Game of Thrones, Episode 7.03: “The Queen’s Justice”

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Hello fellow Game of Thrones enthusiasts, and welcome to the great Chris and Nikki co-blog, now in its seventh iteration! I think it’s safe to say this was one of the BEST EPISODES EVER. And what’s even more remarkable about that is that there was no massive set-piece battle (though there was, sort of), no shocking death of a beloved character (um, though there kind of was), and no tearful reunion of beloved characters long separated (except that … OK, you know what? It was TOTALLY like every other mind-blowingly good episode, EXCEPT THAT IT WASN’T. FUCK OFF).

Ahem. Nikki?

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Nikki: What an episode! We got two reunions, one moment of two seven-season leads sharing the screen for the first time, we watched the Westerosian chess pieces move around the board yet again, and saw the best chugging of wine in TV history (followed by one of the greatest moments ever on this series).

Throughout this episode, the recurring theme seemed to be monstrosity: who/what are the true monsters in Westeros? What constitutes monstrosity? And what should the Westerosians be afraid of — should the strongest armies be engaged in a battle amongst themselves, or should they be joining forces to fight the dead that will end them all, regardless of the outcome of the game of thrones?

After the credits (where I keep meaning to mention: despite Pyke not being shown this season, they keep showing it in the credits because it’s the Greyjoy stronghold, and I love the way the two bridges swing wildly when the three towers rise and lock into place at the beginning of each episode), we immediately open with Jon Snow arriving with Davos at Dragonstone as Tyrion and Missandei await his arrival on the shore. This is the first time Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister have been reunited since Tyrion left the Wall in season one. They glare for a moment, acknowledging each other, with Tyrion addressing him as “the bastard of Winterfell” and Jon calling him “the dwarf of Casterly Rock,” before each man’s face breaks into a sly smile.

It’s an fun moment for fans that calls back to the very first episode, when the Lannisters arrived at Winterfell and Tyrion noticed that bastard son standing apart from the others:

TYRION: Let me tell you something, bastard. Never forget what you are — the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.
JON: What the hell do you know about being a bastard?
TYRION: All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.

In this moment the two men find a connection: each one is the son of a man who doesn’t acknowledge them as a rightful son. In Jon’s case it’s a wee bit more complicated (since Ned isn’t actually his father), but Jon doesn’t realize that. And now, seven seasons later, Jon is on his own but has risen above Ned’s achievements, and has been deemed the King of the North, while Tyrion has murdered his own father and has been ousted by his siblings, who would kill him on sight if given the chance. He has become the Hand of the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and now that he seems to have put his alcoholism to the side, has become a trusted advisor to Cersei. As Tyrion acknowledges to Jon, “It’s ben a long road, but we’re both still here.”

After Jon and Davos are stripped of their weapons, they begin the ascent to Daenerys’s throne room, with Jon being dwarfed by the Dothraki soldiers as he chats with Tyrion. Davos tries to make small talk with Missandei, but doesn’t get very far, simply muttering to Jon that things have changed around here.

Tyrion asks about Sansa, anticipating Jon’s questions or comments before Jon has the chance to ask them (which we know he wouldn’t have done in any case). He tells him it was a sham marriage, and unconsummated. He tells Jon that Sansa is smarter than she lets on, to which Jon amusingly replies, “She’s starting to let on.” Ha! Jon is actually less interested in hearing about the marriage his sister was forced into, and more interested to find out how Tyrion became the Hand of the Queen, but Tyrion just waves it off, saying it was a long and blessed ceremony, and adding, “To be honest I was drunk for most of it.”

If Jon weren’t there to try to save all of humanity against the white walkers, and Tyrion weren’t dodging deeper questions of what really has happened to him over the past seven years, this scene would have looked like two old friends catching up after a long absence. But there’s a deep gravity to the situation, and Jon has to remind himself that he’s there to see Daenerys. The reminder comes quickly when one of her dragons swoops low overhead, knocking both Jon and Davos to the ground in abject fear. I couldn’t help but remember the look on Tyrion’s face as he stood on that boat and saw Drogon for the first time. I assume one never forgets their first dragon, and the looks on Davos and Jon’s faces are priceless… and pretty much what Tyrion looked like a couple of seasons ago. Tyrion holds out a hand to help up Jon, and reassures him, “I’d say you get used to them, but you really don’t.”

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And then before the big meeting between Jon and Daenerys — for which we’ve been waiting SEVEN YEARS — we flash up to Melisandre and Varys chatting in a tower. “I’ve brought fire and ice together,” she says, but he’s sussed out that she’s afraid of something.

Melisandre: My time whispering in the ears of kings has come to an end.
Varys: Oh, I doubt that. Give us commonfolk one taste of power, we’re like the lion who tasted man. Nothing is ever so sweet again.

Melisandre isn’t scared of Varys, and she’ll have none of his chit-chat, reminding him instead that neither one of them is commonfolk anymore. She knows that Davos has sworn to kill her if he ever lays eyes on her again, and she won’t taunt him by letting him know she’s there. As you and I have said many, many times before, Christopher, Davos is one of the best characters on the show simply because he’s possibly the most honourable. He has intense loyalty, but knows when something is morally wrong. He is one of the most trustworthy characters on the show, and when he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. And Melisandre knows that.

And then we cut to the moment we’ve been waiting for. Missandei introduces her leader to Jon and Davos: “You stand in the presence of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.”

