In the Game of Thrones season premiere, it was surprising to see a series tasked with condensing a great deal of world-historical conflict into two shortened seasons seemingly stick to the deliberate pace of its earlier volumes. Such is the danger of judging television episodically: an almost preposterous amount of action took place in Sunday night’s “The Queen’s Justice,” arguably the most plot-heavy installment of a notoriously plot-heavy show. (It takes the honor from its immediate predecessor, "Stormborn," which held the title for all of a week. When I’m wrong about a season taking its sweet time, I’m really wrong!) After all, this episode included two major battles — and considered them so relatively inconsequential that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who penned the script, dispatched with one via voice-over and the other via two lines of dialogue. Game of Thrones has officially hit the gas.
And yet for all its dot-connecting and terrain-covering, "The Queen’s Justice" is still made up almost entirely of the kind of scene Thrones does best: two people, in a room, taking all that they’ve seen and experienced and using it to forge a connection — or better yet, demonstrating how those experiences have stranded equally nuanced and sympathetic people on opposite sides of the bargaining table. Last week (and surely in the weeks to come), Game of Thrones flexed its muscles by staging a massive spectacle in the form of a fiery, 10-minute naval rout. This week, it flexed a different kind of muscle: what a show is able to do when it spends six and a half seasons building up epic stakes through all-too-human characters. It’s the kind of accomplishment that’s less flashy in the moment, but far more impressive in the long run.
Which isn’t to say all of "The Queen’s Justice" was a master class in subtle, hard-won storytelling finally paying its dividends. When things are moving this quickly, you’re bound to end up with an encounter like Sam and Jorah’s, an almost painfully convenient pit stop that’s all narrative and no emotion. Jorah has to get cured, so he heads to the Citadel and — presto! — he’s all better in no time. (Apparently, the treatment for this world’s nastiest incurable disease boils down to the surprisingly intuitive "remove the infected tissue and put on some lotion.") Similarly, the first encounter between Tyrion and Jon Snow when the latter makes landfall at Dragonstone — after setting sail just last week — leans a bit too heavily on "look how far we’ve come!" expositional back-patting. The two men essentially read each other’s Wikipedia entries out loud on their way to the meeting we’ve all been waiting for.
But what a meeting it was! "The Queen’s Justice" spends almost a quarter of its running time in Dany’s newly adopted throne room, and it’s time well spent. Dany and Jon’s (and Davos and Missandei and Tyrion’s) summit is filled with details that expertly sum up the differences between them: the way Dany insists on a full introduction, where Davos offers a simple "This is Jon Snow"; the way Jon, ever the reluctant leader, still balks at any mention of his own resurrection and the chosen-one connotations that come with it. The two soon establish a dynamic of wary respect, yet we understand why a woman with her mind set on political domination can’t suddenly switch gears to an entirely different war, or why Jon can’t suddenly accept a foreigner he’s never met as his rightful queen. Their talk is so satisfying precisely because it’s so unsatisfying for both parties involved: life, and people, are both so much more complicated than we give them credit for until we’re forced to. It’s frustrating when people don’t simply do exactly what they’re told if you’re trying to, say, plan a conquest or save humanity. But man, is it good to watch.
The same principle applies to Bran and Sansa, afforded all of two seconds and one side of a happy reunion before Winterfell’s new overlady realizes her little brother’s all grown up, and not in a "We can smoke weed together now!" way. Sansa has spent years of her life getting grounded ever more firmly in the pragmatic realpolitik of human-on-human warfare. Bran, on the other hand, is barely even human; he’s ascended to a different plane, one where he can’t be bothered with trivial matters like Stark succession and can’t see the casual cruelty in invoking Sansa’s (second) wedding. Becoming the Three-Eyed Raven has meant abandoning much of Bran Stark, and it takes a former loved one to help us truly see that. It’s worth skipping over the Unsullied seizing Casterly Rock if it means steeping the audience in something like this, an equally momentous but far subtler shift in the series’ status quo.
And finally, there’s Jaime and Olenna, whose presence alone guarantees a cracking few minutes of TV. Sure enough, Diana Rigg went out with a bang, albeit with a scene that’s slightly different from the episode’s other one-on-ones. Whereas the other highlights of "The Queen’s Justice" bring together characters long separated or seemingly destined to meet ("I’ve brought ice and fire together," Melisandre says regarding Dany and Jon, referencing the prophetic title of the book series), there’s a tragic fatalism to this confrontation. The battle’s already been won; the Lannisters have taken Highgarden, and Olenna knows she’s about to die. That frees her to be even more witheringly honest than usual, confessing to Joffrey’s murder in gleefully vindictive fashion. More importantly, she tells Jaime what nobody else will: that his sister has become the same kind of tyrant he once sacrificed his reputation to stop. Unlike most of Jaime’s adversaries, Olenna can actually see that he has enough of a moral compass to be shaken by this, and that his love for Cersei and country alike are genuine. That doesn’t stop her from gloating over the death of his oldest son, though.
There’s not much greater significance to this particular meeting, objectively. But it’s symbolic of Thrones’ strength as a series that it closed "The Queen’s Justice" on their conversation rather than the far more decisive conquest that preceded it. Body counts are just numbers, and troops on a map abstractions. What makes them real are the defeated old woman and her deceptively idealistic killer, squaring off for the first and last time.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.