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Game of Thrones: The Queen's Justice

Many people claim Game of Thrones is a complex show. I disagree.

When I volunteered for reviewing a chapter of the seventh season, one of my fellow reviewers (hi, Josie!) wrote me an email to "welcome me to the least-satisfying reviewing experience ever", noting how the episodes are almost never "about" anything. Going through the material, I sort of see what she meant. This show is... well, it's a great show to review if you want to write a long retelling of events and interject your opinions about if you liked this-or-that development. That's sort of the lowest rung of reviewing, only one step up from a mere recap. It's also a great show for people to play guessing games.

Do not get me wrong here. Game of Thrones is a spectacular show in many ways. It's an "experience", something that's transcended "just a TV show" to become a pop culture phenomenon. However, I am in turn taking it on myself to transcend the traditional format of reviewing it by speaking as little about the actual events, which everyone has seen before coming to read my review, as at all possible.

Going back to the opening statement:

Game of Thrones is only complex in the way that it has a complex plot, as in a plot with many characters. Where many shows lately are character-driven sprinkled with shocking plot developments, cliffhangers and the like, Game of Thrones is exceedingly plot-driven sprinkled with compelling character moments.

Whereas many people get annoyed with largely character-driven shows tacking on some contrived plot twist that doesn't seem organic to the story, Game of Thrones almost always gets away with its way of spicing things up. Part of the reason for that is how the show is simply better crafted than almost everything created for television or otherwise. The cinematography, the score et al. are so good that "top notch" doesn't even begin to describe it - the opening sequence to the season six finale are some of the most beautiful minutes I've ever seen.

In a sense, it's also a very cynical show. It's exceedingly adept at playing on the emotions of the audience in a manner I first recognized as such when watching 'Apollo 13' in the movies. By all rights, that was a pretty mediocre film that didn't say much to the viewer at all. Yet I sat there with this huge lump in my throat for half the movie anyway, because the director was so terrific at exposing the story through repeated and extremely sentimental crescendos. The big screen format didn't hurt, either, and in fact, I'd wager this show in particular would be even more effective viewed in a theater.

The point being, with 'Apollo 13' I wasn't even quite aware why I was tearing up. I simply had this nagging feeling in the back of my head that I was being played by a director intimately aware of how different scenery provokes emotion in a typical subject of Western civilization. It's mostly the same with Game of Thrones, where the scene with Jon's birth reveal hit me like a bloody truck even though I already knew what would happen. I can watch it again and again; the same thing happens.

In this installment, it doesn't quite work. We see the tearful and emotional reunion of Sansa and Bran, but as we already saw the exact same scene last season between her and Jon, only far better played out - that's another scene that always brings tears to my eyes - it does come off as slightly anticlimactic. That's one of the near misses about this episode, and I feel it should have been played differently.

In contrast, the meeting between Jon and Daenerys - something fans of the show have been waiting for seemingly forever - is well done. It would have been easy to fall into the trap of "overly significant" or hitting the audience over the head with it, but it's rather understated and works fine. Dany's hostility mixed with veiled admiration and a hint of attraction is sold well by the actress. (On a more shallow note, Emilia Clarke looks jawdroppingly amazing in her Westerori outfit.) In contrast, Jon appears a bit wooden. Then again, he's always a bit wooden; I guess that's just his personality.

Cersei is a wonderful villain. The scene in the dungeon with her killing Ellaria's daughter is utterly marvelous, and the similarity to her scene with the nun from last finale doesn't even matter. The other similarity is that like that nun, Ellaria Sand and the "sand snakes" are really despicable people, and thus, as horrible as their fates are, yes... This is some sort of justice. Somehow. The way the scene plays out is a thing of beauty, and the monologue is flawlessly delivered by Lena Headey, who only seems to get better and better in the role.

