GAME OF THRONES: “Book of the Stranger”

The best episode of the season (so far) includes family reunions, new alliances, and the dopest Burning Man festival in Essos.

Many will die no matter what we do. Better them than us.

–Olenna Tyrell

Okay, so I don’t take back everything I said last week, but if the non-events of “Oathbreaker” were always intended to be the set to “Book of the Stranger’s” thunderous strike, I’m firmly back on board.

This episode had it all: Sansa and Jon get back together! The return of Littlefinger! Dany roasting the Great Khals in their highly flammable hut! But most importantly, Benioff & Weiss’s script had the forward momentum that last week seriously lacked: every scene mattered. Every moment had a purpose (yes, even Ramsey’s). And each sequence ended on a beat of fist-pumping satisfaction that points to still greater things to come.

We’ll begin up North, as we have every week so far: hey, so Jon didn’t actually leave-leave after his mic drop, though it certainly looked that way. He still has to pack up his things, which gives Edd the opportunity to accuse Jon of abandoning the Watch, especially knowing what’s coming, which is a great point. Jon, however, has a better one: he died. His men killed him. We don’t get a conclusive ruling on this, however, because at that moment the Castle gates are opened to reveal Sansa, Brienne, and Pod. YES.

The reunion between the Starks is glorious, partly because I didn’t expect it to occur this soon. I figured we had at least another episode or two before they crossed paths on the road. But this is, by far, the best possible outcome — after all, it’s not just the characters that haven’t shared a scene in five full years. Sophie Turner and Kit Harington exude more genuine warmth than we’ve seen on Thrones in a long time, and Turner especially shows how far she’s come as an actress in the scenes that follow. But that’s not even the headline here. No, dear readers, I want to raise a glass in celebration of my new ‘shipping cause, and yours: Brienne and Tormund Giantsbane.

When the Maiden of Tarth trots through the gates (it’s the horse that’s trotting, not her), our ginger Wildling warrior’s jaw drops. He’s in awe. Maybe in love. He can’t stop staring at her. Even at the dinner table, he makes googly-eyes, seductively nibbling on his chicken wing. Brienne, bless her heart, doesn’t know how to respond. (Edd, hilariously caught in the middle, doesn’t dare to.) She’s never had the honest attention of a man before. When the conversation comes up about leading fighters against the Bolton army, Tormund leaps at the opportunity, but you and I both know that it’s not for Jon. It’s to impress Brienne. I NEED TO SEE HOW THIS DEVELOPS, AND I NEED IT NOW.


We should probably back up, because there really was some great stuff with Jon and Sansa leading up to that; interestingly, we don’t get to see her reaction to the whole “back from the dead” thing, but it’s clear when we catch with up with them that she already knows, and takes it in stride because…what else can she do? “We never should have left Winterfell,” she laments, correctly. She also wants to apologize for being so awful to Jon when they were children, which he forcibly accepts. But he’s much less interested in taking Winterfell back: “I’m tired of fighting,” Jon groans. “It’s all I’ve ever done since I’ve left home.” He rattles of the list of atrocities he’s committed, but Sansa’s like psh, Ramsey does all that before breakfast. “If we don’t take back the North, we’ll never be safe. I’ll do it myself if I have to.” And I bet she would, too. Sansa is already the season’s MVP and there are still six episodes to go.

Whatever Jon decides, he can count on the undying (because it seems she can’t die) loyalty of Melisandre. She’s cashed out her chips only to put them all back on Jon as the actual “Prince that was Promised,” which has Davos wondering heeyyyyy, what happened to Stannis, anyway? And Shireen? But before we can get to that depressing reveal, Brienne strides up to basically confirm that yeah, Stannis is dead, because I killed him, and I still haven’t forgiven you two for the smoke baby that killed Renly. Guess those three have some issues to work out.

In the end it only takes one letter from Ramsey, evidently inspired to pick up the pen after murdering Osha (an entirely predictable and unfortunate turn of events), to set Jon on his course. In what book readers will recognize immediately as “the Pink Letter,” Ramsey declares that he has Rickon in his dungeon, and wants Sansa back, and threatens rape and mayhem if he doesn’t get her, blah blah, it’s a bit rambling, really. “Come and see” is the recurring refrain, taunting Jon into forsaking his vows to the Watch. (Seems he still doesn’t know about the murder.) Sansa begs her half-brother (is he?) to meet the Bolton challenge, even if he and the Wildlings will be vastly outnumbered. “You’re the son of the last true Warden of the North,” she argues. (But IS HE, THOUGH?) Still, the point is made. There will be…a Battle of the Bastards.

Gotta stop these child actors from growing, somehow.

As it turns out, they’ll have help coming un-looked for from the Vale, as Littlefinger makes his triumphant return to click another piece of his master plan into place. First, though, we have to check in with Brave Lord Robin, who still sucks pretty terribly at everything except looking like a member of The Strokes; Yohn Royce, who faces the hopeless task of turning this Tweety Bird into something resembling a knight, can only muster a weak nod as yet another arrow misses its target. And it’s about to get a whole lot worse for old Royce.