There’s a pause as Jon and Davos stand there in awe for a moment, before Davos realizes he’s supposed to do the same, and he says, “This is Jon Snow…” Beat. “He’s King of the North.” It doesn’t exactly trumpet in Jon with a parade and bagpipes, but it’s all they’ve got right now.

What did you think of this meeting we’ve all been waiting for for so long, Chris?

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Christopher: It was brilliant. As was this entire episode. Before I talk about the long-awaited encounter between Jon and Daenerys, however, let me say just how much I loved this episode. It is one of the best ones of the series, but unlike some of the great episodes that function almost as standalones and rely upon epic spectacle (“Blackwater” comes to mind, as does “The Battle of the Bastards”), “The Queen’s Justice” is brilliant specifically because of the cumulative power of this series. We’re seven seasons in, and narrative threads initially spun out at the very beginning are starting to resolve into tapestry. We’ve lived with these characters for so long now—especially Jon, Daenerys, and Sansa, as well as Jaime and Cersei—that seeing these events unfold carries such emotional weight.

But that in and of itself is only half the story here—the other half is just how good the writing is, and how beautiful this episode is to look at. All of the dialogue has a kinetic energy that is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin at his best—not sententious, speechifying Sorkin, but dynamic, rhythmic Sorkin, in which the cadences of conversation reflect the intelligence and intensity of the characters. How many amazing interchanges do we experience? Tyrion and Jon, Jon and Daenerys, Varys and Melisandre, Mycroft Tycho Nestoris and Cersei, Ebrose and Sam, and of course—the cherry on the cake of this brilliant episode—Jaime and Olenna. And as I say above, so much of these exchanges is based in our familiarity with these characters. Seeing Tyrion and Jon meet again was worth the price of admission; Jon sparring with Daenerys was what we’ve been waiting six seasons for; but then those moments of humour, like when Tyrion complains that he can’t brood in the vicinity of Jon Snow because he’d feel like an amateur, are similarly payoffs that come from the slow burn of a long, well-tended narrative. Ditto for the moment you mention, Nikki, when Davos’ best response to Daenerys’ lengthy CV is to simply say “This is Jon Snow.” It’s a hilarious fish out of water moment, reflective of both Jon Snow and Davos’ discomfort with the trappings of rank, but also manages to communicate something about Jon Snow’s simplicity of purpose, and simplicity of self.

And before I get into Jon’s encounter with Daenerys, let me rhapsodize a moment longer on just how beautiful this episode looked. Mark Mylod, who directed this episode, made extraordinary use of the natural landscapes in which they shot:

 

I’ll let those stills speak for themselves.

Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. This is the classic definition of dramatic irony, no? At this point we all know, when Daenerys says, “I am the last Targaryen,” that NO, no you’re not! Dude standing in front of you? Your nephew! Which is weird in a variety of ways and ever so slightly creepy (especially with all the Daenerys-Jon ‘shipping that has already begun), but it makes all this maneuvering and negotiation at least somewhat moot.

That being said, what I loved most about this scene was the weight of history lying upon it, something that has been a common trope for this season so far. Tyrion observes that, had he been Jon’s advisor, he’d have argued vigorously against meeting Daenerys—as he says, Starks have not fared well when they travel south, a point raised by pretty much every other person at Winterfell. When Daenerys demands that Jon Snow bend the knee, he reminds her of precisely what Sansa reminded him, that their grandfather and uncle had been burned alive by the Mad King. And while Daenerys has the good grace to ask his forgiveness for her father’s transgressions, she still expects him to honour the oaths sworn by his forbearers.

I think one of the things I loved most about this scene is the way it shows the weakness of Daenerys’ claim. Yes, she is (excepting Jon Snow) the last scion of the Targaryens; by the laws of patrilineal descent, she has a claim on the throne, but that claim was, for all intents and purposes, obviated by Robert Baratheon’s usurpation of her father. I kept wanting Jon to say, “The Targaryens ruled for three hundred years! That’s, like, thirty seconds in the history of Westeros!” (Fun historical fact: given that GRRM based his novels in part on the Wars of the Roses, it’s worth noting that the Plantagenets—the royal family that features in Shakespeare’s history plays—essentially ruled England from Henry II’s coronation in 1154 until the death of Richard III in 1485, a span of 331 years. So the Targaryen dynasty syncs up with that history a little). Daenerys believes herself the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms by law, but her ancestor Aegon took the Iron Throne by right of conquest. He forced the kings of Westeros—including Jon’s ancestor Torrhen Stark—to swear fealty, or else be turned into cinders by the same dragonfire that forged the Iron Throne.

Which is an option that Daenerys has at her disposal, but one which, as Jon Snow points out, she is reluctant to deploy. “You haven’t stormed King’s Landing,” he says. “Why not? The only reason I can see is you don’t want to kill thousands of innocent people.” A point that we know is true, because we heard Daenerys say as much in last week’s episode—and an indication that she grasps the weakness of her position from a legal and historical perspective. She learned hard lessons in Meereen, a city in which her only authority, ultimately, came from the people themselves. Though she might claim her family name gives her rights to Westeros, she knows a wise ruler wins the people.

This does not, however, prevent her from telling Jon Snow that, however batshit her dad was, her family name gives her rights to Westeros, and she is annoyed that he is reluctant to swear fealty.

(Just as an aside, was anyone else remembering Daenerys’ willingness last season to entertain the idea of letting the Iron Islands be a separate kingdom in exchange for Yara’s allegiance and her fleet? Where’s that open-mindedness with Jon Snow?)