That sort of brings me to a second point. Game of Thrones is adequately-to-amazingly acted. The dialog, when it counts, is fantastic. It's so fantastic that it obscures the fact that these aren't really well-fleshed-out characters. I suppose that's inevitable with a cast of this size, but I feel more time should have been put into exploring the opposing forces at work within the minds of at least the most important people; our chief protagonists. Christopher Tietjens was a more living person after one episode of 'Parade's End' than Jon Snow after six seasons.

Who are these people, really? Tyrion is probably the most nuanced of the bunch. Arya's just the nice girl who's gone obsessed with killing people. Sansa's the naïve-girl-come-cynical-manipulator whose goals are never clearly stated. Dany's the kind-but-power-hungry queen with a Messiah complex. Davos is, well, your regular nice bloke. Jon is Our Hero. Cersei is a monster who's sexing with her brother. I could go on. Their characters are rarely interesting in their own right; only within the context of "the game." This is not necessarily a weakness, but I believe it's something to point out.

Then again, this might be reason for the show's popularity. In a wildly popular movie series like 'Star Wars', for example, most of the characters are stereotypes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in 'The Force Awakens', where our heroes have practically no shred of personality. However, that also makes them excellent "viewer inserts." It's the easiest thing in the world to identify with Rey as a young woman. She's strong, she's beautiful, who cares what she thinks?! In a sense, one could also see how this would appeal to the tabletop game fans of Dungeons & Dragons, which I imagine make up some of Martin's core audience. The adventure is everything - you decide on the characters.

Game of Thrones investigates many themes, but it only does so in a superficial fashion. It features conflict of religion versus secularism, but this is never viewed as a battleground of ideas on the nature of all things, merely as different tools of political power. It features the breaking of taboos but it never ventures into an actual discussion of morality. Put it up against 'The Borgias', and Cersei's relationship with Jaime - who, by the way, have a super hot love scene in this episode - comes across as a cliché. It features tons of war and fighting, but - as once again shown here, with Jaime copying the "Young Wolf's Gambit" from season one in taking Highgarden - it only uses tactics and strategy as spectacular deus ex machinae.

Again, Game of Thrones is a simple show, and I've gradually come to identify that both as its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Does the show work? Of course it works. In fact, it never really falters, and I all but guarantee it will be remembered as a classic. But, it's not a show I find myself spending a lot of time thinking of in the interim. I'm happy when it's on, but I don't miss it for the many months in hiatus.

Please note: This is not me bashing the show. I didn't love this episode - love is a strong word - but I really liked it. It's just that practically every review you can find of this show, it keeps raving how it's awesome. Many parts of it are certainly awesome. I simply thought it would be more interesting to talk about the stuff that isn't indisputably fantastic, but rather, discussible.

Special thanks to farfarawaysite, who's saved my bacon more times than I can count, for the promotional picture.


  1. I wonder what happened to the previous comment? I thought it was good...

  2. No, I didn't, but I was considering answering it ^^
    Or was there something offensive in it that I didn't notice? (I read it pretty quickly, so I might have missed something)

  3. Raya, please note that under "Leave your comment," it states that we "actively monitor and feed mean comments and spam to our cats."

  4. The deleted comment was maybe a bit mean but interesting.

    It basically pointed out the differences in narrative style between the show and the books, and suggested that the author of this review could find in the books the depth the characters lack in the show.

    The comment's author also complained about the comment on the D&D players, which offended him.

  5. Billie, I'm sorry, I must have missed something. I only saw one comment by an anonymous poster that seemed constructive (he/she talked about the evolution of the characters and how that made them more complex), so I thought I would come back later to answer it, but when I did it was gone.
    Maybe there were other comments that I missed (which would mean that this one was not "the previous comment" that I mentioned), or maybe I didn't read that one correctly.
    Anyway, I've been a big fan of the site for years now (I've only commented a few times), so I'm familiar with the rules. Don't worry, I won't bother you guys. I was just a bit confused by this disapearance. Sorry if it came out wrong.

