A review of tonight’s Game of Thrones coming up just as soon as I finish failing at brooding about failing…
“Children are not their fathers. Luckily for all of us.” -Tyrion
The opening passages of “The Queen’s Justice” finally bring together, as Melisandre notes, ice and fire. Dany and Jon’s first meeting is notable for several reasons. First — not that they know it yet (or may ever find out) — it’s a meeting of the last two remaining Targaryens. Second, it brings together the two characters who represent the name George R.R. Martin gave to the series of books that spawned this show. Third, it brings together the two characters most crucial to the apparent endgame with the Night King and his army of the dead.
And fourth, it’s a rare moment where a Stark isn’t the dumbest leader in a particular room.
I had expected some kind of a learning curve for Dany and Tyrion’s return to the nation of their birth, if only because a scenario where they burned Cersei alive and conquered King’s Landing in the opening minutes would have made for a dull season. But I never would have expected them to be this bad at the strategery of it all, outfoxed at every turn by Cersei, Jaime, and Euron effing Greyjoy. Dany crossed the Narrow Sea with the combined military might of the Dothraki, the Unsullied, the Tyrells, Dorne, and a good chunk of the Ironborn fleet. Two episodes into her tenure, she’s lost Dorne, lost the Tyrells, had nearly her entire fleet burned, the Unsullied are stranded defending an abandoned castle on the other side of the continent from where the real action is, and the aquaphobic Dothraki are stuck on a useless rock off the coast of Westeros itself. Dany still has her dragons, and if she can scrounge enough boats she can eventually get the Dothraki onto dry land, but she’s now dug herself a massive hole against a woman who, going into the season, had few allies or resources.
The show’s villains are not only vastly more successful at the moment, but simply more fun — they badly trounce the good guys in this area even in an episode where Bronn has only a brief, silent cameo. Admittedly, it’s an episode with no Arya or Brienne, but the meeting of ice and fire only puts a spotlight on the deep charisma deficit those two have compared to most of the people they’re up against. Jon has always been a drip — important to the story, but the writers and Kit Harington have almost always struggled to make him compelling outside of his basic plot utility — and Dany is often in danger of dripping along with him during the long periods when things aren’t going her way. When she’s raining fire from the heavens upon her enemies, or rallying her armies to lay down their lives for her, she’s a wonder; when she’s dealing with the burdens of governance, or in this case realizing the limits of her Hand’s tactical brilliance, she’s… well, let’s just say it’s not a shock to realize these two are related.
While they’re all brooding — and infecting poor Tyrion with their disease in the way that Lady Olenna fears Cersei has infected the entire kingdom with hers — the Lannisters are chewing bubble gum and kicking ass. Euron’s riding his horse into the damn Iron Throne room, gesticulating wildly like a cross between an ’80s hair band frontman and a wrestling heel(*). It’s a super-broad characterization for GoT — the result, perhaps, of the creative team realizing what a poor impression he left last season — but the camp of it all brings with it an energy level that the heroes aren’t offering at the moment. Someone on this show has to enjoy themselves, and it might as well be this clown.
(*) Last week, I noted that the allegedly fearsome Sand Snakes got utterly wrecked by “a jobber like Euron Greyjoy.” In hindsight (and the usual latenight haste to publish these), I fear I got my jobbers backwards: whatever plans the writers might have once had for the Sand Snakes, at this point the only value they had left was as jobbers to help get over Euron as an impressive new foe with a new angle.
Cersei, meanwhile, continues to demonstrate an amazing capacity for poetic justice, condemning Ellaria to a lifetime of emotional torture (first watching Tyene die of poison, then watching her body decay day by day, month by month, year by year) to match the physical kind to which she sentenced the “Shame!” nun. She no longer cares if anyone knows that she sleeps with her brother, and if she’s haunted by all that she’s lost and all the terrible things that she’s done, it’s not really showing in her actual work, which has been pretty remarkable so far, especially given her circumstances at the beginning of the season. She promised Tycho from the Iron Bank that her family’s debt would be repaid within a fortnight, and by sending Jaime to sack Highgarden — deploying the same strategy Robb used to defeat and capture him back in season one — she fulfilled both that promise and the House Lannister motto. She’s very bad — every bit the monster Olenna accuses her of being — but oh so good at it, the only major player who seems to understand Littlefinger’s lesson to Sansa about preparing for every eventuality, always. And when Jaime — hopelessly in thrall to his sister, and unable or unwilling to do anything about that — poisons Olenna to death(*), he not only robs Dany of one of her most powerful allies, but the forces of relative good in Westeros of one of their most colorful and watchable characters.
