Westeros isn’t much for poetry. The Seven Kingdoms seem to have produced a grand total of two songs, give or take the musical stylings of Ed Sheeran, which are so very beloved by the Game of Thrones fanbase. Despite that, there is great poetry in these contentious lands, a call and response that echoes across seas and across ages. But true to the character of the place, it finds its form in death and vengeance rather than in meter and verse.
Poetic justice is the type that Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) prefers. She cannot sleep at night, spending the twilight hours coming up with creative punishments, ones that feature pendulums swinging back against those who’ve wronged her. She’s the type to stand over Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham), the woman who once tortured her and marched her through the streets, and waterboard her with wine, tell her to repent just as she did when their roles were reversed, and offer her own remonstrations of “shame shame shame.”
So when Cersei has Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) and her daughter, Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), at her mercy, she runs through the creative ways in which she might exact her revenge this time. She discusses having The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) smash Ellaria’s skull in just as he did to her lover, Oberyn (Pedro Pascal). But she settles on a different sort of poetry. Instead, she gives Tyene a poison kiss, just as Ellaria did to Myrcella (Nell Tiger Free), only this time, Cersei leaves Ellaria to watch her daughter die.
That is Cersei’s favorite game — theme and variation, repetition with a crueler twist. She is an artist in her own way, one unbound by the human connection her children once provided, given over unto unbounded cruelty as she revels in her slant rhymes of past events. But the meters and verses of Westeros need not be so lethal. “The Queen’s Justice” offers something that Game of Thrones fans have been anticipating for ages — Jon Snow (Kit Harington) meeting Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke).
At first, the two could not seem more different. Dany sits aloft in her throne, flanked by hulking guards. She’s introduced with an endless stream of the usual appellations by her elocution-trained advisor. In response, the Bastard of Winterfell has only his Flea Bottom-accented associate, who pithily retorts, “This is Jon Snow.” With a bit of prompting, he hastens to add that Jon is the king in the North, though with little ceremony or fanfare.
Dany is focused on taking the Iron Throne and unseating Cersei in the South, while Jon is fixated on defeating the army of the dead that marches in the North. Daenerys and Jon come from different positions, wanting different things, with seemingly little common ground between them, despite the electricity of this long-awaited meeting of the minds.
And yet there’s more than a bit they have in common. While Jon accuses Dany of trading on her father’s name, the sort of name he was never graced with, she explains that she scratched and clawed and fought and suffered to get where she is today. Dany was a child in exile who made her own way, and it was a very, very hard way. But Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) retorts that Jon too started from nothing and rose to become the leader of Free Folk and Northern Lords alike after all he’d seen and survived. His path to this meeting was a fraught one as well.
Jon and Dany are two individuals who understand better than most their shared desire not to be stained by the mistakes of one’s forefathers, to be able turn a new page in the family tome. And unbeknownst to either, Dany is not the last living Targaryen. The man with whom she eventually shares even ground is the other loose end of The Mad King’s bloodline. To that end, there’s much about these two aspiring monarchs that rhymes, even before they reach a detente centered on dragonglass. As Melisandre (Carice van Houten) puts it, they are fire and ice come together, two children of major figures from the last great war, come to pick up the pieces after the failures of the prior generation, in the hopes that their mistakes won’t be repeated.
Still, there are more pieces to pick up, more pieces off the board, as “The Queen’s Justice” comes to a close. When this season started, it seemed inevitable that Cersei had bitten off more than she could chew. With opposition in all directions, she seemed overmatched and underprepared to face war on multiple fronts.
Tyrion’s (Peter Dinklage) plan to defeat his sister, however, has gone up in flames, and the call and response of Westeros has changed once again. Last week, Yara’s (Gemma Whelan) ships were destroyed by Euron (Pilou Asbæk) and her Ironborn soldiers are now dead or captured. Cersei has “cut off the head of the Dornish snake.” Phase one of Tyrion’s plan — the one Olenna (Diana Rig) cautioned Dany against — was over before it began.
This week, that failure continues. Tyrion’s plotted siege of Casterly Rock goes as he predicted, with The Unsullied conquering the Lannister homeland with little challenge thanks to his cunning. Except that when Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and company take the city, they discover that the thousands of Lannister soldiers Tyrion promised are not there, revealed to be marching on The Reach instead.
It’s a brutal miscalculation for Dany’s camp. The misstep allows Cersei to amass power and prepare for war. She has Euron’s loyalty (which is cruder and more ribald than ever), and she seeks the same from The Iron Bank, noting that Lannisters always pay their debts while revolutionaries like Dany are rarely good for business for the old guard. In order to provide collateral for their proposed investment, Cersei sends her brother to take the Tyrells’ ample stores of gold and dominion over their fertile lands.
Suddenly, Cersei has control of the seas. She has the funds to gain the support (and with it the swords) of The Iron Bank. She has the blood of her two most bitter rivals on her hands. Daenerys still has three dragons and an army of Dothraki, but she’s too important to risk dying while leading either into battle right now.
When this season began, The Mother of Dragons looked poised to reclaim her birthright, and The Mother of Joffrey looked stretched too thin and outmatched. But new verses and new refrains come quickly in the Seven Kingdoms, the shifting alliances and sunken fortunes changing the tune the two warring queens, with their very different ideas of justice.