  6. Oh, okay. I added a short paragraph at the end which may help clarify matters.

    In order to answer your interpretation of the deleted post - I didn't delete it - this is it:

    I've read the books. However, yes, this is a review of the show - I don't see "A Storm of Swords" or anything similar in the title. Also, this episode is not covered by the books. Actually, it may never be covered by the books, as it becomes increasingly obvious they are separate entities.

    That said, I actually think the books and the show are pretty similar. Of course characters will be more fleshed out in a novel series spanning thousands of pages, that's the nature of the medium with the ability to read people's thoughts. Still, even though Martin calls himself a "gardener" rather than an "architect" he strikes me primarily as a world builder. He doesn't have the finesse or depth in writing characters of an Ursula Le Guin - just read "The Left Hand of Darkness." He's a bit more of an Asimov, who only ever wrote a compelling romance once, hilariously, between three tri-gendered aliens on a parallel Earth where one of them existed as a cloud of gas. ("The Gods Themselves.")

    Also - I started playing D&D when I was, what, 10 years old. That's a very long time ago now. I don't understand people taking offense at that comment, and more than that, I do think role players are among the more devoted fantasy fans.

  7. While I don't believe the show has "nothing to say" or that the characters aren't well fleshed-out (unless you mean on an episode to episode basis), I do appreciate that you are more willing to look at the flaws of the show rather than simply showering it with the requisite praise.

    Because there are legitimate flaws to be addressed. Since they started dropping storylines from the books and recreating new ones Post-Season 4, the show has suffered from a lack of nuance, skewed pacing, plot holes. It has mainly become style over substance for the sake of finally executing the grand finale that was promised.

    Still, like The Force Awakens, I don't feel the flaws have come to define the work. The foundation it's built upon is solid enough for it to continue on despite its blemishes.

  8. As the writer of the previously deleted comment, I had not meant it to come off as so mean, so I apologise if that was the case. Too much acid, I am sorry, especially to the author. I will monitor it more thoroughly in the future. Don't type miffed, folks.

    I do realise we are talking about show, not the books. In fact, I had hoped to acknowledge how my knowledge of the books perhaps influenced my opinion over the characterisation in the show, an inadvertent elision on my part.

    As far as I can see we do have a disagreement over the merits of GRRM's characterisation. I do doubt wether the books or the tv show would maintain the popularity they have if they were liked solely for the world building. I do not imagine that he's a master at it, but neither would I say it is as workmanlike as the Clarkes or the Niven's of this world. Such moments such as the Red Wedding come at great emotional cost because of the investment in the characters not in the war. A difference of opinion perhaps.

    Furthermore, insulted was too strong a word. I was not saying that DnD players don't enjoy fantasy: that would be stupid. What I did object to was that the idea of 'viewer inserts' somehow was a reason people liked the show and something DnD fans responded to. While 'being a hero' certainly may be a motivator, I'm sure roleplaying fans prefer to roleplay a character, one full fleshed, with a background and personality. Or at least they try to. I'm sure they prefer their stories to have them too.

    In any case, I'm sorry for my previous comment. Won't happen again, scouts honour.

  9. Thomas,

    I find your words very accurate. I enjoyed your review, good balanced criticism is welcome.

    Thanks, and keep going.

    Plus, maybe if the show-runners read it well get some more episodes where they expand on the characters ;)

  10. Thank you so much, original comment Anonymous. I really appreciate what you said, and I hope you continue posting comments here.

