Game of Thrones: Book of the Stranger Review

Game of Thrones Season 6 has its best episode yet, as an hour dedicated to brothers and sisters ends in fiery delight.

This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers.

Season 6 Episode 4

A commenter once asked me several weeks ago why I hadn’t given a recent episode five stars. And the answer was that as much as I have been enjoying Game of Thrones season 6 thus far, there had yet to be an episode where almost every scene flowed with the momentum and confidence of a now left-behind George R.R. Martin; nor had there been one as breathlessly addictive from start to close at ratcheting up the tension and building the cloak and dagger intrigue as the show’s most thrilling moments.

But this week, with the mystery surrounding Jon Snow and his decisions post-resurrection finally settled in exactly the fashion everyone expected, we finally got one of those oh, so special episodes that makes Game of Thrones’ medieval high-fantasy feel shockingly alive—and ever every subplot sang with the clarity of two swords meeting in the middle. Finally, the series is back on track, building anticipation for the perpetually distant “wars to come.” Only now, those battles aren’t so far, and you can already hear the sounds of shields and blood pouring onto the snow.

Above all else, this will be remembered as the first episode with a true Stark reunion since Jon Snow and Sansa Stark shared the screen for the first time since the very opening salvo of season 1.

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Too often have we been teased at the idea of a Stark reunion: Arya Stark made it just outside of the Twins, within reach of reconciling with the mother she always felt she disappointed, when both Catelyn Stark and Arya’s eldest brother were slaughtered like dogs at the Red Wedding (they even put one such a canine head on Robb’s shoulders); Arya also was a hair’s breath away from seeing Sansa again at the Vale when she arrived two days late, and the Eyrie on lockdown following the death of Lysa Arryn; and let’s not forget that twice now, both in warg and human form, that Bran Stark has seen Jon Snow, but not once has he had the courtesy of going up to his half-brother and saying hi.

Praise the old gods and the new then that those days of family-less Starks appear to finally be behind us. And if the Mother is merciful, no more shall we have such manipulative heartstring-pulling. Still, it is a credit to both George R.R. Martin, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, that we actually only ever saw the Stark brood together in the very first two episodes of Game of Thrones—and they were only happy during one of them.

But tonight, I’m sure there were some actual tears of joy in audiences when Jon Snow looked down from his Lord Commander perch and saw Sansa Stark canter into Castle Black. Aptly choosing not to bother writing any dialogue for the moment, Benioff and Weiss elected to let a brother and sister who were never even the closest among the many Stark siblings embrace as if each had been thrown a life-preserver in a sea of storms. And maybe they have been.

I also want to commend the show for addressing an issue that only book readers would likely be aware of: Sansa Stark, taking after her mother Catelyn, always kept Jon Snow at an arm’s length. Her mother thought it was improper for her children’s father to let a bastard skulk around the “legitimate children,” and unlike Robb or Arya, Sansa took such prejudice to heart. Or to quote Sansa herself, the young girl we met in season 1 was a bit of an “idiot.”

However, those days are long, long over and that becomes clear immediately. Both Jon Snow and Sansa have suffered greatly up to this point. In fact, they seem to paper over just how much each knows of the other’s plights. For example, does Jon have the faintest ideas of the nightmare his sister endured at the hands of first Joffrey and then the Boltons he would initially demure ownership of Winterfell to? And does Sansa know that Jon Snow actually died and was resurrected over 24 hours later? (One would think that would come with a lot of questions…)

Whatever the case may be, their ability to both reminisce about the “happy days” of the series’ first episode brings a lot of immediate nostalgia and catharsis rushing up to the surface for both viewer and character, as well as a renewed desire to see Winterfell and the power of the North back in the hands of the Starks. And indeed, a bit to my surprise, Sansa has to be the one to rattle that saber. For those who still cling to defaming Sansa for her first season mistakes, she has been on a long trajectory of growth and power hunger since season 4. It’s what allowed her the wits to lie on Petyr Baelish’s behalf, saving his life, and it is the same naked ambition that led her to willingly marry the bastard son of her brother’s murderer.

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But now, she has had enough of lying and merely reaching for her power’s general direction; tonight, she’ll be Lady Macbeth if she must to get Jon Snow out of his funky pity party and realize there are monsters south of the Wall too, and they need slaying just as badly as any White Walker.

That point was made explicit in Ramsay Bolton’s one and typically horrifying scene. In the only major death of the night, we said goodbye to another character who has been with us since season 1. However, unlike Roose Bolton’s admittedly anti-climactic end, this murder of a Game of Thrones mainstay by Ramsay was chillingly effective. I am sure that many an angry think piece is being written even now about this and several other scenes, however Osha is most certainly a wildling who is loyal to Rickon Stark, and Theon Greyjoy obviously squealed like a frightened dog about the woman who seduced his Stark hostages right out from under him.

