When George R.R. Martin first published A Game of Thrones back in 1996, it was presented as the first novel in a fantasy series entitled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Although the presence of ice zombies and dragons in that first volume gave readers some sense of where that title came from, it’s long been suspected that Martin had a deeper meaning in mind for “Ice and Fire.” With prophesies about reincarnated heroes and long-dormant evil piling up, and as an expansive cast of characters began to dwindle, fan suspicion turned to two of the series’ more peripheral protagonists: Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Were these two the “Ice” and “Fire,” respectively, whose story Martin set out to tell more than 20 years ago?
Well, we now have our answer. Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Queens Justice”, removed all doubt. As Jon Snow makes landfall on Dragonstone, the red witch Melisandre proclaims: “I’ve done my part. I’ve brought Ice and Fire together.” And if that wasn’t enough, the show spent most of its time walking Jon and Dany toward their inevitable alliance. The endgame approaches very swiftly, indeed.
But lets back up for a minute. Because there’s more going on in Westeros than just the confirmation of decades-old fan theories.
First up: House Lannister pays its debts. The only thing that should delight fans more than the meeting of Ice and Fire is a definitive end to the show’s execrable Dorne subplot. Working from an incomplete and dramatically inert framework from Martin’s novels, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have struggled for more than two seasons to make Dorne feel significant and interesting. The one-dimensional Sand Snakes never quite lived up to their hype; their mother, Ellaria (a woefully stranded Indira Varma), seemed like a hot-tempered lightweight compared to the rest of the series’ female powerbrokers; and the famed power of Dorne, itself, never seemed to materialize. So it’s with great relief that we see Cersei enact her revenge on Dorne for the murder of her daughter, Myrcella, back at the end of season 5. In yet another villainous monologue for the ages from series MVP Lena Headey, Cersei condemns Ellaria’s daughter Tyene (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) to the same poisonous death as Myrcella, then decrees that her former rival remain locked up with the rotting corpse until the end of her days. For a maniac who rose to power by blowing up a holy site and everyone in it, this is an oddly proportionate bit of payback. But there’s more than meets the eye to this scene. Notice the blocking here: as Cersei leaves the dungeon, Ellaria and Tyene, chained to opposite walls, desperately reach out for each other. But no matter how they struggle, they remain out of reach. Fans of the book will recognize this as a clear echo of the murder of Ned Stark’s father and brother by the Mad King Aerys Targaryen (Dany’s father and Jon’s grandfather). Father was burned alive while son, tied by the neck, strangled himself in an effort to reach him. It seems history may be repeating itself.
And if you question whether parallels between the Mad King and Cersei in that scene are intentional, consider House Lannister’s revenge on House Tyrell. Jaime’s surprising conquest of Highgarden and murder of Lady Olenna might have been used to highlight any number of things, but the conversation between the Kingslayer and the Queen of Thorns dwelled most conspicuously on Cersei and her cruel nature. Just before downing poison and confessing to Joffrey’s murder with grim pride–damn, girl!–Lady Olenna cautions Jaime that his sister will be the death of him, that a woman so cruel and unstable may not reciprocate his very genuine love. There’s a good chance that Jaime will be faced with the choice of whether or not to kill another ruler of the Seven Kingdoms before all this is over. It’s an open question whether this reformed Jaime–one handed and chastened by his time as captive–has it in him to ignore Cersei’s evil forever.
Of course, there’s also a good chance that Jaime’s slow motion epiphany could be helped along by Euron Greyjoy. Last night, Cersei promised Euron her hand in marriage “when the war is won,” and things sure are looking up for that crazy-eyed goon (who, by the way, is the most entertaining villain the show has had since Joffrey left in season 4). To date, Euron has destroyed Dany’s navy, trapped her Unsullied at Casterly Rock, and effectively removed Dorne from the game board. A wedding grows more likely with every episode. Now that Cersei and Jaime are openly flaunting their incest, however, (hey, another thing Cersei has in common with the sister-marrying Mad King!), it’s unlikely that Jaime will take the prospect of Euron joining the family lying down. If Jaime ever turns on his sister, expect Euron to be part of his inspiration.
But enough about death, destruction, and foreshadowing. Some good things happened last night as well. Over in Oldtown, it’s revealed that Sam has cured Jorah of his grayscale and that the love-struck knight intends to return to his queen. And in Winterfell, long-lost Bran Stark returns home to Sansa, who it seems has a gift for command.
