Screencap via HBO

Lena Headey is all wildfire. There’s an unmistakable spring in Cersei Lannister’s step this season, as if the Sept of Baelor blows up behind her eyelids every time she blinks. Her arc really ended there, in that glorious green catharsis, and now she’s basking in the aftermath. All hail the Queen of the Ashes; to borrow from the books, “a new god shall be born from the graves.” There simply is not a more enjoyable time to be had in front of a screen than watching Cersei play with Euron Greyjoy’s affections like a cat with an especially ambitious mouse. She pulls him in whisper-close, then cuts him off right when the prize is in sight. Every line reading is just so, like an exquisite table setting at a Red Wedding.

Game of Thrones excels in these interpersonal scenes, and this episode did a particularly skillful job of leveraging our longstanding histories with these characters, emotionally grounding this season’s events in what’s come before. Cersei reminds us about the Mountain vs. the Viper while tormenting Ellaria and Tyene; Olenna brings up the Purple Wedding in her last moments before succumbing to poison. Both women summon up the dead as so much salt to rub in their enemies’ wounds, though of course they couldn’t be more different in terms of power dynamics. Olenna has lost; she permits herself one final defiance by confessing with glee to having killed Joffrey, sliding a paper-thin dagger in between Cersei’s ribs on her way out the door, and good for her! (Fuck Joff, after all.)

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But where the Queen of Thorns’ time was running out, the Queen on the Throne has all the time in the world to make sure Ellaria and Tyene understand exactly why this is happening to them, and she enjoyed every cruel second of it. It’s still a damn shame that the show never lent the Dornish characters any real dramatic weight of their own, but in the end, they’re left quivering in her wake like the rest of us, forced to stare directly into the sun.

The character work was even more impressive on Dragonstone, the beating heart of this week’s episode. Jon and Dany are trying to honor their ancestors, their descendants, and themselves all at the same time. They can feel those layers of personal and collective history bearing down upon them, and they see it in each other. How do I honor my own claim to the throne while still facing down what my mad father did on that throne? How do I stay true to the Northern lords who made me king while also acknowledging that the wars to come go well beyond regional identity?

In some respects, it’s a classic case of them being too similar to get along at first, leaving it to Tyrion to make a very important point: just because you are right doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing it right. You have the weight of the world on your shoulders, but you still have to consider the people around you, what they want and need, what they’re bringing to the table, what they think of you and your family and your story.

Screencap via HBO

And with that lesson in mind, Jon and Dany forge a fragile alliance out of dragonglass; we have yet to resolve the game of thrones, but we know what the real enemy is, and what we need to defeat it. There’s a genuinely powerful arc there, far more resonant than if Jon and Dany had patched things up immediately with no drama, or if they had simply talked past each other and then sulked in their corners. They’re trying, they’re learning, they can help each other, and Tyrion’s there to help both of them; it’s so great to see Peter Dinklage talking with people again, after spending most of Season 6 talking at them.

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Game of Thrones earned an audience beyond those who might not usually be interested in a dragons-and-tits show precisely because of this sort of searingly intimate character moment, the kind that draws you into a person’s mind, if only for a moment. Of course, Benioff and Weiss are also still telling a war story, which is the area of the show where the viewer most acutely feels the lack of source material. It’s clear where the show wants to be: Team Cersei is doing better than expected, her opponents set back on their heels, even as Jaime begins to rethink things.

Solid foundation! But the details are being fudged, to the extent that it feels like a foregone conclusion rather than a naturally unfolding sequence of events. Euron’s fleet showing up at the Rock out of nowhere and Highgarden getting knocked over without a fight worth showing felt very much like pieces being moved around on a board in a hurry: The show needs Cersei to appear to be winning for the sake of dramatic tension, thus the shuffling of elements to give her an edge and leave enough time to wrap things up in the rest of Thrones’ limited lifespan.

Even when they zoom back in on the characters, giving Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell one last chance to shine in a role she has thoroughly owned from minute one, the context keeps getting in the way. I’m glad to see Jaime finally having doubts about Cersei, but this is the spur for it? Some tossed-off insults from an enemy he came to kill? Rather than, say, letting him react to Cersei blowing up the Sept (a direct echo of the Mad King whom Jaime killed to prevent such an atrocity), or what she does to Ellaria and Tyene in this episode? It feels like a missed opportunity to me. The writers and showrunners are nigh-peerless at staging dialogue scenes, but left to their own devices, they’re much less adept at curating a war. Again, the ends are solid, but the means are questionable, which ends up undercutting the emotional impact of those ends.

Screencap via HBO

The show is an admittedly difficult position at this point, simultaneously trying to keep viewers invested in the political goings-on surrounding who holds the Iron Throne, while also reminding viewers that when the dead walk, it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the damn chair.

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I may wish there was some more drama and weight to the eponymous game of thrones, but one thing “The Queen’s Justice” understands very well is that at the center of the narrative sits Bran Stark, the all-seeing shaman who now understands Winterfell as something more than a political domain to which he is heir. It’s in the name, after all: “Winter fell.” As we see with Sansa’s sensible preparations (a definite highlight of the episode), the castle is the natural rallying point when the army of the dead inevitably breaches the Wall, and that’s when Bran’s gifts and vision will have to come to the fore.

However, there’s a cost. A price was paid, and you can see it in the vacancy behind Bran’s eyes; you can hear it in the eerie affectlessness of his voice. Godhead has burned away much of the sweet prince who loved to climb, and so it’s bittersweet to see him reunite with Sansa, because in the name of finding the power to save her (and everyone else), he’s lost the part of himself that can relate to her purely as brother to sister, Stark to Stark. He’s at the center of everything, yet all alone. Transcendence, after all, requires leaving something behind.