controversy over this show’s creators’ next ambitions: the alt-history civil war drama Confederate, which will supposedly imagine an America in which the South won and slavery remains legal. Having one of the show’s only black speaking characters explain her entire existence as being in debt to Dany is an unfortunate look. It is preceded, however, by a fun moment in which Missandei finally utters aloud the answer to one of the show’s longest-going mysteries: when the Unsullied are castrated, do they take both the “pillar and the stones?” Just the stones, it turns out, as she discovered in last week’s sweetly intimate scene with Grey Worm. Good for you two, you crazy kids.
Still, Missandei’s trust in Daenerys may soon prove to be misplaced. All season, to her strategic detriment, Daenerys has prioritized Tyrion’s counsel over the (now mostly dead) women of her brain trust. That’s already backfired spectacularly. Tyrion’s plan to “take” Casterly Rock and ship the Sand Snakes back to Dorne and Olenna back to Highgarden got both sets of allies killed and Yara captured. The news of Olenna’s death is enough to send the Targaryen queen into a rage-fueled spiral reminiscent of her father’s paranoid, impulsive reputation. She rounds on Tyrion, accusing him of purposely helping the Lannisters. (A fair conclusion to jump to, really, given what’s happened—though we know Tyrion is still firmly on her side, for now.) The moment plays like a troubling hint of the madness in Dany's DNA. And seemingly little now separates her from the show’s greatest Big Bad, Cersei Lannister.
At its core, Cersei’s story is of a woman’s rise to power in the face of a fiercely oppressive patriarchy—though Daenerys’ walk-through-fire theatrics have more often been rewarded feminist brownie points. Cersei is branded a villain—a “mad” woman, the Mad Queen; cruel, power-hungry and rash—in contrast to Daenerys, righteous Breaker of Chains™. But now, the two queens don’t seem quite as different as they used to. Each has outlived the men who abused them, or sold them off as objects. Each is hell-bent on outwitting the other and securing the Iron Throne for herself, whatever icy threats may or may not exist up north. Each is a slave to grudges, often vindictive to the point of recklessness. Each would fry a thousand strangers to ash if it gets her that much closer to what she feels she deserves.
So who is the Mad Queen here?
Daenerys follows the late Olenna’s advice: “You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” (Though first she turns to Jon, of all people, for his insight after chastising Tyrion, leaving Missandei silent in the background. Wouldn’t the advice of proven brainiac Missandei be more valuable to her than that of a near-stranger? Anyway.) Jon is given the line that highlights the ethical stakes here: if Dany wreaks destruction on the scale she’s inclined to at the Red Keep, she betrays what she stands for and becomes “just more of the same” in Westeros’ long line of cruel sovereigns. She compromises, sort of, substituting her intended target with the caravan transporting badly-needed food back to King’s Landing. And what follows is the most emotionally wrenching, devastating battle scene the show has staged yet.
It begins quietly, with faint rumblings of the Dothraki horde in an otherwise casual, conversational moment, the first of several effective instances of build-up. The rumbling soon escalates into literal screaming thunder as the Dothraki descend and Drogon roars, cutting Jaime off just as he assures Bronn, “we’ll fight them.” Shakman carries the momentum in concert with composer Ramin Djiawadi’s score, which transitions between alternately triumphant and tragic notes of “The Rains of Castamere.” The Lannister army is decimated; crushed under awe-inspiring columns of fire. And Nikolaj Coster-Waldau puts in all-time work; the thinly-veiled desperation on his face continually drives home the terror and urgency of the situation. (If this dragon-heavy battle scene is the budgetary reason we couldn't keep the Stark's direwolves around, so be it.)
Dany’s victory is decisive, mimicking her ancestor Aegon Targaryen’s legendary win over Lannister forces on the Field of Fire. But it comes at a price: Drogon is badly injured, wounded by Qyburn’s long-range ballista. It’s the only battle we've seen in which both sides are led by characters we root for, making every blow more excruciating than the last. I hated and loved every minute.
Truly though, the real terror of the battle is that it plainly shows Dany can be as ruthless and terrifying as Cersei. We see young men evaporate in Drogon’s breath (R.I.P. Ed Sheeran) and Jaime and Bronn narrowly escape the same fiery end. Through Tyrion’s horrified perspective—and ours—it’s a battle no one really wins. “You fucking idiot,” he mutters at Jaime from afar as his brother gallantly cuts through the field on a white horse and lunges to kill the queen. Bad move: a fiercely protective Drogon bellows flames at his mom's would-be assassin. Jaime would be toast without Bronn, who dives in to save him at the last second. He seems to sink under the weight of his armor as the screen fades to black, but Bronn is all but guaranteed to save him. There’s just no way this show kills Jaime without Cersei around to watch—more importantly, Bronn is really determined to get paid.
Drogon’s grounding plays out in front of Tyrion, rendering the moment a bit of an “I told you so.” It’s both annoying (can’t a girl just make and learn from her own mistakes?) and perfectly justified. This is the victory the Mother of Dragons needed to quell her rage. But at what cost? And who are we still rooting for?
This post has been updated throughout.