If we realize in this scene how tenuous Daenerys’ legal claim to the throne is, we also realize how ludicrous Jon Snow’s warning about White Walkers is. One wonders if Daenerys would have tolerated his apparent gibberings had Melisandre not primed her that (1) Jon Snow was someone of substance, and (2) she needed to listen to what he said.

One way or another, Jon’s impassioned plea is cut short by the bad news of Yara’s fleet being waylaid, and we segue to Theon being fished out of the drink. And from there, we go to Euron making his triumphant way through the streets of King’s Landing, with his prisoners in tow. What did you think of his presentation to Cersei, Nikki? And perhaps more importantly, what did you think of Cersei’s long monologue to Ellaria?

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Nikki: Excellent summation of a scene we’ve been waiting to see for years, my friend, and I agree: it’s episodes like this one that make long-form television worth watching. I wanted to add three things: one, I couldn’t help but think while watching it… Jon Snow is standing before Daenerys talking of the dead coming back to life and walking south, and tells her he’s seen it. That Ice has defied all logic, all laws of nature, and is resurrecting the dead and they will vanquish the living. And she looks at him like he’s some nutjob who just climbed down from the crazy tree. And yet… Daenerys Targaryen cannot be burned by fire. He has seen Ice defy logic, but with Daenerys, Fire defies all logic. She has emerged unburned from several fiery moments, and oh, by the way, she owns three motherfreakin’ DRAGONS that she hatched from the funeral pyre of her husband from which she emerged not only alive and unburned, but with a full head of hair when technically she should have been bald as a cueball.

So I thought it was interesting that she thought of his account as a bunch of “myths” when her entire life story sounds like some jacked-up Brothers Grimm tale.

Secondly, I loved the moment where Davos starts to talk about Jon Snow’s resurrection and Jon leans in like, “Hush-hush-hush-zipit!!” It reminded me of Basil Fawlty marching around Fawlty Towers and saying loudly around the Germans, “DON’T MENTION THE WAR!!!

And thirdly, one of our readers, Audrey, wondered on my FB wall if, when the dragon swooped down at Jon on his walk up to the castle, is it possible the dragons can sense another Targaryen in their midst? HMMM…

But on to King’s Landing! Yes, let’s gloss quickly over Euron’s triumphant return and Yara and the Sand Snakes having to a do a walk of shame similar to Cersei’s and then him being a dick to Jaime. I can’t wait to see terrible things happen to Euron (and yet, as I mentioned two weeks ago, I kind of love watching him at the same time because he’s just so slimy!) He will be the naval captain and Jaime will be the army captain… and both men want Cersei. But let’s get to the meat of what happens next.

My husband thought that when Ellaria and Tyene got there, Cersei would go to town on Ellaria. But I said to him, no, that’ll never happen: she’ll go to town on Tyene, and make Ellaria watch. It’s the kind of revenge any mom would enact on another mom if the argument involved one of their children being hurt. And that’s exactly what Cersei does.

Lena Headey is extraordinary in this scene — I don’t think she’s been better in this entire series. She’s angry, vengeful, but about to see her deepest fantasy come true. Yet she can’t help but betray how broken she still is over the death of her daughter through the waver in her voice, the bitterness of her words, the jabs she takes at Ellaria’s expense. She’s matched in this scene only by Indira Varma, who has an even more difficult task as she must convey all of those same things — anger and brokenness over the death of Oberyn, fear for her daughter’s life, pleading — all without saying a word. Her eyes brim with tears throughout the scene, her forehead has veins pulsing out of them in terror, and she strains at her chains in an effort to gouge out Cersei’s eyes one minute, plead for any shred of sympathy the next. The two actresses are remarkable.

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The best way to go through this scene is to actually quote Cersei’s words, because her monologue is brilliant, and as you point out, Chris, the dialogue is SO well written in this episode. This is probably my new favourite monologue of a series that has featured so many: “When my daughter was taken from me — my only daughter — well, you can’t imagine how that feels unless you’ve lost a child,” she begins. This one sentence contains so much. We know she’s about to be brutally honest with Ellaria and tell her how Ellaria’s actions affected her. We hear the resentment in the way she says “only,” and there’s also taunting there — she says the sentence in a way that indicates Ellaria couldn’t possibly know what this feels like, despite the fact Ellaria’s other daughters were killed just hours earlier. It’s vicious and heartbreaking. And then Cersei continues:

I fed her at my own breast even though they told me to give her to the wet nurse. I couldn’t bear to see her in another woman’s arms. I never got to have a mother, but Myrcella did. She was mine and you took her from me. Why did you do that?!

At this moment Cersei’s voice wavers for the one and only time in her monologue. She’s never gotten over the pain of losing Myrcella, who was clearly her favourite. She was devastated after Joffrey’s death, yet there was a part of her that was perhaps relieved — even his own mother knew he’d turned into a monster. Myrcella was innocent and good and kind, and was pulled into this as an innocent casualty. Cersei has never gotten past that. Tommen was similarly sweet and kind, but he took his own life, which Cersei has taken to be a judgment on her actions, and a betrayal by him that he would leave her in such a way. Myrcella’s death is the one that resonates the deepest for her. But then she composes herself and talks about Tyene’s Dornish beauty, and how she guesses Tyene is actually Ellaria’s favourite, too. She says we shouldn’t choose favourites, but sometimes the heart just wants what it wants. “We all make our choices,” she says. “You chose to murder my daughter. You must have felt powerful after you made that choice. Do you feel powerful now?”