Honestly, I suspect Benioff and Weiss chose not to give Osha nearly as gruesome a fate as Ramsay could have procured, what with dogs and flaying knives lying about. Instead, he put himself in the exact same position as Theon Greyjoy and proved that he is no stupefied Reek.

Also as we made our goodbyes to Osha, one of the best scenes of the night came with Jon Snow receiving a long overdue letter from a fellow high-raised bastard. The scene itself is a wonderful hodgepodge of personalities finally crossing over into each others’ storylines like a Marvel Studios movie—except we actually care about all of them here. There’s obviously Jon and Sansa, but also Brienne, Podrick Payne, Tormund Giantsbane, and Dolorous Edd. Each we have spent many hours with, even if they’re in the background, and there is almost a mystifying affectation to seeing them break bread… even the kind that’s undoubtedly crusted with mold from Castle Black’s cellars. Yet, this scene of relative domesticity (and a horny Giantsbane) is broken by a letter penned by a Bolton who now calls himself lord, yet still ever remains a Snow.

“To the traitor and bastard Jon Snow,

You allowed thousands of wildlings to pass the Wall; you have betrayed your own kind; you have betrayed the North. Winterfell is mine, bastard. Come and see. Your brother Rickon is in my dungeon, his direwolf skin is on my floor. Come and see. I want my bride back. Send her to me bastard, and I will not trouble you or your wildling lovers.

Keep her from me and I will ride north and slaughter every wildling man, woman, and babe under your protection. You will watch as I skin them living, you will watch as my soldiers take turns raping your sister. You will watch as my dogs devour your wild little brother, then I will spoon your eyes from their sockets and let my dogs do the rest. Come and see.

Ramsay Bolton, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North”

The only thing missing is Ramsay demanding that Jon Snow give him back his Reek! And indeed, when Jon Snow received a version of this same letter from Ramsay in A Dance with Dragons—which arrived before Jon was murdered by his brothers of the Night’s Watch—Ramsay did demand he see his Reek again. Nevertheless, I honestly think the scene plays as even more extraordinarily creepy on Game of Thrones (blasphemy, I know), because Sansa is there next to Jon, reunited by not even a day with her dear brother, when Ramsay threatens to give her the full Tysha treatment.

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If ever there was a character in need of killing on Game of Thrones… this guy is it, which says everything else about the scene. Still, even Tormund looks ready for bloodlust when he heard that his Free Folk were threatened to be skinned alive by a creep he has never met. With this letter, Ramsay has given Jon Snow the army he didn’t even realize he wanted until that very moment of blood boil. And I am surprised again that Sansa had to explain to Jon what their next plan of action should be.

The North (other than the Karstarks and Umbers) remembers, and they will never bend the knee to a Bolton, especially a demonic one who is bastard born and the son of a Red Wedding conspirator. Further, why even worry that he is a bastard anymore? If Stark partisans still recognize the Starks as rulers of the North, forsake the Southron lords and their games. Robb Stark was King in the North, so have Sansa claim herself as Queen (or regent until Rickon comes of age) and pardon Jon Snow, make him Jon Stark and allowing him to do what he is so good at: slaying monsters.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 Predictions and Theories

But if tonight saw one brother and sister unite in a common cause of killing the vilest character in television history, another brother and sister were taken to an equally cathartic but somehow darker place. This week also marked the first real major season 6 scene for Margaery Tyrell and her more than likely doomed brother, Loras.

First, we were explained the title of this particular episode when Margaery was guided by candlelight out of her midnight-lit cell to the sunniness of the High Sparrow’s preferred, ancient abbey. Given a showcase scene by the writers, Jonathan Pryce effortlessly hits it out of the park as he continues to conflate medieval reformist zealotry—equal parts Martin Luther and Savonarola—with the ingredients of a modern day Bernie Sanders stump speech. He condemns Margaery for desiring to simply see her family, because her family belongs to the one percent of the one percent, and their mere existence is a sin.

He then relates that to his own origin as apparently a well-to-do cobbler that after a night of wanton debauchery saw the light of day literally break on a mountain of naked flesh, which caused him to feel shame. And yet, I do wonder if he didn’t pause for a moment to realize there is a middle path between the piety of Gandhi and the lasciviousness of Caligula? But nope, it’s from one extreme to the other with this bloke, which may actually speak more volumes to his brand of purported populism than any kind words about the Stranger (the Southron gods’ deity that signifies death).

