Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.
Now that is how you set the table. “Book Of The Stranger” doesn’t just check off plot points. In fact, there aren’t a lot of plot points to check off. It’s an episode of introductions, reunions, and wall-to-wall scheming. No wonder Littlefinger finally returns to the fold. Sansa’s strategizing with Jon, Cersei’s spearheading a move against the Sparrows, Osha tries her damnedest to take out Ramsay. Finally the globe is a Risk board again, with all kinds of lords and ladies and once and future khaleesis deciding what to do with armies. The recurring idea is strong women, women in command, women refusing to shrink. Missandei weighs in on a momentous piece of legislation. Even imprisoned Margaery refuses to just accept her position, the way so many women have been forced to in the past. The result is another coup that turns out to be the latest effortless spectacle in Dany’s conquest of a continent.
That sense of strategy is what’s been missing lately. The Dornish coup was meant to be a shock, but the opportunity cost is what’s going through Ellaria’s head beyond the simple, immediate victory of the throne in front of her. We still don’t know whether she seriously means to go to war with the Lannisters, which has the accidental virtue of releasing us from more screentime in Dorne. Yara’s ability to strategize has been hampered by the total loss of the war against the North and the kingsmoot being taken out of her hands. We don’t really know what that is, but I suspect she could be out there glad-handing ship captains and kissing babies or doing something anyway, but we don’t see that. For most of the past few episodes, Melisandre and Davos have been at the wall as free agents giving us no sense of their goals. What would they have done if Jon didn’t come back? Hell, what are they intending to do now that he is back? All Jon’s come up with since un-taking the black is he wants to get warm, a fine joke but another missed opportunity to reveal goals. Thank god Sansa arrives, so someone at Castle Black is thinking more than one move ahead.
Sansa looks so much more mature now, sitting next to Jon and reminiscing about Winterfell. I’m not sure all those near-misses between the Stark kids gives this reunion any more heft than it would have had otherwise, but it’s a huge relief to see them together, not least because it’s a conversation where people just shoot the shit, like people do. Jon even makes fun of himself! Eventually Sansa talks about the road not traveled, wishing she would never have gone with her father and that handsome Prince Joffrey to King’s Landing. But this way, horrible as it’s been, she’s been disabused of her romantic fantasies, and she’s watched the best schemers on the continent in action. The writers closed off pretty much every avenue for her to practice manipulating people at the Eyrie and especially at Winterfell with Ramsay, but at last she’s making her mark on the world. Even before she reads Ramsay’s taunting letter about Rickon, she urges Jon to retake Winterfell. She namechecks Arya, Bran, and Rickon in the process, and looking back it’s almost surprising that there are still five of them (and Theon) still running around. Later she takes Jon’s hand, physically appealing to him. All I could think of is Cersei’s wicked queen moment when she grabs Tommen’s cheek and sweetly says, “I am your mother. You can always trust me.” Sansa’s no Cersei, but the use of a coaxing touch is the same. Best of all, Sansa doesn’t let the scene end without telling us her goals. “If we don’t take back the North, we’ll never be safe. I want you to help me. But I’ll do it myself if I have to.”
They read the Ramsay letter later. I say “they,” because Jon stops reading halfway through. Ramsay’s threats are too grotesque, and he doesn’t want to subject Sansa to that. But Sansa grabs the letter and finishes reading it out loud to the rest of their dinner table, the first of two lengthy descriptions of fantasized gang rape this episode. The other, Khal Moro’s attempt to intimidate Dany, just serves to let us off the hook for savoring his demise. It’s also sort of a test of Dany’s fear, but Dany is an old hand at looking imperious and demanding foreigners serve her. Sansa refusing to be cushioned is a much stronger statement. The old Sansa really is gone. She reads the letter because she won’t be intimidated by a man who imprisoned her, played mind-games on her, and repeatedly violently raped her. The implications are major. Refusing to be protected makes her a grown-up. Reading the letter where her brother wouldn’t, and somewhat against his urging, makes her a leader. It’s a Dany move writ small. And it’s thanks to that letter that Tormund volunteers the wildlings to the cause. They won’t be enough to retake Winterfell, but Sansa has a plan for that, too. The Northerners will fight for Jon. Fighting is the exact opposite of what Jon wants to do, yet Sansa gets him to do it. They’re going to march on Winterfell, just as Melisandre’s prophecy foretold. It’s a thrilling, lively, human pair of sequences between Jon and Sansa, and all they’ve done so far is scheme.
“Book Of The Stranger” keeps presenting strong women next to weak men, or weaker men, or men who don’t get their way at least. Yara’s as unyielding as Balon, and Theon confesses to being broken. Like Sansa, Yara looks so much older all of a sudden. And like Sansa, she ultimately gets support from her brother. The small council scene is basically Cersei and Olenna taking decisive action, with Jaime and Kevan just there for moral support. It’s telling that Olenna’s the one choosing what to do with Tyrell armies, not Mace. As for the other Tyrells, Margaery gets front-row tickets to another beautiful performance by Jonathan Pryce, the camera slowly pushing in as he describes his rock-bottom moment, an Antonioni party that made him feel so empty he walked out the door and walked out of his life. She cooperates and even seems to find some connection with him, but as soon as the High Sparrow takes her to Loras’ cell, she tells her brother not to play into their hands. “You need to stay strong.” He replies, “I can’t stay strong. I never was strong.” He’s so out of hope it momentarily shocks her, but she tells him not to give in or they’ll win. “Let them win,” he says. “Just make it stop.”
