“She’s a monster. And she will be the end of you.”
A great many prophetic words cast their way through ‘The Queen’s Justice’, the third episode of Game of Thrones’ truncated Season 7, spoken both by seers, machiavelli’s and plain old noble lords and ladies coming to understand the swift revolution surging its way through Westeros as the ‘great war’ for the Seven Kingdoms truly begins. Olenna Tyrell’s final proclamation may turn out to be the most pointed, as on the face of it the Queen’s primary justice is no justice at all.
Cersei Lannister now finds herself in a position she is well and truly making the most of: ultimate, unrivalled power (in King’s Landing at least). She considers herself the singular authority in the Seven Kingdoms. She masterminds strategies that by the end of the episode put her in a position of increasing invulnerability, channeling her deceased father Tywin in tactically making shrewd choices which her turncoat brother Tyrion, on the side of her principal enemy Daenerys Targaryen, failed to predict. She is even confident enough to openly sleep with her brother Jaime Lannister, unafraid to let servants see their sexual relationship when both fought so hard to keep it secret for years.
Nonetheless, Cersei is continuing to exist within her own reinforced narrative, and the justice she serves up is poetic rather than for the good of the people. Slow death is a recurrent theme amongst those whom Cersei traps and defeats in this episode; she allows Jaime to give Olenna a slow acting poison once Highgarden is seized by Lannister forces in an unexpected game play, while Cersei herself gives Tyene Sand a poisoned kiss in front of Ellaria, the exact same death Ellaria planted on Cersei’s daughter Myrcella as she left Dorne, as revenge for the Lannister’s murdering Martell’s previously. Cersei can’t see that; she actually asks Ellaria, incredulously, ‘why’ she killed her only daughter.
This speaks to the level of enforced fantasy Cersei is living in. She cannot comprehend the consequences of the actions undertaken by Lannister rulers before her, the decision to order the Mountain to kill Elia Martell and her babes at the end of Robert’s Rebellion, which led to the chain of events here; oddly enough this lines her up with Jon Snow & Daenerys Targaryen in a way, who here both have to face the reality of not simply continuing the actions or testaments of their forebears – though whereas they are prepared to move on, Cersei will not and cannot. Cersei will also no longer live in the shadows of shame, the kind of shame the Faith Militant tried to destroy her with. She won’t even cower to the mercurial might of the Iron Bank.
It’s a bubble destined to burst, however. The writing is already on the wall. Euron Greyjoy may be having a whale of a time parading his captives through the streets of King’s Landing and taunting Jaime with all the ways he’s going to do his sister up the bum, but he visibly considers Cersei’s refusal to bed and wed him until ‘the war’ is won as a rebuke. He may be just missing a twirling moustache but he’s not stupid, and Tycho Nestoris even voices the fact Euron is only temporarily loyal, until he gets a better offer (he did originally come after Dany remember?). Olenna’s bullish, dying take down, even if Cersei didn’t hear it, is another sign and portent.
Jaime Lannister’s arc is one of the most fascinating in George R.R. Martin’s saga. At the point where Euron is waving gleefully to a crowd of courtiers after delivering women to die at Cersei’s hand is very much Jaime in a past life, but he’s changed. He learned a level of respect for his enemies while imprisoned for a long time by Catelyn Stark, and later being transported by the noble Brienne of Tarth. He lost his precious fighting hand and was forced to learn a level of humility in losing, essentially, his prized manhood. Yet he has always remained loyal to Cersei, through religious insurgence, through Tyrion’s patricide, even through the death of all of their children. She is his constant and he is hers.
Olenna is the first person to truly call him out on this and tell him Cersei will destroy him, ultimately. Jaime has almost certainly thought this might happen (he even says as much to Olenna) but he’s always pushed it to the back of his mind, aware Cersei has never had the power or scope to release her truly monstrous ambitions. That’s no longer the case. His sister has transformed into little more than a tool of vengeance, with zero interest or conception in the common people or the good of Westeros. Her only humanity comes from Jaime, from their sexual and emotional bond. If he were to abandon her, nothing would be left. Jaime knows that but Olenna, prophetically, tells him the darkness will eat him up too.
