This week’s episode was a peculiar one, to say the least. One can’t say that nothing happened — Casterly Rock fell, as did Highgarden. Jon Snow finally met Daenerys. Sansa was reunited with Bran. Cersei avenged the death of Myrcella. And yet, despite these momentous events, ‘The Queen’s Justice’ felt strangely hollow. It wasn’t a bad episode, really, just not a terribly interesting one, and that in and of itself is worth examining. There’s a common thread that runs through each of this week’s vignettes, and once I figured out what that was, it became easy to see the problem.
At Dragonstone, we begin with the meeting of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryan, and it’s certainly off to a rocky start. It’s a bit of a frustrating scene, because Dany’s constant “bend the knee” and Jon’s constant “but the White Walkers” is a wasteful and, frankly, not very intelligent exchange. And while Tyrion artfully points this out earlier, it bothered me that two of the most intelligent and fearless leaders in the world were so stubbornly unable to see why their respective approaches were, quite frankly, kind of stupid. There’s no rational reason why either party should buy into the other, and that should have been figured out from the onset. Did they do no homework? Talk to their advisors? At some point, Tyrion — who knows Jon Snow didn’t suggest that maybe demands of fealty from the woman whose father was the enemy of Jon’s father wasn’t the best option? And no one suggested to Jon that perhaps leading with “AN ARMY OF ZOMBIES WILL KILL US ALL” isn’t the best ploy? But what made it worse is that the exchanges simply weren’t particularly affecting. The dialogue felt stilted and creaky, and while their differences are eventually somewhat resolved thanks to Tyrion, their mulish penchant for argument at the beginning caused that entire sequence to lose some luster.
This continued in King’s Landing, where we’re subjected to more of the arrogant, grating clowning of Euron Greyjoy. I’m not alone in loathing this character, and not just because he’s written to be loathsome. Several people have noted how poorly written his entire arc is, from miraculously building a thousand ships in a matter of weeks, to the obnoxious portrayal that’s simply too over-the-top. And while there’s an inevitable sense of comeuppance, it doesn’t make sitting through his antics any less annoying. Thankfully, things in King’s Landing are saved by Lena Heady’s utterly horrifying — in the best possible way — performance in the dungeons with Ellaria and Tyene Sand. It’s a brutally scripted scene, in no small part due to the hulking presence of Gregor Clegane. I remembered thinking how angry I would be if their ending resulted in rape and torture, and thankfully, we’re not subjected to that. Instead, Cersei’s fearsome and terrifying vengeance is drawn out, her delivery simultaneously warm and sinister, understanding and furious. The sense of dread throughout that scene is palpable, and it’s easily the finest moment of the night, even if it’s the most grisly.
As we head North, we see Sansa dealing with the new burdens of leadership, and she appears to be something of a natural at it, which, given the amount of time she’s spent under the thumb of crueler lords, isn’t too surprising. One would think that the best course of action for her is simply “do whatever Joffrey or Ramsay wouldn’t do.” The catch, however, is that I’ve grown tired of Littlefinger. In seasons past, his mustache-twirling monologues were welcome, eloquent and filled with weight. Now, they’ve become garbled riddles, bereft of the wicked cleverness (that said, Sansa routinely shutting him down is delightful — “That the woman who murdered my mother, father, and brother is dangerous? Thank you for your wise counsel” is so devilishly well-delivered). Worse still, her being united with Bran dragged everything to a halt, because Bran… is just not a good character. His three-eyed raven mysticism is dull and aggravating, and it’s not helped by the lifeless delivery that Isaac Hempstead Wright gives.
We closed with the fall of both Highgarden and Casterly Rock, two events that were decidedly less exciting than they probably should have been. It was another series of storytelling missteps — why on earth would Tyrion wait for such a dramatic moment to tell HIS QUEEN about his entire plan for the Unsullied? Sure, it’s a fun little bit of rug-pulling, but for a show that prides itself on writing and realism, it’s utterly idiotic to pretend that an entire sneak attack was kept from every single high-level person in the Queen’s entourage. And of course, once again, Dany’s fleet is decimated, because that’s the Game of Thrones way — tear them down, then build them up, then tear them down again. At least Highgarden had the delightful exchange between Jaime Lannister and Olenna, with her truly getting the last word, throwing his son’s death in the face of Jaime’s mercy.
So, what’s the common thread here? Honestly, the writing is failing periodically, and that’s not helping. But the biggest problem with ‘The Queen’s Justice’ is it illustrates just how badly the show can stumble when the heavyweights and favorites aren’t there. There was no Arya, no Brienne. No Little Lady Mormont or Sandor Clegane. Similarly, the show is often at its best when it simply puts two of its strongest actors in a room together and lets them dance around each other — Ned Stark and Littlefinger. Tywin Lannister and Arya. Tyrion and Varys. Stannis and Davos. Absent of those incredibly strong performances, it often staggers a bit, and verbal jousts between Jon Snow and Dany just don’t quite cut it. Couple leaving out the show’s best characters with a not-particularly-engaging script, and this episode simply failed to engage its audience. It doesn’t mean the show is doomed, but it exposes its weaknesses. Don’t leave too many of the best characters to the side. Stop cutting corners with the narrative, and write more logically and consistently. This was the first episode in a long time that, other than a couple of moments, was actually kind of boring. I’ve high hopes for the remainder of this season, so let’s hope that this was simply a hiccup.