The main theme of my thoughts on last night’s Game of Thrones episode, “Book of the Stranger,” could probably be best summed up as “well, that could have been worse.” In many ways, season six is increasingly proving itself to be an improvement over last year’s stinking garbage fire of a season, but obviously “it could be worse” isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement, either. The good news, I suppose, is that there was some real forward movement in several storylines last night. There were even a few scenes that were really nicely done. However, there is some clumsy (and downright unpleasant, if not unsurprising) tying up of loose ends, a lot of hand-wavy “storytelling,” a some highly questionable (to say the least) messaging.
As always, spoilers under the cut.
Though last week’s episode closed with Jon Snow apparently walking out of Castle Black in a huff, this episode opens with Jon packing up his stuff, with Dolorous Edd’s help, or whatever you want to call it when Edd is handing things to Jon and also begging him not to leave and guilt-tripping him about breaking his Night’s Watch vows. Jon is, of course, still very hung up on the idea that his sworn brothers murdered him, and he’s not sure exactly what he’s going to do next but he doesn’t want to stay here. I actually don’t hate this, though I kind of feel like stopping to pack diminishes the effect of flouncing off in anger. Mostly, though, I feel like this whole situation doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny if you think about it for more than half a minute. Jon’s reaction to Edd’s insistence that he remain in the Night’s Watch as Lord Commander seems almost viscerally negative, but it’s a reaction that doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense.
With the ringleaders of the conspiracy against Jon dead and the remaining men of the Watch and the Wildlings in a state of almost worshipful awe towards Jon, he’s actually better positioned than ever to secure the Wall, unite the Watch and the Wildlings, and accomplish whatever goals he wants to with that force of men, whether he decides to remain at the Wall or go south to Winterfell. It also bears mentioning that if Jon abandon’s his position at the Wall, he will be a wanted man in the rest of Westeros, and the punishment for desertion—established in the first episode of the show (and the very first chapter of the books)—is death. Jon isn’t going to take Winterfell on his own, and he in fact has no legal claim to it as a bastard, so that’s not really an option. He could go to Essos and join one of the many sellsword companies there, but that isn’t even mentioned as a possibility. It’s just not very clear exactly what we’re supposed to think about Jon’s disillusionment with the Night’s Watch. It’s slightly understandable, just on an emotional level—he’s hurt and traumatized and feels betrayed—but his actual reaction is nonsensical and completely ignores the changed circumstances he now finds himself in—resurrected and with the conspiracy against him defeated, which should give him every reason to stay where he is and make the best of things.
While watching the episode, though, there’s not more than half a minute to think about it, because it’s right at this moment that Sansa, Brienne, and Podrick show up. It’s an almost laughably self-important moment as the trio rides in and the people working around Castle Black stare at them. Hands down the best part of this is Tormund’s face when he sees Brienne. He is outright eye-fucking her, which she is somewhat oblivious to, but it’s something that continues throughout the episode. I ship it. So hard. I can even almost forgive the show for playing this pairing for laughs—because obviously it’s a hilarious joke that a man would be attracted to a distinctly unfeminine woman who is physically large and strong. It’s just one more thing to add to the pile of evidence that the writers of this show are actual children. Let’s not get sidetracked, though, because the big event at the Wall this week is the reunion between Sansa and Jon, even if Tormund does try to steal every scene by ogling Brienne.
I actually got teary the first time I saw the Jon/Sansa hug last night, and not just because I was already a third of the way through a bottle of wine by this point in the episode. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m forced to admit that this emotional response is completely unearned. Instead, it’s based on cheap emotional manipulation on the part of the show and my own feelings about the relationship between Jon and Sansa in the books. Mostly, however, it’s just nice to see something nice happen for any of the Stark kids on the show. Both Sansa and Jon have had such a rough time over the last few years that it’s easy to ignore the shortcomings of the actual story we’ve been shown and simply focus on this single sweet moment where a brother and sister are brought back together and find some comfort with each other. It’s a moment that I want to love, and there are some things about it that work, but I can’t help but resent it for not making any actual sense.
The most important factor to consider in analyzing all of this episode’s interactions between Sansa and Jon is that we’ve literally never seen them on screen together before now. Instead, all the way back in season one, it was Arya with whom Jon was shown to have a close relationship. In the books, there is slightly more information about the relationship between Sansa and Jon—she was cool towards him because he was only a half-brother and a bastard, and they didn’t have anything in common the way that Jon and Arya did—but it’s definitely reaching to even say that this could be inferred from the portrayal of these characters on the show. I mean, sure, one could infer it, if one has read the books and is prepared to give the show a lot more credit than it deserves for characterization, but it’s much more likely—if we’re honest—that we just watched the next scene with Jon and Sansa, where they just come right out and tell us about their childhood relationship, and thought, “huh, that makes sense, sort of, I guess.” It’s a cute scene, and it’s nice to see Sansa smile for once, but it’s shamelessly manipulative of the audience, and it only really works if the viewer is willing to ignore that there’s absolutely no history or precedent in the show to justify the emotional response we’re being told to have about Jon and Sansa’s reunion.
