(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows.)
The strength of Game of Thrones‘ first two hours lay in strong thematic parallels, and wonderfully focused characters moments; that is, until Euron’s fleet crashed into Yara and the Sand Snakes, demolishing the increasingly fragile timeline into something absolutely incoherent. The combination of flash and substance between the two hours was palpable, enough to overlook the temporal faults forming at the show’s core, a rather graceful introduction to the changing rhythms and goals of the series as it definitely heads into its final batch of episodes. “The Queen’s Justice” is not nearly as cohesive, a melange of scenes only vaguely arranged around the influence the Lannister dynasty still has over the Seven Kingdoms, 70 minutes of whipping around different locations at who-the-fuck-knows what time, all in service of a climatic montage of another series of decisive victories for the ever-resourceful incestual powerhouse.
Fire and Ice Meet – and ‘Game of Thrones’ Melts Under the Pressure
That’s not to say “The Queen’s Justice” isn’t completely devout of satisfying, strong moments; but those are few and far in between, an allegiance to a ridiculously accelerated timeline undermining any of the development alluded to in the moments in between. Sansa’s sudden ascent into being a commanding leader is fun to watch, sure, but it’s not the most convincing work; it’s a moment rushed through so we can get Littlefinger briefly turning into a mouthpiece for Bran’s newfound mission in the world (why the fuck is Bran in Winterfell, anyway? Is he there to go into the crypts or something? I was too distracted by the sudden change in Bran’s mannerisms to care to remember). Sansa’s influence in Winterfell is something we should really feel; instead, her Sorkin walk-and-talk through the stronghold felt more placeholder for character development than actual character, Sansa barking out orders and being told she takes well to being a leader doesn’t quite give her scenes the weight it deserves.
As important as Winterfell has been through six seasons, it’s surprising to see it take such a back seat in this season; at best, the respected northern stronghold is a place to put characters into a holding pattern, stranded in narrative purgatory as the Army of the Dead makes its way south at what we can only assume is a glacial place (after all, Euron has traveled around half of fucking Westeros in the past two episodes), and Dany’s armies run scatterbrained around Westeros on shitty orders from their leaders. However, since the show’s under the constraints of a shorter final seasons, there’s no room to explore any of the dynamics taking place in Winterfell; how the bannermen are responding to Sansa, how Sansa’s becoming to adept at making decisions about armor and grain storages… as much as I want to see Sansa experience the power she’s been denied (by herself and others), it doesn’t feel like Game of Thrones is making the assumption we can fill in the blanks around her sudden talents for leadership, and make assumptions about her growth based on the very little information we’re given (basically Littlefinger telling her she’s becoming a good leader). The shifting power dynamics of the rest of Westeros have been given so much attention through the years; due to a combination of bad timing and the show’s shifting priorities, Sansa’s arc has appeared to draw the short stick, at least to start the season.
(One more time for good measure; that scene with Bran is painfully boring, a thoroughly lifeless moment that tries to parallel Arya and Nymeria from last week, to much lesser effect).
Another storyline that’s suffering from a severe amount of underdevelopment are the activities at Dragonstone; despite how much time and attention we’ve spent to Dany and Tyrion’s attempts to conquer Westeros, nothing they’re doing seems to make much sense. Part of this comes from a byproduct of their story being the most fucked up temporally, but it also comes from Cersei and Euron playing Tyrion and Dany’s strategies like a tiny, pathetic harp; they haven’t lifted a single muscle to this point, letting Euron (who must have one of Rick Sanchez’s little teleporting guns, right?) decimate their naval fleets, defeat Yara and Ellaria, and completely maroon the Unsullied army – all while Cersei still has plenty of people to march down to Highgarden, killing off the Tyrell family for good, and completely solving all those pesky Iron Bank stories that Game of Thrones completely forgot about for multiple years. Dany and Tyrion’s actions, for all their talk about doing things differently, are channeling the short-sighted strategies Renly and Stannis Baratheon employed against the Lannisters in the past. None of it seems very intelligent on their part, and Game of Thrones hasn’t done much to justify it, except let Jon Snow come in and poke holes in their theories about who should be in power and how.
One thing I appreciate about Dany, Tyrion, and Jon Snow meeting, is how Game of Thrones doesn’t play to the moment’s monumental significance; there are no hints about the possible relation of Jon and Dany, and it’s the one time where “The Queen’s Justice” doesn’t skimp on the details, as Jon and Dany detail the detailed, very complicated and long-lasting relationship between their two houses. Part of what made a lot of these third-act conflicts so intriguing, is how much historical context can be given to every decision; instead of just jumping from point A to point B, “The Queen’s Justice” gives Jon and Dany much-needed room to breathe, to work through the complicated history lesson that is their shared familial past, highlighting the complexities of conflict that aren’t really being expressed as the newest character to enter the Game decimates everything in his path with no cost, remorse, or import.