The result, as the High Sparrow anticipated, is Margaery sets a date for her walk of shame. It reminds me of what Grey Worm tells Tyrion about the masters. “You will not use them. They will use you. That is what they do.” Manipulation is key to every good Game Of Thrones episode. Naturally it’s prominent here. In addition to the High Sparrow and Margaery trying to play each other and Tyrion cutting a pretty sweet deal to the masters in exchange for cutting off the harpies, not to mention Cersei and Sansa, there’s Osha. Her meeting with Ramsay has just about everything that makes Ramsay stories so bad: He’s an unstoppable supervillain, she’s made to be sexually compliant, he kills her, she’s disposable, and he ends the scene with a stupid look to demonstrate how little notice he takes of death. But it’s a good scene in and of itself—and would be a much better one if Ramsay’s sadism weren’t so dull by this point—because Osha is no shrinking violet. She’s the one apparently in charge of the scene. Even though he’s going to get the upper hand, he’s not torturing her the whole time. Instead it’s more like the producers are torturing us. There’s a blade tantalizingly within her grasp if only she could reach it in time, and for a moment it almost seems like she might. She doesn’t, and I’m kicking myself for ever entertaining the notion, but she tries. It can’t help but feel like they brought her back only to kill her—as opposed to, say, her dying off-screen like Shaggydog, trying to keep Rickon out of Umber hands—but it could have been so much worse.
Vaes Dothrak gets off to a weak start. The writers are capable of beautiful monologues for Jonathan Pryce, a thousand improvised stingers for Olenna, a wrenching confession for Loras, and an honest-to-goodness joke for Jon Snow, but all they can imagine that transpires between Daario and Jorah several days into their crosscountry hike is a pissing match over Dany. Their plan to rescue her is just as blunderous, not least for asking us to buy that Jorah and Daario could get to her, in the center of the national convention of Dothraki, without going through more than two men. It’s fitting that they have almost no effect on the episode’s outcome. Dany rejects their help. She rescues herself.
The writers had me right where they wanted me. Is Dany going to make some kind of proposal to Khal Moro? Can she sense her dragon nearby? She walks around the yurt shaming the lazy khals with Drogo’s ambition. “You are small men. None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki. But I am. So I will.” They’re captivated by her story at first, but soon they all laugh. Khal Moro scoffs at the idea of serving her. “You’re not going to serve,” she tells him, and even then I was still expecting some small-scale solution, some kind of persuasive offer or something. But she continues, “You’re going to die.” First she places her hand on the giant torches in the center of the tent to demonstrate her superpower, and then she tips them over, setting the place ablaze. Daario and Jorah have killed the guards and barricaded the doors. The ruling khals go up in flame. And Dany alone can survive. It’s a perfect Dany moment, because it requires her to talk a good game, look like a queen, and show off her superpowers, and it’s elegantly simple. All she has to do is tip over the lamps. She’s great at destructive spectacle. She walks slowly through the flames so every Dothraki in the crowd that’s assembled can see she’s fireproof, and just like last time, they all instinctively kneel before their khaleesi. Daario’s awed, too, and it takes a lot to get through that smirk.
The reason not knowing characters’ goals has been frustrating at this point in particular is it’s starting to feel like anything can happen. In season one, in a well-ordered and strictly structured kingdom, there weren’t a lot of options for the characters. Everyone pretty much knew what their lives would look like. Now Dany holds the combined khalassar, three dragons, the Unsullied, and one to three cities. Ellaria sits on the throne at Dorne, Yara’s on her way to ruling the Iron Islands, and Sansa, Cersei, and Olenna are commanding armies. It’s hard to know what to expect from people now that they have so much more freedom.
- “Book Of The Stranger” is written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Daniel Sackheim.
- While Sansa and Jon reminisce, Brienne has a little chat with Melisandre and Davos. He doesn’t remember her, but she sure remembers them. “I was kingsguard to Renly Baratheon.” “That’s in the past now,” Davos tells her. Wonder if he’ll buy that excuse when Melisandre tells him what happened to Shireen.
- Littlefinger shows up to test his weapon, Robin. He knows just how to cue his nephew. Robin asks, “Should we throw him through the moon door?” and Littlefinger gets to pull the trigger or not. In this case, he’s dealing with Lord Royce, who’s upset he was lied to about Sansa’s destination. By the end of the scene, he’s just happy to be alive.
- But speaking of Sansa: “We should help her,” says Robin. “That was my instinct as well,” says Littlefinger, twirling around to face Lord Royce, his black cloak spreading a bit like a vampire’s cape. “Your lord has spoken.”
- “You think you’re a free man, now? You still follow orders.” Leave it to the Slaver’s Bay master to drop the hottest take in his high school government class.
- Tyrion offers the masters a deal too good to refuse. Slavery will be reinstituted but phased out over the next seven years. In exchange, the masters have to cut off the harpies. Afterward Missandei argues, “Seven years is not a short time for a slave.” Tyrion sees it as a choice between more war or more slavery, and he elected to stop the fighting first. I don’t know how wise this is in the long run, but I’m not sure it matters given Dany’s new army.
- Cersei: “Queens must command respect, kings even more so, not just for their own sake but for everyone’s.” Naturally she thinks of rescuing Margaery as a means to bolstering her own status and power. I’ve been wondering how she really feels about her daughter-in-law, though, and this is awfully convincing. But they still haven’t solved the issue of safely rescuing Margaery. They could always have just steamrolled the sparrows, but they risked something happening to her first. And that’s still an issue, no matter what Jaime says about the sparrows not having any time to react. In fact, Cersei may well be counting on Margaery’s death at the hands of the sparrows. After all, she outsourced the rescue to the Tyrell army. Her hands will be clean.
- Osha’s not scared of Ramsay’s flayed man sigil. “You eat them after?” Ramsay snorts. “No.” “Then I’ve seen worse.”