What’s more interesting, though perhaps even less earned (if such a thing is possible), is Sansa’s desire to take back Winterfell and her determination to do so even if she has to do it herself. It’s a complete betrayal of who Sansa Stark is as a character, both in the books and in the show up to this point, because she’s never shown the least inclination for martial pursuits but now seems prepared to set herself up as a warlord in order to retake the North from the Boltons, but I still find myself rather liking this completely new Sansa. I hate that her rape and torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton was the transformative event that set her on this path, and I hate that she’s being framed as unreasonable and even bloodthirsty in comparison to Jon here, but I’m definitely on board for Sansa the warlord wreaking vengeance on Ramsay and taking back what should be hers.
While Jon and Sansa are reconnection, Davos has finally remembered to ask Melisandre what happened to Stannis and Shireen. Before he can force a confession about Shireen out of Melisandre, however, Brienne comes over to brag about how she executed Stannis for his murder of Renly. Brienne also wants Davos and Melisandre to know that she is totally onto them re: blood magic. Davos says that that is “in the past,” which doesn’t quite ring true when he literally just days before conspired with Melisandre to raise Jon Snow from the dead with that same magic, but okay. None of this makes a lick of sense, all of these characters come off as profoundly stupid in this scene, and why is Brienne just carrying around an unsheathed sword? I know it seems like a small thing, but seriously. What is she doing with this sword? No one else is wandering around with a sword in their hand. And why is she so aggressively belligerent with everyone she meets all the time?
Next up, we get our first look at Robin Arryn, who is still alive in the Vale, though he’s apparently terrible at archery. Littlefinger has gotten back from his trips to Winterfell and King’s Landing, and he’s brought the boy a falcon as a gift. He’s also brought back a story so ridiculously and transparently false that it makes this the most laughably absurd scene of the episode. Apparently, Littlefinger told the lords of the vale that he was going to take Sansa to his family home in the Fingers. Lord Royce, not being a complete idiot, has heard that Sansa was married to Ramsay Bolton and quite sensibly asks what the deal with that is. At which point, Littlefinger claims that he and Sansa were accosted by a large force of Bolton men who stole her away, and he accuses Lord Royce of leaking information to the Boltons that led to the attack and Sansa being abducted. Robin, who seems more than a little touched in the head, low key threatens to throw Lord Royce through the Moon Door at the Eyrie, even though they are nowhere near there anymore and the castle has been closed up for the winter. Instead of calling Littlefinger out for his obvious lies, Royce grovels before Robin, which is hilariously sad. None of this even matters, though, because the real point of this scene is to establish that Littlefinger is going to be leading the forces of the Vale to Sansa’s rescue now that she’s escaped Ramsay. So that’s a thing that is happening.
In Meereen, Tyrion is absolutely awful. Apparently spending a couple of days as a slave has taught him all he needs to know about the subject, and he’s monstrously rude and condescending to Grey Worm and Missandei about it when they question his plans for diplomatically fixing things with the Masters of the other Slaver’s Bay cities. Also, what is with Tyrion quoting “wise” and “clever” men all the time? We know he’s just talking about himself, and it’s not cute, funny, or endearing in any way. As much as it pisses me off that Tyrion is getting Dany’s A Dance with Dragons story, it pisses me off more that it’s being brought to the screen in such a gross and horrendously racist fashion. I know GRRM has faced some criticism about Dany in the books, but the books are an imperfect attempt on his part to criticize these types of white savior stories. The show has consistently failed to grok that, and this season finds them ratcheting that failure to grok up to eleven.
From this inauspicious start to this week’s Meereen stuff, we move on to Tyrion’s actual meeting with the delegation from Astapor and Yunkai, which is a complete and utter shitshow from top to bottom. Grey Worm and Missandei are understandably sullen. The Masters are full of garbage rhetoric. Varys is there, but only so someone can derisively call him a eunuch because that’s literally his only character trait anymore. Tyrion is glib and dismissive of the concerns of actual ex-slaves as he proposes a plan to phase slavery out over the course of several years, pointing out that it’s still totally possible to exploit the proletariat without keeping people as actual chattel. In exchange, the other cities will stop funding the Sons of the Harpy in Meereen. I mean, okay, but Tyrion’s implied threat at the end of this conversation is pretty toothless. With Daenerys absent from the city, the Unsullied and other forces weakened by the Sons of the Harpy, the dragons uncontrollable, and all the ships in the harbor burned, Tyrion’s “you won’t get a better offer” seems more than a little hollow.