But there is one last bit of poetry that the episode has to offer. As Jaime and his army take The Reach, he confronts Olenna Tyrell, and she tries to give him a last bit of sage advice. While Cersei admits that she hardly sleeps at night, haunted by the things she’s seen and the grudges that eat at her, Lady Tyrell explains that despite the terrible things she herself has had to do, she never lost sleep over them. They were necessary, she explains. It is a hard world, and Olenna is someone who faces that hardship with open eyes and a stiff upper lip.
Yet Cersei’s actions, the ways in which she’s willing to bring blight and pestilence where none need be loosed, shock the conscience of even this hardened survivor who’s seen it all. While the Queen at Dragonstone takes on losses because she’s not willing to let innocent people die by her hand, the Queen in King’s Landing will kill whomever she must, regardless of the need for it, to hold onto power. Olenna warns Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) that Cersei is a monster, a fact which love cannot blind him to forever.
Still, Olenna is steeled against the inevitable. Jaime has talked his sister out of crueler deaths for Lady Tyrell, but unbeknownst to him, he offers her a demise with a certain amount of poetry in it. She drinks the poisoned cup of wine without resistance or hesitation, but not before landing one last blow. It’s right that she die by poison given by Joffrey’s father, as she dryly but pointedly confesses to poisoning the young king herself, one last indignity to lob at Cersei before she leaves this mortal coil.
There’s a point in the classic Italian sonnet known as the “volta” or “the turn.” It’s where the poem moves from one thought to its counterpoint, from setup to subversion, from tension to catharsis. Olenna is a woman who knows when a turn is coming — she sees Jaime’s well enough — but she knows how to deliver one as well.
That is the call and response of Game of Thrones. Fortunes change on the battlefield. The embodiments of ice and fire meet face to face. Even deaths at the hands of Westeros’s most creative practitioners of revenge have the ring of poetry to them. But the turn always comes, for kings meeting queens, armies meeting navies, and grand lords and ladies meeting their ends.
Guess Who’s Back, Back Again: Bronn (Jerome Flynn) makes his Season 7 debut in Jaime’s coterie as the Lannisters march on Highgarden, but he neither sings nor makes a crude and cutting remark, so it hardly counts. On the other hand, his vowel-exchanged counterpart Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), despite putting in a brief appearance in the season premiere, makes his return to Winterfell for the first time since Season 2 here (not counting trips back in time). Bran punctuates his reunion with his sister in a sufficiently creepy manner by talking about how he watched her forcible marriage to a sociopath. Small talk at these family events is always so awkward.
So Long and Thanks For All the Blackfish: The remaining half of the Sand Snakes seem poised to perish, but this is Game of Thrones, so let’s not count them out just yet. But as mentioned above, this week we bid a fond farewell to Lady Olenna Tyrell, and with her, Diana Rigg, who has the distinction of being second only to Tyrion Lannister in delightful bon mots. She will be missed. Olenna, naturally, goes out like a champ. If she weren’t taunting her opponent with the revelation that she was responsible for his son’s death, I’d half-expect her to say, “How my hair look, Jaime?”
Line of the Night: “I came down here to brood over my failure to predict the Greyjoy attack. You’re making it difficult. You look a lot better brooding than I do. You make me feel like I’m failing at brooding over failing.” It’s okay, Tyrion. Jon had several seasons where practically did nothing but brood. It comes with experience.
This Week in Lore: We learn that Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) built the current version of Casterly Rock himself, concerned with every little detail except the sewers; those he left to Tyrion, “the lowest person he could find.” Tyrion added a secret passage for sneaking in his less than savory acquaintances, and it proves the key to the Unsullied taking the city. In an episode that features any number of references to people building themselves from the ground up, it’s a reminder that it’s nice to have friends in low places.
Lady Stark Is Coming, Look Busy: Sansa (Sophie Turner) has taken to being the Warden of the North like a direwolf to frozen tundra. She remembers the fable of the ant and the grasshopper and smartly stores up grain for winter. She’s also smart enough to continue to curtly rebuff Littlefinger’s manipulations, to the point that he stops trying to persuade her and simply admits his thought process — play out every permutation of the game in your own mind so that nothing surprises you. If you can get Lord Baelish (Aidan Gillen) to tell the truth, you must be doing something right.
Better Than Bedpans, I Guess: All that skin-peeling, stomach-churning treatment at The Citadel was worth it, as Sam (John Bradley-West) managed to cure Ser Jorah (Iain Glen). The handshake between the two is a gesture of supreme kindness. It’s heartening on Sam’s part for the way he doesn’t recoil from Jorah despite his sore state, and it’s downright sweet on Jorah’s for the extra hand he places over Sam’s, a sign of his gratitude for the first bit of human contact he’s had in some time and for the maester-in-training’s sacrifices on his behalf. The Archmaester (Jim Broadbent) compliments Sam on his accomplishment, but rewards him with a table full of scrolls to copy. I expect we’ll see him in next week’s intro doing the Game of Thrones equivalent of a chalkboard gag.