The harshest assessment of the first three episodes of Game of Thrones’ seventh season might be, in a word, “perfunctory.” Characters have catapulted across Westeros at top speed into new pairings, long-preordained reunions, and impossible feats (Euron built a thousand ships in a few weeks, really?) with hardly a breath for air. While not exactly predictable, this has lent certain story threads a feeling of weightlessness.
Dany’s war council of former enemies bury seasons-long grudges in one conversation because, well, they have to; there’s little time left for conflict between anyone whose last name is not Stark, Targaryen, or Lannister. Sam uncovers roughly one miracle per episode from the dusty old books of the Citadel (a cure for Jorah’s greyscale, an undiscovered stash of White Walker-killing dragonglass, whatever secrets lurk in the mite-infested books handed to him this week—perhaps something about ancient spells and the Wall?) because these are book-ordained questions the show must answer and, again, it is running out of time.
Other story threads meanwhile—even one as long-awaited and momentous as Daenerys coming face to face with Jon Snow—are striking surprisingly repetitive notes. We the audience know both characters intimately, but Jon and Dany know nothing about each other. Thus the conversation ends up mostly a recap of their motivations and plot history. Daenerys flaunts the strength she’s gained through her brutal rise to power and the personal toll it’s taken to show Jon she’s not just a spoiled tyrant with a famous last name. Tyrion and Davos rave to her about how honorable Jon Snow is, while he bangs on and on about the Night King. She demands he bend the knee; he refuses. He begs her to believe him; she raises a skeptical eyebrow. Rinse and repeat. The only truly unexpected beat here comes when famous brooder Jon Snow cracks half a smile at the sight of Tyrion, then looks delightfully flabbergasted by a dragon. (He’s soon back to his ol’ morose self, though: “You look a lot better brooding than I do,” Tyrion quips.)
Euron meanwhile has quickly tanked from novelty to nuisance, with every scene he’s in reliably devoted to bug-eyed grandstanding and bawdy one-liners. Ramsay Bolton was similarly two-dimensional right up until curtain call; it’s always felt superfluous to give these one-note villains much real estate next to more complex characters like the Lannisters. Sure enough, only Cersei’s cruelty proves captivating here. Handed both Yara Greyjoy and Ellaria Sand, the Mad Queen finally exacts revenge for the death of her only daughter Myrcella. She kills Ellaria’s favorite daughter the same way Ellaria killed hers: with a kiss from poisoned lips. More, she does it under the gaze of The Mountain, the undead hulk who split Oberyn’s head open (an event Cersei takes care to recap for everyone), while keeping mother and daughter chained just out of reach from each other.
But while the show these days can sometimes dwell too long on plot refreshers, while whizzing past actual, map-shaking developments—both Casterly Rock and Highgarden fell in “Queen’s Justice,” two sieges that somehow transpired in, like, seven minutes—it does still have the capacity to surprise us. Case in point: the Iron Bank is a thing again. (No one said they’d all be exciting surprises.) A rep demands the broke Lannister queen pay back what her House owes, lest the Bank defect to Team Dany. The conversation between the two yet again reiterates what we already know: Daenerys’ slave-freeing history in Essos, a negative in the Banks’ eyes considering their investments in the region, and the stacked odds against Cersei. As Cersei reminds him though, she’s already drawn first blood in the war against the Mother of Dragons.
It’s there, in the turning of tables and the Lannisters’ coup, that we begin to get at what makes “Queen’s Justice” shine. In a perhaps overly straightforward season so far, Jaime’s strategic abandonment of Casterly Rock was a welcome return to some semblance of the character-driven unpredictability this show is known for. From the moment Ned Stark’s head rolled in Season 1, we’ve come to expect bad things to happen to good people at a moment’s notice, often envisioning every terrible scenario ahead of time (not unlike what Littlefinger advises Sansa to do in this episode). Tyrion’s seemingly ingenious sewer tunnel strategy could have worked. It would have been too tidy, but not a shock. Dany needed a win after Euron torched all but three of her Greyjoy ships, and the dwarf even offers plausible(ish) reasoning for the Unsullied to triumph against the 10,000-strong Lannister army: They fight for “fear,” we fight for “freedom.” Another show or another episode might have deemed that good enough. Thankfully, this one did not.
Jaime grants Olenna Tyrell a quiet, painless death in a scene that wisely allows the great Diana Rigg to upstage her own murderer. She’s empathetic—“You love her, don’t you?” she asks Jaime of Cersei, sincerely pitying him—and regretful: Cersei is a “disease,” she warns him, while acknowledging her own fault in spreading it. And, because this is the Queen of Thorns, she’s also unflinchingly biting: “I’d hate to die like your son,” she states innocuously, after decisively chugging her own poisoned drink. “Not at all what I intended.” In one unexpected instant, the half-forgotten mystery of who, exactly, poisoned Joffrey Baratheon is solved. Of course it was Olenna, who wanted to protect her beloved niece from marrying “that beast” of a sociopath. Her final words onscreen, paired with Jaime’s horrified expression, are deliciously pointed: “Tell Cersei, I wanted her to know it was me.”
It’s the high point of “Queen’s Justice,” an episode at its best in smaller, quieter character beats. Sansa has an emotional reunion with Bran at Winterfell, a moment initially as joyous as when she threw her arms around Jon Snow for the first time in years. But later, sitting by their family’s ancient weirwood tree, the weight of everything they’ve experienced in their years apart sinks in. New Three-Eyed Raven Bran seems barely a shell of his former self. He talks about seeing the present and past in terms Sansa barely understands, and unnerves her in how emotionlessly he recounts her wedding night, when she was raped by Ramsay Bolton. (He calls it a “beautiful” night, recalling the snow and her white wedding gown, and tells her how sorry he is it had to happen “at home.”) Melisandre and Varys also share an understated, yet quietly devastating scene as the ancient Red Witch lingers out of sight, seemingly resigned to her failures and to her fate. “I have to die in this strange country, just like you,” she tells him, leaving him speechless.
What else has she seen in the flames?