The garbage doesn’t stop there, though. In order to further convince the Masters that slavery is bad, Tyrion brings in some sex workers to service them, apparently to show that “free” sex workers are just as good as enslaved ones. Because, goodness knows, this storyline needed some misogyny to distract us from its racism. Listen, I don’t know what point the show is trying to make here, and I get that there’s a difference between depiction and endorsement, but this whole business is absolutely vile.
Daenerys, in the books, had the excuse of being an actual child learning to rule and trying to find a balance between her idealism and her responsibility. She was forced to compromise and to do some difficult decision-making calculus, and it was something she cared about and that took a good amount of soul-searching on her part. In the end, Book!Dany still hasn’t been altogether happy with things that she’s had to do in order to secure her rule in Meereen and keep as many slaves as she can free and fed. She hasn’t been altogether successful at any of it, and that’s kind of the point of her story.
The show, however, has given much of what Daenerys had to deal with in the books to Tyrion instead, and this changes things completely. Daenerys is framed here as a failure, her local advisors (just Missandei and Grey Worm in the show) as ignorant and simplistic, and Tyrion is set up as a straight-talking, straight-shooting negotiator who is easily able to come in and fix everything using his superior intellect and wit. Also, by using the bodies of women of color as bargaining chips and by manipulating Grey Worm and Missandei into supporting him against their better judgment. There does seem to be some inkling that Tyrion isn’t entirely in the right here, but this is far overshadowed by the fact that no one else has any better ideas on how to fix the situation, which subtly (though not very subtly) encourages the viewer to perceive Tyrion as right by default. Grey Worm and Missandei have objections, and they have feelings that are being somewhat acknowledged in the narrative, but they don’t have solutions of their own, and so Tyrion’s steamrolling over their objections is presented as just and reasonable. When you add to all this the patronizing tone of the whole sequence, it’s enough to make one want to hurl.
Elsewhere in Essos, the Jorah and Daario bro show continues. Daario is insulting Jorah’s sexual prowess and calling him old, because (again) the writers of this show are pathetic, unoriginal man children. They arrive at Vaes Dothrak without murdering each other, and their plan is to sneak in at night and rescue Daenerys. While they are disarming (because no weapons are allowed in the city), Daario sees Jorah’s greyscale, but he doesn’t seem to care that much, although now he doesn’t want to let Jorah touch his stuff. When night falls and they actually make their way into the city, there’s basically a wild orgy happening in the streets, prompting Daario to quip that he ought to have been born Dothraki. The pair quickly are discovered prowling the streets, and because this show is determined to make the world seem as small as possible, it’s by a couple of the guys who threatened to rape Daenerys in an earlier episode. I guess this is supposed to make us feel better about it when Daario and Jorah (well, mostly Daario) murder them both. While this is happening, Daenerys is sitting around with the Dosh Khaleen listening to the other women talk about how awful their husbands were. It’s so boring to her, however, that she has to get out of there—because “the old women stink”—so she goes outside to pee. In another bit of plot convenience theater, Jorah and Daario show up right then, ready to take Daenerys away. She has a plan of her own, though.
In King’s Landing, Margaery is still languishing in a cell under the Sept of Baelor when she’s taken out to get a long lecture from the High Sparrow. It’s all about the inherent immorality of wealth and power, but it’s mostly about the High Sparrow’s life story and how he found religion. This is deeply boring in some ways, but it’s nonetheless kind of fascinating to see the High Sparrow trying to manipulate Margaery in this manner. After this lecture, Margaery is taken to see Loras, who isn’t doing very well. All he can do is cry about how he just wants “it” to stop, but it’s left to the viewer’s imagination what “it” is. I like that Margaery is too clever to be taken in by the story the High Sparrow is telling about himself, but this whole plot is so confused it’s hard to even care very much about it at this point. It remains unclear what sins the High Sparrow thinks Margaery is guilty of, and it’s equally unclear what exactly they are holding Loras for at this point. Last season, the Sparrows were all about stamping out sexual immorality, but this season they seem to have entirely shifted focus to a generalized concern about godly living or something. Margaery tells Loras that if they give in, then the Sparrows win, but what do they win? Who even knows at this point.
