'Game Of Thrones' Review: 'The Queen's Justice' Brings The Greatest Death In The Show's History

(In our coverage of Game of Thrones season 7, we'll be examining each episode with one simple question in mind – which character is winning the game of thrones this week?)

That'll do, Game of Thrones. That'll do.

"The Queen's Justice" isn't just the best episode of Game of Thrones season 7 so far – it's one of the best episodes the show has ever produced. With the end in sight, the show has found a new momentum, an energy unique to its endgame. Armies are on the movie, backs are being stabbed, and major characters are dying magnificently. Let's just dive right in.

Time Crunch

In past interviews, A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin has said that the continent of Westeros is roughly the size of South America. The early seasons reflected this scale – a character would embark on a journey in one episode and then arrive several episodes later. Distance was an important and defining factor. It was even thematic. How better to explain how hopeless Daenerys' plight looked than to make it abundantly clear just what a long and painful trek it would be for her to cross the Narrow Sea and reclaim the throne?

But as the series moved on, time and distance began to matter less. Melisandre practically teleported around the continent in season 3. Journeys that would have (should have?) taken a month were completed in the blink of an eye. Getting around Westeros, even on foot, became something of a breeze...and paying a visit to the Iron Bank of Braavos across the sea and getting back was something you could accomplish in a single episode.

Now, as Game of Thrones hurtles toward its endgame at a breakneck pace in a shortened penultimate season with no time to spare, time and space have begun to matter less than ever. I'm reminded of how the first season of 24 was meticulous in its use of real-time, forcing major characters to spend an entire episode driving across Los Angeles, only to give in and let them accomplish the same feat during a commercial break as time went on.

Game of Thrones season 7 only ups the speed. Fleets carrying an army of Unsullied can literally circle the continent to attack Casterly Rock. Jon Snow can arrive at Dragonstone in between episodes. The Lannister army can march on Highgarden and take it in less than two weeks. Euron Greyjoy's fleet, miraculously built in the space between seasons, must be able to fly when we're not looking at it because that son of a bitch can be anywhere the plot demands of him. It's vital to note that he begins "The Queen's Justice" in King's Landing and ends up decimating the Targaryen fleet at Casterly Rock, which is literally on the opposite coast of Westeros and would require him to sail all the way around Dorne. It's impossible! It shatters the rules of scale established by the early seasons! It's enough to drive you crazy!

And yet, it also (possibly, probably, almost surely) makes Game of Thrones a better show! Even those 10-episode seasons of the past could feel flabby at times and sometimes those early-season build-ups, where conflict simmered until it was ready to boil over, felt a little long, even when they were necessary. But in its endgame, with much of the cast dead and the survivors all close enough to have face-to-face meetings, the show has literally removed anything and everything from its narrative that does not contribute to the finale. Armies move quickly. Incurable diseases are cured in one painful session. Game of Thrones no longer has time to tap the brakes – it's all a downhill glide from here and it's hammering on the gas pedal.

Game of Thrones earned our loyalty and faith through six seasons of deliberate pacing designed to ease us into this world. Now, it's rewarding our patience by dropping us into one remarkable, game-changing situation after another. We've done our homework and now we get our dessert. This will drive some fans crazy, but what can I say? I'm ready to eat the cake that's been baking for six years.

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A Lannister Always Pays Her Debts

Euron Greyjoy returns to King's Landing as the conquering hero, his niece and the remaining Dornish leadership in chains. The throngs scream his name and spit on his captives and generally act like all King's Landing crowds – they'll cheer and jeer the flavor of the month, even if he'll lose his head or become ruler of the Seven Kingdoms in the very near future.

But while Euron basks in the glow of his victory, Queen Cersei of House Lannister (and those watching at home) know the truth: this is less a victory for House Greyjoy as it is a victory for the Crown. Euron, the bad boy rockstar with a psychopathic streak, is not going to become king. He's going to break his back for the Queen until he's outlived his usefulness. And then he's gone. Cersei is a great many things, but "willing to actually marry a Greyjoy" is not one of them.

"The Queen's Justice" introduces us to a new kind of Cersei Lannister, a woman whose armor has grown so thick that she's unafraid to flaunt her dirtiest and darkest secrets. A servant comes calling when she's in bed with her own brother? Eh, no biggie – she's the queen now. What can a lowly handmaiden do about it? This is a woman hardened by years of systematic abuse by a system built to degrade, punish, and humiliate women...but this is also a woman who is rotten to the core, evil and smart and clever in her various revenges. Cersei is simultaneously the most terrifying villain on television and a blistering feminist statement. She is a queen. Hear her roar. It will probably be the last thing you ever hear.

It's through Cersei's cruelty that the ill-fated Dornish storyline finally comes to a close. Ellaria Sand, chained in the dungeon, watches as the Queen gives her last remaining daughter a literal kiss of death. It is, of course, an echo of how Ellaria killed Cersei's own daughter. The Queen's justice, the Queen's revenge, is pure Cersei – she takes what her enemies have thrown at her and lobs it back, weaponized to a greater degree. Myrcella died many miles from her mother's arms, but Ellaria has to literally watch her child die and rot for the rest of her existence.

It's a vile act, the kind of cruelty that has made Game of Thrones Thinkpiece Central, but Cersei's revenge, served at a temperature appropriate for north of The Wall, is not entirely unsympathetic. We cheered Arya Stark murdering the entirety of House Frey to avenge a dead mother and brother. Are we not allowed to at least understand, if not embrace, the vengeance of a mother scorned? It's easy to understand Cersei's rage. Hell, it's even possible to admire the ingenuity of her revenge. It's just difficult to comprehend her cruelty.

But as Jaime notes later in the episode, does her cruelty even matter if it leads to a peaceful kingdom? Will the historians reduce her most grotesque actions to footnotes if she brings stability to a world in turmoil? History itself suggests that the answer is yes, which offers an additional harrowing thought experiment: is a peaceful rule by a woman rotten to her core preferable to a surely tumultuous rule from a well-meaning, but increasingly ill-equipped invader? Game of Thrones, the murkiest fantasy of them all, demands that you sink into the muck.

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A Stark in Winter

We don't spend too much time with Sansa Stark in "The Queen's Justice," but we do spend enough time to realize that she's very much her father's daughter – she's really good at this whole "running Winterfell" thing. As she strolls through the castle with her advisors, she makes the right calls, thinks to the future, and plans for every contingency. Like the best of the Starks (and c'mon, they're all good Starks, Brent), Sansa's immediate goals involve the welfare of her allies and the people under their protection. It's the mindset of a beloved leader. It's the mindset that causes you to lose wars and get your head chopped off in front of a bloodthirsty crowd at the Sept of Baelor.

But right now, it's the mindset that will protect the north from the army of the undead, even if it's not a mindset prepared to deal with the Lannister forces to the south (forces that are starting to look like a real problem, but we'll get there later). So the mere presence of Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish is a mixed blessing. The man is a scumbag and an opportunist and the reason Sansa had to endure the marriage bed of Ramsay Bolton, but he's also alive when so many of those around him have died. And he's alive for a reason – Littlefinger is the wiliest guy on Game of Thrones and one of the few men perfectly willing to let it all burn down and rule the ashes. After all, we're talking about a peasant who designed his own sigil for a House of one. Being king of the ashes means the opportunity to rebuild the world in your image.

In Littlefinger, Sansa has a powerful ally and his advice about foreseeing all possible outcomes so you are never surprised is good advice in the land of Westeros. So the path ahead seems clear: foresee a solution that involves removing Baelish's head from his shoulders the moment he's outlived his usefulness. It's the only way to be sure.

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Bran and Melisandre: Cryptic Pale People Being Cryptic

Another Stark has returned to Winterfell! In what should've been a happy and joyous homecoming, Bran Stark has finally made it home after a few seasons beyond The Wall and...well, he's a changed man. /Film's own Vanessa Bogart has dubbed him Heroin Chic Bran – this gaunt, pale, vague oddball is a far cry from the youngster who used to enjoy climbing a little too much. He's the Three-Eyed Raven, which means that he knows all...and he no longer seems capable of carrying on a proper conversation with an ordinary human being. I guess being a powerful psychic and warg means all social graces go out the window – you probably shouldn't remind your sister of her wedding to the guy who raped and abused her, even if you mean well. In any case, it's an awkward reunion (especially since Bran has no interest in the whole "running Winterfell" thing), but he does say that he needs to speak with Jon. About what? He doesn't say. But it probably has something to do with him being a secret half-Targaryen, which he learned via psychic flashback last season.

Speaking of cryptic people being cryptic, two of Westeros' most unnerving and slippery citizens finally had the chance to have a proper meeting in "The Queen's Justice." On the cliffs outside Dragonstone, Melisandre the red priestess and Varys the spider shared some words...and as expected, these expert poker players kept their cards close to their vests. It's rare to see either of these two rattled (although we did see Melisandre nearly lose her faith last season before realizing "Oh, I have the power to resurrect the dead! All good now!"), but this conversation shakes Varys to the core. The red witch declares that she's destined to die in Westeros...and notes that the same is true for the slippery master of hisperers.

Varys, unflappable by nature, has only expressed true fear in two scenes in all of Game of Thrones, both of them opposite red priestesses representing the Lord of Light. We know that he was mutilated by a sorcerer in his youth. We know that the sorcerer told him something that he has never shared. And now, it seems like we have a hint of what he was told, and possibly what he has been attempting to avoid his entire life. The master of whisperers is doomed.

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Jorah Mormont is Movin' Out

Samwell Tarly, the most unbearable character in George R.R. Martin's novels, has beaten the odds and become one of the most lovable fellas on a show full of characters that demand your love and affection. The endlessly well-meaning and braver-than-he-thinks maester-in-training seems a little disconnected from the main story right now, but his adventures in Hogwarts, er, the Citadel have been a joy. First, it was hilarious bedpan montages. Now, it's him miraculously saving the life of Jorah Mormont by defying orders from Dumbledore, er, the Archmaester. 10 points for Gryffindor! Eh, scratch that. We all know Sam is totally a Hufflepuff.

But with Jorah's skin (literally) saved and the two seemingly-disconnected-but-actually-connected-by-a-string-of-unlikely-but-undeniably-moving-relationships sharing a lovely farewell, what's next for them? For Jorah, it's clear, even if he doesn't say it out loud: he's got to head to Dragonstone, where Daenerys needs all the help she can get at this point. For Sam, it's a promotion from bedpan duty to transcribing ancient scrolls duty. Honestly, Sam just being a student under a kind-but-strict Jim Broadbent (a welcome presence, even if he hasn't had a chance to do much yet) has been so much fun that I hope he just continues to goof off for the rest of the show, giving us a chance to have a little bit of fun while everyone else is bleeding and dying and screaming.

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A Shaky Alliance of Ice and Fire

Here's the thing about modern fandom: we like our heroes to be best buddies. It's why we loved watching the Avengers eat shawarma together after defending New York from an alien invasion. It's not enough that the characters we love be a team – they have to love hanging out and bantering and create opportunities for us to imagine what it would be like to be a part of their little circle. And while this mindset has inspired fun movies and enough terrific pieces of fan art to fill a thousand Tumblr pages, I sometimes find it exhausting. Because not all heroes are built from the same cloth. Not all good people get along. Heck, certain "good" characters may not even see other "good" characters as "good" at all. It's a matter of perspective.

That's why I loved the genuinely icy first meeting between Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen and Jon Snow, the bastard of Winterfell and unlikely King in the North. We've followed both of these characters for years, watching as they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps by sheer necessity. They would both be dead and forgotten at the bottom a pit (metaphorical, but maybe also literal?) if they had not beaten insurmountable odds. The mother of dragons and the former Lord Commander of the Night's Watch have more in common than they could ever know. They earned their position through strength of character and sheer willpower – nothing was ever handed to them. They're outliers in a war being fought mostly by the privileged.

And yet, they're not fast friends. They're not even instant allies. He won't bend the knee. She doesn't believe his story of the army of the dead. Tyrion Lannister, the link connecting both of them, struggles to navigate this clash of personalities, but he can only do so much when two stubborn, hot-headed leaders clash, exposing sets of priorities so different from one another that they aren't even close to being on the same page. They're not even in the same book. Hell, they're not even in the same genre. Dany is in a war story, a tale of political intrigue, and Jon Snow comes marching into her world from a collection of myths and fables.

The two most divergent ends of Game of Thrones, the two most divergent characters, the two fan-favorite heroes, have finally met. And it could not have gone worse.

There are basic pleasures to be taken from Jon and Dany's big meeting. The way Davos Seaworth apologizes for his rough accent before stepping to Jon's defense. The way Daenerys, simmering like a true dragon, explains what she has overcome to be in this position. The way Jon's straightforward manner clashes with the austere setting and complex politics of the situation at hand. But the big takeaway, the big pleasure of watching these two meet, is the realization that the two most straightforward, noble, and heroic characters on the show do not mesh. A hero born in the icy wastes of the north is not instantly compatible with a hero made in the fires of Essos. Much like how Cersei's monstrous nature is born from feminism sharpened to a fine point and lobbed in a morally questionable direction, the very nature of "good" is its own shade of grey. Just when you thought these two were the most straightforward characters on Game of Thrones, they actually meet and prove that, as usual, it's never that simple.

Of course, Tyrion forges a shaky alliance (and his conversation about brooding with Jon is one of his funniest exchanges in quite some time). The north will get the dragonglass they need and Dany's army will help mine it. It's a big gesture. They're not friends yet, but it's a start. And since "The Queen's Justice" ends with the rest of Dany's friends dead, captured, or stranded, a possible friend to the north, even one who has his eye on an enemy not named Lannister, is worth all of the gold in Highgarden.

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Daenerys is Losing This War, Guys

Remember the final moments of season 6 when Team Fire and Blood sailed across the Narrow Sea and everyone, including yours truly, saw that line-up and said, "Man, Daenerys is just going to roll over everyone next season?" Well, to borrow the parlance of another land and time: LOL.

The surprising thing about Game of Thrones season 7 so far has been just how prepared Cersei Lannister has been for Daenerys' invasion and how effortlessly her forces have outplayed them at every turn. Half of their fleet was burnt last week, removing Dorne and Yara Greyjoy from the equation. And this week saw things get even worse. Sure, the Unsullied took Casterly Rock, the home turf of the Lannisters that finally made its onscreen debut, but they fell right into a trap. The castle was empty and the army was already on the move. By the time Grey Worm figured this out, his navy was on fire courtesy of Euron Greyjoy. The greatest fighting force known to man is now across the continent from its leader, without ships. And the actual Lannister forces, led by the ruthless dream team of Jaime Lannister, Randyll Tarly, and Bronn, invaded a nearly defenseless Highgarden and removed House Tyrell from the map, claiming their wealth to pay back the Iron Bank of Braavos, secure their fields for the winter, and stripping Dany of another wise ally in the form of Olenna Tyrell.

Daenerys has been outplayed in every possible way and it's kind of shocking.

But that brings us to the elephant in the room. Or rather, the three elephants. Okay, the three dragons. Because Daenerys knows as well as anyone that she could win this war in no time at all if she just unleashed her children upon King's Landing. It would be simple. It would be fast. And it would be bloody and involve the untold death of countless innocents. Yet, Dany is very aware of her father's legacy. No child should be forced to atone for the sins of their parents (a lesson Jon Snow put into action when he pardoned the north's traitorous Houses earlier this season), but Dany is living in the shadow of some pretty big sins. To burn a city with her dragons would only fulfill her father's maniacal ambitions – to destroy the capital city with wildfire rather than let anyone else sit on the Iron Throne.

With Daenerys in a corner, nearly friendless, her armies scattered, she is quickly running out of options. Fire and blood may be the only way forward.

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The Magnificent Death of Olenna Tyrell

Game of Thrones has had its fair share of magnificent and shocking death scenes. Eddard Stark losing his head. Joffrey Baratheon poisoned at his own wedding. Oberyn Martell getting his head crushed by Gregor Clegane. Tywin Lannister shot with an arrow while on the privy. Even a minor character like Yoren of the Night's Watch went down like a boss, taking on trained Lannister soldiers until his final breath left his body.

Yet, these shocking, gruesome, and twisted deaths have all been topped by the quiet, bloodless demise of Olenna Tyrell, the "Queen of Thorns" and the last remaining member of House Tyrell. With Highgarden taken by Lannister forces, she meets with Jaime Lannister in her room and learns that he has talked the Queen out of enacting a painful or humiliating death on Olenna. She will be allowed to drink a fast-acting and painless poison. Knowing what awaits her should she even consider a refusal (we all saw what happened to Ellaria Sand earlier in the episode), she drains the entire goblet. She will die. That is guaranteed. And soon.

But Olenna Tyrell has never left a room without gaining the upper hand. She has never walked away from a conversation without taking the higher ground with her acidic wit and wisdom. She may be old, but she can outthink and out-talk anyone in Westeros. And after drinking that poisoned wine and guaranteeing her death, she claims her final victory. She coldly informs Jaime that she poisoned Joffrey. She takes pleasure in knowing that Jaime, a member of the Kingsguard, could not save his king. His son. Unwavering and unrepentant, she tells him to let Cersei know that it was she who murdered her son. And Jaime Lannister, the commander of one of Westeros' most powerful armies, a man who had just claimed victory on the battlefield, leaves the room defeated, unable to say a single world.

Olenna Tyrell dies alone, in a castle controlled by her archenemies. And yet she's the clear victor.

It's impossible to overstate what the great Diana Rigg brought to Olenna Tyrell and to the show as a whole. As a survivor, as a quietly masterful tactician, as a women who uses words like others use blades, Rigg was the hilarious, brutally honest voice who cut through the bullshit and brought powerful men to their knees with a single wisecrack alone. In a world dominated by the patriarchy, Olenna was nothing short of a revolutionary. And Rigg, an effortless charmer who radiates intelligence and fury even as she's being the funniest character on the show, played her with shrewd grace and dignity until her final moments. Hot damn, what a character. What an exit.

The Players

For the second week in a row, the actual game of thrones, the one with military action and political maneuverings, was dominated by Cersei Lannister. She's as effective on the Iron Throne as King Robert and King Joffrey were ineffective – she gets shit done. Cruelly and mercilessly, but done. At this point, nothing stands in her way. Euron Greyjoy may get the parades through King's Landing, but Cersei is winning the long game here.

Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen took her biggest hit yet, losing both Dorne and House Tyrell in a single episode. Meanwhile, the Unsullied are trapped in Casterly Rock and the Dothraki are apparently stuck mining dragonglass for Jon Snow. It turns out that getting to Westeros was the easy part and that took six seasons.

On the Stark front, Jon Snow managed to get his dragonglass, but that was more Tyrion's doing. Up north, Sansa is showing herself to be quite the leader, but not the kind of leader who wins the game of thrones – the kind of leader who actually keeps her people alive. So while she's a boss, she's not winning.

Jaime Lannister and his forces? Total pros. Marching and conquering like champs. Doing their thing and doing it well. Maybe they deserve the title this week?

Nah. Let's get a little sentimental and symbolic this week. She may have lost her family, her castle, and her life, by Olenna Tyrell won the game of thrones this week. She died unwavering, staring her enemy in the face and shaking him to his core. This confession is going to reverberate. It's going to reach King's Landing and it's going to worm its way into Cersei's head. These words have the power of an army. In her final moments, Lady Olenna dealt a stronger blow to House Lannister than Daenerys has mustered all season.

Currently Winning the Game of Thrones: Olenna Tyrell