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Luckily, rather than bend and kiss the ring as quickly as Cersei did, Margaery proves herself to be made of stronger stuff. She knows very well what will happen if she or Loras confesses, and she tries to comfort her brother with these words of resolution. If they given in, their family is destroyed. For Margaery to confess would mean she sentences her brother to death and herself to at least something as degrading as Cersei’s walk of shame. For Loras to break, it would be the same fate. So again, we are treated to a strong and compassionate love between brothers and sisters that feels like a marked breath of fresh air after so many episodes with the Lannister twins. I sincerely hope that the High Sparrow does not succeed at turning the Tyrells against one another, which is what I suspect his play is by letting Margaery see how far down the path toward oblivion Loras has walked. (It’s also quite telling that the misogyny masked as piety crept up again with the fact that Loras is allowed a cell with sunlight and Margaery is not).

Still, I hope that they remain strong, simply as a counterbalance to the Lannisters’ own weaknesses… or at least Cersei’s. For again, we should be reminded that the Tyrells’ horrors were purposefully orchestrated by Cersei with so much arrogance and lack of foresight that she could not see the dangers of arming militant fanatics with armies’ worth of weapons in her city until it all came up to bite her on the royal throne. So lest we ever get too sympathetic for the Queen Mother, her culpability in this King’s Landing madness is strikingly juxtaposed with the Tyrells’ plight shown next to her own machinations to turn poor King Tommen’s head for the umpteenth time. And since Cersei is the last person to whom he has spoken, he of course gives her complete leeway again.

After bobbling his head to the High Sparrow’s words last week, Tommen once folds like school paper to Cersei as she insists that all she cares about is Margaery’s well-being. Pffft. The only true words that passed Cersei’s lips is her disdain for that peasant priest who wants to tear down their one percenter world and create a fantasy made of children’s tales. I half expected Cersei to bemoan the mere thought of free college tuition for everybody in this very scene.

But the plan that Cersei then submits to Kevan Lannister and the Queen of Thorns nevertheless has merit. While it was a bit of a strange writing choice for Kevan Lannister to be depicted as a Tyrell sympathizer in this scene, Cersei’s scheme might just work, especially since Jaime is taking charge instead of her. By using the Tyrell army, which have more support amongst the people of King’s Landing after feeding them in seasons 3 and 4 following a year of nigh starvation, Jaime can make a play to defuse the situation as bloodlessly as possible. The threat of civil war looms high between the Sparrows and the Lannisters/Tyrells, who are united in a common cause to make sure the High Sparrow does not take his candidacy all the way to Philadelphia. However, I remain skeptical that bloodshed will fully erupt. Instead, I predict Jaime is able to use this opportunity to prove he is a good knight by avoiding a full scale bloodbath… which will lead Cersei to make more rash decisions down the line.

But speaking of rash things to do, Littlefinger finally made his triumphant return in season 6 at a place where I suspect few would have predicted… the Vale. Remembering that Lord Protector of the Vale is actually a major title he now holds, he returned to his duties by Lord Robin Arryn, who revealed himself to be a year older but never any smarter. Enamored with the present of a falcon, he is ready to send a loyal Lord Royce through the Moon Door if it means he can play with his bird a moment sooner.

Admittedly, this is the one scene that I thought felt a little rushed. Littlefinger has been missing for about a half-dozen episodes and just shows up to reclaim authority in the Vale inside of five minutes? The Knights of the Vale he speaks about all have low opinions of Petyr Baelish, who just a year or so ago (in the show’s timeline) was put on trial for the murder of Lysa Arryn. He might have turned Robin’s head for a brief moment against Royce, but he is still one of many lords, and Robin has proven to hold the attention span and loyalty of a newt… just without the cleverness. He could be swayed again just as easily in any direction.

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But this scene is unfortunately mostly perfunctory, as plots are bent to the show’s increasingly brisk momentum. The show wants Littlefinger back in the North, now commanding the Vale’s army (which has not been fatigued or decreased by a year-plus of battle from the War of the Five Kings like everywhere else). So to the North they will go. Hopefully, Littlefinger’s role will be in less narratively strict scenes next week.

On that very note, this episode felt like the first one in season 6 where Peter Dinklage finally got to shine, reveling in the diplomatic dexterity of everybody’s favorite Lannister. Not since season 2 have we seen the smallest of Lannisters walk around with a swagger every bit as tall as Charles Dance—and it is a beauty to behold now.

