We’re delivering our Game of Thrones recaps in a series we call Game of Thrones Unlocked. These articles will contain spoilers through the episode under discussion. This week, Matthew Wrather tackles “The Queen’s Justice” (Season 7, Episode 3).
There was some disagreement in the comments section of last week’s recap about whether Sam is a good character or not and whether he’s important enough to be spending so much screen time on. He is and he is. And partly to confound those who would argue otherwise, I’m going to start at the Citadel, which turns out to be incredibly important to this episode thematically, and may turn out to have been important to the plot, depending on how Ser Jorah gets on after he stops being all, “Hey look at me I’m a Vermeer with this light coming through the window!” and gets his newly supple dermis back to Dragonstone.
We come to the scene between Archmaester Ebrose and Samwell expecting at the very least a thorough dressing down. “How bad is it?” Jorah asks Sam, who shrugs and replies, “I guess we’ll find out tonight.” Sam is an unexpectedly good doctor, and not just at curing Greyscale: apparently he is also capable of growing a backbone.
What the Archmaester provides in place of a tongue-lashing is surprising and hard to pin down. It’s not exactly criticism, it’s not exactly praise; it’s not exactly forgiveness, it’s not exactly punishment. It is a lesson to Sam (and also to us, if we still need one at this point) about the kind of story Game of Thrones is. Nothing he says is wrong, and nothing he says is entirely right. He’s not wrong that Sam’s actions were irresponsible and put the entire Citadel at risk. He’s not wrong that the outcome was good—amazing, frankly—and that the good outcome should be taken into consideration. He’s not wrong that Sam should be proud of his newfound skill. And he’s not wrong that Sam should be punished for disobeying an injunction.
There are a number of ways to look at this episode. I’m going to focus on the structure, but as we go, keep in mind this theme of rigidity vs. flexibility, because it provides a useful barometer for evaluating what is important to various characters and how they are doing.
We go in knowing the title: “The Queen’s Justice.” Titles are a kind of promise, a contract with the viewer. Sometimes, the terms of the contract are unclear, but in a world as well-established and richly detailed as Westeros, a phrase like that is freighted with multiple kinds of significance.
Literally, “The Queen’s Justice” means “headsman” or “executioner”: Ser Ilyn Payne was the King’s Justice for Robert Baratheon, and the Stark children in King’s Landing learned early that one of their father’s moral absolutes—whoever passes the sentence should swing the sword—was not as absolute as they thought. Beyond that, the title highlights the the three queens (Danerys, Cersei, and Sansa ex officio) and their wildly differing conceptions of justice and how it is meted out. And finally, “The Queen’s Justice” must stand in opposition to “The King’s Justice,” and invites us to contemplate how the gender of the monarch affects her rule.
In each of our major power centers, Dragonstone, King’s Landing, and Winterfell, the woman ruler is visited by a man who wants something. The visit may not be wholly expected, but the man ends up sticking around. Dany gets Jon and imprisons him briefly; Cersei gets Tycho Nestoris (Euron is important, but not an exponent of this pattern) and hosts him as an honored guest; Sansa gets Bran and welcomes him home.
Let’s start on Dragonstone, which is main location of this episode, since Jon and Dany, as Melisandre points out, represent the uniting of Fire and Ice. (Am I the only one who thought of Spinal Tap?”) The first image of this episode is water crashing on rocks, and an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object is not a terrible metaphor for what transpires on the island. Jon and Dany are both unyielding. There are moments of comedy: Unlike at Dany’s landing, we don’t miss the long trip up the castle steps, and the pants-shittingly terrifying dragon flyover is a nice reminder of the power imbalance, as is the asymmetric title warfare: “Daneyrs Targaryen, first of her name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men” etc., etc., vs. “This is Jon Snow. [plaintive look] He’s king in the north.”
Their first date is a disaster. Dany insists on fealty, and more than that she insists on her right and destiny as the ruler of Westeros. Jon insists that literally everyone has a profound misunderstanding of genre—that they think they’re in House of Cards but they’re really in The Walking Dead, which is something we at Overthinking It have been saying for a while now—and, interestingly, they are both fairly poor at articulating their positions persuasively. They believe utterly in their rightness, and their vision of Justice involves the world conforming to their beliefs. Under those conditions it’s hard to do effective debate prep. Dany is surprising the more flexible—she leads with strength, but she is humane: she apologies for the Mad King’s excessive cruelty. But still it’s left to Tyrion and Davos to argue, retort, insist, concede, cajole—to use the tools of rhetoric and politics to advance their aims.