Ellaria knows what’s coming. She doesn’t know when, and she doesn’t know how, but she knows something terrible is about to befall Tyene. And then Cersei actually, unknowingly, aligns herself with Arya by saying she doesn’t sleep well at night, instead imagining how she will hurt the enemies who have hurt her. Turns out, much like Arya (for whom Cersei is at the top of the list), Cersei has a kill list as well. Probably every character does. She tells Ellaria she imagined crushing her skull the way the Mountain crushed Oberyn’s, but that would be too quick. She imagined him crushing Tyene’s skull instead, but that would be a terrible waste of her beauty.

And then… she kisses Tyene on the lips, and the horror of what Cersei has just done washes over Ellaria. Her eyes bulge in terror, her body goes rigid, and her mind must be travelling at a million miles a second. In that moment she probably regrets everything she’s done to get to this moment, nothing more than the death kiss she herself planted on Myrcella’s lips. Cersei quietly wipes her own lips and takes the antidote as Qyburn explains it could take hours or days to die, but death will be certain. And then Cersei deals the final blow, which even I didn’t see coming:

Your daughter will die here in this cell. You will be here watching when she does. You’ll be here the rest of your days. If you refuse to eat, we’ll force food down your throat. You will live to watch your daughter rot, to watch that beautiful face collapse to bone and dust, all the while contemplating the choices you’ve made. [to the Mountain] Make sure the guards change the torches every few hours — I don’t want her to miss a thing.

And with that, Cersei sweeps out of the room. Tyene’s fate is sealed, and Ellaria doesn’t just have the burden of watching her daughter die, but of watching (and smelling) her daughter’s body as it rots. The rest of her (possibly many) days and years will be spent watching her daughter disintegrate, and they will be filled with unspeakable torture. It’s the worst revenge anyone could have on a mother, and Cersei’s done it.

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And here’s the part where I go dark: it felt deserved. Yes, I said it. I despise Cersei, but Myrcella had no role to play in any of this other than to be the pawn that Ellaria drew in to the battle. Ellaria killed a little girl, and destroyed her mother. Yes, Ellaria believes that Cersei is responsible for Oberyn’s death, but as Chris and I both pointed out in that episode, and as Cersei mentions at the top of her monologue in this scene, Oberyn COULD have won that battle. He had the upper hand, but he had to prance around the ring, sucking up the accolades, giving Clegane the opportunity to get back up and crush his head like a melon. Cersei didn’t kill Oberyn: his own pride did. And Ellaria killed Myrcella out of revenge. If someone had killed my child, I would want the worst possible thing to happen to that person, and I can’t think of anything worse than what Cersei has put on Ellaria (I wouldn’t be able to actually do it, but one has to admire Cersei for being able to do it… when you have nothing to lose, you can do anything). As Cersei leaves the room, my heart went out to Ellaria and Tyene, straining at their chains, their mouths gagged, able to see each other but not hug each other for comfort or touch each other in any way. But another part of me felt, Ellaria deserves this.

A Lannister always pays her debts, indeed.

And then we cut to Cersei walking into Jaime’s chambers and kissing him full on the mouth, and all I could think was, “OMG I hope she really wiped off that Long Farewell from her lips!” She and Jaime sleep together for the first time since Myrcella’s death because for once, Cersei feels like she might be on the path to becoming whole again. They’re awakened by a page (who shares Cersei’s haircut for some reason, though hers looks better than that shaggy mess on Cersei’s head), telling her the man from Braavos has arrived.

And then Mycroft shows up, and basically explains that the Bank of Braavos places its bets on the side that they believe will win, and the Lannisters owe a huge debt to Braavos that has never been paid back (a debt that goes back to her spendthrift husband, Robert Baratheon). Cersei has an answer for everything, reminding him that the Bank of Braavos has put a lot of money into the slave trade, and how’s that working out for them now that Daenerys has freed the slaves? Mycroft pauses and says, “The slave trade has seen a… downturn.” She tells him Daenerys isn’t a queen so much as a revolutionary, and revolutionaries aren’t worth banking on because they’re not about the money. Cersei, on the other hand, will show him who’s worth banking on. Cersei explains that she needs two weeks to prove him wrong, that the Lannisters will be the stronger party, and that she will pay off what she owes because “A Lannister always pays his debts.” Mycroft smiles and remarks that Cersei is definitely her father’s daughter.

And now it’s time for Tyrion and Jon Snow to brood on the same cliff. What did you think about their conversation post–Daenerys/Jon meeting, Christopher?

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Christopher: I know that I’m supposed to be super stoked that Jon Snow and Daenerys have finally met—and I am—but I think my favourite parts of this episode were Tyrion and Jon reuniting. Tyrion is whom Jon needed these past six seasons—he needed that voice of pragmatic wisdom guiding him, correcting all the bad instincts he learned from Ned Stark. These two characters have incredible chemistry, something we’re reminded of when, after their stilted greetings on the beach, they both smile. A “sly smile,” as you say, Nikki—a less restrained pair of actors might have broken into grins and laughter and embraced, but here we have a world of respect communicated subtly.