Last season, we speculated about whether Littlefinger, who seems to know all, really knew what he was getting Sansa into when he dropped her off with the Boltons. While the jury’s still out on that, he did have his response in his quiver when questioned by the imperious Yohn Royce back at the Eyrie (welcome back to the credits, The Eyrie!): they were waylaid on the road, and weren’t YOU, Royce, the only one who knew our plans? “Shall we throw him through the moon door?” Robin asks, hopefully. Amazing. Just amazing. The man has served him hand and foot ever since he was born, and the twerp has no trouble disposing of him like you would an old loaf of bread. But, magnanimously, Uncle Petyr notes that they have better uses for Royce, if he proves his loyalty: how about marshaling the forces of the Vale, who have gone nowhere and done nothing ever since Jon Arryn’s untimely death, against the Boltons? Robin goes along with that, just like he was supposed to. Brilliant.

Robin has no business being on the throne, of course, and the Vale is likely doomed, but they at least follow “the rules” of succession like the rest of the civilized world. Pyke, on the other hand, is about to hold a contested convention, and Yara is furious that on top of her crazy uncle Euron and whoever else wants to sit on the Seastone Chair, she now has to deal with Theon oh-so-conveniently turning up right after her father’s death. The same Theon who rejected her offer of rescue a few seasons ago. “I risked everything for you,” she snarls, “and you betrayed me.” Theon knows that. He’s sorry. He actually can’t stop crying about it, and Yara gets mad for that too, because everyone knows Ironborn don’t cry. But don’t worry, he doesn’t want to be king. “Tell me what you want!” she demands. “You should rule the Iron Islands,” he finally sputters. “Let me help you.” Okay, that works.

Probably best to leave The Mountain out of this one.

Let’s move south to our other dysfunctional family, where Queen Margaery finally gets a little “outside time,” sort of. Okay, it’s technically inside, but she at least gets to see sunlight, and her brother. Less welcome is the sermon the High Sparrow drops straight on her head, in a less-than-subtle attempt to turn her against her family and all her “finery;” he gives us his origin story about his days as a cobbler, where he used the money he earned making shoes for rich people to become just as sinful as they were, until witnessing the aftermath of one of their bacchanals turned him to the straight and narrow. Especially as delivered by Jonathan Pryce, the tale totally rings true, but only exemplifies how impossible it would be to reach a compromise with a man who has given his soul to a cause greater than himself; Margaery can only hope to console her brother, telling him to stay strong, but he doesn’t care, he’ll admit to whatever, he just wants it all to stop.

Tommen is as helpless as ever, swinging on a pendulum between the High Sparrow and his mother, as Pycelle warns him of “enemies within and without.” (The exaggerated old-man walk when Cersei orders him to leave, and the smirk he gives her at the end, is priceless.) “You don’t like Margaery, do you?” Tommen asks, not actually believing that it might be true. “She is the Queen,” is Cersei’s perfect response. But for once, the two women’s interests are aligned: with the news that Marg will have to take the same Walk of Shame (Shame! Shame!) that Cersei did, she and Jamie go straight to the small council with a plan of action. The Tyrell army will raid the Sept, Kevan will have his Gold Cloaks stand down, and everyone wins. Except the Sparrows of course. Kevan is also a fool to imagine that he might get his son Lancel back, as Cersei suggests. But the plan is solid, and even Lady Olenna, more loath to work with Cersei than nearly anyone alive, is in.

Varys has no lines this week, but his staring is on point.

Finally, in Essos, Tyrion proves just how adept he is at diplomacy in striking a deal with the Masters that leaves pretty much everyone unhappy. (Isn’t that the mark of a good compromise?) All the Masters want, they say, is for Dany and her dragons to leave, but what they really want is to continue to make money, which Tyrion argues they can do without slaves: “There haven’t been slaves in Westeros for hundreds of years, and I grew up richer than any of you!” He instead proposes more of a “phase out” approach, giving them seven years to end their slaving practice, with financial compensation, or face certain destruction. He seals the deal with some prostitutes; done and done.

Except, maybe it isn’t? Missandei and Grey Worm (who can barely feel feelings, so when even he can’t hold it together, you know it’s serious) are steamed at his perceived callousness; they’re idealists like Dany, and suggest Tyrion is betraying her trust by allowing slavery to continue at all. They also feel used by him in selling the deal to the freedmen of Meereen; just because he was a slave for like, maybe a week, doesn’t mean he actually understands what it’s like to be one. “I am loyal to my Queen, not to you,” Grey Worm threatens. But Tyrion is the only one who truly understands the complexities of politics. Of course the Masters can’t be trusted, that much is obvious, even to a foreigner: “I trust their self-interest,” he counters. “Their contempt is their weakness.” Underestimating Dany doomed them the first time, and it will doom them again.

But Dany isn’t long for Essos, and Tyrion knows that, too. There won’t be anyone around to enforce the deal in seven years if all goes according to plan, and, judging from the final scene of the hour, it might be a lot sooner than that. Dany reclaiming authority over the Dothraki isn’t unexpected, but it’s also not unwelcome, especially when it comes with a full-stop demonstration of her fire-resisting superpower. Once again, the Unburnt strides out of an inferno to a gawking crowd. Even Jorah and Daario, who earlier that day had all-but-pledged to fight each other for her hand (before Daario found about the greyscale, anyway), have to bow in reverence. Looks like she got her army after all, and the mighty Khals were as unnecessary to her plan (and the plot) as…clothes, I guess?

“None of you are fit to rule… but I am,” she declares before tipping over the brazier in Khal Moro’s face. These men, who couldn’t decide whether to sell her to the Masters or take turns raping her, would never have come to her side, so they had to be destroyed. None of the story’s other female characters — Cersei, Sansa, Yara, Arya — would have handled it any other way. I am Woman; hear my dragon roar.

Next week: Littlefinger has more explaining to do; Bran learns the stakes; KINGSMOOT.

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