If there’s a unifying factor to be found in “The Queen’s Justice”, it comes under the vague visage of the title, exploring the complicated realms Dany, Cersei, and (briefly) Sansa are trying to manage as the game for the Seven Kingdoms grows larger and larger (and in Dany’s case, more fantastical and frightening). The rare moments of clarity in “The Queen’s Justice” come from observing these women struggle against the landscapes they’re dominating, worlds inherently not built for them; they’re all inheriting the problems of their fathers and brothers before them, forced to make choices that delineate them from being defined by the men whose lives preceded their own. Men in Westeros are often held to the standards of their father, but rewarded when they forge their own path to family honor; in the new version where women are in charge, it seems so often their decisions are brought into question. How these women breed loyalty from that fragile masculine uncertainty is important; Cersei does it through fear, Dany through freedom and faith, and Sansa through naive compromise. In this hour, only Cersei’s approach is definitively effective; no matter how much she’s told she’s at a disadvantage, Cersei seems to merely snarl and fortunes are changed around her.
Of course, Cersei’s victories now only mean her downfall is that much closer; but it doesn’t make how they stack the deck in her favor any more satisfying, even ironically. Of all the time-bending narratives currently taking place on this show, her ability to move armies, fuck siblings, and manage her medieval checkbook all at one time has nearly broken the show’s reality. Forget the obvious questions (like why the fuck is Highgarden so poorly protected if they have so much money?); Cersei’s villainous victories across the land are given but a moment’s development, neat and tidy in a way that no other Game of Thrones storyline has interest being.
There are times where the show’s lost allegiance to a coherent timeline pays dividends (we don’t lose characters for four episodes at a time to travel, for instance), but in stories like Cersei’s, it only serves to undercut the severity of her decisions, deciding to wallow in the cartoonish depths of her evil rather than invest time in developing the layers of her game, like how she’s using both Euron and Jaime to serve her political ends, reinforcing herself in the position she found herself but a few years back, married to a military commander and sleeping with her brother on the side (only difference is now they’re not hiding it – but who cares?).
At the heart of season seven – and the whole series, all the way back to Ned’s “noble” beheading scene in the pilot – is observing how the next generation of Westeros is trying to break out of the traditional definitions of their families, religions, and societal assumptions. Dany and Jon’s extended conversation is as close as we get to “The Queen’s Justice” exploring those foundations in a meaningful way; Cersei’s effortless machinations serve as a counterexample, a conquest so weightless, even a dynamic final appearance by Olenna Martell (conquered so Cersei can pay off her father’s debts and secure the Iron Bank’s finances for war) can’t tether to anything particularly useful, save for obvious deck-stacking against Jon, Dany, and the rest of Westeros. Tyrion’s monologue, set against the unexpected complications awaiting on the Casterly Rock shores, allude to some of the deeper themes, but it is a fleeting moment that struggles against a landscape of big political moments, wink-wink plot allusions, and that godawful Bran and Sansa scene in the Godswood (all this time, and that’s the scene we get?). I’m all for Game of Thrones to be as cruel and unexpected as it always was; but the devastating effects of those moments are given their weight by the material preceding it, legwork that “The Queen’s Justice” doesn’t have the time or interest to really entertain.
- this week’s Signature broken tradition; Sam working more of his magic by saving Jorah’s life. Granted, it’s probably so Jorah can go make a fool of himself before dying, but hey – he continues to be the Man with All the Skills, which means he’s probably not going to be at the Citadel too much longer.
- This episode does a great job pointing out how little Jon and Dany’s titles really are in the bigger picture, no matter how much it plays into their disagreement about allegiance and purpose. Her title has a lot of words, but to people like Jon and Cersei, they are a long string of forgettable declarations.
- Hey, there’s Theon – what a loser, amirite?! (I can’t decide which character arc has fallen apart more in recent seasons; Theon or Jaime).
- At least Dany kind of believes that the Night King is on his way… kind of? Maybe?
- Ugh, Euorn is the fucking worst.
- Speaking of, why does Euron buy Cersei’s “After we win” marriage agreement? In fact, why does anyone agree to the things they do in this hour? The most maddening is probably Dany’s agreement to let Jon mine dragon glass, without forcing him to make a single concession of his own. I understand she’s making a gesture of faith (which, as Melisandre’s limp, brief appearance reminds us, is seldom rewarded), but boy, does she end that negotiation quickly.
- At this point, it seems a given that one of Dany’s dragons will fall, either when she goes to King’s Landing, or runs into Euron’s fleet. Any guesses? Does it matter?
- Oh, poor Yara.
- Olenna goes out on a high notes: calls Joffrey a cunt, makes fun of Jaime for losing so much, and then drops the bomb that she killed him (revealing to Jaime that it wasn’t Tyrion, a wrinkle that could be interesting in the future)
- Littlefinger is obviously up to something; I wonder when we’ll get 45 seconds to wrap up that story!
- ugh, that scene with Cersei and Ellaria goes on for so long.