As I say above, I love the bit of humour that begins this scene. “I came down here to brood over my failure to predict the Greyjoy attack,” Tyrion tells Jon Snow. “You’re making it difficult. You look a lot better brooding than I do. You make me feel like I’m failing at brooding.” Well, of course he feels that way: Jon Snow is an Olympic-level brooder. If brooding were a Nobel category, he’d be a laureate yesterday. He could give Angel a run for his Byronic money. If Springsteen ever recorded a single titled “Born to Brood,” it would have Jon Snow on the cover. This we all know, because we’ve been watching for six seasons, so Tyrion’s little gibe is at once a vintage Tyrion bon mot and a lovely shout out to the audience. It’s also a subtle little preamble to the wisdom the Dwarf of Casterly Rock will be laying down on the King in the North. Brooding is certainly aesthetically pleasing when done by the likes of Jon Snow, but there’s a metric fuck-tonne of practical considerations with which Game of Thrones, as a fantasy series, is almost fetishistically obsessed. Logistics, money, politics, and of course the great grey area between good and evil into which pretty much every character on this show falls.

Jon Snow is a character who would have fared so much better in Narnia or Middle-Earth—virtuous and pure of purpose, he’s a Peter Pevensie or an Aragorn, but in Westeros such people don’t tend to do well. They need a Tyrion to guide them.

In our first post of the new season, I compared Jon Snow to a climate change activist beset by deniers and people who don’t see the severity of the threat. That comes through in this episode as well, especially in terms of Jon’s frustration with everyone. And frankly, his frustration is not entirely reasonable: when he says “it’s hard for me to fathom, it really is—if someone told me about the White Walkers and the Night King …” he trails off, as if suddenly recognizing that, well, he’d probably not believe it either. Tyrion puts it in perspective, saying “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large.” There’s a great line in Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, in which one character says she can’t let herself think about climate change, because if she did, she wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. As Tyrion says, people can deal with concrete and understandable monstrosity more than they can with something enormous but abstract: “The White Walkers, the Night King, the army of the dead … it’s almost a relief to confront a comfortably familiar monster like my sister.” But “conventional wisdom” necessarily gives way to evidence, and a wise person knows to trust the trustworthy. “It was nonsense, and everybody knew it,” he tells Jon. “But then Mormont saw them. You saw them. And I trust the eyes of an honest man more than I trust what everybody knows.”

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The other key theme in this scene is patrimony, and the mistakes and sins of parents carried by their offspring. When Jon Snow laments that perhaps he’s just repeating his father’s mistakes, Tyrion tells him “Children are not their fathers … luckily for all of us.” This is an episode preoccupied with fathers: I said above that the weight of history lies upon the action, and it makes itself most poignantly present in the memories of fathers no longer present, but whose actions in life still affect the behaviour and expectations of the living. Tyene will die in Ellaria’s presence because of Ellaria’s revenge for the death of Tyene’s father; both Cersei and Jaime are compared to Tywin, while Tyrion orchestrates the Unsullied’s sack of Casterly Rock by way of a task Tywin once gave him to humiliate him; Daenerys must struggle upstream against the trauma inflicted by her father on an entire kingdom; Jon Snow sees himself repeating his father and grandfather’s mistakes; but in the episode’s great dramatic irony, we know who his true father was.

But Tyrion, perhaps because at this point he has little more than contempt for the memory of his father, is having none of it: telling Jon Snow, basically, not to be an idiot—that it is entirely unreasonable to expect Daenerys to accept the words of a man she’d never met after a single meeting, a meeting in which he has all but rejected her claim to the throne. People are rarely what they seem, that there is more to “Northern fools than meets the eye,” and, by the same token, that Jon would do well to familiarize himself with what Daenerys has done and why. “She protects people from monsters,” he tells Jon, “just as you do.” As you say in your opening comments, Nikki, this is an episode about monstrosity and the forms it takes, and the question of which monsters are worse. Tyrion’s point here is to raise that very question to Jon Snow: he protects his people from monsters, but sometimes the human ones—like Ramsay Bolton—are at least as bad as the non-human ones.

I hope when they make their submission for Peter Dinklage’s Emmy nomination this year that they include this episode, because he’s so damn good in this scene. Tyrion lays it all out for Jon Snow; it’s such a great contrast between the single-minded ideologue living in frustration because nobody sees his simple, glaring Truth, and the talented political operative who knows how to get shit done. Tyrion believes Jon, but is also very aware of what is possible and what is not. Jon is ready to decamp almost immediately because Daenerys is unreceptive to his pleas; Tyrion puts him in his place, pointing out “It’s not a reasonable thing to ask,” but then saying, “So, do you have anything reasonable to ask?”

As it turns out? Yes. Yes, he does. “Dragonglass?” Daenerys asks incredulously, and Tyrion finds himself patiently explaining to his queen—who chooses at this moment to be as obtuse as her nephew—why they should grant this request. “We just lost two of our allies!” she says petulantly. “Which is why,” Tyrion responds slowly, almost as if he’s sounding out the words for a dunce, “I was meeting with Jon Snow—a potential ally.” When she asks if he believes Jon’s tales, Tyrion makes a pretty commonsensical point—that he wouldn’t have come if he wasn’t under great duress, and that letting him mine the dragonglass earns Daenerys a potential ally in exchange for a resource that is worthless to her and which she was unaware of anyway.

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While I’m irked by the fact that this will be a short season, I have to admit that it seems to be making for a much brisker narrative progression. I had more or less assumed that the long-awaited meeting of Daenerys and Jon Snow would come at the very end of the episode, frustrating viewers by drawing this particular drama out. But no: not only do they meet at the start, but we get TWO tête-a-têtes between the characters that have become, for all intents and purposes, the main characters in this sprawling ensemble.

Their second scene together, however brief, is powerful, and we begin to see the first stirring of an alliance based in trust. She tells him that she named two of her dragons for her brothers, and then notes that he lost two brothers as well. I have to imagine Jon is being polite when he doesn’t correct that number—as far as he knows, he’s lost three brothers, as he doesn’t yet know Bran is still alive, as Sam swore to keep Bran’s secret. (Wait … did he? I know he did in the novels, but now I can’t remember if he did in the series).

