Conversations between the high and mighty have been a part of Game of Thrones since its inception. From Daenerys’s (Emilia Clarke) culture clashes with the grandees of Slaver’s Bay and the Great Grass Sea to uncounted staring contests, squabbles, and idle conversations in the solars and throne rooms of Westeros, these exchanges have propelled both the show’s plot and the growth and development of its characters. Now, with the players in their final positions and threads snapping left and right, those same talks seems to rest on a knife’s edge.
Every moment of pointless cruelty carries with it the unspoken horror that this is happening in what might well be the last days of the human race, and “The Queen’s Justice” is an episode freighted with the kind of petty brutality that has kept Westeros knee-deep in blood for the greater part of a decade. Even as the series accelerates to breakneck speed, Daenerys’s grand design for a peaceful conquest dissolving into a welter of burning ships and butchery and events spiraling toward all-out war, the episode’s focus remains resolutely on the human cost of all this sneering gamesmanship and professional grudge-holding. Death. A graveyard kingdom where dwindling clans of blood-crazed nobles stab frantically at one another atop a shifting mountain made up of the skulls of the smallfolk slaughtered in their wars.
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An Eye for an Eye
As Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) puts it during his near-lunatic monologue to Sansa about his method of moving through life while keeping his eye on the prize he so desires, either death triumphs and humanity is done, its woes and wars vanished like a bad dream, or life wins out. But in his maniacal focus on the paper cutout victory he so desires, a hollow moment of triumph and dominance as thin as a dull-witted teenage boy’s masturbatory fantasies, he misses the point of his own neat summation of the terrible stakes of the war to come. As existence teeters on the brink, he keeps playing the game he’s made his entire persona and reason for living.
More than Daenerys, whose royal father burned his subjects alive for entertainment, more even than damaged, paranoid Cersei, Petyr represents the mean and sordid ugliness of the desire to rule. He’s a man dreaming of flattening his existence into a single image, of donning a paper crown and marrying a dead woman’s younger, more beautiful reflection to wash away the decades of inadequacy and burning sexual resentment that have propelled him on his pointless quest, and all the while the world is crumbling around him.
Daenerys’s initial meeting with Jon summons up this same spirit of frustration and fear. The two rulers butt heads and debate whose ancient bloodlines and long-forgotten oaths bind whom to servitude after a delightful sequence in which Missandei attempts to awe Jon and Davos with a recitation of Daenerys’s titles before Davos replies bluntly: “This is Jon Snow.” and adds, almost as an afterthought, “He’s king in the North.”
Jon’s stay at Dragonstone unfolds unhurriedly as he wins Tyrion over to his cause, makes inroads with the prickly but intelligent and reasonable queen, and marvels at the sight of dragons soaring over the ancient Targaryen seat. It’s a collection of scenes that moves artfully from stiff, brittle formality to quiet acceptance, scaling down and not up to reach its resolution. In an era where shouting is often mistaken for drama, it’s a lovely shot in the arm.
Meanwhile, Lena Headey’s scene with Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and her daughter Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) in the dungeons of the Red Keep is painful almost as much for Cersei’s vulnerability as for her grotesque revenge killing. “She was mine,” she tells her daughter’s murderer, “and you took her from me. Why did you do that?” Her voice breaks with genuine confusion. Her memory of refusing a wet nurse and breastfeeding Myrcella herself over the court’s objections gives us a visceral window into what her children offered her: an escape from a life as a teenage bride sold to an indifferent and violent rapist. Here was a part of her body her husband wouldn’t hurt, a person she could satisfy and love and protect. As her incestuous relationship with her twin is, in part, an extension of her solipsistic outlook on the value of human life, so is her love for the children they made together. Who, given the chance, wouldn’t want to protect their younger self from all life’s cruelty and unfairness?
Varma’s gagged cries of impotent rage, and then her moment of horrified realization as Cersei presses poisoned lips to her daughter’s mouth, make the scene’s silences as miserable as Cersei’s sadistic monologue. Her face is a mask of helpless grief and fury as she stares into her doomed daughter’s eyes, knowing that in hours, days at the most, all the life will have gone out of them. Likewise for Yara’s (Gemma Whelan) stoic impassivity as her uncle Euron (Pilou Asbaek), laughing about how Theon broke in the heat of battle and how the crowd’s adulation is giving him a hard-on, leads her by a leash through the streets of King’s Landing. It’s Cersei’s walk of shame turned into a carnival triumph as the city applauds its queen’s conquering suitor, whose lewd maneuvering with Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a thing of beauty.
Quiet Beauty, Ugly Truth
So too is the scene that follows, a sexual interlude between Cersei and her twin in which she brushes aside his objections with ravenous disregard. It’s an act of taking as ungentle as the siblings’ morning in bed together is quiet and, in some ways, sweet. The soft gray light, Cersei’s gauzy robe, Jaime’s rueful expression when his sister flaunts their verboten dalliance to a servant girl; all of it speaks to two people whose love for one another, no matter how diseased, contains some measure of gentleness. It’s a surprisingly touching sequence, achingly sad for the knowledge that maybe, absent the emotionally cauterizing abomination of life among the nobility and the abusive oppression of their father, these two people might have been capable of happiness.
The episode’s concluding act revolves around the taking of Casterly Rock by the Unsullied and the unexpected storming of Highgarden by the Lannister Army. The first is a fast-paced montage of bravery, butchery, and skullduggery as Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) leads his men through a culvert designed by a youthful and randy Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and takes the Rock from within only to find that its defending army is absent and Euron’s fleet has snuck up unobserved to rain fire on the Unsullied ships. It’s a propulsive and exciting sequence given a feel of heist-ish dash by Tyrion’s narration, a sharp contrast to the sad inevitability of the taking of Highgarden. Jaime’s army storms the castle and captures it handily, completing the ruination of Daenerys’s alliance and snatching up enough gold to pay back the Iron Bank of Braavos with interest in one fell swoop.
Jaime’s visit with Olenna (Diana Rigg), though, is far from triumphant. There’s no shouting, no violence; Olenna even gets in a final dig at Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), calling him a cunt for naming his sword “Widow’s Wail.” But this broken old woman, whose whole house has gone up in flames, who has no living issue and no cause left to fight for now that her vengeance has been taken from her, spends her last breaths telling Jaime with glee that she poisoned his son at his own wedding. She confesses just moments after drinking poison herself, and it’s clear that she relishes each gruesome detail. Jaime leaves without a word, and the episode’s final image is Olenna alone in her solar, a withered face lost in the black of her mourning gown as the light of the setting sun slants through the windows.