Oddly enough Olenna’s dying revelation, that she was the mastermind behind Joffrey’s death (though not the *only* mastermind of course), could push Jaime closer to Cersei’s orbit. Olenna tells him out of spite, because she wants the kind of poetic justice Cersei delivered up to Tyene here reversed, in that she kills Olenna in the way Olenna killed Joffrey, but this parting shot could make Jaime even more convinced the allies of Daenerys Targaryen need to be destroyed. He’s visibly shocked and disturbed by her words (it’s a wonder he doesn’t run her through right there) but the impression they will have on him is uncertain. What it could do to Cersei is finally shatter the bubble she has been living in.
The other bubble shattering element is one that for now she’s shrewdly keeping at bay: the Iron Bank. One of the quiet strengths in Game of Thrones is that David Benioff & D.B. Weiss have never lost sight of the pragmatic realities of a feudal system of rule, and quite how the forces of capitalism exist in that economic framework. Tywin knew the importance of the Iron Bank of Braavos for decades. He understood, and told Cersei in Season 4, that Casterly Rock’s ever-secure power base financially was crumbling. Westerland mines were dry and to fund continuing conflicts in Westeros, more borrowing from the Iron Bank was happening every day. “Wars swallow gold like a pit in the earth” Tywin told Cersei, who asked “how do we pay for everything?”.
Part of the answer was House Tyrell, who with Highgarden were also sitting on one of the biggest gold reserves and financial security in the entire Seven Kingdoms. It wasn’t just a noble legacy reason Tywin schemed to marry two of his children to Tyrell heirs, it was a financial and economic one; he knew that to run not just a country but a continent you needed money and for that you needed wealthy alliances with wealthy partners, and that’s what he tried to do. Cersei, given how she spectacularly buggered this up after Tywin’s death, is now patching over the solution by hit & running Highgarden; it’s the equivalent of Blair & Bush invading Iraq for the oil. The Lannister’s need resources and money if they ever hope to make good on their slogan and pay their debts.
Tycho Nestoris turning up at Cersei’s door and questioning whether he should bet on her side is evidence that capitalism, as much as the White Walkers, is the true enemy of a feudal system where noble lords and ladies play their power games. Wars are expensive and someone needs to pay for them, and Game of Thrones continues to play with this message as the final act of the story continues to suggest the world of Westeros cannot, and will not, exist in the form it has for centuries once the wars are done. Whoever rules when the day is won, and how they rule, will have to consider the growing emergence of economic capitalism. The Iron Bank, after all, don’t care who rules Westeros. They only care about who is the most likely to pay.
Should she defeat Cersei, and rule the Seven Kingdoms, will Daenerys truly understand this message? Perhaps. Thanks in no small part to the counsel of wise and pragmatic people around her, Dany is coming to realise more and more that she cannot rule like Targaryen’s of old, especially not her father the Mad King. In her first, historic, meeting with Jon Snow (seven years and a million theories in the making), a great deal of legend is discussed between the ‘rightful’ Queen and the King in the North, with one outcome: Jon won’t simply accept a system and rule of power that his father, grandfather and ancestors did. Too much has changed now.
A major factor for why Jon can’t, and won’t, accept this is of course the threat of the White Walkers, and it’s no surprise Daenerys is going to take some convincing of this. Jon has a weariness about him now, a frustration of all the ‘petty squabbles’ he’s having to deal with, when he knows the true enemy waits at their gates. Game of Thrones has always been a show which plays with the idea of perception and reality; almost nobody throughout the show has seen the whole picture of what’s going on, and many refuse to see the reality of their situation at all. The most pragmatic, sensible people (like Sam or Davos for instance) are the ones we root and cheer for.