And speaking of Bran … what did you think of the latest Stark reunion, Nikki?

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Nikki: Oh man, you ask a good question at the end there, and I’m sure our readers will let us know the real answer, but I’m pretty sure Theon told Sansa that he didn’t, in fact, kill Rickon and Bran, and so she knows they’re alive at that point (I’m thinking that was end of season five? Damn, I need a rewatch). So she would have told Jon that, but they would also know that Rickon is now dead because Jon watched him die at the Battle of the Bastards when Rickon wouldn’t frickin’ zig-zag. So my thinking is, they know he lived, but they don’t know if he’s still alive because he’s out there on his own and is crippled. For the time being, Jon isn’t going to count him among the dead until he knows for sure.

But yes, speaking of Bran, onto that… awkward… reunion. I’ve been dying to see the Starks actually get a bit of happy news, and knowing how close-knit the family is, and how devastated they’ve been over the deaths of Ned, Catelyn, Robb, and Rickon, finding anyone who shares their DNA would be a happy moment right now. So when there’s a knock at the gate and Sansa is called, I thought, “OMG I WAS WRONG IT’S ARYA!” And… it wasn’t Arya. Last week I suggested that after seeing Nymeria, perhaps Arya realizes she doesn’t actually belong at Winterfell and was turning to go south instead. And if that’s the case, maybe we’ll never get that long-awaited reunion between her and her family. Instead, we get Bran. Dead-eyed, robot-sounding, George-Harrison-looking, prominent-Adam’s-apple, three-eyed-raven Bran. The best part of this scene is the look on Sansa’s face, the swirl of emotions that rises up in her, the fact that her brother was just a tiny little thing the last time she saw him, crippled, and that she’s already mourned his death once and here he is, finally back from the dead. All of those things pass over her face in an instant (Sophie Turner does a beautiful job in this scene) and she rushes to his side and grips him in a huge bear hug. And Bran… doesn’t hug back. Um… I thought he was a paraplegic? What the heck happened to his arms?!

Anyway.

You and I have lamented throughout the series, Chris, that the Bran sections are the snoozefests, and the show is best when we don’t have to deal with Bran (remember that joyous season five?) And he should be an interesting character: he’s a Stark, he’s the unfortunate victim of Jaime and Cersei’s canoodling way back in season one, he’s the breathing example of why we can never 100% forgive Jaime Lannister, he’s a warg, he is one of their best hopes in the war against the white walkers. But there’s just something so unsettling about this kid. He’s gone away a boy and come back some mystical guru changed by a cult, and Sansa has to sit there going, “Ehhh… yeah, I’m gonna be over there now bye” after spending a whole two minutes with him.

The gist of the conversation is basically:

Sansa: You’re the lord of Winterfell now.
Bran: I can’t be the lord of anything, I’m the three-eyed raven.
Sansa: WTF is that?
Bran: Sorry, you wouldn’t understand.
Sansa: Uh, try me?
Bran: I can see everything, past, present, future, all in weird little bits, but I need to train more so I can see the picture more clearly. I know all of this because the three-eyed raven told me.
Sansa: I… thought… YOU were the three-eyed raven?
Bran: I told you it would be too complicated, and by the way, you looked so beautiful that night Ramsay violently raped you on your wedding night.

Jesus Christ, Bran!!! First he mansplains the teachings of the three-eyed raven the way Kellyanne Conway would explain the tweeting of the small-handed man, and then of all the moments he could touch upon to let Sansa know he can see all, he points out the single most traumatic moment of her life?

This is How Not to Reunite With Family 101.

bran-heart_tree

But now… Bran’s defense, because I’ve thought about this a lot and I believe this is the only way these scenes could have gone. If you could see everything that’s ever happened, and everything that will happen, but only in bits and pieces you could barely put together, there are several ways you could handle this. Most people would simply go stark raving mad, screaming and screaming whilst clutching their heads in agony. Or you would kill yourself because NO ONE wants to live with the pain of the history of the universe in their heads. Or you could adopt this Zen-like attitude, shutting down all emotions because emotions will kill you. And Bran has done exactly that. He can’t experience human emotions anymore because the moment he feels pain over seeing his sister get raped, he’ll feel pain over Rickon’s death, he’ll watch Ned’s head get chopped off in an endless loop, he’ll see his mother’s throat slit, his brother’s unborn baby stabbed… he’ll see every Stark ancestor, every person in the history of Winterfell be raped and killed and mutilated throughout history. He needs to shut down emotions and simply read this information the way a computer would. Bran simply cannot hug Sansa: that would express happiness or gratitude or relief over seeing his sister, and he can no longer feel those things. He can’t feel sympathy or empathy in any way. He’s an automaton. He is one of their greatest weapons in the fight against the white walkers (as long as he can figure out how to control his powers) but he can no longer feel anything emotionally.

bran_tree-face

He has given up his very soul in order to give himself over to the cause. In a way, Bran IS dead, because this is not Bran anymore. Of all the Starks, he is the one who no longer bears even the slightest resemblance to his former self, not physically, emotionally, or personality-wise. And as Sansa walks away from him, she knows it. He’s now an ally, but he’s no longer her brother. There will be no more family chats in the weirwood tree grove.