When we return to Dragonstone, Tyrion’s pleading has blunted some of the sharp edges. Jon and Dany get a do-over of their first date, and they are still both terrible at making small talk. But despite some missteps they avoid talking about religion and politics and manage to hammer out a tentative alliance and establish some mutual fascination. Jon is indeed a very attractive brooder, and he piques curiosity when Dany quips, “All men like what they’re good at” and he retorts, “I don’t.” I was torn between shouting, “Kiss her, you fool!” and remembering that she’s actually his aunt. (Dany: “I am the last Targaryen, Jon Snow.” Me: “Nope!”)
In King’s Landing, the people are parade enthusiasts, or maybe severed head enthusiasts. Euron isn’t doesn’t follow pattern I am highlighting because he is not sufficiently adversarial with Cersei. They are pratically mirror images, and their vision of justice as tit for tat reminds me of much mistaken character a late Shakespeare play: “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure” (M4M 5.1.466–7). They both believe in sorrow returned in like kind, but with more sadistic cruelty (the Ellaria Sand scenes are particularly brutal), and it is fitting when Euron’s obvious lie—“I give what no other man could give: Justice.”—is requited by Cersei’s obvious lie about marrying Euron at the end of the war.
Tycho Nestoris is the unexpected visitor who fits this episode’s structure. Cersei mistakes his talk of “investments” for the kind of transactional exchange she is used to contemplating, and falls back on the commonplace, “A Lannister always pays her debts.” It’s clear that Tycho is a fan: He is undeterred when she won’t claim credit for blowing up the red keep and insists, “Sometimes tragedies are necessary.” “Necessary” here doesn’t mean “inevitable” so much as “supremely convenient,” and you’d think that these two characters have a lot in common, but I am struck more by their differences. Balancing a ledger is not the same as settling scores. In the former case, the standard is objective. Red becomes black, and all is forgiven. But for Cersei, the coin of repayment is personal. She is judge, jury, and, with the final Sand Snake, Tyene, executioner.
Finally, at Winterfell Sansa is no longer “smarter than she lets on” (Tyrion); rather, “she’s letting on” (Jon). The thing to note is not merely what a competent but what a gifted ruler she is: Planing ahead (shipments of grain), taking advice (how long is the longest winter?), sweating the details (the armor should be covered in leather). Littlefinger seems to trap and mesmerize with his quantum mechanical vision of every possible series of events happening all at once. And then, without any warning, cue Bran’s entrance, a genuinely moving reunion scene credibly acted by both Starks, and a conversation in the Weirwood where Bran says he sees every actual series of events happening all at once. Sansa is realistic, flexible, and responsive to circumstances. Her early idealism has been shattered by harsh experiences. But this is not an unmixed blessing: Bran alludes with tender sympathy to the hideous rape she suffered at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, a travesty of marital consummation, and the added cruelty that it should happen in her childhood home, and she needs to take a minute.
For all three queens, the question is what to value and how to meet circumstances with action. The answer seems to become more flexible, less stony (kind of like Jorah). Sansa is already there, Danerys is on her way, and Cersei is fleeing in the opposite direction. With all the talk about dragonglass, doesn’t her black, wide-shouldered regal costume make her look like she’s actually carved from obsidian?
So I am struck that in two notable cases in this episode metaphysical achievement coincides with acceptance of stasis. Bran literally cannot walk, but he also insists that he cannot succeed his father as Lord of Winterfell. He withdraws like a monk not just form the game of thrones, but even from the war of the living and the dead. Did you notice him say “when the long night comes” (not “if”)?
And Olenna Tyrell accepts stasis in death’s paralysis. Jamie’s arrival at Highgarden is a repetition with a difference of the motif that structures this episode, since he comes not to negotiate but rather to extinguish. He seems to have lost the flicker of doubt he showed at Cersei’s coronation, which is a shame because I was hoping for an encore performance from the Kingslayer. In the episode’s final scene, Jamie finds a victory and a kind of defeat: He has achieved a military objective, and dealt a setback to the Dragon Queen, but even when Olenna’s death is assured she still manages to puncture his satisfaction, the point of her cruelty so much sharper than Cersei’s and yet so much more richly earned. Jamie storms from the room; Olenna will never move again. She doesn’t need to.
Moral principles are always ex post facto laws: Someone has to live some life before anyone can draw lessons form it. Archmaester Ebrose is a good teacher because he is willing to let the lesson emerge rather than dictating it. He tries to negotiate between principles he sincerely endorses—lessons that life has taught him—and a world which stubbornly refuses to hew to those principles, or teach the same lessons twice.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the relationship between Danerys and Jon. She is his aunt, not his cousin.