A Game of Thrones, the first book in author George R. R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, was published on August 6, 1996. So if longtime fans' hopes that Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow would one day meet were a person, they'd be about a week away from the legal drinking age. "The Queen's Justice" – the Game of Thrones episode that served up this long-awaited meeting before Martin himself could get to it – displayed a surprising lack of romantic or interpersonal fireworks between the two monarchs. God knows it's pleasant to see Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington in the same shot, but their characters spent most of their time bickering over loyalties and priorities. Still, the point of this meeting of ice and fire made was more important, if less fan-servicey, than romance. As befits its title, this week's installment asks us to consider what it means to be a ruler ... and what it means to seek justice.
Both Snow and his hand, Davos Seaworth, make their argument to Dany on these matters in no uncertain terms. The Northern regent notes that he felt he could do business with her because instead of simply taking her dragons and sacking King's Landing, innocent lives be damned, she devised an elaborate plan to defeat the mad queen Cersei Lannister by less lethal means. While the Mother of Dragons may talk tough about her right to the realm, she's clearly out to do right by the realm as well.
For his part, Davos sells the Targaryen heir to the throne on a possible alliance by talking up his leader's revolutionary bonafides. Snow formed an unprecedented alliance with the hated wildlings for their common good. He was voted both Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and the King in the North despite his bastard status, because his people believed in him. Change the proper nouns and you've got an echo of the Khaleesi's story, in which she recognized her moral obligation to help unite and liberate disparate groups who unite with her in turn, simply because they feel she's the best woman for the job. Even if, as she claims, her belief in herself alone was what kept her going through the seven hells she walked through to get here, she kept her eyes on the real prize – a better life for the many. "It doesn't matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron throne," Davos concludes, attempting to draw Daenerys away from conquest and toward their mutual existential threat. If anyone can see the wisdom in that, it's her.
Now compare this idea of justice to the one espoused by Cersei, as the Lion Queen goes on what Kill Bill's Bride might refer to as a roaring rampage of revenge.
First, her pirate-king suitor Euron Greyjoy brings her human trophies — not just his own rebel niece Yara, but also the Dornish ruler Ellaria Sand and her daughter Tyene — to a rapturous heroes' welcome. (The inversion of Cersei's own walk of shame is hard to miss, even before her brother/lover Jaime points it out.) After an excruciatingly long dungeon conversation in which Cersei teases a number of gruesome fates for her captives, she settles on the same poisonous kiss of death Ellaria bestowed upon Cersei's own daughter.
The Queen's next target is another rival matriarch. As Grey Worm and his Unsullied supersoldiers seize the Lannister stronghold Casterly Rock, Jaime and his generals — our old pal Bronn, along with Samwell Tarly's father Randyll and brother Dickon — maneuver south to Highgarden, home of House Tyrell. There, they soundly defeat the forces of Lady Olenna, to whom the Kingslayer offers a gentle death instead of the gruesome methods his sister preferred. But the so-called Queen of Thorns can still draw emotional blood. After she swallows her painless poison, she tells him that she was responsible for the death of his son, King Joffrey. In the end, it's Jaime who winds up storming out of the room in horror, as his victim simply poker-stares at him until he departs. (P.S.: Anyone wanna bet that the servant who spots the post-coital Lannister siblings in that earlier scene is Arya in disguise?)
But there's an even deeper contrast at work than the one between mercy and the cycle of violence. The parts of this episode that aren't concerned with the two queens' power plays are almost entirely devoted to matters of faith rather than flesh and blood. Jon tries desperately to convince Dany that the army of the dead is real. She, in turn, delights in showing off her dragons – animals believed extinct for centuries until she helped bring them back to life. (And by the way, when did these beasts first appear to the King in the North? When he said "I'm not a Stark," which is technically true given he's actual heritage, i.e. he's a secret Targaryen!) She also notes that before he stopped himself, Davos started to mention something about Jon once coming back to life.
Up north, Bran Stark returns unexpectedly to Winterfell, bringing his sister Sansa to tears of joy — then to shudders of fear as he reveals his creepy psychic powers as the new Three-Eyed Raven. ("It's difficult to explain," he deadpans, in one of actor Isaac Hempstead Wright's finest scenes in years.) In the Citadel, Sam Tarly cures Jorah Mormont's greyscale out of sheer determination, despite the lengthy track record of failures in this area that his boss Archmaester Ebrose rattles off. Even disgraced mystic Melisandre seems to insist she has a role to play, psychically predicting both she and Lord Varys will ultimately die in Westeros' defense.
In each case, Game of Thrones sends a message. You can focus on worldly, bloody matters like revenge. Or you can make the leap of faith and focus on the lives of your fellow human beings. "People's minds aren't made for problems that large," Tyrion frets. Almost in response, Bran Stark tells his sister "I can see everything that's ever happened to everyone" — a mystical callback to the far more self-interested seven-dimensional-chess advice Sansa's advisor Littlefinger gave her. Seek triumph, and you're merely a killer. Seek solidarity, and … well, that's not quite clear yet. But if winter is here, which of the two would you count on to turn back the cold?
Previously: 50 Shades of Greyjoy