Now I skipped past the scene that preceded this one, so I’ll touch on it briefly, but just before the knock at the gate, Sansa is talking to Baelish and showing that while the boys are entirely focused on war, the women can get down to the practical matters of how to stay alive during the war. She sets about filling their grain stores, contacting local Houses, setting up alliances as they head into the long winter. Meanwhile Littlefinger is yip-yip-yipping into her ear telling her that he knows Cersei better than anyone (to which she briskly and curtly replies, “No, you don’t” and then points out, ooh, you think it’s a revelation that the woman who killed my mother, brother, and father is evil? OLD NEWS, BUDDY) but he tells her that the best way to live from this point on is to imagine every single possibility, every outcome, is happening at once, so she will never be surprised.

And then along comes a brother who tells her he can see everything that’s ever happened and will happen all at once. Excellent timing, dude!

But now we move over to Sam and Sir Jorah. The Maester inspects the wounds and says it’s like someone peeled off the greyscale and put some sort of ointment on them. Sam tries to play dumb and Jorah says nope, he just happened to wake up this way. The scene is really funny just for their ridiculous attempts to put one over on the Maester, who clearly knows he’s dealing with a couple of clowns who have figured out how to conquer greyscale. The triumph that Jorah Mormont will actually live and will once again see his Khaleesi is undercut by the hilarity of the scene, which then cuts to Sam in the Maester’s office. Archmaester Ebrose knows exactly what Sam has done, and Sam sees a future of nothing but fecal duty from this point on, until the Maester expresses how impressed he is that Sam did that. And he asks how he did it. How in a place where they’ve all been trying to figure out a cure did he just figure one out that quickly? Sam says, simply, “I read the books and followed the instructions.” Ha! The Citadel is crammed full of books, it’s built on books, it’s surrounded by books, and they spend all day looking at books. And yet, somehow, it never seemed to have occurred to anyone to, you know, check the bloody books. And so he says Sam has proven himself well, and we have this moment of thinking OMG Sam just fast-tracked himself to a quick grad school graduation and will be given a class to teach… but no. He’s basically sent to the photocopier room and told to make copies of the old, musty books sitting there.

sam-scrolls

I know we’re supposed to regard this as a funny outcome, that them’s the breaks and Sam is not going to be able to leapfrog over someone with more seniority, but I also read the scene as pointing out everything that’s wrong in situations like that, whether it be academia or other institutions. In a place where people are in agony and dying of a disease, one man found a cure (whoa, that sentence sounded like the opening of a movie trailer…) and used it to save the life of a man who seemed beyond saving. And instead of immediately setting to work to save every other person in the place, he’s sent off to yet another menial task as everyone else gets back to whatever useless task they were doing before. Sam proved that the answers can lie in books — not only did he figure out the cure for Ser Jorah, but he discovered where Jon could find copious amounts of dragonglass — but the other scholars say no, you’re moving too fast, young buck, let’s just slow down and spend the next 200 years searching through these books slowly to find the very things you found in a week, shall we? Sam will have to continue to be a rebel if the Citadel is going to be any help at all against the white walkers, because the other scholars are clearly too blinded by their own hierarchies and traditions to see when someone has a better way of doing things. Here’s hoping there’s a dazzling answer to everything somewhere in those scrolls (I’m hoping for the Roman numeral 42 to be at the top of one of them!)

And from here we move back to the war room (“You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”) and Daenerys and Tyrion enacting their very important plan to trick Cersei. And I’ll let you take this one to the end, my friend!

grey-worm_navy

Christopher: Before I carry on to the end of the episode, one more aesthetic observation: the stills from this episode could fill an art gallery, and they seem evenly divided between the kind of epic landscape shots I cited above, and people in rooms bathed in light from a window. We’re back in the war room, as you say, and Daenerys and her chief advisors are framed in a nimbus of light behind them. But throughout this episode, we have similar shots, from Ser Jorah’s deeply symbolic moment of salvation after Ebrose’s diagnosis, to the low-angle show of Tycho Nestoris, to the first glimpse we have of Lady Olenna in her room, brooding as she awaits her fate.

map-room

jorah-window

tycho

olenna_room

I have little doubt that if one went back and combed through the series from the start, we’d see lots of such shots—after all, it is set in a world sans electricity, so the directors and cinematographers have to be inventive with torchlight and candlelight and sun streaming through windows. But it does seem to me that this episode was particularly invested in this strategy, perhaps as a visual balance to the proliferation of epic landscape mise-en-scène.

But to the war room! Daenerys wishes to chase down Euron’s fleet personally and burn them to their waterlines with her dragons—which, I must confess, I think is the best response. Yes, it puts the queen at risk, but … dragons! How better to wipe that smug grin off Euron’s face than with fire as hot as the sun? Fortunately for her advisors, who are not keen on the idea, she allows herself to be distracted by Tyrion’s battle plan.

And we’re back to fathers and sons. “Interesting thing about my father,” says Tyrion, “He built our house up from near ruin. He built our army, he built Casterly Rock as we know it … but he didn’t build the sewers.” No, he gave Tyrion that job to punish him for being Tyrion—and Tyrion took advantage of his father’s arrogance to build a back door into an otherwise impregnable castle in order to better continue his nocturnal debauches.

(Just as an aside: why is Tyrion just telling Daenerys et al about this plan now? Would this not have been a conversation they had when he first proposed sacking Casterly Rock? “But it’s impregnable!” someone says. “You might think so,” he replies, “but listen to this amusing anecdote about my father’s self-destructive need to humiliate me!” But no, apparently he just convinced Daenerys to throw the Unsullied against the seat of Lannister power on the strength of “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you my plan later”).