Appearing to be more like the pragmatic Abraham Lincoln of 1861 rather than the morally absolutist one of 1863, Tyrion displayed a surprising resolve for preserving Daenerys’ union, even at the cost of the evil institution of slavery lasting a little longer. As Missandei so drolly surmised, he may have been a slave for a week, but he still does not understand it. Also, he might be in for a rude awakening if he thinks he can fade out slavery over seven years. Dany showed perhaps a rashness to uproot the evil from the stem, but with institutions as cruelly and insidiously entrenched in bigotry and greed as this, sometimes forceful removal is the only solution—again ask Lincoln from a few years after the South could not be reconciled to stay in the Union.

Tyrion’s dealing with the slavers of Astapor and Yunkai is a bit befuddling as well for the time being, because he is offering them a “deal” where they give up the cornerstone of their culture in exchange for short-term financial restitutions. Why not just go to war with Meereen and maintain slavery indefinitely? Unless I am missing something, with the dragons either locked away or unaccounted for, Tyrion has little to no leverage over Astapor and Yunkai, who could declare war on Meereen within the month.

Still, it is a showcase scene for Dinklage, as Tyrion both runs mental laps around the delegates of Slaver’s Bay and then the freed men of Meereen. He just might be too clever by half, especially since Daenerys appears to be on her way out from Essos in the near future. In such a context, I cannot imagine any pledges to peacefully remove slavery seven years after the Mother of Dragons is long gone to hold in her absence. Perhaps Grey Worm and Missandei are right to be wary of Tyrion’s political games and smooth words.

Daenerys, meanwhile, proved she has not changed and that she will never bother attempting to simply outtalk her enemies—not when she can hear their screams echo through the smoke of a quiet evening’s firelight. Aye, for those waiting for the shoe to drop in the “Dany is a Dothraki Prisoner, Again” storyline, tonight was a kind of wistful look back to season 1. Essentially resembling Daenerys’ Greatest Hits, the woman who fans still primarily refer to as “Khaleesi” returned to the room where she ate a horse’s heart and then later saw her brother’s skull melted from the heat of molten metal. There, she nearly single-handedly performed a coup without any weapons by finishing the fire that Khal Drogo started on Viserys’ head.

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Daenerys is a character that fans do not like seeing placed in a box for too long. She started with nothing and has risen to the top of Meereen’s greatest pyramid with an army of adoring warriors. The thought that she should be relegated to the voiceless role of a “Dosh Khaleen,” which appears to be Dothraki for “damaged goods,” is as worrisomely leaden as it is definitely infuriating.

In fact, these frat brother khals assembled in the Vaes Dothrak chamber were flabbergasted by the concept of Dany merely suggesting that they might be curious about what she wants for her future.

Proving themselves to be little better than half the Dany haters on the Internet—the kind of folks who also will troll Facebook, reddit, and comment sections whining about their pathetic “Men’s Rights movement”—the idea that Daenerys could offer them more than their piles of stick huts and raped women is an affront to their very ignorance. So Dany enlightens them by flaming these real-life trolls in the most glorious scene of wholesale slaughter since possibly that time in season 3 where Daenerys ordered Drogon to barbecue an Astapori imbecile who talked a little too liberally about “curves” around the dragon’s mother.

So too did these men burn, but it was mayhaps even more gratifying that the fire came not from the bowels of hell residing in every dragon’s tummy, but rather by Daenerys’ own hand. We haven’t really seen Dany’s immunity to fire referenced since season 1, yet it was such an obvious ploy that I and likely millions of others am kicked myself for not putting it together: they burn and she doesn’t! Maybe they shouldn’t snort disdain so quickly at the thought structures made of stone?

And with that bit of justified murder complete, and a fraternity burned to ashes, Dany completed the season 1 callback by emerging nude for the first time in five years, reborn like the phoenix and a god among men. And this is not a moment of objectification; it’s a moment of glorification that echoes the biblical overtones last witnessed when Dany previously emerged from a fire unscathed with three dragons held to her breast. In that moment, every present Dothraki’s superstition had them bend the knee in religious awe, so too did they bend again.

Daenerys now has an army of united (and khal-less) Dothraki at her back. Just like George R.R. Martin originally envisioned for the character when she finally took Westeros by storm in his initial “A Song of Ice and Fire” pitch. And she has plans for them greater than sacking any single village… or city.

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Game of Thrones is entering its endgame stages, and Dany’s eyes are looking ever westward. I cringe when I think what that means for the future of the impoverished in Slaver’s Bay, but for viewers of Game of Thrones, it is every bit as exciting as this episode has been. And this was a great one.

read more: Game of Thrones Season 8 – Everything We Know

You can also follow my watch as a Lord Commander on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

Rating:

5 out of 5