Tyrion has become one of those characters too, even if he took a while to get through Lannister Family Values and reach that point of catharsis; he now has the kind of sisterly relationship of banter and affection he should have had with Daenerys, but he makes a serious tactical error here. Some of that Lannister over-confidence bleeds through as he singularly fails to anticipate the shrewd battlefield manoeuvres Cersei undertakes; he may have found a Trojan Horse to take Casterly Rock, but what use does it really have? There’s little tactical value and, as we now know, there’s no gold, so Grey Worm may not be in a perilous siege situation for little point.
Daenerys is going to have to reevaluate a few things by the end of ‘The Queen’s Justice’. Three significant allies—the Dornish, the Greyjoy’s and the Tyrell’s—are gone. She built her invasion of Westeros on these home allies but their incompetence and Tyrion’s tactical errors have vastly weakened her position. Her only power at sea now are three dragons which Cersei already has a sinister plan to take out, and her Dothraki & Unsullied armies are facing a massive Lannister host of equal troops thanks to the Tarly support and Highgarden as, now, another central power base. Jon may have come to Dragonstone needing Daenerys, but she is going to need Jon for the wars to come.
Jon, though, may have made a serious tactical error himself in leaving Winterfell. Practical concerns are already affecting Sansa as she attempts to rule in his stead; the people won’t have enough food for what could be the longest winter yet, so as Cersei’s faces economic realities from the Iron Bank to the south, Sansa is facing ecological realities in the cold north. How can the Stark’s rule well and hope to defeat the White Walkers if their people are starving? These are considerations, as Jon has been focused on figuring out a way to destroy the dead, he hasn’t factored in. Practical, pragmatism again knocking on the door in a world where the common people aren’t considered half the time.
What will Sansa make, however, of the stranger, more existential elements now troubling her in Winterfell? Touching as her response to Bran’s return is, we soon see how much he has changed in becoming the Three-Eyed Raven; he is muted, emotionless, more of a vessel channeling great knowledge and wisdom, and Sansa sees the dispassion in her brother the moment he recalls her wedding under the weirwood tree to Ramsey, memories that will haunt Sansa traumatically for the rest of her life. She understands, in that moment, Bran’s rightful claim as Lord of Winterfell means nothing; again, as Jon tries to explain to Daenerys, too much has changed.
Creepy as Bran’s cold honesty may be, arguably the most unnerving moment of the episode goes to Littlefinger. His metaphysical advice to Sansa, in which he suggests she play out all possible realities and scenarios in her mind, is chilling, and one wonders how Littlefinger could well try and manipulate the very real fact that Bran *does* have access to all possible realities and future’s past and present. Some have speculated Littlefinger may know the truth about Jon’s lineage and use that to turn Sansa against her brother, but might he corrupt this knowledge from Bran? Either way, be aware once again that Littlefinger is continuing to play a long game, theorising three steps ahead of everyone else.
In parallel, a small but significant moment between two other chess players is illuminating: Varys and Melisandre. If poetic justice is one major theme to this episode, the weight of prophetic portent, as discussed above, is another; Davos gleefully attaches himself and proclaims the brilliance of Jon (as he did with Stannis the Mannis previously) but Melisandre has learned the lesson of aligning herself with kings and queens. A telling line from Varys suggests he too may not quite be done with manipulation and game playing as he would like Daenerys to believe, but he’s chilled when Melisandre suggests death may soon be upon both of them – quite how is the question, and what role these two enigmas, as indeed Littlefinger, may play in the final outcome.
Though some may consider Tyrion’s narration of the ‘battle of Casterly Rock’ heavily promoted in the trailers to be something of a disappointing slight of hand, Game of Thrones continues racing through cataclysmic geo-political events and taking out major players as we race ever heavily toward conclusion of the saga. Nothing is certain, all possibilities and futures remain on the table, with prophecy and misplaced justice as keenly observed as ever. Quite what happens next is anyone’s guess.