(*) RIP. Like her granddaughter, Olenna was never hugely essential to the overall plot of the series, but Dame Diana Rigg was an utter pleasure to watch in this role from first scene (“Once the cow’s been milked, there’s no squirting the cream back up her udders”) to last (“I want her to know it was me.”)
It’s a bad moment for Dany and Jon, even as she’s agreed to let him mine the dragonglass to use against the army of the dead. This feels very much, though, like a necessary humbling for the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Monger of Fishes — bringing her and her future ally Jon so low that their eventual victory (if that’s where this is all going, as opposed to a nihilist confusion where Cersei or the Night King wins) will feel all the sweeter. Coming into the season, her combined forces were too big, the dragons too destabilizing an arsenal, for it to ever feel like a fair fight, even if Cersei had homefield advantage. Now, Dany is in a deep hole, and if/when she manages to win, that could be even more impressive than anything she’s accomplished to date.
But it’s hard not to root for the bad guys right now. They’re monsters, but they’re also smarter, and better, and they’re both having and being much more fun. The episode spends a lot of time talking about legacies from parent to child. Here, Cersei reveals herself to be entirely the daughter of Tywin Lannister, and for the moment that’s more useful — and more entertaining — than being Ned Stark’s son (if not biologically), or even the Mad King’s daughter.
Some other thoughts:
* The scene where Sansa is brought to the Winterfell gates to greet an amazing new arrival is perhaps meant as misdirection about Arya, even though the previouslies reminded us that Bran and Meera had made it to Castle Black. That it is Bran and not his littlest sister doesn’t automatically mean that her encounter with Nymeria convinced her to head back south, but it feels like the show wouldn’t want to do two tearful Stark family reunions too closely together.
* Cersei admits to Ellaria that she doesn’t sleep much, and tries to calm her brain by imagining vengeance against her enemies. I hope that whenever Arya does attempt to cross Cersei’s name off her own list, they get to spend enough time in each other’s company first to realize just how alike they’ve become.
* Theon lives, rescued by one of the few Yara-loyal ships to survive Euron’s attack, once again shunned by the other Ironborn for his cowardice. As with Jon and Dany, I’m assuming this is a darkest-before-the-dawn moment, but it’s also possible that poor Theon Greyjoy’s role on the show will always to be the guy who imagines himself the hero of the story, only to be consistently proven how wrong he is.
* Littlefinger’s speech to Sansa — “Fight every battle, everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy. Everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.” — was not only perhaps the most sincere piece of advice he’s ever offered anyone on the show, but suggests he’d probably be a much quicker study as Three-Eyed Raven than Bran has been. Great scene.
* Melisandre prepares to leave Westeros, but not before offering a couple of prophecies that I assume will pay off before the series ends, about how both she and Varys are destined to die in this country.
* So apparently, the secret and dangerous greyscale cure really was just the removal of the infected tissue and the application of some mysterious unguent. Despite the Archmaester’s protestations that this is such a difficult thing to accomplish, it still seems underwhelming. That must be one hell of an unguent, you know?
* As the Iron Bank’s representative Tycho, Mark Gattis looked much more like his Sherlock character Mycroft Holmes than he did in his prior appearances in seasons four and five.
* No change to the credits map this week, with Pyke appearing to represent Euron Greyjoy’s continued dominance of Cersei’s enemies. I had hoped we might get a Casterly Rock map appearance, but seems not to be, given how Jaime writes it off here.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He discusses Game of Thrones (and other shows) weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast.