game of thrones the queen's justice 9

(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.

game of thrones the queen's justice 7

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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