  11. I don't see the characters as a whole as undeveloped, either. While there have been one note monsters in the show (Joffrey, Ramsay), Cersei definitely isn't one of them. We've seen her develop in reaction to a long chain of events: a father who dismissed her, then married her off to a boorish and brutal husband, and then a terrifying prophecy that sends her fully into paranoia (and alcoholism) after Joffrey's death. Oddly, she seems less of a mess now. Maybe because she has lost all her children and really is surrounded by enemies, she has nothing left to fear. Remember that back at the beginning, she was appalled by Jamie throwing Bran off the window ledge; she wasn't always a complete monster. I would argue that all three Lannister siblings, Arya, Sansa, Catelyn Stark, and Sandor Clegane, among others are strongly written. Margaery Tyrrell was a better character in the show than in the book and though Lady Olenna was vivid in the book, we had the pleasure of seeing more of her on TV (so sad to see her go). There are some characters whose motives are deliberately opaque (Varys, Baelish) and Bran isn't entirely human anymore. Now, I do think Jon Snow and Danaerys are bland (both show and book versions). Maybe Martin doesn't have a knack for more straight-forward heroic characters.

    TIT, I don't agree with your assessment of him as a writer at all. I see him as a mediocre world-builder. His ideas aren't particularly well- thought out (don't get me started on the Wall) or original, his descriptive and expository prose aren't anything special. Where I feel he excels is in giving his characters their own unique voices. At the beginning of this season, it had slipped my mind that Arya had killed Walder Frey. My first thought was that now that they don't have the books as source material to guide them, they can't get Walder Frey's manner of speech right, because nobody else talks like Walder Frey. Arya could apparently fake the face, the voice (and the size??), but she couldn't get his way of speaking quite right.

    As far as the comment about D&D, I suspect what he objected to is your opinion that RPG players look for self-inserts rather than real characters. It's not far removed from dismissing them as the skinny kids with glasses fantasizing about being the muscular hero. And if you're an experienced tabletop RPG player, I find it a strange comment, because self-insertion is poor roleplaying.

  12. Well thought out criticisms and they are valid to an extent but the review also comes off a little pretentious..At points your basically critiquing the Author of the books and the showrunners because they are not as good as some other writers.
    One simply has to go back and watch the pilot episode of Game of Thrones.
    Then try and tell me the characters that are still alive now don't have extreme depth to them. Most of them have gone through entire arcs which have molded them in ways where they are now coming full circle. It seems like your judging the characters on what they are now and taking a much too simplistic approach to the point it is or can be considered offensive..
    ''Cersei is a monster who's sexing with her brother''
    ''Arya's just the nice girl who's gone obsessed with killing people''
    Its easy to say Tyrion is the most nuanced (He is my fav character by the way) but he is actually the least nuanced...He has remained mostly unchanged since we met him and his motivations have always been pretty easy to see.

  13. @WhyMe
    "maybe if the show-runners read it well get some more episodes where they expand on the characters"
    Unfortunately, I really doubt it. Judging by the show's new pace, I'd say they're going to spend less and less time on character development and more and more on moving the plot forward.
    If they want to bring every plotline to a satisfying end before the show is over, I guess they have to speed things up.
    I do hope they get some time to expand on the characters, but it doesn't look like they're going in that direction.

    "Its easy to say Tyrion is the most nuanced (He is my favorite character by the way) but he is actually the least nuanced...He has remained mostly unchanged since we met him and his motivations have always been pretty easy to see."
    I had the exact same thought when reading the review. Tyrion's my favorite character too (and I thought he was hilarious this week), but I wouldn't describe him as complex. He hasn't changed much since the beginning, so we know where he stands, there's no ambiguity.

    Overall, I think that if you take any character at one point in time and only look at who they are at that point, most of them aren't really complex. But if you look at how they evolved during the show, how they went from one state to another, that's when they become really interesting. Because their past selves can still influence their present selves.

    I think we can all agree that Jon Snow and Daenerys are some of the least nuanced characters, but it doesn't make them any less interesting. At least not to me. I love watching them struggle to fit all the shades of grey into their black-and-white view of the world.
    Like when Daenerys says that she shouldn't be held responsible for her father's crimes, but then asks Jon to keep his father's promises. Her way of thinking is so simple and straight forward that when a contradiction arises, she doesn't even know how to handle it.