First: Oldtown. This entire subplot feels like a mistake, to be honest. With Ser Jorah returning to Dany’s side after a grand total of, what, 3 episodes on the sidelines, one wonders why he was out of commission in the first place. With precious little time available in this truncated season, Jorah’s story looks like something that should have been cut. This is especially so since Jorah does not even suffer from grayscale in the books, where that storyline belongs to superfluous characters that the show wisely cut (don’t @ me). So it’s a little baffling as to why the showrunners bothered here. Jorah no doubt has a part to play in the endgame, but being cured of a random illness doesn’t feel like crucial backstory for whatever that part may be. The time would probably have been better spent with Dany, Jon, or literally anyone else. It was nice to see Sam get a win, though.
The show was decidedly more economical and effective in its Winterfell segment. Despite being the audience surrogate for much of the series premiere, Isaac Hempstead-Wright has had the unenviable task of playing a character who has, in every episode since, been treated as a prop or mere afterthought… when he appears at all, that is. But Bran is crucially important–he comes to Winterfell, no doubt, to tell Jon and everyone else about his true parentage. That should set the stage for some fireworks between Jon and Dany. Bran also has a heck of a lot of information about the Night King and his army of the demonic and dead. No longer prop or afterthought, Bran is about to become an exposition machine, which is only slightly better. So it’s nice that his reintroduction this season was more personal. His monologue to Sansa in the Weirwood grove was bittersweet perfection–filled with the weight of the veritable lifetime they’ve spent apart. Kudos to Hempstead-Wright and the ever-underrated Sophie Turner for navigating that difficult scene, which could easily have been overplayed.
But all of this pales in comparison to the main event: the meeting of Ice and Fire. Jon refuses to bend the knee, as he must. Dany bristles at yet more rejection, as is her custom. And yet by episode’s end, an alliance is forming. Jon will be permitted to mine dragon glass from beneath Dragonstone, to make weapons from them, and to ship those weapons north. He’ll even receive all the assistance he requires from Dany’s own forces. The script, by showrunners Benioff and Weiss, wisely make this rapprochement the work of several scenes. A lesser show would have made the alliance a thing of common sense, something to be worked out over the course of a single meeting. But this episode takes its time, letting the initial disappointment and surprise of the first meeting develop into a mutual curiosity, then understanding, and finally agreement. Mention should also be made of Mark Mylod’s direction in these scenes. In their first encounter, he keeps Dany high up on her dais, looking down on Jon Snow, a reflection of her strength and their inability to reach common ground. For their second encounter, Mylod moves the action out of the oppressive throne room and into the daylight. He places Dany below Jon, at the bottom of a hill, and has Jon come to her level, where they stand side by side.
But it’s Emilia Clarke’s performance last night that is most crucial. A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the years about Clarke’s sometimes less-than-stellar performance as the Mother of Dragons. But Clarke has also been saddled with some of the worst material the show has ever offered: she’s spent entire seasons whining about nonsense (“My dragons!”) or making vague statements of intent that sound good but lead nowhere (“I’m going to break the wheel!”). For all the show’s troubles in finding interesting things for Dany to do, however, Clarke–at a wispy 5’2″–has never failed to deliver her sometimes terrible material with surprising resolve and self-assuredness. Because of that, we have rarely had trouble believing that characters like Ser Jorah or Grey Worm would feel such deep devotion to her. That strength in Clarke’s performance was front-and-center last night, as Dany told Jon her life story and made her pitch for the Iron Throne. Few actresses could credibly pull of such a self-involved and self-aggrandizing speech. It’s been very gratifying to see Clarke, now regularly being put in the same room as series-best performers like Peter Dinklage and Liam Cunningham, measuring up.
So things are looking up for fans of the show and Martin’s books. This week marks a major turning point–at last, after 5 books, 6 seasons of television, and 21 years of speculation, the end game is afoot. Our heroes have come together, our (human) villains are reaching the high water mark of their success, and everything is primed for an explosive finish. With all the build-up out of the way, Benioff and Weiss are delivering the best season of Game of Thrones in years. Any doubts as to whether the show can deliver a satisfying ending are rapidly diminishing.