At the Red Keep, Tommen is being advised by Pycelle, who is apparently going to live forever, but Tommen quickly dismisses the old man when Cersei arrives. Tommen tells his mother that they need to avoid antagonizing the High Sparrow, but Cersei sets him straight. Tommen then shares with her the news that Margaery is soon going to be forced to go through the same walk of atonement that Cersei did. Cersei and Jaime take this straight to Olenna and Kevan, and they resolve to take more serious action against the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant. Cersei and Olenna would make a formidable team if any of this stuff made any sense at all, but it doesn’t, really. I guess they’re going to war against the Faith, though. Also, no one is going to even bring up Cersei’s role in creating this mess, I guess. Even after watching the scene multiple times, I’m not sure I really understand Jaime’s plan for how he intends to use the Tyrell forces against the Faith, especially since he tells Kevan that Kevan will “stand down,” but okay. This is happening. I guess it beats more long lectures from the High Sparrow about sin.
Somehow, Theon has managed to make it home to Pyke, but Yara isn’t happy to see him. She’s also not very patient with his trauma. She mostly just yells at him, calling him a “cunt” (because D&D just fucking love that word) and telling him to stop crying. It’s honestly pretty explicitly emasculating, especially in light of Yara saying things like “you were my brother” and bringing up Theon’s castration in a hurtful way. She’s paranoid that Theon has returned to Pyke in order to compete against her for their father’s throne, but he insists that he only wants to support her bid in the upcoming Kingsmoot. As with so much else in this show, the only feeling I can muster up about this is “well, that’s happening, I guess.” Sadly, I’ve long ago made peace with the fact that Yara isn’t at all like Asha from the books, and I barely get even a little riled up by the use of the c-word anymore. It still doesn’t make a ton of sense that Theon would return to the Iron Islands at all, to be honest, but his less-than-warm welcome really just makes me feel sad for him. I guess next week or the week after we’ll find out how this Kingsmoot business is going to be handled, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this plotline then.
Because we can’t go even a single week without checking in with D&D’s favorite character, we’re next taken to Winterfell to see what Ramsay Bolton is up to. In a comically heavy-handed bit of symbolism, he’s peeling the skin off an apple, wastefully, when Osha is brought in to his chamber. Now clean and dressed, albeit simply, Osha tries to turn her feminine wiles on Ramsay, but it doesn’t work. She makes her move for his knife, but he beats her to it and stabs her in the neck. It’s a cheap and utterly expected way of tying up this loose end and paring down the cast list on the way to wrapping up the series. I could be outraged about what this says about D&D’s views on the disposability of female characters, but that’s nothing that hasn’t been talked about ad nauseam over the years. D&D hate women. We get it. Frankly, I was just glad to not have to see Osha being raped and/or tortured. Compared with the other possibilities of how she could have gone out, this was positively dignified. That it’s the best we could have hoped for is only a reflection of how terribly low our expectations are.
Back at Castle Black, a Bolton messenger arrives with a letter for Jon Snow from Ramsay. It’s more or less the Pink Letter from the books, but with even more ranting and threats. This, with the news that Ramsay has Rickon, plus some serious urging from Sansa and the support of Tormund, finally is enough to convince Jon that they must go try and retake Winterfell from Ramsay. Two thousand against Ramsay’s five thousand in a huge fortified castle seems like piss poor odds, though. I suppose they will meet up with the army from the Vale, but still. They can’t be planning for that.
Also, I hate that Sansa is so insistent that the Northern Lords will rally to Jon Snow. As a man of the Night’s Watch and as a bastard, Jon still has no legal claim to Winterfell. Sansa does, which is the whole point of Ramsay marrying her. Rickon does, which is why Ramsay is a colossal dumbfuck for not disposing of him immediately. But Jon doesn’t, and his resurrection and the abandonment of his post as Lord Commander can’t help his case with the Lords. Also, also, has everyone completely forgotten about the terrifying and enormous army of the dead that is coming for them?
The episode ends in Vaes Dothrak, where Daenerys is finally brought before the khals who are supposed to decide her fate. They debate the merits of keeping her around as part of the Dosh Khaleen versus selling her to Yunkai for ten thousand horses, but she interrupts to tell them what she wants. She informs them that they’re all small men, that they don’t deserve to lead the Dothraki, and that she does, so she’s going to. Perhaps understandably, they laugh, and then they threaten to gang rape her, at which point she starts knocking over the flaming braziers that light the temple and the place goes up like a torch. She’s had Jorah and Daario bar the doors from the outside, so the khals are trapped inside to burn to death. Finally, in a not-at-all-subtle callback to the last shot of season one, Daenerys emerges from the flames naked but unburnt and all of the Dothraki kneel before her because no matter how many times it’s criticized this show just insists on using this imagery of the whitest woman imaginable being surrounded by a sea of brown people worshiping her.