  14. My main takeaway from this episode was what a brat Daenerys was. She's trying to get Jon Snow to honor a pledge that by all rights her own father rendered null and void with his despotic and psychotic acts. She earned the loyalty of the Dothraki and the Unsullied, she needs to realize she's going to have to earn the loyalty of Westeros too. Especially the North, who have clearly had quite enough of the games being played south of them.

  15. A well written, measured review and interesting, thought-provoking comments.
    Thanks to all who contributed.

  16. I just feelnthis season is painfully rushed. Got could have easily gone for 10 seasons smoothly
    ..they are trying to cram sonmuch in 7 episodes its ridiculous. In three episodes they are supposed to rap up the entire war And the whitewalkers showing up And being defeated. In a world plagued with shows that refuse to die despite having nowhere to go..cough supernatural..cough.....why are they rushing the end to this one?

  17. @Adrian:
    There aren't just 3 episodes left but 9. There will be an 8th season with 6 episodes (technically it's supposed to be season 7 part 2).
    I doubt they will really adress the White Walkers conflit in the 3 remaining episodes. They will probably sort some (most? all?) of the throne war and keep the big winter mess for part 2.
    But I agree that they didn't need to wrap things up so quickly. Given the show's success, I don't know why they're not taking their time...

  18. Well:

    First of all, I think it's always a good thing for shows to end at their highs. That said, I agree that we could certainly have used a few more episodes. Game of Thrones will end up with less episodes than what is normally considered for network syndication, and it's the most successful show in decades.

    Second, I think there is a difference between "developed" and "nuanced", and there's also a difference between "having gone through all kinds of shit" and "developed". Just look at Gotham. Jim Gordon has gone through Hell but he really hasn't changed or gained any depth to his personality.

  19. Hi,
    thank you for the review. I come to this page regurally, but I rarely make a comment.
    But I have to share my thougts about the Bran/Sansa reunion and how it didn´t work according to the review. It was strange for me too, I thougt I would be really emotional about it, but I didn´t. I actually think they did that on purpose. Bran is not Sansas little brother anymore. He apparently doesn´t care much for Winterfell, of mabye not even for his family. He has seen the world differently than anyone. He has been through so much, he cannot connect to Sansa. Not the way Jon could. So it is a very different scene, than Sansa/Jon reunion. And it was very sad for me, but it made sense.
    I hope I was able to write my thoughts correctly, as english is not my first language, so I apologise for any mistakes and thank you again for reviewing this show, I allways enjoy reading it.

  20. It's really interesting to read this review (which starts off with a quote from me!) and all the comments now, when I'm desperately trying to catch up on this season before I review the finale in just a couple of days.

    Why am I behind? Because I'm just sort of over this show. I started watching because I really liked the books. I kept watching because it would be really weird not to keep watching. And now I'm curious to see how it all ends and not especially interested in the journey that gets us there.

    Except, that is, for the few wonderful moments that are (riffing on what Thomas is writing about here, and others in the comments) character-based rather than plot-based. Davos being nice to Missandei. Tyrion and Jon Snow reunited at last! (That was more exciting to me than Jon and Dany.) The Queen of Thorns getting in one last dig.

  21. I was suprised Jaime didn't use his sword on Olenna in the end. But I guess he knows deep inside that Joffrey deserved to die horribly.

    I like that we will probably still see Theon's sister again, she's just of interest to Euron not Cersei. Theon did the right thing not suicide rushing his uncle.

    So far it's been fantastic and it's hard to believe that I'm almost halfway through the season after 3 episedes.

    As for the books vs show discussion I doubt there will ever be any more books. Not with NFL season starting now which means a lot less writing by GRRM. Also with the way the story is presented the 1st version I see will probalby win so the TV ending will be for me the canon ending no matter what happens in the books.


  22. Interesting, the comment comparing GRRM and Ursula LeGuin. Take the idea of seasons being longer than years. GRRM gives no explanation of how this could happen. When LeGuin tackled the same idea in PLANET OF EXILE, she studied some astronomy and came up with an explanation. And scientific plausibility isn't even LeGuin's main interest.


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