We get a Bronn echo in this monologue: “Casterly Rock is an impregnable fortress,” Tyrion admits, “but as a good friend of mine once said, ‘Give me ten good men and I’ll impregnate the bitch.’” That was Bronn’s boast in season one in response to Tyrion’s comment that the Eyrie was impregnable. The fact that these lines are spoken in voice-over as the Unsullied run through the main gates like a flood of sperm is … well, on one hand, a bit overdone; on another hand, at least a little ironic.

unsullied-sperm.png

(Not included here: Lockett’s tedious professorial lecture on the semantic significance of “impregnable” as having the same root as “impregnate” and the fact that in Shakespeare un-sacked cities are referred to as “maidens” and that the military conquest of towns and fortresses is explicitly figured as sexual violation. See Henry V and The Rape of Lucrece if interested).

Oh, the bait-and-switch of these episodes—we watch with increasing glee as Daenerys’ forces overcome the Lannisters, our feelings stoked by Tyrion’s “why we fight” voice-over … only to realize our heroes have been out-maneuvered again. Grey Worm suddenly realizes that Casterly Rock is manned by, essentially, a skeleton crew; and he mounts the battlements to see Daenerys’ fleet again surprised and routed by Euron Greyjoy. “Where are they?” Grey Worm demands of a dying Lannister soldier. “Where are the rest of the Lannisters?”

Cut to Jaime riding through the serried ranks of soldiers the Unsullied had expected to rout. And we see who his allies are …

randyll_bronn

Earlier in this post I commented on the symbolic role of the absent father, so it’s interesting to note that the one father who is present in the episode is Randyll Tarly—having obviously decided to betray House Tyrell and throw in his lot with the Lannisters, we see him riding alongside Bronn as the Lannister army marches on Highgarden. It’s an interesting little reveal: Randyll Tarly, however much of an asshole he is to his son Samwell, has a reputation for honour rivaling Ned Stark’s, something we caught a glimpse of in the last episode. But here he is: though Jaime was technically correct last week in saying that his loyalty to the throne supersedes his loyalty to House Tyrell, the state of the throne is such that Cersei’s legitimacy is hardly a done deal. More certain is the legitimacy of the Tyrells, but Randyll has obviously rationalized his betrayal and his elevation to Warden. Meanwhile, his disinherited son has embraced that fate and found an almost equally censorious father figure—though one that at least recognizes his talents.

But more poignantly, we see the approaching army from the perspective of the Queen of Thorns. Looking down at the attacking army from her perch, she turns away and waits for the inevitable. Jaime strides through Highgarden, passing heaps of Tyrell dead. The sequence is actually quite unusual for the show: mostly a camera following Jaime from behind, with jump cuts between different parts of the castle as, once again, “The Rains of Castemere” plays. “It’s done?” Olenna asks Jaime when he enters her chambers. On hearing the affirmative, she says, with a touch of mockery at her sentimentality, “And now the rains weep o’er our halls,” citing the very song playing. (“And so he spoke, and so he spoke, / That lord of Castamere, / But now the rains weep o’er his hall, / With no one there to hear).

Fighting, Olenna says, “was never our forte,” a line that echoes her season three excoriation of House Tyrell’s motto “Growing Strong,” and its choice of a rose as a sigil. She seems unsurprised, somehow, to be in this position—as if in her long life she has learned not to rely too heavily on hopeful expectations. Tyrion’s gambit, it turns out, did not work, at least in part because he did not know how precipitously Lannister fortunes had declined. Jaime makes clear to Olenna that he values Casterly Rock—for purely sentimental reasons, and will eventually take it back … but for the moment, it has no real value. There’s a sad bit of symbolism there for our episode’s theme of patrimony: Tyrion wanted Casterly Rock, had in fact demanded it of his father, and been rebuffed in insulting fashion. That he makes this error now—committing Daenrys’ precious Unsullied to taking a fortress that no longer has any strategic value—feels entirely like Tywin has checkmated him from beyond the grave.

But for all of our heroes’ frustrations at being outmaneuvered, there is at least one gleam of satisfaction in Olenna’s final barb. Jaime the Merciful will allow her to die without pain, in spite of all of Cersei’s baroque torture and execution fantasies. Poisoned wine—a poetic end, and she herself acknowledges.

But before I get into that, let me just say that in a brilliant episode whose brilliance was the writing and dialogue, this final scene was just. So. Good. I’m sad to bid farewell to Olenna Tyrell, but happy that she left this world delivering the barbs (or thorns) she dealt while in it. She drinks her poisoned wine quickly, so Jaime cannot change his mind about the method of her execution, but then explains why a painless poison is so very different from the way she murdered his son. “Not at all what I intended,” she says, having gulped down her death. “Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me.”

There are two great moments of face acting in this episode: Ellaria, when she realizes that Cersei has killed Tyene, and Jaime, when Olenna’s words land.

And with the latter, the episode ends. That it ends not with a huge spectacle or plot twist, but with the revelation of a truth we already knew speaks to the power of this episode’s writing. Things are coming together; Jon Snow meets Daenerys, but secrets like Olenna’s murder of Joffrey are coming to light. We don’t necessarily need Bran to be the Three-Eyed Raven to tell us what’s what—shit’s getting real one way or another.

olenna_poison

“You should know, I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

And with that, we’re done with another week of Game of Thrones! Thank you all, and we’ll see you next week. In the meantime, call you dads and tell them you love them … you have no idea what might happen otherwise.

 

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