The set up for this climactic moment is ostensibly feminist. It pits Daenerys, an Empowered Woman™, against patriarchy. It takes pains to frame Daenerys as a champion for other women and to make the patriarchal figures she strikes down as vile as possible—strawman-level vile—to make sure that we don’t think she’s just some kind of hysterical monster on the rag or something. However, the show presents us with a racialized narrative that complicates the way Dany’s fight against patriarchy can be understood. In short, it’s a racist narrative that elevates Daenerys to White Savior status explicitly at the expense of people of color, who with rare exceptions the show portrays as uncivilized, violent, ignorant, superstitious, and incapable of advocating for themselves.
In this episode, specifically, we’re intended to cheer for Daenerys as she destroys the rightful (according to their own culture’s rules) leaders of the Dothraki people explicitly so that she can transport their warriors to Westeros and use them in her war to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. This isn’t the action of a benevolent savior or a feminist hero, no matter how much D&D want to frame it that way. Rather, these are the actions of a megalomaniacal dictator. Daenerys hasn’t saved the Dothraki (or the Meereenese or anyone else); she’s conquered them, or in the case of the Unsullied, bought them. And her endgame plan, since at least the time of her brother’s death, has always been to build and army in Essos and use it to conquer Westeros in spite of the fact that she’s never even been there.
In the books, this story only works because it’s so obviously written as an exploration and critique of longtime fantasy tropes like the Chosen One, the Divine Right of Kings, the White Savior, and more. GRRM thoroughly deconstructs, subverts, and averts many of the tropes often associated with this type of character, and though he does an imperfect job he deserves a lot of credit for even attempting to wade through such a morass of garbage to take a look at what makes this kind of story tick. The show, however, plays these tropes almost entirely straight except for when they intentionally write Daenerys as incompetent or otherwise disempower her for “dramatic effect.” Between the show’s chosen imagery—pale, blonde Daenerys has been surrounded dramatically by a sea of brown bodies multiple times—and the narrative that consistently and notably prioritizes Daenerys’s concerns and so-called character development over that of the people of Essos that she encounters, often treating people of color as entirely disposable and their feelings, opinions and goals as decidedly subordinate to Dany’s.
Honestly, there are so many layers of bullshit to the Essos storylines in Game of Thrones that I can’t even begin to cover them all here. I will probably cover this in a separate post, maybe waiting until the end of the season so as to be as comprehensive as possible. This episode, however, represents a new confluence of awfulness between Dany’s ADWD story being given to Tyrion, Tyrion’s despicableness, the pass the show gives Jorah and Daario for their misogyny, and Dany’s white supremacist moment. That this is what the showrunners—and a disturbing number of supposed critics—consider feminism is just fucking appalling.
Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that this episode also is a step backwards in terms of craft. The first three episodes of the season were far more linear in structure, but this one returns to last year’s more scattered format, visiting multiple locations more than once in a single episode, and it’s irritating. The single unequivocally positive thing I can say about “Book of the Stranger” is that there was a ton of forward movement on multiple storytelling fronts this week. Much of it was clumsy, some of it was boring, and a good deal would have been outrageous if it wasn’t so expected at this point, but there is definitely some kind of momentum building.
- Jon hasn’t mentioned his friend Sam Tarly even once this season. Just an observation.
- I absolutely love this coat thing that Littlefinger is wearing. One area in which I’ve seldom had complaints about this show is in the costuming department, and this is a gorgeous piece. So is Robin Arryn’s silver and gold number, for that matter.
- Why is there not only no snow in the Vale, but green grass and leaves on all the trees. You can gloom the place up in post-production all you want, but we can still tell that this was filmed on a beautiful mid-to-late summer day.
- The only good thing about Meereen last night was the guy who looked kind of like B.J. Novak. I kept hoping that after Tyrion said something terrible that guy was going to look straight at the camera like he was on The Office.
- Excellent use of “The Rains of Castamere” while Cersei, Olenna, Jaime, and Kevan are plotting the High Sparrow’s downfall.
- Seriously, Ramsay is wasting like half of that apple they way he’s peeling it.
- Why does Sansa just have a whole tongue (sheep, I think) on a fork, just staring at it? Like, you’re supposed to cut that up into smaller bites, you dork.
- Tormund looking at Brienne while he eats is the best gif to come out of this show in years.